I’m not a fan of the Instagram hashtag #ruraldecay – a steady stream of falling-down barns, abandoned houses and businesses, and junk cars. But I love when my Facebook feed is filled with peonies. Along with pictures, people share stories about plants bequeathed by grandmothers, neighbors who invite them to cut bouquets, mothers who moved plants each time they moved house, and the (often) unknown hands who may have planted the flowers we enjoy each summer as long ago as 100 years.
Reminders of those who came before are all around us in the old orchards, fencerows full of wild asparagus and hop vines, and rusty hand pumps, windmills, and farm equipment we see along country roads and sometimes in our own back yards. A farmhouse may be long gone, but you can still see its ghost behind the bridal-wreath spirea folks planted to beautify a shady porch – so important before there was air conditioning.
I’ve always heard that on old farmsteads folks planted lilacs to screen the outhouse (and mask the smell, at least for a week or two in May). I can guess where two or three privies were once located from the lilacs on our property. Another privy was still here when Bill bought the place before we were married. He had to use it most of one winter after the failure of his indoor plumbing (a generous descriptor of the jerryrigged accommodation that converted a pantry into something that resembled a bathroom). The snow was shoulder high on the path from the back porch to the outhouse, which only had a half-door. That lilac bush was sited to screen a sitter from the road but it didn’t do much to stop a cold wind.
When we were still in the old farmhouse I found the site of another old privy hole while I was planting a forsythia. I suspect that privy was used and abandoned before the kitchen addition was put on, whenever that was. And I suspect that the rhubarb in the back yard was planted over another old privy hole.
There’s always some guesswork involved in figuring out what went where on a rural property, and when that happened, and sometimes why. We make some assumptions from dates stamped on old bottles that turn up from time to time when we’re digging. There’s still a strand of old barbed wire back along the river bank from when someone grazed livestock there before the Wisconsin DNR bought up the property along the Upper Wolf River Fishery Area. Every time one of us trips over that wire we mean to find someone to ask who farmed so far from the road. People old enough to remember are getting harder to find.
And our own memories are becoming less reliable. I don’t recall what year it was that we tore down the old barn. But I remember all too well that it came down a lot harder than Bill expected. Those timbers were meant to last, even if it looked like a stiff breeze could topple that structure. There’s still an old granary on our property that’s uninsurable but liable to stand long after we’re in the ground. It would look right at home on Instagram.
Our old farmhouse (and the outhouse behind it) stood until May of 2002. Its septic system was in place when Bill bought the property in the early 1980s and probably for a good while before that. Definitely, before the county took much interest in such matters. The drain field for that septic had been looking more lush every year (a sign that its days were numbered). So when we built the new house, we also had a new septic system installed. It never gets old for me, having reliable plumbing, an active septic system, insulation, an electrical service panel with circuit breakers instead of a fuse box, and flame-resistant materials like drywall.
After we were in the new house, we had the old farmhouse inspected so the fire department could burn it as a training exercise. It burned so hot the glass in the living room windows melted, leaving behind almost nothing but the chimneys and fieldstone foundation. An excavator broke those up and used the stones to fill in the basement (including the creepy cistern – a field museum of snakeskin sheds and mouse and bat skeletons). He also broke up the cover and punched holes in the old septic holding tank, and filled it in.
It took all the remnants of the chimneys, the original foundation, fieldstone walls from four additions, the porches and steps and a sidewalk to fill the voids from the basement and holding tank as full of rubble as we thought would ever be necessary. The excavator spread what little soil was available over that area. After it settled I staked out a nursery-grade weed barrier and planted a cash crop of basketry willows where our house used to be.
I coppiced that willow for 19 years. About 10 years in, I noticed that the area where the old septic holding tank was had sunk below grade. By then I’m sure there was a dense living mat of willow roots below the weed barrier. Other than being a little more cautious of my footing while harvesting the willow there, I didn’t think much more about it.
And now I’m another 10 years older, not quite as spry, and that area has sunk further. The weed barrier is also now 20 years old. It still holds my weight, which is more than it was 20 years ago. But the willow there is dying out – as expected for the age of that planting, but problematic since it also means the root system is no longer a healthy, living mat.
What-ifs about that sunken area have been nagging at me. It’s not likely anybody would drive a vehicle over it, and least not right now while the area around it is filled with willow, Siberian irises, blueberries, and two big rows of potatoes and winter squash. But in a few years, a lot can change.
So we picked a cool morning to find out just how serious the settling is. That involved some weed pulling, willow-cutting, aggressive raking, and stomping of willow stumps that started tentatively and became more vigorous as no gaping abyss opened up to swallow us. Then Bill cut through the 20-year-old nursery-grade weed barrier, which was harder than it sounds (sort of like taking down the old barn). No abyss. In fact, it’s pretty solid underneath, if lower than the area around it.
In 20 years, there has never been an odor of methane gas in that area so I wasn’t terribly concerned about the worst-case scenario of someone falling into the old septic tank and being overcome by fumes. That is until Bill punched through the weed barrier and we smelled – something. We both breathed a deep sigh of relief (big mistake) when we realized the stench was coming not from beneath us but from our dog and whatever foul thing she found to roll in.
After bathing the dog, we got to work filling in the low spot. The previous owner of the field behind us had brought in a rock picker some years back and dumped the fieldstones it gathered along the old fence line. Gathering enough stones to fill in the low spot would have gone faster but one of us tripped over a strand of rusty barbed wire and both of us are easily distracted by cool rocks. After negotiating which ones to keep and which to use for fill, Bill pulled the truck as close as he could get and we chucked rocks over the blueberries and into the hole.
We’ll pile some brush on top of the rocks and scrape up enough soil to plant something there. Tradition would suggest it should be a lilac bush to signal what once was there. But there are still three peonies out along where another fencerow used to be. We haven’t mowed that area for 20 years and it’s now way too shady and they’re being choked out by Virginia creeper. So this fall, I plan to dig them up and move them – some over where the holding tank was and the rest near the road where they’ll get good sun. It may be two or three years before they flower in their new location. That’s how long it took when I dug up the other peonies there and planted them along the porch after we built the new house.
I hope that those peonies are there as long as they were in their previous location and that some future steward of this property gets as much pleasure from them as we have. It may be some compensation for other legacies we’re leaving. Even if we get that old Royalex whitewater canoe we last used as a planter cut up and hauled to the dump, there will be plenty of head-shakers for them to find. And possibly the granary. And probably still some barbed wire.
Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin, where the corn just barely made knee-high by the 4th of July.