Pat’s Wildways: New England Roots

By Pat Foster-Turley

One purpose of my recent road trip to New Hampshire with my brother Ken was to locate our grandparent’s gravestone, our grandma’s old house, and any other bits of family history we could discover. Our grandfather died before we were born; I was just a child when our grandmother died and neither of us have any recollection of a funeral or burial. And there are no other living relatives to direct us. We were on our own.

The house where my grandmother and her siblings lived.

Well, it wasn’t so difficult to find the gravestone. I suspected our grandparents would be buried in the community they lived in together and a little bit of internet sleuthing led us to their gravestone in Lisbon, New Hampshire. We cleaned up the headstone and placed some flowers on the grave, undoubtedly the first visitors there in 60 or more years.

We spent that evening in a bed-and-breakfast in Plymouth, New Hampshire next to the place where I remember our grandmother lived with her three siblings. And there it was, the old house and the outbuilding that used to be their roadside gift shop/gas pump. Across the street was the same spacious building that used to house the Gobbler restaurant, now a different one, but still a good place to catch a meal overlooking a similar view that I remembered from my youth. A few miles away there was the Smith Covered Bridge, restored but still there over the swimming hole where I nearly drowned when I was about five years old. The memories came flooding back.

The Smith Covered Bridge still crosses the river where I once nearly drowned.

In the morning I slipped into the backyard of the B&B and further into the woods behind it, where as a child I had spent many summers picking blackberries and blueberries, catching salamanders and roaming with the rural kids who lived next door. Now this is private property belonging to a charter school and the kids were there, including one carrying a life-size stuffed bear on her back. I had hoped to see a bear in the woods, and so I did, although not the expected type.

A child carries a life-sized stuffed bear through the woods.

That’s when I started noticing the trees. It was a birch forest, just like the tree in our front yard where I grew up in New Jersey. Further on into our trip, at the base of Mt. Washington, beautiful trees with red berries crowded the landscape. Something about these trees seemed familiar. Yes! There was a mountain ash in our backyard in New Jersey too. A Google Earth photo of our old New Jersey house shows that the mountain ash tree is still there, now the largest tree in the neighborhood.

Mountain ash trees adorn the lower reaches of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

While I was touring New England, I was texting my friend Pat Weiss who grew up with me in our New Jersey neighborhood and was planning her own trip to New England the following week. And we got to chatting about trees. She remembered the mountain ash tree from my childhood backyard and the birch tree in front. “You had a number of unusual trees,” she texted. And then it hit me. My father had imported these trees from New Hampshire when he settled in New Jersey! Until now I never put these facts together.

One tree we had was a catalpa tree, a favorite tree in New Hampshire during my father’s time but I couldn’t find any, and neither could Pat, during our visits to New England. It seems that it’s now mostly gone from there—its wood made great railroad ties and posts, alas. But thanks to my father I had a catalpa tree to grow up with in New Jersey. Its foot-long seed pods afforded Pat and me and the rest of the neighborhood kids some great play swords. The clumps of mountain ash berries also present during the fall were great to hit with catalpa seedpod “bats” and good ammunition for our childhood battles.

Birch trees are common in New England forests.

I went to New Hampshire to connect with my roots, and despite the lack of living relatives there, I had plenty to connect with. And Ken and I managed to time our trip right when the leaves were showing off their fall colors. The biggest take-home message for me, was how much my father must have loved his New Hampshire trees. And now, after this trip, so do I.

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]