Drawing at the Edge of History

The Negus house was built around 1737, abandoned by 1815, taken over by the forest shortly after that. Four generations lived, farmed, and died here. The lilacs still grow around the doorway, what's left of it.

Oh the chimney’s fallen down and the roof’s all caved in
Lettin’ in the sunshine and the rain
And the only friend I’ve got now is that good old dog of mine
And the little old log cabin in the lane

____”Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”, Will S. Hays, 1871

Along a forest path a few miles from here is the long-abandoned cellar hole of the Negus family home. It’s a little hard to find: the little country lane meanders through deep woods, unconnected to anything, and the house foundation is just barely visible through the rampant vegetation. If you follow the stone walls they’ll lead you on a pine-sprouted roadbed; if you look alongside the walls you’ll see ancient sugar maples planted by an 18th century farmer’s hand. As you pick your way through the brush, search for a giant multi-branched pine revealing the location of what once was a field. It’s now surrounded by tall straight hardwoods and younger pines, but it got into that fabulous shape by first growing out in the open where it had plenty of room to spread.

Pasture Pine, aka "Wolf Pine", a dead giveaway that this piece of forest was once a pasture.

Today I’m pushing my way through thickets of mountain laurel and waist-high ferns; under the shady canopy of tall oak, ash, and maple I gingerly ford a swampy creek on cushions of damp moss, finally reaching the spot where, early in the 18th century, William Negus and his wife Persis cleared the stony land and built a house. Here they farmed, raised 10 children, and found time to plant lilacs by the door.

The Negus lilacs, right beside what would have been the front door.
A corner of the Negus cellar hole; I'm drawing while perched on the crumbling mound of the old chimney-stack.

A lot happened here over four generations. Great-grandchildren Nathan and Caroline Negus would grow up to be wonderful, notable artists (Caroline painted portraits, including those of Bronson Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson). And one terrible day in 1797, William’s grandson Joseph, age 14, was dealt a mortal blow by his sister Mary, age 15, in a freak accident – an accident involving horseplay and a sharp scythe.

I’ve been here drawing to the tune of a hermit thrush. What lovely, haunting music to sketch by.

A big thank-you to the Petersham Historical Society, which has been sharing the Negus family historical material with me- and a special thanks to Bob Clark of the PHS, who somehow remembered how to find this place, and led me to it.

Department of Corrections: Caroline Negus didn’t live at this site; the family had moved to another house in Petersham by the time she was born. Nathan lived here until he was around seven years old. Mary Negus was 12, not 15, when she dealt her brother Joseph Jr. the mortal blow with the scythe. He was either 14 or 15 years old- the record is a bit hazy. The Motmot regrets the errors.

12 thoughts on “Drawing at the Edge of History

  1. Stefanie Graves says:

    Oh, thank you for this, especially for the hermit thrush. I’d never have known what bird that was but it was so haunting to listen to. And now I know, though I don’t know whether they haunt the woods here in Western KY. Love the drawing. I could fall deep and deep into that.

  2. Dean Bandes says:

    From the phrase “wolf pine” I would guess you’ve read _Reading the Forested Landscape_. If not, I highly recommend it. I think the author is Wessels. It talks about exactly that kind of thing, “dead giveaway that this was once pasture,” or that there was once a fire here, etc.

  3. zeladoniac says:

    Dean- yes- I have that book, and another one by Tom Wessels: Forest Forensics: a Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape. Both excellent. A walk in the woods is much more interesting when you have an idea of what happened there, way back when.

    “Wolf Tree”; a great phrase.

  4. Laura says:

    I loved the photo of your work space among the ferns. I imagine myself sitting drawing there, but then I start itching. Just imagining the scene makes me think of all the mosquitoes and I’d be doing more swatting that sketching. How do you handle that?

  5. zeladoniac says:

    I’m wearing insect shield clothes that actually seem to work. The ticks are staying off, and the mosquitoes don’t like me much, either. Otherwise, yes, it would be bug city, and very itchy. The clothes are made by Exofficio and I got them from L.L.Bean. Not cheap but worth every penny.

  6. Artful abuela says:

    magnificent, multisesoral post with lovely and informative comments from your readers! i felt lke i was there in those beautiful surroundings. what talent for art and for sharing your world. thank you.

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