Left in Andover: Drawing strength from the roots

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

When we moved into a cabin on my family’s land in Andover in 1979, one of the first things my partner John Specker did was plant trees.

Following in the footsteps of his great grandfather at his farm in the Catskills, John dug up evergreen seedlings in early spring and tucked them along our road frontage as a privacy and dust screen. Today they tower up to 60 feet in the air.

Butternut Barry in the winter of 1980 with a jar Susan made and traded with him for nuts.

In the early 1980s our itinerant friend “Butternut Barry” made the rounds of this area Johnny Appleseed fashion. He appeared at our doorstep several times laden with a pouch of hickory, butternut and black walnut seeds. Although the hickory was either eaten by rodents or failed to germinate, we have giant specimens of the latter two thanks to Barry — as well as a forest of Balm of Gilead.

The resinous buds of this native poplar emit a sickly sweet balsam-like odor each spring, intensified by our toasting them atop the wood cookstove. The pungency is indicative of Balm of Gilead’s medicinal qualities as a decongestant for coughs and respiratory infections.

In the fall of 1985, John asked Georgette Thomas at the Hugging Bear Inn in Chester permission to collect black walnuts from her front yard to bring home to plant. Of course she said yes. During their discussion, John was surprised to discover that her luthier father, George Poehland, was the creator of his favorite violin polish!

John planting Hugging Bear walnuts with his daughter in 1985.

Even as a teenager, long before he ever dreamed of being a Vermonter, John struggled to coax the best sound possible from the inexpensive violins he could afford to own. Procuring the correct polish — only Poehland would do — was worth a special trip to Nathan Silver’s violin shop in Flushing, N.Y.

Today a small grove of these Hugging Bear walnut trees flourish on our land, just starting to bear enough nuts to be worth collecting. Cracking them with a hammer by the fireplace in the winter is a heart-warming ritual, but also a reminder of what a struggle it must have been for the early settlers to pull a living from the land.

John hunting for evergreen saplings to replant with grandchildren this past spring.

Sages from ancient Greece to Bill McKibben have espoused the critical importance of each generation planting trees. Here is a 1st century BCE story from the Babylonian Talmud about a man named Honi:

“One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, ‘How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?’ The man replied, ‘Seventy years.’ The man then further asked him, ‘Are you certain you will live another seventy years?’ The man replied, ‘I found already grown carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children.’ ”

Our full-grown children are irrefutable proof that my husband and I are no longer young. The now mature trees that we planted as young parents are an equally reliable reminder of our vintage. These trees connect us to the land and to future generations.

We owe having remained in the same place all these years to a combination of choice, fools luck and penury resulting from a stubborn refusal to compromise our art.

The Hugging Bear black walnut tree.

If it didn’t involve fiddle playing or making pottery, we declined to do it. As the old fiddletune goes, “Ain’t gonna work for no damned man this morning.”

Our reward for sticking it out is to be here now in old age, drawing strength from our roots. As John responded when a reporter once asked him where his music comes from, “It comes from the trees.”

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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