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More Stories - The Way We Were

The following appeared in the Recipe du Jour's excellent newsletter.

In the Early Days of Spring
By Walter Mills

It must have been about this time in the early 1800's, that the rafts were floated along Penns Creek and the settlers loaded them with barrels of flour and kegs of rye whiskey to sell in Selinsgrove on the other side of the Seven Mountains.

A few intriguing paragraphs from the book, "Gregg Township Bi-Centennial Two Hundred Years Remembered", are all I know about this spring rite of the early settlers of Penns Valley.  But as I walk the dog in the evenings and linger by the juncture of Sinking Creek and Penns Creek, it is easy to imagine Thomas Treaster down in the yard where the Methodist church now stands, tarring the hewn logs so they are water tight, building the sides of the arks, the name for the large rafts, and awaiting the freshet, when the spring waters rise high enough to carry the arks down the stream.

Now the freshet is upon us in the north country, but no arks float on the creeks, and the watery highways are empty.  But almost on the evening air one can hear the rhythmic thwang of the crosscut saw as the logs are trimmed, and hear the voices of the farmers as they roll their carts down to the water's edge to unload their barrels and kegs onto the arks.  Their small farms are up in little clearings carved out of one of the densest forests in North America, and they travel on rough cart tracks that yesterday were deer or Indian trails.

This is not easy living, as the book reminds us.  The trip to Selinsgrove was made in a day; the goods were sold, along with the ark, and another crew took it on to Philadelphia.  That night, the arkmen returned over the Seven Mountains on foot, encountering wolves and panthers on the mountain paths.  The next day they repeated the whole process again, for as long as the freshet lasted.

What must it have been like in those days, when the first structure built in a settlement was often a church and the next a schoolhouse?  What was it like to not only raise your own wheat, but to grind it into flour and bake your own bread?  How did it feel to clear your land and build a cabin, birth your own babies, bury your own dead in the family graveyard up on the hillside?  What was it like to float down that stream with a year's work stored in barrels at your feet, and the only hard money you were liable to see all year dependent on not smashing this clumsy ark into the big rocks around the next bend of the river?

I think it was scary and worrisome, but also deeply satisfying.  God was all around in the forest and the brook.  Work and life were synonymous, not separate conditions as they are now.  Time did not come in half-hour installments, with a break to grab a snack from the fridge.  Time changed with the seasons, moved with the sun through the arc of the year, rose and fell with the stream, grew with the planting and shortened as the harvest was taken in.

With everything we have gained we have lost something our ancestors once held dear.  We have lost the self-sufficiency of the early farmers, raft builders and millers.  We have lost the connection between work and life; a day's work for our daily bread.  We have lost the key to the book of nature, so we no longer read the phases of the moon like an almanac.  We have lost the need for our neighbors, standing beside us on the mountain path at night with the wolf pack circling.  We have lost, many of us, our certainty, the knowledge that God is talking in the stream, and writing with the clouds.

We have gained security, longer lives, better health, more choices.  You can name your own blessings, there are many.  But I like to dream of floating on an ark down that stream, and I might not get off till I get to Philadelphia.

(The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2000 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. To contact Walt, see  .)

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