New Hampshire

After a late May storm, the New Hampshire Sky becomes glassy. The pre-storm heaviness will linger for days, clogging the air and dulling the colors of evening.  Then it breaks into gusts little and big, that whip the pines into a frenzy and send hard arrows of water slantwise in through windows.

It’s over quickly, and the air outside smells clean and sweet, something thick and sticky having been wrung and beaten out of it. The sky is not bright, but clear and steel blue. Shafts of sunlight break through in pieces and, refracted through the water that still hangs in the air, clinging to the stalks of plants and dripping slowly off the boles of trees, flash out in brilliance here and there. But the light remains for the most part diffuse, which perhaps accounts for the sharpness everything seems to have acquired. The greens are stronger and brighter, and the edges of objects stand out against the edges of what they abut.

The trees are always noticeable, huge straight pines and elms and firs, but now each line and rutted irregularity of the bark is defined, as well as the tangles of minor vines and stunted hedges that make covert for rabbits and little hollow rooms of greenery. The scent in the air is apple blossom and lilac: now is when they smell the strongest. Now too is when the wildflowers become noticeable. They always seem to grow alone, or in groups of no more than three, and usually in the cover of some ugly and sensible household item of industrial plastic. This violet, soft, purple, and no bigger than a thumb, looks like it sidled up to the green garbage bin an act of cockamamie bravado.

Little wildflowers, violet and buttercup and mountain phlox, grow all over the woods  as well, but even there they are not easy to find. They peep out from behind larger and more solid trees, as if anything too gaudy, profuse, anything less than humble, might tempt winter back again. But peep they do, and bravely. The apple blossom and its smell are lovely, but it’s these little solitaries, always coquetting around with frost, that seem indispensable to spring.

Of course, spring does not arrive in any dependable way until the sky stays blue not just in the heat of the day, but right up until dusk before sunset. All through the winter it’s a soft gray that blends into the snowbanks piled on the streets, and is almost indistinguishable from the feathery flakes with which it covers the crowns of the white mountains. In fact, the only objects that do not participate in or surrender to the soft grayness are the mountain pines. In the winter especially, the straight, dark, green forms dominate the horizon. Under their snowcaps they are the only persistent spots of color, jutting up from the face. Wherever you stand, your gaze goes towards them.

My walk home from work faces the mountain directly; my house is nestled at its foot. In January and February, the moment of leaving the office or classroom is especially vivid. You step out from electric lights and faded carpets and indeterminate smells into air so cold the lungs take a gasping moment to adjust. Once they have adjusted the gasping continues, because the cleanness is intoxicating. The sky’s pink glow and the clean air and the challenge of the mountain in the horizon induce an almost giddy feeling, a temptation to simply walk up into its woods and never return again to office or or rented room.

This being inadvisable and the prospect of ending my walk intolerable, I usually turn around and walk back a mile back into town to the pub. It’s a hard walk, uphill, my back to the tempting woods, and by the time I deposit myself in a bar stool I can no longer feel hands or nose: I am once again in a position to do justice to the merits of civilization.

It’s in the surrounding towns’ bars and pubs that the two New Hampshires become most evident to a stranger. Well, three New Hampshires, really. The first one, the flimsiest and most forgettable, is the slap-up gentility of charming college towns. The eateries here mostly serve undergraduates out for a beer on their parents’ credit cards, or said parents and alumni passing through town for a visit. The food and liquor and atmosphere thus have almost no identifying characteristics beyond inoffensive and (in varying degrees) luxurious; you can choose between extravagantly and only mildly overpriced pleasant mediocrity.

Because of New Hampshire and Vermont’s abundance of breweries, the beer is almost always excellent. However, if you sit down to enjoy it at one of the college-town bars, an aging executive visiting his daughter will almost certainly try to pick you (though only rarely the tab) up.

To get to to the the first of the two New Hampshires, you have to walk a mile or so over the river to one of the small hamlets nearby. The town will usually have at least one inn, and often a general store that retains the exposed timbers of its construction a hundred, two hundred years ago. The inns, which often date from colonial times, have wood burning fires, papered walls, and antique furniture. Iron farm implements hang on the walls of backyard barns, now converted into garages.

The indoor effect is chintzy, but in a cozy, cluttered way, as you might expect a retired and prosperous forest witch’s cottage to be. And though the atmosphere is rustic, the patrons coming for weekends and wine tastings are no yokels. They’re tall and silver-haired, clad in loose fitting but expensive outdoor clothing: goosedown vests and and hiking boots. Or sometimes in hand-knitted scarves, and artfully witchy wool dresses. The wealthy of rural New Hampshire are strange birds if you have only seen the wealthy of New York or Connecticut. They are as likely to run a small farm as a financial planning firm. Some have had families in the state for three hundred years. Others are aging hippies, having sold out and served the man in their youth, now enjoying the fruits of their betrayal in the form of skiiing, rustic inns, and a tolerant local attitude to marijuana.

The other New Hampshire is on display at this bar, part of a local chain of Irish pubs, which at 5 pm on a weekday, is almost entirely populated with locals. The bar’s wall sport the typical decor: the regalia of Irish sports teams, framed Gaelic platitudes, red signs reading “50 Miles to Dublin,” frequent references to the craic. It’s cozy and supremely corny, and the beer, as usual, is very good.

Many of the men and women around the bar have lived in this town as long as the silver haired aristocrats, but their accents are broader, rounder, with an almost an English inflection, often spoken through missing teeth. The men are dressed in solid, serious, un-picturesque work jeans and boots; many work have snow-plowing businesses, and some work on farms. The women are for the most part also in jeans and boots, cheaper and  slightly fussier; but in this winter no one without either substantial means or commitment to dress is prioritizing chic. Some work at the hospital, others in various service jobs in town. Most of the patrons are regulars, and Jim, the bartender, knows what they like. Jim has an earring and a motorcycle; he’s been divorced once and has a girlfriend of ten years. The other bartender, Dan, is an imposing family man with a shiny head, square jaw, son in the Marines, and Irish accent.

Everyone is intent on their beer, their hockey game, their plans for the weekend (which, in the summer, often involve the river) and local gossip. Occasionally someone talks to me, but most evenings, like this one, I finish my beer quietly and go home.

On winter nights I finish the last leg of my commute home quickly, but once the weather warms up, I linger.

There are no wild profusions of any flower in this neighborhood, which is a long, green, lane, with roomy clapboard houses and wide yards, in which, on a Sunday morning, you can hear parents telling their children in affectionate, modulated voices, how to hold their tiny trowels as they help in the yard.

In the winter the contrasting green shutters and blanketing snow make the lane picturesque. Now it is merely wealthy, fragrant, and peaceful.

At night, though, it is something else. Everyone retreats into their houses at night. There are no children lying out on the lawns, or parents lingering over a shared gin and tonic on their porches. At night the lane is given over entirely to me, and to the animals that come from the woods. There is a fox that creeps out regularly, and we barely mind each other anymore. The deer come more rarely, and in groups. I have never seen the flash of antlers, but I have seen a knock-kneed fawn.

It is hard to tell what they are at first, as you enter the lane. Shapes move in the darkness further down, shapes that could be human, but moving in too strange a way. It has none of the deliberation, the subtle deference to potential onlookers, that human shapes should have, and you grip the keys tightly between your fingers, fearing either and equally monsters or drunks.

Their eyes shine out of the gloom as you approach, and as their forms come into focus, the initial impression that they are human remains: for a moment everything seems broken, and visions of men forced to run on all fours flash through your mind. Then in a flash of moonlight you see what they are. There are often five or six of them, standing in the middle of the street, the most mundane garden pests of country and suburb, the deer.

I’m always sad to see them run away, but sometimes they tolerate me, nosing the ground quietly as I walk by. I have a one-sided comradely feeling for the deer and foxes as co-possessors of the lane at night, and miss them when they stay in the black silent woods. Without them other other night tenants are more obvious: the shadows of trees that ripple across the ground, and the little wind that seems to mutter spite under its breath.

A few of the houses have fashionable little rock piles for a garden sculpture, zen, and a little ridiculous by day, naked and alone on the lawn.  At night, though, they lose their polished triviality. Their stone contours become faces and hunched, still shoulders; they grow in size and age. To reach the warm, well-appointed interiors you have to pass under their watchful eye, aware that you are a guest. The inky black hulk of the mountain looms ahead, the stone trolls behind, and you know that the green shutters and prosperous silver-haired hippies are no more than a film, easily scraped off, and underneath the place is the granite kingdom, hard and older than memory.

At the other end of the lane, past my house, the twisted tree by the stop sign–charming in the sunlight–has taken on a shape halfway between a man and an enormous crow. In between these two poles is the house in which I rent rooms, and at this moment it seems a world away.

However, singing and walking are a match for most fears. They prove so here, especially with my face tilted back to catch as much starlight as possible. If the garden crawls with the old stony life of the mountains, the stars are the other half. They are alive and present, the most real thing in the lane: shining out of a blue-black sky, depthless and blank, stretching and curving farther than my sightline goes. Their light is clear, and as hard as the granite beneath my feet, and so bright that if you turn up your head to face them,  everything else seems to have dissolved into shadow.

When I wake up in the middle of the night, the room is never quite pitch-black. Through the window next to my bed, the stars cast shadows. The room is silver grey, with one square, framed by a cross of white wood next to my head, of deep blue sky and light. It’s easy to drift peacefully back into sleep, waiting for the clamor of birds to crack open another day.


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