Stephen O’Connor: A New Essay

Stephen O’Connor’s new novel is This Is No Time to Quit Drinking: Teacher Burnout and the Irish Powers. 

A House in Carlisle

by Stephen O’Connor

I’ve often asked myself if I am envious of those who can afford to live in Carlisle, or if it is a better place to visit than in which to live. For years, I’ve driven there to walk with my terrier in its expansive natural preserves, Thoreau’s “city of the woods.” On Sunday mornings I get a coffee at the quaint general store where cyclists in brightly colored spandex and streamlined helmets riding five-thousand dollar bicycles stop to buy energy drinks, looking like so many Tour de France contestants. Outside, other Carlilians (if there is such a word) read the Globe or The New York Times at small circular tables, sipping coffee and nibbling croissants beside the bee-laden lilac bushes that border the terrace.

It’s very different from the mill town where I was raised, though it is a mere twenty minutes away by car. The smugness of Carlisle grates somewhat, but I love its colonial graveyards, its meandering stone walls, and the quiet paths that run for miles through woods of pine and oak, past marshlands where the shoreline trees cast a deep shadow line across the near bull rushes, and beyond which they stand like a golden river in the sunlight. Ah, the wealthy inhabit beautiful places. And though their spoken politics are the most egalitarian, and they profess their love for refugees, the poor, and the disadvantaged, I suspect they harbor some fair amount of guilt at the secret truth—they enjoy their “privilege,” and they like their town just the way it is. You’ll certainly never hear a clamor for Section 8 housing near the common.

And that brings me to what is missing in Carlisle and neighboring Concord and all the wealthy enclaves of Massachusetts. There are no ethnic neighborhoods where citizens of all backgrounds are welcome to come in and buy a loaf of Greek bread and some spinach pie, or a Colombian bandeja paisa, or Thai spring rolls. There are no African Festivals or Asian Water Festivals. There is no Semaine Franco Americaine. No Irish pubs or Hindu temples that I know of, and the lack of these things, in spite of all the professed progressive politics, makes the rich town poorer, or at least less interesting. Carlilians, in general, may be better educated than my mill town brethren, but that means I would never meet someone in Carlisle like the old buck I met at the coffee shop this morning who blamed climate change on the astronauts, who, he said, ” . . .have gone up there and fooled around and messed the weather all up.” I would not meet the skinny, heavily-tattooed short order cook who told me he was in the movie, The Fighter, and when I asked him what part he’d played, responded proudly, “They told me I was ‘Drunk Number Four.’”

But what Carlisle does have that my town lacks are those deep woods where ancient moss-faced boulders left by retreating glaciers twelve thousand years ago are strewn across the forest floor, where a deer crosses the leafy path before disappearing with a few high kicking bounds and a flicker of white tail; where the gray-blue egret stands in the shallows as still as an image on a celadon vase. As I grow older, these things became more and more important to me. To be honest, the croissants aren’t bad either.

Here’s an anecdote for you to illustrate my mixed feelings. One day I brought my five-year-old daughter Molly and our dog out to Carlisle while my wife took my son to his soccer game. I was trying to develop a love of nature in my kids, so I often brought them out to the woods. It was a day that made you feel alive—a blue sky painted with fat unmoving clouds. Walking along a path that made a circuit of a cranberry bog and ran into the woods, we encountered a middle-aged woman in full equestrian apparel on horseback. Jake, our schnauzer, nosed the air, but paid little attention to the horse, which had stopped before a wooden bridge that crossed an irrigation stream. The animal did not trust the bridge and ignored its rider’s urgings to proceed. The woman turned and looked over her shoulder at us. I’m sure she felt a bit ridiculous seated on the stubborn motionless quadruped.

“Let him see us crossing the bridge,” I called. Sure enough, once the horse had watched us cross safely, he ventured forward, hooves clopping on the wooden planks.

She thanked us, and Molly began with the hundred questions of the child. “Is that your horse? What’s his name? How old is he? Do you have other horses?”

The woman answered patiently, and we learned that the horse was a mare and her name was Lady. We also learned that the woman lived in Carlisle and had two other horses and a grown daughter who often rode with her. There comes a time when the helpless parent stands by as the child ventures on to the inappropriate inquiry. I cringed at Molly’s next question: “Are you filthy rich?”

I chided my daughter, aware that the woman must have deduced that the little girl had heard the expression from me. The horsewoman was unabashed. “Yes,” she said, “I suppose I am.” A line I had read somewhere came back to me: “He held a glass of wine as though it were his due.” She was the picture of blue-blood complacency in her rounded black helmet with its narrow visor, her prim buttoned jacket, her tan breeches tucked into the well-polished riding boots that rested in silver stirrups. She handled the reins loosely in gloved hands, as—well—she looked down on us. Even the horse she sat astride was a Lady, for God’s sake. Something in the spirit of my dispossessed Irish ancestors made my hackles rise. I imagined those old turf cutters leaning on their loys and spitting as they watched the Lord of the Big House pass their boggy cottages.

It seemed to me that those lords and ladies, those absentee landlords fattened by rack-rents, were her forbears, if not in blood, at least in manners and self-esteem. When a separate path offered itself, we said goodbye and set off along it. That woman, with her spiritless acknowledgement, “Yes, I suppose I am,” became the personification of the New England aristocracy for me. Yet the truth was I still loved their land and perhaps resented the fact that I would never be able to afford a bare half-acre of it.

My aged grandfather from County Limerick laughed when I once expressed these sentiments to him. He reminded me that it was also the eighteenth-century inhabitants of Carlisle, Lexington, and Concord who had begun the war that drove the army of the oppressors of the Irish (and half the world) back across the sea. “By that ‘rude bridge that arched the flood’ there are two unknown British soldiers buried,” he added. “Poor lads probably took the king’s shilling for a square meal.” All that was true.

There was another group of dispossessed who were never far from my mind as I walked the Carlisle woods, for all of the land in question was once, in a relatively recent past, the domain of the Indians; the paths I trod were close by the place where the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers joined to form the Concord River. There, the glacial drumlin of Nashawtuc, “the hill between the rivers,” was home to the Massachusett. Nipmuck and Pawtucket Indians also inhabited present-day Concord and environs, the land the Native Americans called Musketaquid.

I say it is impossible for me to forget because though the Indians did not leave great monuments or viaducts or elaborate tombs, they did leave marks beyond mere place names for those who take the time to look. Deep in the Carlisle woods, beyond Indian Hill, where the Deer Run trail meets the Garrison Loop, just a few feet from the path, is the Grinding Stone, a boulder the size of a Volkswagen where the Indians ground their corn. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the women there, working the jawbone of a deer to scrape the corn across a deep bowl worn into the top of the rock. At the pond-side nearby, I imagine animal skins drying on frames, while men fashion points of flint and women heap glowing embers about the clay pot in which a rabbit stew simmers. The passing of the tribe can be read in the stone-walled cellar hole beside the grinding stone, the remains of a seventeenth-century settler’s home. The grinding stone itself and the bowl it held have been split in two—the old marks of the iron bars that were hammered into it are visible in each half. Was it done to let the Indians know that their way of life here had ended?

It is December 21st, the winter solstice. Before sunrise, I’m standing in the Towle Woods in Carlisle atop the Turtle Rock. Names of lost tribes are shifting, and primary sources present a confusing picture. The source that has led me here refers to the native inhabitants simply as “Musketaquids,” and informs me that they had configured these rocks in the shape of a turtle, the head of which faces sunrise on this morning.

I have found no mention of how old the sacred rock is, but I try to imagine the tribe gathered here, five hundred years ago, or perhaps a thousand? I wait in the gathering light, listening for the sound of their ghosts, and almost seem to hear it in the cry, not of summer’s songbirds, but of a couple of crows that screech somewhere in the pines above me, and then are silent. From the turtle’s back, I follow the direction in which the stone head seems to gaze. An orange fire has been lit amid the distant woods and the dim forest is suddenly alive with light and shadow. The sun will illuminate these woods, what is left of their world, and our new world for nine hours, four minutes, and thirty-seven seconds before it sinks again. I walk farther into the woods in the strengthening light and meet no one.

Later, I’m searching the internet for the history of Musketaquid. The key word “Nashawtuc” brings up a home for sale on Nashawtuc Road near the former Indian village. The price is 3.5 million dollars. It’s a good deal more than the few yards of cloth, hatchets, knives and hunting rights the local Indians received, along with a good dose of smallpox, (from the people I imagine, perhaps unfairly, as the horsewoman’s ancestors) for six square miles of their motherland.

I remind myself that we who live in the old mill cities, the descendants of more recent immigrants, are no better. The woods and the native markers have all but disappeared; a church stands on the buried ruins of the river village of the Pawtuckets, and the hot-topped parking lot of a McDonald’s may cover the graves of native generations. We’re all on stolen land, and I suppose we all become smug when we have more than our neighbors.

I guess the difference is that in my hometown I see a lot of people who are struggling, and in Carlisle I see only people who are comfortable, well-educated and self-assured. It seems the only immigrants there are foreigners with degrees in medicine or engineering or computer software. I love the peace of their world; there is little traffic, pollution, or crime. The woods still stand for their pleasure. If I should win the lottery, I might not be able to resist the temptation of a house there on a quiet rural lane. But I’m afraid I would always feel out of place. Always what I am now—a visitor from the mill town.

7 Responses to Stephen O’Connor: A New Essay

  1. Leo Dunn says:

    Thank you Steve for the great memory and depition of Carlisle. Growing up in Westford was a privaledge as well but Carlisle was a safer place for driving crazy, blasting music and puffing the day away in an open field as the one police vehicle was usually parked at the town hall. Thanks again, great prose.

  2. Jerry bisantz says:

    Once again, Steve shows us that he follows in the footsteps of Lowell’s great writers. I hike Carlisle all the time and he has captured, in this piece, the contradictions of Worlds and a history of that great woodland. Thanks so
    Much for sharing this with us in these oh, so challenging times.

  3. Tom says:

    Although I’ve been removed from beautiful Massachusetts for 30 years, I always attempt to return to Carlisle and Thoreau’s beautiful woods just for its nostalgia and beauty. Although it has changed through the years

  4. Ruth Calhoun McQuade says:

    Brilliant Steve! Your writing is so very good! When I read your work, I often feel that I could actually become A “real book reader”! John shared with me-thanks for the enlightenment!

  5. Dean says:

    You may not have a million dollars ! What is better you have a million words that will last for centuries .