Tune In, What's Happening

Cellar Holes

I took a break from leaf clean-up the other day (one of the penalties I pay for my garden’s wonderful woodland site) and took a walk to enjoy the late fall woods. This presents a very different aspect at this season, for with the leaves all down, the interior of the forest is revealed.

In particular, when I walk down an abandoned woods road, I can see the remains of no less than five old houses. There’s nothing left of these residences besides the cellar holes. These must have been dug by pick and shovel – a near impossible task in our boulder-rich soil. The floors of these former basements are earthen, and the sides are clad with beautifully laid, un-mortared walls. Many of the stones in these are considerable. I wrote in my last post about my own adventures with lifting stones; these are far larger than any I have attempted to budge. It must have taken a team of oxen to drag them to the site and a block and tackle to lower them into position.


With nothing to hold them together other than gravity, these walls have outlasted all the beams and boards that once stood above them.

I took a map marked with these cellar holes to our town historian, and he found that houses stood on those sites at least as long ago as the mid-nineteenth century and, he suspects, much longer than that. He has told me that if I bring him the measurements of the cellar holes and any evidence of where the doors and chimneys once stood, he can probably reconstruct the style, and so the era, of the houses that stood over them.

It feels a bit melancholy to know that the site my wife and I chose because it is so remote – we have regular visitations from owls, bobcats, otters, even a moose – was once a thriving community with its own school. At this time, though, of such turmoil and division, with neighbor turned against neighbor, it is reassuring to think that there is a cycle greater than any of us.

One of the things I value about gardening is the way in which renewal follows death, year after year. Witnessing this makes death and decay easier to accept. Many things, I fear, are coming to an end now in the greater world. Indeed, the powers-that-be brag that is the case. But no doubt someday someone will be peering down into the cellar hole of my house, wondering who lived here, while he or she takes a break from caring for their own garden.

Posted by on November 21, 2016 at 7:30 am, in the category Tune In, What's Happening.
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10 responses to “Cellar Holes”

  1. John Bales says:

    When I was a geology student/grad student back in the late 70s-mid 80s at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, I used to do field work out in the Boston Mountains of northwest Arkansas. I remember several times hiking to sites and coming across these old stone basements. They were serene places, even then the knowledge that these were once thriving homes in the wilderness during the early settlement of that part of the state. I can still see several sites in my mind even now and would love to have land with one that could be incorporated into a woodland garden setting.

  2. Wendy Peterson says:

    Such a thoughtful, beautifully written piece. Remembering the cycle of life has always been comforting. In the Jewish religion, when someone dies, a common response is ” may your memories be a blessing “,so to the extent that we can, remembering those before us confers blessings on all of us.

  3. Allen Bush Allen Bush says:

    Oh, the hidden stories in those woods and cellars. Great story, Tom.

  4. Brooke Beebe says:

    Lovely and haunting meditative piece. Thank you.

  5. Sue says:

    Lovely blog. I get the same haunted feeling when I see an abandoned home or building in the city. Please keep writing. Thank you! The times they are a changin’.

  6. Laura Munoz says:

    This is a great post. I can’t say it any better than Susan did above.

  7. Pat Webster says:

    This is a wonderfully evocative piece. My mother and father grew up in southwest Virginia and about 20 years ago, my sister and I travelled with them to visit the sites where ancestors had lived. One house had a small part of its brick chimney still standing and the sight was quite a touching reminder of the past.

    Knowing your interest in these remnants of how the past leaves its mark on the land, you may be interested in reading two pieces I’ve written recently. This week’s blog post is called Orin’s Sugarcamp and it is my attempt to enhance similar ruins I discovered in the woods. (www.siteandinsight.com/Orin’s-sugarcamp/ The other is a piece from earlier in November called Remembering the Dead. (www.siteandinsight.com/remembering-the-dead/)

  8. […] Cellar Holes originally appeared on Garden Rant on November 21, 2016. […]

  9. anne says:

    Love this! Thomas, you have to wonder what it is about this area (that seems so remote to you) that attracted a cluster of settlers way back when….has it changed much since then? What made them leave? So many questions. Also, have you been out there in spring and summer to find any “plant artifacts”? There are often volunteers of things that were planted long ago that survive over the years and are treasures you can divide/propagate for your own garden. I have a whole “homestead iris” garden with blooms I am sure I will never find in any nursery now. It is a living link with people from another time. I agree with you too, about the solace to be gained these days by remembering that there is a greater cycle out there, and that nothing stays the same forever.

  10. Garden Rant Susan Harris says:

    Lovely and haunting. Sad and scary.