I Have Been Talking with the Trees

Francis Otto Eggleston, my great-grandfather, lived his last 34 years on Glen Road in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, a small suburb of New York with leafy green streets that wind down to the lake of the town’s name.

I grew up far from there, in coastal Southern California, but I’ve seen the house on several occasions, on visits back to visit those still in the area.

The family that lived in that house consisted of my grandparents, Peg and Robert Berryman, their two twin boys Tad and Ted, who would be my uncle and father, and my great-grandparents, Clara and Francis Eggleston.

Eggleston home, Woodcliff Lake, NJ, c.1915.r

It was a large and stately home, two or three stories, I can’t recall. There were roses and lilacs in front, and in the back there was a clear brook winding its way down the hill and to the lake. And of course, there were the trees. Native chestnut, sugar maple, hickory, cedar, and birch shaded the house and carpeted the ground down to the creek with their leaves.

As a child, my father, his twin, and their cousin rigged a “flying boat” with pulleys to swoosh them down and into the creek. It was a massive operation for three boys, but with rope and pulley suspended and secured between two of those deep-rooted trees, their airborne adventures were ensured.

Great-Grandfather Eggleston was a man of philosophical bent, and spent his days in his quiet study, where he read, wrote, and thought on the world’s many problems and splendors. He listened to the boys at play, the household activity outside his door, the birds in the lilac and rose bushes, but when all else was silent, he listened to the wind in the treetops.

The following poem or meditation was written by him, probably when he was in his 70s or 80s. I’m afraid it is page two, and I do not have page one. But it is worthwhile reading nonetheless.

Francis Eggleston often signed his poems and articles with simply, F.O.E., including the newspaper column he wrote for the Bergen Record, in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, from 1929 through 1941.

A transcription is below the photo.

FOE Eggleston 'I have been talking with the trees'

I have been talking with the trees

That grow outside my window.

These are my nearest neighbors –

Almost my dearest – they please

Me in so many ways and never vex my spirit.

These stately oaks are titled old grandees

Of noble birth and ancient lineage.

They gathered wisdom through long centuries

And stored it in their steadfast hearts.

Sometimes, I think I love the graceful birches best,

They seem more feminine and full of friendly gossip.

The Tulip poplar stretches friendly hands to me.

Almost to greet me at my casement.

Near to a noble oak a Whitewood stands

So straight of bole and loftily unbent

Of winds, it wears its leafy crown above the best

Of all competitors.

Such company is better sought than that of men

Whose purblind groping after phantasies

Goes on to vast bewilderment, then back again

To seek a new sensation.

How steadfast; these stand in meditation deep –

They sleep within the calm of their own shade

In cultured quietude – as those who have attained –

Who have no restless need to fume and weep

The aimless tears of human souls —

The souls of trees are surely wise and blest.

F.O.E.

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Onath? Mathe? Enath? What Is That Word?

I’ve been reading my great-grandfather’s autobiography. It is written by hand with a fountain pen, with flat, steel-grey ink in narrow rows, making each page dense with words.

His handwriting is legible, his letters open and wide, but now and then there are words I cannot make out. A few moments ago I came across one of those, and it took a bit of “detectiving” to figure out what word it was.

In the section I was reading he is writing about growing up on a farm in the 1860s, what he calls “the tool age,” meaning that there was very little mechanization, few machines to lessen the labor. He acknowledges that some did exist, but that his father was “conservative in his methods,” meaning he like the old fashioned ways.

Describing their farm implements, he wrote, “When I first knew life as a farmer boy there were no mowing machines. Grass was cut with sythes [scythes] – blades 2 1/2 feet long, curved and fastened to a crooked….”

FOE Eggleston snath“…a crooked…”… what? Mathe? Emathe? Ouattie?

At least I knew he was talking about a scythe, which is a long, narrow, curved blade attached to a long handle, used to cut grass or hay. But his didn’t appear to be fastened to a handle, it was fastened to a…mattie?…enathe?…onattie?

FOE Eggleston 'snath' excerpt

So I Googled the words scythe, blades, curved, fastened, and crooked, and voila!

There it was, in the third search result, a book published in 1921 called Maintenance of Way Cyclopedia, in conjunction with the American Railway Engineering Association, Snath pageand having the catchy subtitle, Definitions, Descriptions, Illustrations and Methods of Use of the Materials, Equipment and Devices Employed in the Maintenance of the Tracks, Bridges, Buildings, Water Stations, Signals and Other Fixed Properties of Railways.”

Right there on page 144, in the Track section, there were drawings of a scythe’s parts, including handle, here called a snath.

That was it – snath.

I’ve copied the page, at right, and highlighted where the word “snath” appears.

Armed with this new word, I Googled “snath,” curious what Google could tell me about it.

But so unfamiliar with the term was Google, that it asked if I meant, “snatch.”

“No,” I replied, I mean “snath,” a long crooked handle.

And that’s when I found out that the only use of the word “snath” is in conjunction with the word, “scythe.”

Winslow Homer man with scythe

If a snath is attached to anything but a scythe, it is not a snath, but a handle.

That’s also when I discovered that there is a scythe revolution afoot.

I was told this by a website called, The One Scythe Revolution.

They even have a page on snaths, including some very handsome Swiss wooden jobs, and an instructional video.

Song_of_the_Lark_Winslow_Homer_1876

But in case you don’t trust One Scythe Revolution that there really is a scythe revolution, you can visit Scythe Connection, which tells you “what sets us apart from the rest of the scythe-promoting crowd.”

Then there’s Scythe Supply, which has a fetching illustration of a scythe, with callouts as to its various parts.

And of course, Amazon.com, which sells aluminum, steel-clad, and wood snaths.

Frank Blackwell Mayer (American painter, 1827-1899) The Invasion 1867Great-grandfather Eggleston didn’t seem impressed with himself for knowing the word, “snath,” and he practically mourns that he was made to use one.

But you’ll surely impress your friends with the word snath, if ever you happen to be talking scythes.

Otherwise, it’s just a handle.

 

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Left Behind When a Parent Dies

I wrote last week about typhoid fever’s sad visit to the Eggleston home in 1864.

The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl circa 1847 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896Two of the family’s five members died, my great-grandmother, Abigail Hickox Eggleston, and her young daughter, my great-grand aunt, Mary Eggleston.

In that post I did not project myself into the heartbreak that befell the family. It was but a simple account of an event.

Now I’m thinking of the family that was left behind.

How their brand new home felt infinitely empty, the rooms devoid of joy, the air sucked out, the sunlight an intruder on the family’s grief.

I doubt the two boys and one man remaining consoled each other.

Winslow Homer Boys in a Pasture

That branch of my family was nearly purely of English stock, whose stiff upper lips are their heritage, and further steeled by more than 200 years already on the American frontier, a hard life that could not wait for any sorrow to heal.

There was no bereavement leave on a frontier farm, or any farm. Life must go on, starting at dawn and ending well after dark.

Perhaps that was best, for to be outside at work, or at school, was to be otherwise occupied, not thinking about their sorrow.

Boy in Red Jacket.png

Then, upon entering the house at day’s end, their mother’s absence would be an unhealable ache.

In the biography that my great-grandfather, Francis Eggleston, the youngest boy, wrote many years later he did not write of the sadness, but it is clearly there, behind his words.

He speculates in his biography about what life would have been like had she lived. “What a change there would have been in our family history,” he wrote from the perspective of 89 years.

In those days a family was a machine that ran household, farm, or store.

Winslow Homer Boy Holding LogsThe children tended livestock, carried wood, raked barns, cleaned house and farmyard; and helped in the garden, the fields, and the kitchen.

The mother cooked, cleaned, boiled water to wash clothes, made soap, kept a kitchen garden with all its hoeing and weeding, sewed clothes, canned for the winter, made jams and apple butter, and helped around the farmyard.

The father did the heavy lifting; he plowed fields, branded and butchered, carpentered, split rails and mended fences, bought and sold land, livestock, and crops, and sometimes had an outside job to make ends meet.

Without any one of those parts, the machine was broken. It wouldn’t work. There was too much to do already, no time or energy to take up someone else’s job duties.

Boy in fieldI don’t know if the family had hired help for the house.

They were well-to-do by farm standards, and would later own what my grandmother called “the mansion on the hill,” a massive Greek revival that exists to this day.

Maybe after the deaths they a hired woman who helped with the meals and cleaning temporarily.

But a farm could not work properly for long without a full-time mother, and so it was the practice to marry soon after a spouse’s death.

This, great-great grandfather Eggleston did, and so Francis and DeWitt were given a new mother, Mary, who was but three years older than their departed sister would have been.

Did the boys accept her readily, or did they resent her presence?

DeWitt, the oldest, was a practical boy, and later a successful businessman. He was 13 when his mother died, and would be off to college in just three years.

Eastman Johnson (American painter, 1824-1906) The Little Convalescent c 1872

Francis, my great-grandfather, was only ten when his mother died. He was a self-described “poetic and romantic boy,” who “bored my elders with problems too old for my years.”

Perhaps, because of his tender heart, my great-grandfather quietly mourned his mother, but cleaved to this new mother for what affection she offered.

Winslow Homer The Whittling Boy

She settled into the family and had two children with the boys’ father, and their marriage lasted more than 50 years before Clinton Eggleston died at 86.

My grandfather also went on to live a long life, dying far from that first home at age 89. Yet in his biography, written in his late ’80s, and even though he was just ten when his mother died, he begins with the typhoid incident on page one.

Clearly his mother’s death left a scar. I’ll never know how deep.

Boy over Wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A (Reluctant) Farm Boy’s Life in 1865

Francis Otto Eggleston, my great-grandfather, was a medical doctor first, then a Methodist minister, a Unitarian minister, and finally, in his later years, newspaper columnist.

But he didn’t consider himself a Renaissance man. He thought of himself instead as a man who made many poor choices before settling down to do something he loved.

Francis was a poor fit with his environment right from the start.

In his biography he writes that he was born, “in a new house on a farm in Aurora,” an Ohio village founded by his forebears, who walked with their wagons hauled by teams of oxen from Connecticut across the rugged, nearly impenetrable Allegheny mountains and into the wild frontier of New Connecticut, as the Ohio territory was called, in 1807.

There they settled, “25 miles south east of the village of Cleveland,” which was no more than “a biggish village” even as late as 1853, the year he, Francis Eggleston, was born.

Aurora map with Eggleston highlighted.GIF3.GIFFrom a population of less than 50,000 in 1803, which was about one person per five miles square, the population of Ohio grew to about two million in just the 50 years between when the Eggleston settlers arrived and Francis Eggleston’s birth.

Small towns dotted the landscape, and farms stretched their borders to the edge of wilderness. It was a good time – an exciting time – to be in Ohio, with all its promise as a new state in a new country.

The mid-1800s was a time of great invention for farm machinery, too. In 1830, using the most modern equipment of the day, a farmer could expect to spend about 300 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. Just 20 years later, by the time Francis was born, with the invention of reapers, steel plows, thrashing and mowing machines and improved fertilizers, that time would be cut to a third of the time, about 90 hours.

small_soldiers-of-the-soilBut Clinton Eggleston, Francis’s father, did not go in for modern farm machinery, and it was plenty vexing to Francis.

I don’t know Clinton’s reasons. Francis wrote simply that his father was “conservative in methods.”

He could well afford what machinery he wanted, as he was a prosperous dairy farmer and sugar producer.

Perhaps one who is conservative in his ways simply has a romantic attachment to the old ways, enjoying a slower, quieter way of life.

Of course, it took a while for the new machinery to become widely used. The machines had to first be manufactured in quantity, and then marketed far and wide, reaching out to these “hinterlands” farmers. So Francis had to wait.

He wryly compares the era of his youth to the age when man first discovered tools, the Neolithic era, writing of his childhood, “That was back in the tool age — when a plow, harrow and one horse cultivator ridden by a boy and guided by a man” did the work.

The machine came in about the time that kerosene (coal oil then), put the tallow candle out of business, which must have been around 1860.

haymakingIronically, as much as Francis wished he had the advantages of modern machinery as a lad on the farm in 1870, he would change his mind by 1941, wishing for the days of horse and buggy again, because they go too fast!

Still, you can sense his frustration with farm life when he writes,”We had a farm of something over 200 acres…. “What we did not have was labor saving machines — we always did the hard work the hard way. This did not tend to make boys like the farm.”

He lived the typical farm boy’s life, milking cows, feeding chickens, and guiding the big work horse down field rows while his father drove the plow, which was a good deal of work on a 200+ acre farm.

Though he was a scant 120 pounds and called himself more of “a dreamer” than the kind of boy who would thrive on farm work, he was expected to pull his weight.

Just an adolescent, he was sent to split timber into “rails, 12 feet long and perhaps five inches square,” and to put his muscle behind “a great wood pile which was cut by horse-power and drag saw and split and corded by man and boy power.” 

'Habitants_with_Sleigh',_oil_painting_by_Cornelius_KrieghoffWhat he did like, though, were the horses. The family “always had three or more horses or some extra colts growing up and sometimes a yoke of oxen.

“I was fond of ‘horse-flesh’ and ‘broke’ one colt to drive before he was a year old. He would pull me on a hand-sled and keep up with a full grown team.

“In summer I rigged up a sulky and drove him until he was full grown.”

In his biography he tells the story of his father’s “gorgeously trimmed” Rockaway canopy-top carriage.

The Rockaway was a luxury model carriage, with a fully enclosed cabin, brass carriage lamps, beveled windows, or “glass curtains,” tufted leather seats, and spring axle for a smoother ride. That was quite the ride for a small Ohio farm town!

Rockaway.3.GIF“I never knew where he got it but it lasted until a pair of colts ran away with it, broke the pole and smashed the top.

“My mother jumped out but one horse had simply landed on top of the other – being scared by a noisy rattling rig for hauling empty barrels – when the pole broke Father had to let them go until someone caught them.

“He sold them then – never drove them again. That was about 1860 as I remember. After this we had a splendid little team of dark brown Morgans – and after this I was not so familiar with the teams, but Father had good horses.”

Morgan stallionFrancis helped produce all the chief products of the farm, which were milk, butter, cheese, and sugar; and to sow, grow, hoe, and harvest the field crops, which were hay and corn to feed the cows, and oats for the horses.

The cows “ran out on pasture in summer, eating grass, and were driven in by a boy and dog morning and eve.”

This was a job he no doubt liked, though, as it gave him time to think on the ideas he read about from his “bedside books” the previous night before falling asleep, and to practice the poetry he memorized so well and quoted throughout his life.

The family’s chief occupation was dairy farming. After milking the cows, the new milk was set in tin pans that held about eight quarts each and were left to set until the cream rose to the top, which took about 24 hours. Then the cream was skimmed off with a perforated tin skimmer and used to make butter, and a small bit used in cooking.

making cheeseHe described the cheese making process:

“The milk in early time was heated with a steamer and worked dry in a big wooden tub. Later there was a regular cheese vat,” and “cheese was pressed in a hoop by its own weight.

“After the war (1860-64) milk was sold to cheese factories and this made less work for the housewife. Washing milk pans, pails and a churn was work, and called for plenty of hot water.

“When the factory system came in milk was strained into a tin can as large as a barrel and loaded on a wagon that had a route.”

From our perspective in 2014, all this sound like a huge amount of work, doesn’t it? Most of us in America have moved over to the “knowledge economy,” and have turned over raising our food, building our homes, and just about everything physical to others.

That’s just not how it was in the second half of the 19th century, when most of America did not live in cities.

I began this story saying that Francis Eggleston often found himself in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, or more specifically, the wrong thing for his temperament and interests.

Was being born and raised on a farm one of his experiences of poor fit? He seems to think so, though never says.

“As a boy,” he wrote, “I was said to be lazy. The true fact was that I was always averse to farm drudgery and dirt. I was mechanical, and always had something to make or repair – lazy I was not.”

Francis Eggleston didn’t find his identity in outdoor labor, but in his mind. The next stage of his life would fit him much better. We’ll see that when next we pick up his story.

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Francis Otto Eggleston, “A Poetic and Romantic Boy”

I never met my great-grandfather, Francis Otto Eggleston, a distinguished-looking gentleman with enormous, liquid eyes who, even at 89, stood as straight as the ladder-back chair of his that I inherited.Francis_Otto_Eggleston_c.1983.r

His nose was prominent, but matched the proportion of his eyes and mouth, and was balanced by noticeably high cheekbones.

I do not see any similarities between us, though I feel them mightily.

As a toddler he was “a chubby little chap in a pinkish dress, with a belt,” and as a young boy wore boots, “with red tops and copper toes.” Which may explain his penchant for always dressing well.

When grown he wore a white shirt and tie nearly every day of his life, usually with a suit, often three-piece, or at least with jacket.

Francis O. Eggleston c.1939As a young man, he sported mutton-chop sideburns so large that they nearly met and merged on his chin, just above a ribbon bow tie and well-starched high-collar shirt.

His hair must have been wavy, because in photos it is barely tamed across his forehead and combed as well as he could back from his ears.

By old age he had let his cotton-white hair grow longish, and swept it back from his forehead, where it fell to either side in a distinguished mane.

The family called him Grandfather, a testament to his dignity, and the formality of their time and place in history.

As for his character, Grandfather was gentle, a romantic and a dreamer.

How do I know?

Because he left his letters, poetry, lectures, and other writings, including a twenty to thirty thousand word biography, to my mother, his beloved granddaughter-in-law, and so I know him as well as his words can express. FO Eggleston scrapbook letter to Ruth Berryman

“I know that I was a poetic and romantic boy with a good bit of natural piety but little religion of the standard type. I have the same peculiarity after 80 years,” he wrote in his biography.

Fortunately, Grandfather’s was not a family that discouraged dreaming or education, and both he and his brother, DeWitt, were given ample room for study, including being sent to the best schools available.

When he was a child, Cleveland, 25 miles distant from the Eggleston farm, was no more than “a largish village,” as he described.

His mother died young of typhoid fever, as did his sister, Mary. I wrote about the epidemic that befell their home previously, here. Such tragedy was, unfortunately, not uncommon.

Francis was expected to perform the duties of a typical 1860s farm boy, helping around the farmyard, in the fields, and with the livestock, and he did so, but not with enthusiasm. “I was not by size or weight a country man, as my own weight was only about 120 pounds.”

His lack of enthusiasm caused others to think him lazy, but “the true fact was that I was always averse to farm drudgery and dirt. I was mechanical, and always had something to make or repair – lazy I was not.”

Still, he found other aspects of farm life idyllic.

“My brother and I were beauty-haunted, and lived in our own world until he went away to school in his early adolescence.”Ohio woods

There was a woods behind the farm’s barn, and Francis considered it the loveliest part of their large property.

Just seeing photos from that area of the country, I can see why he loved those woods. I’m from Southern California, where a mention of “woods” brings to mind golf clubs, and anything that’s “woody” might be just an old surf jalopy.

Grandfather’s woods were untouched by saw or road. The trees were so healthy that they practically fluoresced green in springtime, their shoots of bright new leaves tittering in the slightest breeze like tiny dancing elves.

American beech treeThere were no chestnut trees, but they had hickory trees so big around that a full-grown man could not wrap his arms around them.

And beech trees that towered to 80 or 100 feet, their root base emerging from the ground as if the tree was being ripped from the dirt in its need to grow higher still.

In fall the canopy opened and light dappled the still-crimson and gold leaf carpet below to give a hint of warmth to a wanderer.

And in winter, snow hid any path but crunched underfoot, ensuring a dreamer could find his way back as long as he was mindful of weather.

The dreamer and poet in Grandfather emerged early. Every moment he could steal away, he read and memorized poetry.

FOE Eggleston 'I have been talking with the trees'The biography he wrote in later years overflows with references to classic writers and quotes from poems both famous and obscure.

I imagine him retreating to those woods with his books, especially Emerson, to whom he was ever devoted.

Francis and DeWitt enjoyed getting out of the farmyard, where Grandfather could indulge his poetic side.

His biography notes that they, “acted the part of shepherds in spring, and in season there were raspberries to pick, and blackberries. Then there were apples to gather, and pears and cider apples – plus cider.”

Grandfather felt he didn’t fit on the farm. Yet he learned duty and discipline, tempering his “poetic and romantic” soul.

His was the best of worlds. His mind wandered free, yet he was not a free spirit. This is a description you’ll see me use often for Grandfather.

In his biography, he quoted John Greenleaf Whittier:

Life made by duty epical
and rhythmic with the truth.

Beauty and wisdom where his loftiest goals. Duty and service were his calling.

This will become clear in the rest of Francis Eggleston’s story.

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