It’s weird, every other time I’ve come to a new place and stayed it’s been in the summer or the fall—not counting ski trips, I’ve never been anywhere for the first time in the snow. So now I’m finding out all sorts of things about this campus that I never knew, because they were under the snow.
For example, the open area out near the back of the barn isn't a clearing, it's a pond. It’s not open water yet, but I noticed that grass was appearing from under the snow everywhere else and not there, so I got curious, braved the mud, and walked out. And it’s a pond.
And the roads aren't paved. The campus roads weren't plowed, they just packed the snow down and added gravel and sawdust for traction, but I'd always thought there was pavement under there. Instead, it's just gravel and little chunks of crushed cinder block. Of course, the roads are melting slowly, because the snow is packed, but there are a few open patches.
In the open patches of road I’m seeing, here and there, pieces of broken asphalt, just crumbs, little chunks, so obviously the roads were paved at some point. I asked about this, and apparently when this school moved in the campus was s dilapidated, but fairly standard, boys’ private boarding school. There was a school building, several free-standing dorms, a gym, an athletic field…the place had been abandoned for five years, and some of the dorms had been closed even before that, as enrollment dropped, so everything was grown over and moldy and starting to fall to ruin. The top floor of the Mansion had even burned in a lighting-struck fire. So, when our school came in they had a lot of fixing up to do, and they simply razed the buildings they didn’t need. They unpaved the roads, rehabilitated the ground in the athletic fields and turned it into our farm, and apparently spread the cinderblock and concrete pads in chucks to gravel the roads.
It’s interesting that there were obviously cinderblock buildings here, apparently a lot of them, but there are none here now. Presumably the better-built buildings survived abandonment better, and given the choice between saving the Mansion and saving a cinder-block dorm, I’d save the Mansion. It’s a beautiful building. But, and I’ve thought of this, a parent coming up the hill of the main driveway would not have seen cinderblock buildings first. They would have seen the Mansion and, coming a little closer, would have seen Chapel Hall, which is weirdly imposing and, as I noticed my first day, looks vaguely collegiate, being brick with ornate white trim. But they would not have noticed any cinderblock buildings. If all the buildings were where I think they were, the more cheaply constructed places would have been either out of the immediate line of sight, hidden by trees, or behind Chapel Hall. I never thought about it before, but a private school has to appeal to parents, or their source of revenue dries up. I don’t suppose the business plan required being honest about how students actually live.
The message of the campus now is very different, if there even is an intended message. Strangers come here so very rarely. I used to work at a landscaper’s when I was in high school, so I notice landscaping, and the campus is definitely planned, but it’s hardly manicured. Again, there are layers of history—avenues of old trees lining the long driveways and an orchard of apples, pears, and peaches must go back to the farm. Foundation plantings of shrubs and specimen trees must date to the boarding school, because they are associated with buildings that are. But the straight lines and clean plantings are all either added to or interrupted. Nothing here is straight, nothing looks cleaned up. Most of the plants look kind of odd, maybe they’re species I’m not used to, or something, I can’t tell. It looked kind of normal and sedate under the snow, and I imagine it must be riotously exuberant in the summer, with the grass and flowers waving in the pastures and everything green, but at the moment winter-bare trees and shrubs reach their crooked twig-fingers out from wild hollows across the mud and rotten, slushy snow of spring, and it looks kind of Grimm.
There’s so much history here, not that I know most of it, but I can see the shadows of former incarnations of this place. Like the chunks of cinderblock and asphalt from the boys’ boarding school, or the big, flat place on the front lawn—I mean, pasture—a big square, with a short, steep embankment on one side where it rises to meet the more normal-looking land in front of the Mansion, and a longer, equally steep embankment where the ground falls off to meet the natural slope on the other side. There must have been a building there, long ago. Perhaps it was a barn, back when this was a wealthy horse farm?
And when I say the ground floor of the Mansion is traditional, I mean it is traditional in mood and in a kind of general overview, but not in detail. The Great Hall is all honey-colored wood paneling, with a grand staircase winding up and around an open, vertical well of dusty, sunlit space rising three stories up to a skylight in the floor of a patio the masters have up there. It looks like a good place to host a ball. There’s a sunroom, called the Green Room, off to one side full of plants and white wicker chairs and a little fountain with fish in the basin. Except that the fountain is solar-powered, it looks rather Victorian. The Rose Room, where we have some of our seminars and things, is basically a sitting room, with rose-colored wallpaper and lots of dried flowers—except the pictures on the walls are all antique-looking drawings (and even photographs!) of fairies and imaginary animals. The Bird Room, next to it, is a formal dining hall all in dark wood and glass display cases, but most of the display cases hold, not china, but huge dead insects and spiders, mounted and pinned. Fossil shells, crystals, and fans of feathers take up space. Eggs of exotic birds collect dust on their mottled shells. Taxidermied birds—a raven, an egret, a gannet—and the mounted skeletons of a hawk and a chicken all regard each other from the tops of shelves and ancient writing desks. They’re all labeled, or I wouldn’t know what they are, and I’m sure none of them except the chicken are new. The whole thing looks, again, Victorian, but slightly askew. There’s a bench along the window, and you can sit there and look out into an almost Japanese-looking garden where copper-roofed bird-feeders in the shape of pagodas attract real, live birds. Entirely modern binoculars, two pairs, hang from wrought-iron hooks by the windows, and they are so powerful you can sit there and find out if birds have nose-hairs, if you want to.
Sometimes, in the Mansion, you can hear voices, or people moving, near the stairwell, and nobody is there.
It’s ten days till spring, or mid-spring, the way Kit says it, since she says spring actually began in February, at Brigid, under all that snow. I don’t know what they do here for the spring equinox, but I know enough to guess that they’re going to do something. But you know what? I’m seven years older than Kayla, I can vote, and Meg lets me drink even if the law doesn’t, but there’s still enough of the boy in me that I’m really hoping that on the equinox we’ll get chocolate.
[Next Post: Friday, March 15th: Interlude]