The Family Moldstead

On summer weekends, it is not the beach that calls to me, but the woods—lovely, dark, deep, and far from the noise and congestion of Long Island. And so, earlier this month, I went as I often do to the woods of Northwestern Connecticut, where my family has a summer house. The house is part of what was once a bustling Methodist camp meeting ground in the 1800s; eventually tents gave way to about 60 small cottages in the Victorian painted lady style arranged in a double circle around a grove of towering cathedral pines. Fervent believers were replaced by summerfolk escaping the city, but there is still a chapel in the center of the grove, and the bells still ring at 11 o’clock every Sunday.

My father’s family started spending summers here in the 1950s, first in a cottage in the inner circle of the grove, and later on a sometimes forgotten spur heading deeper into the woods. That’s our cottage, the Needle Edge. Perched precariously on top of a rocky foundation, it has no insulation and only an ancient propane heater to heat its century-old bones; it is rustic in all senses of the world.  Even in high summer, when the air is heavy with mosquitoes and approaching storms, it is a good 10 degrees colder (and damper) inside than out. The sharp smell of mildew (care of a pine tree that fell through the roof during a storm some 20 years ago) hits you as soon as you walk into the kitchen from the back porch, and then the chill starts to seep into your bones. We call it the family moldstead, and still I love it.

When not out exploring the back roads and cobbles of the Berkshires, I sit on the porch, sometimes with a book and sometimes without. I note the singers in our summer chorus: veery, hermit, and wood thrush; eastern phoebe and wood-pewee; an insistent ovenbird; the drum of a red-bellied woodpecker and the whir of a thirsty ruby-throated hummingbird.

I like to watch the hummingbirds do battle over the sugar water we put out for them. We’ve never managed to attract hummers at my parents’ house, but here they never fail to come within 5 minutes of filling the feeders. For a while I found this perplexing; here we are in the deep woods, with nary a blossom to be seen, and yet the minute we put the feeders out we hear the familiar burry buzz of wings! But of course they wouldn’t subsist solely on flower nectar; the woods around us readily provide a smorgasbord of tree sap and mosquitoes. They do just fine without us.

At night in bed, I hear the descending, trilling whinny of eastern screech owls and the who-cooks-for-yoooou from a barred owl. And the neverending chorus of frogs. Years ago there were coyotes, but we haven’t heard them since I was a kid—and no, I don’t mind that at all. It’s pitch black outside, and there are no streetlights by our cottage. A coyote would not be on the list of things that I’d want to encounter while walking my dog at night.