Nye Hill Farm was established in 1790, the year President George Washington delivered the nation’s first State of the Union Address. The farmstead’s original stone foundation still exists, intact. By the time Washington delivered his Farewell Address six years later, the Nyes had built the house in which we now live. The house’s hearth still draws us near. Not for cooking, or even warmth, though it is warm. We draw near its spirit. Like the farmstead’s stone foundation, the farm’s spirit still exists, intact.
People who work this land now, who live in this house, who sit and read comfortably around its hearth, have no ancestral claim to any of it. Not the land, not the house, not the hearth. We have no Abenaki blood. We did not descend from those first English fishermen who landed, in 1623, on the coast of what came to be called New Hampshire. Our forefathers were not colonists and the daughters of the American Revolution do not grace our lineage. That traces back to Ireland, Poland, Germany and Viet Nam. But “traces” is misleading. It hasn’t been that long. Still centuries after the first shots were fired at Lexington, our families were laboring in the mills and factories of Western and Eastern Europe, and on the farms of Southeast Asia. As children we sat at supper tables listening to our grandparents translate for our great-grandparents. We work hard, but they worked harder. The Irish author and playwright Brendan Behan referred to the likes of us as “narrow-backs”, the generations born of strong immigrants who with wide backs laid the foundations upon which we have all built our successes, and upon whose wide backs we still stand. Immigrants. With no ancestral claims to the land, we feel the next highest bond. Reverence. For the land, this farm, its spirit.
reverence, n. Deep respect, veneration, or admiration for someone or something, esp. a person or thing regarded as sacred or holy. From The Oxford English Dictionary.
Washington’s Farewell Address was not delivered before an assembly but rather it was published in a newspaper. It seems unlikely it would have been read around this hearth by which we presently sit, ourselves reading a newspaper, but Washington’s on our minds nevertheless. He too wrote of a wall that year, 1796, in a letter to his Secretary of State. But as the eminent historian Joseph Ellis points out in his deliberative American Dialogue, Washington’s concern was not to keep safe the peace and prosperity of those inside the wall of which he wrote. It was to keep safe the peace and prosperity of those outside the wall. Washington foresaw that nothing short of a “Chinese wall” would stop American settlers from emigrating to new opportunities, west of the colonies, taking away the lands and livelihoods of those already there. Ironic, that. But we’re not writing about irony, we’re writing about reverence.
To revere is “to feel deep respect or admiration for; to hold in highest esteem; to treat with reverence”. Also from The Oxford English Dictionary. Nothing to suggest that reverence is the domain of any one nationality, even less any one race.
We think of Nye Hill Farm as a thin place (The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman, quoting Eric Weiner’s spiritual travelogue Man Seeks God, describes thin places as “‘the places in the world where the walls are weak’, where another dimension seems nearer than usual.”). The farm’s spirit seems to bridge the worlds of the Abenaki, their gods, the colonists, their governors, the Nyes, their lives. We think of the Nyes. We even pause now and then where they repose. We hope they find quiet under our watch. We do not think of them as our forebears, they are not, we have no ancestral claim to this land. We think of them as among those who came before us. Just as we hope to be thought of by those who come after us, revering this land, holding sacred its spirit. From where those people come, of what nationality, of what race, makes no difference to us. Or anyone else.