Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

All the Hogs in Heaven

This is a new draft of a chapter I began many months ago. It has gone through some serious changes and I expect it to be pretty rough, but I hope some folks will read it and give me early feedback. Thanks!

All the Hogs in Heaven

East of Chestnut Ridge, a very rugged mile up, over and down from Cold Creek Spring, John Essert set his empty coffee cup on the kitchen table, stood up, kissed his wife Clara on the forehead, and walked to the front door.

Through a broad smile, John’s breath formed a cloud before him as he stepped off the porch of his little farmhouse on a late November morning. He paused to survey the scene. Directly in front of him, halfway between the house the narrow dirt road, stood a nearly six-foot diameter stump—evidence of his recent labors. As he looked at the fresh cut tree surrounded by sawdust, he opened and closed his strong hands and felt the blisters formed beneath already tough skin. Felling, sawing, and splitting took a different toll on both muscles and palms than the work he had done in the foundry, and he was feeling it. He straightened his back and shoulders, flexing his sore muscles.

To his left, roughly 1000 feet north along the road, he could just see the roof of the old barn on the corner of the property. Between the small yard he had cleared around the house and the barn, was a tangle of blackberry and young eastern red cedars, with occasional patches of waist high brown grass and flower stalks. Using scythe, machete, and hatchet he had cleared a perimeter path around the north two-thirds of the property forming a rectangle roughly 800 feet by 550 feet. This would be the fence line for the main pasture. On three sides, the path was narrow—just enough room to work. Along the Eastern border, along off the road, the path was wide enough for a team to pull a wagon, and there were already worn tracks from all the trips he had made to and from the tree stump and the barn.

A flock of juncos flushed from the lane as he started out. A white-throated sparrow called from somewhere in the edge of the blackberry Mis-ter Peabody, peabody, peabody… it sang. “I sure wish Daddy could see this,” he said aloud. It was always his father’s wish that his son would be on Chestnut Ridge, and now he was. The land he grew up on was a few miles north of there, closer to town, but this was, in many ways better land that the property his father was forced to sell late in life. There was a year round sep on the ridge above the south end of the pasture that he hoped would one-day feed a pond, and this part of the ridge had a lot more chestnut trees than the old home place.

Looking at the ridge bordering the west side of the property and the giant trees on the steep slope, John remembered the words of his father so many years ago as they gathered chestnuts on the other end of the ridge. “Son,” he had said, “Listen to me close, and remember what I say. A family of four with all the hogs in heaven can survive even the hardest winter on this ridge, as long as they have these chestnut trees.” John’s daddy had a flair for the dramatic, especially when he talked about the life he loved out there on Chestnut Ridge. “Them trees is a gift from God!” He declared time and time again.

That November had been “the month of the axe” for John. For three and half weeks, he worked on the big tree in front of the house. First, he climbed the giant chestnut tree and took off what limbs he could using a hand saw. Later, with the help of Mr. Putnam, he felled it perfectly parallel to the road. John and Mr. Putnam cleaned up the remaining limbs, cutting them into logs for the wood stove, then they measured and cut the long trunk to the proper lengths for posts and rails, which they finally split. They never took time to count but John reckoned they must have split three thousand rails out of that trunk and who knows how many hundreds of posts. For his help, Mr. Putnam took all the posts and rails he wanted for his neighboring property. The rest of it was piled on the north side of the barn, underneath the shed next to the wagon.

John planned on laying out the posts that morning before walking over to Mr. Putnam’s place. They had agreed to build John’s fence first so he could get the livestock—especially the goats that would work on clearing the blackberry. He stopped at the near end of the barn and swung open the doors to the horse stalls. Founder was fidgeting in her stall, ready to get to work. Sally, as always, stood calmly, munching on some hay. “I’ll get you ladies hooked up in a minute,” John said, scratching Sally’s cheek. “It’s gonna be a beautiful day.” Founder nodded her head and whinnied as if either agreeing with John’s prediction or trying to hurry him along. “Hold tight, Founder, It won’t be long.”

He walked back outside and around the barn to the right. When he saw the wagon tongue and front wheels sticking out from the shed, he picked up his pace. “Putnam must have used the wagon yesterday,” he said.

John made trips to the barn at least twice a day to feed the horses or fetch tools, but had not walked to the shed on the farm end of the barn in a week. “Maybe I left it that way…”

When he reached the corner and looked under the shed, he stopped. Turning around, he looked out towards the overgrown pasture, then ran around the barn to search both ways up and down the road. The simple wooden gate at the head of the short drive was not latched and swung halfway open. Where the lane dipped just before the road, a single chestnut post lay in the grass.

John picked up the post and walked back to the shed. He scratched his head as he looked down at the bare ground. That post in his hands was the only piece of chestnut left. The rest of it, every single stick, was gone.

For the first time that morning, John felt the chill that was in the air, and he pulled his canvas jacket tight, buttoning the top two buttons.

He put his hands in his pockets and kicked the ground. Livestock would be delivered the following week, so getting this fence up was imperative.

He stared at the ground with his hands in his pockets. When the pigs arrived, they could be turned into the woods for mast, but if he was to have goats working on clearing the pasture, they would require a fence. Founder neighed. “Sit tight, girl. I’m afraid it might e a little while, now,” he called through the barn door.

John walked back to the house where Clara was in the kitchen making a second pot of coffee.

“Ready for a cup already?” She asked. “Johnny is sleeping. I thought I would get him up in a little bit and bring a pot out there to you. Where is Mr. Putnam? You didn’t leave him out there to work without you…”

“Ain’t no work to do, Clara. Mr. Putnam isn’t out there because there ain’t no work to do.”

Clara poured a cup of coffee and waited patiently for her husband to explain himself. His brow was furrowed and his lips pursed. He tugged at the skin on his Adam’s apple. She added cream to the cup and handed it to her husband without saying anything.

He took a sip followed by a deep breath, then pulled out a chair and sat down at the kitchen table.

“Somebody stole the tree… the wood. It’s all gone. All the posts, all the rails. They’re gone.”

“Did they take anything else? The horses? Tools?”

“Everything else is there. They didn’t take the wagon. They must have come prepared. The horses are fine.”

Clara sat down at the table beside her husband, put her hand on his, and looked at him. He had changed in the few weeks since they moved to Chestnut Ridge. His blue eyes shone bright surrounded by a face darkened from working in the sun. She held his rough hand on the table.

When Clara returned home from her first date with John seven years earlier, her sister, seeing her skip up the drive, asked her about her suitor. “He has the strongest hands,” she had said. Clara admitted to her sister that hands were a strange reason to fall in love with someone, but “He makes me feel safe,” she said.

From the back of the house, they heard the voice of Johnny. “We’ll be okay,” Clara said, standing up and kissing John on the forehead. He let go of her hand and watched her red hair fall to her chest as she stood upright. “Of course we will,” he said as she left the kitchen.

John finished his cup and walked back across the property and through the woodlot between his land and Mr. Putnam’s place. If his daddy was right that Chestnut trees would get a family through a hard winter, it was neighbors who would get each other through every other hardship. He knocked on the door and Mr. Putnam stepped out with boots on, ready to work.

After discussing the situation, John and Mr. Putnam walked and carefully measured the pasture, then did the same on Mr. Putnam’s land. Mr. Putnam did the math on the side of the barn, figuring just how many posts and rails would be needed for each job, then they inventoried the wood piled in Mr. Putnam’s field. If all they did was secure John’s main pasture, there would be enough wood to complete that and all the fencing Mr. Putnam wanted. They would fell another tree for the remaining work at John’s later.

Mr. Putnam was older than John by a decade and a half, and had grown up on the property next door, inheriting it when his father passed away earlier that year. Like John’s property, the land had not been worked in many years, and his pasture was in similar shape—an overgrown, tangled mess. John knew Mr. Putnam’s first name was the same as his own, but John Putnam had been a supervisor at the foundry and John couldn’t bring himself to calling him anything but “mister.”

It took the two men three days of digging, tamping, bracing, and finally stringing wire to complete the fence around John’s pasture. When they were finished, John swung open the barn door, opened the stalls, and let Founder and Sally out of the barn.

The following day, a Saturday, six goats arrived and the blackberry began to disappear. The men decided to take Sunday off so, first thing the next morning, John, Clara and Johnny went for their first long exploration on the side of Chestnut Ridge.

As late in the season as it was, neither of them expected to find many nuts, but they took along a sack anyway. “Feels good to have that fence up,” John said. “But we need to pick out another tree to fell for fencing around the garden and for pig fencing. This one doesn’t have to be as big as the last one.”

The two of them walked silently, hand in hand in hand towards the edge of the woods at the base of the ridge. “Remember the last time we walked the ridge?” Clara asked as they neared the wood.

“Of course, I do,” said John, squeezing Clara’s hand. “September 25, 1925.”

“Can you believe it as been that long?”

“Feels like yesterday to me.”

* * *

September 25, 1925 was day John and Clara were married. There was no money for a honeymoon in those days, so following the simple ceremony at Clara’s parent’s house, they did what they loved the most. They went chestnut hunting on the ridge.

They filled their sacks that day, but most of their time was spent strolling through the woods, holding hands, chatting gaily. More than once they stopped to look into each other’s eyes and share a kiss.

Throughout their courtship, early fall trips to Chestnut Ridge had been a tradition for the two of them. They would park in front of the abandoned farmhouse and spend entire days walking the ridge and gathering nuts, always ending the day with a picnic beneath the giant tree in front of the house. While enjoying their hard-earned sandwiches, they would dream of one day having a place like that for themselves. “One day I want to raise my boys out here on Chestnut Ridge,” he would say. “In house just like this one.”

The only difference between their wedding day venture and so many previous trips—aside from being a little less worried about someone seeing them kiss—was the mason jar John opened after building a small fire for their picnic. He took a sip, and handed the jar to Clara who took a sniff and pushed it away from her face. “Where did you get this?” she asked.

“Bill Tucker, from the foundry, gave it to us. It’s a wedding present.”

“And where did he get this, John? You know it’s illegal!”

“I know Clara. It was a gift, and I didn’t ask where he got it.”

Clara took a tiny sip from the jar and smiled at her husband. “It’s sweet.”

“Yeah, I don’t know much about moonshine, but Bill said this was ‘the good stuff.’”

When the fire was down to coals, John pulled out his knife and scored exes into the sides of a couple dozen nuts and tossed them in a small pan which he set on the coals. Soon they were enjoying chestnuts with their corn, and agreeing that the two things made a very nice combination.

It was well past dark when, finally, they made it home. Usually, they would take the time to spread out their harvest to cure for three or four days before putting it in the ice box, but neither of them was in the mood for work, and John put their brimming sacks in the closet by the wood stove. “We can deal with these later,” he said, leading Clara by the hand to the bedroom that the day before was his, but now belonged to the two of them.

In the days following their honeymoon hike, Clara spent her days focused on setting up their home while John worked at the foundry. Neither of them thought about the nuts in the closet.

A few weeks later John came home from work to find Clara standing in the living room, looking puzzled, holding out her hand. “What are these little worms?” she asked. “I found them in the living room. In her outstretched hand were four yellowish grubs about the size of fat grains of rice. “I don’t know,” John said. “Looks like fish bait to me.” Clara laughed, and tossed them outside.

The next day she found a few more… and the next, and the next.

When finally they thought about the chestnuts, and opened the closet door, they found a mess. Something had hatched in the chestnut sacks, and eaten through every one of the nut, leaving behind bags full of mealy nuts, a mess of worm poop, and countless little grubs wriggling around the bag, the floor, the lower half of the walls. They cleaned up the mess, and dumped it in the compost.

As they dumped the last of the nuts, John apologized to Clara. “I’m sorry I didn’t dealt with these properly when we brought them in the house. They never should have been left in the closet.” Clara looked up at her husband and raised her eyebrows. “Have you forgotten that night, already?”

John blushed, then grinned, “Or, maybe not,” he said.

“Definitely not, Mr. Essert.”

“No. Definitely not, Mrs. Essert.”

It was just about nine months to the day after their honeymoon hike and picnic that Clara became a mama, and 12 months after that, that they found hundreds of long-legged, tan beetles with long slender downturned probosces. The larvae had grown into adult chestnut weevils.

With John Junior keeping them busy, and all those weevils reminding them of the mess from the year before, John and Clara didn’t go back to Chestnut Ridge that year or the three following years.

In 1930, John lost his job at the foundry, and there was no work to be had in town. The Esserts were forced to make a change. A lot of men lost their jobs that year… a lot of families were struggling. But since the day they were married John and Clara had been putting money back. They had a nest egg gifted to the by Clara’s parents, and in five years they had added enough money to it, that when they heard the old clapboard house and some acres on the side of the ridge were for sale, they were ready.

They didn’t even drive out to see the place. They simply met the seller at the bank, wrote a check, signed some papers, and started packing. As they walked home from the bank, John looked at Clara. “Can you believe we just bought our dream?”

“I always knew we would. What I can’t believe is that we didn’t even drive out there to look at it first.”

“We know that place better than anybody,” John responded.

A few days later, they pulled up in front of the house which hadn’t changed a bit since they were last there, and the giant chestnut tree, under which they had honeymooned, and about which they had dreamed, was still standing tall. John reached in his pocket for the key to the house and stepped up to the porch.

“Something ain’t right,” he said. “That tree should still have leaves on it, and there should be some green burrs on the ground. I’m afraid it’s dead. Can you believe that?”

“Well… the place is sure going to look different without that tree,” said Clara.

“It sure is, but it’s okay. We’ll plant another tree. How about a couple apple trees or pears?”

“That sounds lovely!”

“And the yard won’t be as big a mess without all those burrs, either.” Said John, looking for as many positives as he could. “And, we’ll have plenty of chestnuts out in the woods. Like Daddy always said, ‘a family of four…”

“And all the hogs in heaven…” Clara finished with a laugh.

John put his arm around Clara and held her tight. “We’ll be just fine,” he said.

* * *

Being late November, John didn’t expect there to be many nuts left in the woods, but Clara and Johnny looked anyway while John scouted out a good tree for fencing.

The forest floor was littered with old, brown burs like the ones in the yard, but none that looked to be that year’s crop. Even so, Johnny soon called out that he had found a nut and eagerly asked “Can I eat it?” Sure, John told him. “You’re gonna like them a lot better roasted, but I used to eat them raw when I was a boy.”

Johnny dropped the nut into his daddy’s hand.

“Yessiree,” he said sounding eerily like his father. “There is nothing like a raw chestnut, right off the ground.”

John opened his knife to score the thin shell, but the blade went right through the shell and nut like he was cutting into a paper oak gall. The inside was a mealy mush, and were it not for his calloused hands, he might have cut himself.

“Sorry, Johnny. This one’s not good. Keep looking.”

John dropped the remains of the nut, and Johnny scoured the ground for another chestnut. About fifty away, John saw a two-foot trunk. “This one is perfect,” He said. “And close to the edge of the words, so we can get the wagon close.”

Climbed farther, the ridge looked just as they remembered it. Every fourth tree was a chestnut, some of them giants as big or bigger than the one that had grown in front of the house, but there was a disturbing pattern to the forest.

“More than half these trees are dead,” he said, looking up at one that was nearly eight feet across at the base. “The woods are dying.”

“All of them?”

“Not all the trees, but it looks like something is killing all the chestnuts.”

They hiked the length of their property and onto the land separating them from Mr. Putnam where they found an old road winding up the ridge.

“I don’t remember seeing this before,” said Clara.

“Me neither.”

“I guess we never walked this far before.”

Thy followed the road down the ridge where it ran straight through the woodlot.

“Funny, I walked right through this patch of woods to get to Mr. Putnam’s place several times, and never even noticed that I was crossing a road. Looks like it used to go all the way from the main road to the top of the ridge. I wonder where it goes from there.”

They followed the fence back to the house where Clara made lunch while John and Johnny sat in the Morris chair in the living room reading a book about a little boy named Balser who was a great bear hunter during frontier days in southern Indiana.

“Do you think there are bears in our woods?” Johnny asked his father.

“I don’t know. Would you like there to be?”

“I think so,” said the four-year-old. “But I don’t want to shoot them.”

“Well, then we will go looking for them.”

“But we won’t shoot them.”

“No, we won’t shoot them.”

“And we have to go together.”

“Yes, of course. Shall we invite Mama?”

“Do you think she would want to?”

“I don’t know.”

Clara, who was listening from the kitchen, chimed in: “I think as long as I have you by my side, Johnny, I would love to go looking for bears!”

“Yay!” said Johnny. “Read more about Balser, Papa!”

“Okay. Let’s see, where were we?”

“Balser was up in the tree.”

“Ah, yes. When Balser had fixed himself firmly on the limb he proceeded at once to load his gun…”

Over that winter, John and Mr. Putnam felled the chestnut John selected on the edge of the woods and, with it, finished all the fencing. John cleared and plowed a garden patch behind the house and covered it with leaves, and did the same at Putnam’s place.

The Esserts took a lot of winter walks on the ridge, and John was troubled by the lack of living chestnuts, but didn’t talk about it much. On one of their hikes, they followed the old road as it wound behind Mr. Putnam’s property, which did not include any of the ridge, switchbacking to the top of the ridge where it passed through a cut in the sandstone bluff to a previously logged area on top of the ridge.

The following spring, as the forest leafed out, the severity of the chestnut situation was stark. Thousands of brown, dead giants stood head and shoulders above the greening canopy for as far as the eye could see up and down down the Chestnut Ridge.

“A family of four with all the hogs in heaven can survive even the hardest winter on this ridge, as long as they have these chestnut trees.” John said, again, as he walked the pasture that April. “But what happens when there are no damn chestnut trees?”

What do you think?