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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Jane's Place: The Old Mail Road

Air Date: Week of

Writer and Living On Earth commentator Jane Brox muses on a place with special meaning for her. A walk on the old mail road is produced by Sandy Tolan.


CURWOOD: It isn't always the vast scenic stretches of nature that move us the most. we all have places we go to that help us to reflect on the larger issues and private moments in our lives. For writer Jane Brox, that place is an old road that runs behind her farm in Dracut, Massachusetts. It is a road that doesn't just run from one place to another. It's also an avenue that transports her from one time to another.


BROX: I've walked the old mail road all my life: a rutted dirt path that turns down into the woods beyond our farm, and runs for a scant mile through pine, maple, birch, and oak, until it reaches a back road where it opens onto another farm with its own high view of the eastern hills.


BROX: I can take longer and freer walks elsewhere. Cape Ann, the salt-laden air, the constant tones of the sea in my ear. Or the solitary peak of Monadnock, a head-clearing climb above low, wind-sculpted spruce, then the quieter breath of the loose-legged descent.

But the mail road is a daily route through common ground, less than a hour if I go straight out and back. Just enough to ease the creaks of a day's work at my desk.


BROX: This was never a significant road. More like a shortcut between 2 routes to the center of town. But it once had its uses. All these woods had been pasture and cared-for farmland. The wheel tracks were kept clear by wagons, then tractors. Every spring someone shored up the makeshift bridges over the 2 brooks. Now I walk by a cellar hole deep and duff and crowded with lilacs, and dumps full of bottles and rusted blades of shovel sides and hose.

(Metallic sounds)

BROX: That's an old milk can. Yeah.


BROX: For its entire length stone walls run on each side of the road, and in places they're strung with barbed wire which had once kept the cattle in their pastures. The mail road shows up as a shoreline on all the old maps of town. Sometimes it's drawn on the newer ones as well, but the mapmaker must have taken for granted what a former hand had set down. Since anyone walking here would know the road has come close to disappearing in recent times, having lost its reason when the pasture and land was abandoned. And once reason is lost, tameness goes, too.

As a child I played here endlessly with my brothers and sisters and cousins. And though it was a stronger road then, it always felt dark and filled with as much foreboding as wonder. It took all our courage to walk halfway down. We were only at ease when my father attached a trailer to the tractor on a summer Sunday afternoon and we jostled along to the end. Now a tractor can't possibly get through.

(A crow calls)

BROX: Fifteen or 20 years ago the far part of the woods was broken by a housing development and someone there has blocked the road with rocks and brush to keep out snowmobiles. In places there's only one faint track. The storms bring down branches that no one clears. The brooks flood and recede, and no one repairs the bridges. White pine seedlings are closing in.


BROX: One foot after another on an old dirt road cut through by those who came before me. How much of a mark in place and time does one life leave? What have I accomplished? Afterwards, the faint discernment of a path for those wanting to sift for evidence will tangle themselves in briars and wade through brooks to glean a story from barbed wire healed into bark. From rust and glass and telltale parallel walls of stone.

(Metallic sounds, more footfalls, music up and under)

CURWOOD: Jane Brox lives and writes in Dracut, Massachusetts. Her latest book is Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and its Family.



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