Sunday, January 18, 2015


The Big House that burned

The south end of the Willamette Valley of Oregon, a broad green place with lots of rain and sun, the land frays out into small valleys with ridges between.  The geologists say that this land was not eroded into the shape, but rather accumulated over millennia because the plate under the Pacific Ocean kept pushing islands to the east, piling them up against the Coastal Range.  They came from distant places with different soils, but the deep tectonic forces pushed them up against each other.  The vegetation is different from one valley to another, partly because of the soil, partly because the valleys are different widths and have different underground water, and partly because they are oriented differently -- some are aligned so they get sun all day.  Others are narrow and run north to south so that the sun moves over them almost as though they were canyons.  Likewise the people: an accumulation pushed in by other forces.

The Hatfields came early and were a driving family force.  Beneath their grasping for land and power was the palimpsest of England, the idea of landed gentry with a big house -- yes, like Downton Abbey.  This patriarch’s big house was not nearly so grand as that, but it had two stories and a big entry hall with a gallery for bedroom access. Roseburg has what they call a Mediterranean climate but their central industry is timber because there's plenty of it, so the Big House that was the anchor of the tribe was built of wood with a long entry porch, a small kitchen porch, and a larger kitchen porch for laundry and feeding the hired help.  The dining room had a piano.  Upstairs was a screen porch for summer sleeping.  We all loved that house.

But the one I loved more was just down the creek and small, much like the house I live in now: a one-story square divided into five rooms, a starter house really.  It was a while before Howard Hatfield could afford to buy back the Big House with its yard of big barns and sheds.  My Aunt Allie, youngest and sweetest of my aunts, had married Howard when they were barely out of high school.  He was a football star.  They lived in a tiny place up the mountain behind Roy’s, Howard’s father’s, place and the palimpsest there was the Ozarks.  

Before I was born, the main Hatfield house at the end of the road was not big, but since it was built on a hillside, the front porch was up high with plenty of room for the hounds to sleep under it.  There had to be hounds because they were raising sheep and the coyotes had to be hunted constantly.  One day that house burned.  They say the old grandmother sat in a rocking chair with a hired girl to tend her.  The girl had been told never to upset the old woman, who was not quite alert, so when the fire started, the girl went to the old woman, put a hand on her shoulder, and said,  “Now don’t get upset, but we have to leave because the house is on fire.”

The Banning Place

Same again.  It's my father's car.

It may be Mt. Dodson on the horizon.

The little house on the Banning Place, which is what they called the place I loved most, was across South Deer Creek from the dirt road that ran parallel and the best moment of the day for a child was going down across the bridge, with its rattling tipi-pole stock guard, and up to the road where the mailbox stood with its little red flag.  As Aunt Allie’s grandson wrote in a poem, that creek had a special sound, a glugging/gurgling, like a song.  But in the end it was changed, because of cutting all the timber -- the last of the wealth going.  It eroded, full of mud.  The last of the ranch dwellers tore down the Banning house and built a modern one-story.  When I visited the last time, I didn’t sleep in the house but in the back of my pickup which was my custom.  I made the rounds of Hatfield places, saying goodbye, because I planned never to return from Montana again.

By that time the Big House had burned and been replaced by a one-story ranch house.  The yard wasn’t changed, but everything else had.  The big barns stood empty.  The machinery in the shed was rusted, broken, out-moded.  When I went for Aunt Allie’s funeral, which startled everyone since I rarely was in contact, the buzzards and the Spanish moss were still there, but my cousin’s son didn’t know I existed, much less what I looked like, so he gossiped about the family in front of me, sitting out on the back patio with a buddy -- no porches now.   He had most of it wrong. 

No longer the echo of gentry, but rather the flat conformity of California.  The incense smoke and spark sprays of the sawdust-burning sheet metal tipis with screen tops were gone.  There were elegant restaurants.  Aunt Allie’s ashes were dropped on Old Mount Dodson -- from a helicopter since one of her grands was a helicopter pilot.

The ridge up behind the Banning place separated South Deer Creek from Roberts Creek, a narrower, darker valley with a bad water supply.  My mother and her sisters grew up there in a prune orchard that didn’t do well.  They had moved out of Roseburg in a hurry after my mother nearly died in the Spanish flu plague, but it was a remote place where the young sisters constantly walked the hills.  

When their old horse died, my grandfather dragged him over the ridge behind that place so it wouldn’t contaminate the slow-filling well.  The little girls made pilgrimages now and then to witness the slow conversion of gas-swollen carcass to coyote-disturbed skeleton.  They were not sentimental.  My grandfather, who came from a contractor family, traveled to major jobs and my grandmother raised chickens.  My mother, the oldest, worked in Roseburg as an adult and would walk the miles home to bring part of her paycheck.  When she could, she married and moved to Portland, the Big City.

Those decades were about the big shift of the population from farm to city.  The people were changed, each according to their rural assumptions, and to pay their way stripped the forest to bald hills.  The roads now are paved, the houses are numbered, and I suppose the windows have shades that are pulled at night -- they didn’t used to be.  The orchards are mostly gone but people still grow big gardens, a source of pride.  I haven’t gone back.

But the Banning Place and the big old Tom Hatfield house, neither of which actually exists now, are part of me and come with me.  More than that, it’s memory of the road that turns off the main highway and up what was then a dirt road past the Glide school, crowded by wild rosebushes and vaguely smelling of skunk, to where two tall firs stood on either side of the little access road that crossed South Deer Creek and went through a welter of blackberry bushes across the rattling bridge, turning to the right below the yard and curling back into the barnyard dust by the house.  

I liked feeding the chickens.

The picket fence yard-gate swung on hinges weighted by horseshoes and a cowbell, so it would make an alert, as well as swing closed automatically to keep livestock out.  There was an orchard with a little chicken house but the main chicken house was on that yard alongside the machine shed and the sheep barn, a long low affair.  I used to hide there when it was time to go home, crouched in a nest of loose hay with a lap full of kittens, the realest place I've ever been.  Except that it wasn't.  No gate can keep out change.  Yet, the palimpsest remains.

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