The Children of Mount Tom

(c) Text copyright Julia Lynam, 2006
(c) Illustrations copyright Kimia Shahi, 2006

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Brown Cub lived in the quiet valley of the Ottaquechee River in the land that we now call Vermont. He had been given his name because a few days before he was born his mother had seen two young bear cubs playing in the forest and she had taken this as a sign that her child would be as healthy and playful as the cubs.

At that time a great forest clothed the whole land except for a few clearings near the river. It stretched as far as anyone had ever traveled in every direction. The people sometimes cut trees to create clearings where they might grow crops; they cut strong saplings for tipi poles and they collected dead wood to burn on their fires, but the trees grew again and the forest remained unchanged, surrounding, feeding, supporting and enclosing Brown Cub's people, the people of the dawnland.

They spent the spring and summer in the valley, growing corn and beans and squash. Some of the grandmothers grew other plants too, the ones that gave people courage when they had some difficult task to face, or helped them when they fell sick. Brown Cub loved the time his people spent in the valley and he and his friends would play every day on the land above the river, running and hiding and climbing the huge trees. They played in the river, too splashing in the shallows, and inventing new ways of catching fish.

In winter the people moved into caves deep in the forest, hanging the entrances with layers of deerskin to keep in the warmth. Winter was the storytelling time. Brown Cub heard many exciting tales of animals and spirits as he sat with his people around the fire inside the cave, cooking and eating meat that the hunters brought back.

So Brown Cub grew up in that vast and wonderful forest, learning its ways and the ways of his people. When he became a man he received a new name and moved away, deeper into the forest, because change was in the air. Strangers were arriving in the dawnland.

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Some years later another boy lived by the river. When George Marsh was six years old his family moved into the fine brick house that his father had built on the land above the Ottaquechee. George loved the mountains and the great forest surrounding his house. He also loved to read. One day his mother found him under the kitchen table with his father's great book: "What are you doing there?" she asked. "I wanted to read Papa's encyclopedia," said George, "But I can't lift it up onto the table."

He read so much that by the time he was seven years old his eyes began to grow dim. The doctor forbade him to read - just imagine - what would he do? George's kind Papa took him out driving in the forest instead, telling him the names of all the trees and showing him how the water ran in different directions down from the top of the hill. It was called a watershed, and George never forgot that lesson.

After some time George's eyes grew stronger and he was able to read again. A very clever boy, he went away to college when he was only 16 and he grew up to write an important book about the ways in which people can look after the rivers the forests and the watersheds.

While George was growing up beside the Ottaquechee River, people began to cut down the trees in that endless forest. Some people said: "We need the wood to build houses for people to live in and railroad lines to join the east and west of the country together." Others said: "We need firewood for people in the big cities." And yet others said: "We need to clear the land for our sheep to graze so that we can sell their wool." The forest began to disappear as acre after acre of land was cleared of trees.

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About the time that George left his home to go to college another boy came to live in the town that was growing on the banks of the Ottaquechee. When Freddy Billings was twelve years old his family had to move to Woodstock. It was 15 miles from their old home. Mamma and Papa and the little children rode in a cart, and Freddy and his big brother were left to walk with the animals.

Big brother Charlie took the cow, of course. She was gentle and obedient and walked steadily down the toll road, pausing now and then to snatch a mouthful of tempting grass from the roadside. The pig, however, was a different matter. Poor Freddy! That darned pig ran backward and forward, in and out of the muddy ditches, in and out of the fields. What a dreadful time he had trying to get it to Woodstock! They were almost there when the pig stopped altogether, flopped down in the middle of the road and refused to budge. Freddy felt as if the whole world had stopped. Mopping his brow, he gazed up at the brick house on the land above the river and wondered what sort of boy might live in a fine house like that. There and then he made a promise to himself: "When I grow up, I'm not going to be poor!"

Freddy soon had a chance to find out what sort of boy lived in the fine brick house. There was only one school for boys in Woodstock, and it had no fixed home. It moved from place to place every year. One year it was in an old barn, one year in a church hall, one year in the schoolmaster's house. At this school Freddy made friends with Charles Marsh, who lived in the fine brick house on the land above the river. Charles was George's much younger brother, but no one knows if Freddy ever met George.

Studying hard, Freddy won a place at the University of Vermont and became a lawyer. He made a lot of money in California when gold was discovered there in 1849, not by digging for gold himself but by helping people figure out who owned which piece of land, and by building a magnificent office block.

When Freddy and his wife Julia moved back to Woodstock, he saw that at last he could make that promise to himself come true: he bought the very house on the hill that he had gazed up at when he arrived in the town as a muddy twelve year old driving a recalcitrant pig.

By this time nearly all the trees in the mighty forest had been cut down. The hills around Woodstock were bare and every time it rained, soil was washed away into the river. Rain water and snow melt flooded the valleys and the places where the fish laid their eggs were washed away. Freddy and his family decided to do something to put things right, so they began to plant thousands of trees on the hill. They planted fast growing trees to hold the soil in place and stop the floods, and slower growing trees to bring the mixed forest back to the land so that the wild creatures would have homes again. They also planted beautiful gardens, built greenhouses and set up a farm in the valley below with cows, pigs, sheep and chickens. From the rich milk of the Jersey cows they made butter to sell to people in the city of Boston.

The Marshes' old brick house was not big enough for the Billings family, so they built and built until it was no longer simply a fine brick house, but a stately mansion that stood on the land above the river.

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Freddy and Julia's seven children grew up in that mansion. While they were growing up, the forest was returning on Mount Tom and all over Vermont, some of it planted and some of it growing back naturally because people had stopped raising sheep and no longer needed cleared pastures. Stately maples, slender birches, elegant beech and sturdy pines once more began to clothe the Green Mountains.

The children of Mount Tom played on the lawns and wandered along the carriage roads their father Freddy had built in the forest. They swam in the mysterious pond at the top of the hill, watching out for the big snapping turtle that was said to live there.

When they were young, the children learned to love the land and as they grew up they learned to care for it, planting trees themselves and looking after the farm.

Now one of Freddy's granddaughters, a little girl called Mary, comes into the story. This little girl was born in 1910 and grew up in New York City. She spent summers in the mansion on the land above the river. How she loved that house, where she had the freedom to run across the lawns, through the flower gardens and up into the trees on Mount Tom! There was a swimming pool and a bowling alley and plenty of cousins to play with! On rainy days they explored the hidden corners of the huge wood-paneled attics, watching the lightning through the high gable windows.

Back in New York City Mary had a friend called Laurance. He was the middle one of five boys in the very wealthy Rockefeller family. The boys went traveling with their father to wonderful places in the far West. They went to Yellowstone where they saw the geysers shooting toward the sky; to Mesa Verde where they saw the fantastic ruins of villages that earlier people had built into the very walls of the cliffs; they went to Yosemite and the Grand Tetons where they trekked on horseback to gaze on the immense majestic mountains of the American West. Laurance's father bought many wonderful areas of land that he gave to the people of the United States as National Parks.

When they grew up, Laurance and Mary got married. In time, Mary became the owner of the mansion on the hill and the forest that her grandparents and aunts had replanted, so she and Laurance spent part of every summer there. They loved the house and the forest very much, and, as the end of their lives approached, they decided to give it not to their own children but to all the children, to all the people of the United States. They gave the mansion on the hill and the forest behind it to become a National Park.

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Because of Laurance and Mary's gift, children of today can visit the land above the Ottaquechee River to see Freddy's magnificent mansion and the forest his family replanted. If you look very carefully you may even find a tree old enough to have been growing here when Brown Cub roamed the forest.

And sometimes, of a summer evening when the mist is rising from the valley, if you were to sit quietly on the porch looking out towards the Ottaquechee River, a slight movement might catch your eye. Sitting very still, you might see seven girls and boys come laughing down the steps from the flower garden. As you watch, they are joined by a pale young boy wearing old-fashioned clothes and round glasses, then by a rosy grinning boy with a muddy face, throwing aside his pig-driving stick. And who is this hurrying across the lawn? Young Laurance and Mary! Taking hands around the great white pine tree, the children are joined by a slender brown-skinned boy in loincloth and moccasins, who slips silently from behind a bush. Smiling at one another they turn and beckon to you, child of the present day, to join them.

Together, standing beneath the tree, you can look up into its huge spreading branches; you can see the tall trees marching up the slope of Mount Tom and, looking around, you can see the once again forested slopes of the hills surrounding Woodstock. Cut down more than a hundred years ago, the trees have grown up again to hold the soil on the hills, to soak up the plentiful rainwater, and to create new soil as their leaves rot into the ground. And as they light up the hills in fall with the reds and golds of their glorious foliage, they tell us that although people may cause great damage, people can also repair that damage and restore the landscape to glory.