There was a place in my hometown I considered my own, and it
was just a five-minute walk up West
Union Street, toward a place known as Cinder Hill
because there used to be an ironworks with a big
furnace in the area. There was a spot on the Matfield
River where, in summer, I would wait in the mud
to catch crayfish in a Maxwell House coffee can,
and I approached my quarry with such intensity I
was pretty much oblivious to the odor of sewage.
To some people, it was the polluted old Matfield; to
me, it looked like a pristine white-water river from
a New England calendar on the wall of a barbershop.
I acknowledge the reality – foul water, devoid of fish, debased by years of industrial use and human waste – and I agree that the Matfield looked a lot better than it smelled. But the smell was not as acute in winter.
I trekked alone through the snow to snoop around in the woods and along the floodplain. I
considered it my private scouting grounds, and my
discoveries included bird nests on naked branches,
rabbit tracks and what turned out to be the ruins of
one of the town’s 22 long-abandoned mills. (The one
by the Matfield, I later learned, had manufactured
arms for the Revolutionary War.)
When I look back on those walks in the winter
woods, I have a distinct memory of the silence in
them – even with West Union Street just a few hundred yards away.
On a Sunday afternoon in January
or February, the rush of the Matfield over rocks
and under plates of ice was loud and clickety-clear,
steady and even mesmerizing, the only sound for
hundreds of precious minutes of my youth. Decades
later, I still find myself staring into streams and
listening to their chatter.