Paths and gates

Published 9:37 am Saturday, November 29, 2014

by Archie Howell

An unpaved, sometimes graded, sometimes not, path leads from the road to our yard. Mostly not. At the entrance, the path splits, one branch leads to a front gate of our farm lot. The other veers slightly to the left and leads to our house. A large, worn area close by a side chimney is used for parking. A circular path leads from this area down a slight hill and joins the lot path so vehicles parked at the house can drive off in a circle and not have to back up. Convenient.

A lesser used area leads up to the front porch. It’s just a barely visible change from our routine parking area, but relatives and friends use it to keep the regular pathway open for traffic. It’s a parking spot, not a path.

Paths lead to every field and work area of our farm. Some are used routinely, some on rare occasions. Each proclaims that someone or something has visited this place or that before and will probably have some use for access again in the future. Permanent fences have gates at points of access. Frequency of use is sometimes indicated by the quality of the gate. Some gates in temporary fences are nothing more than a short section of fencing wire attached to a board or “pea stick.” A simple wire loop fastens the stick to an adjacent temporary post.

In our downhill pastures, gates oppose one another across the road that bisects our farm. Sometimes we stop traffic for a short time in order to move cows from one field to another. Nobody minds the slight inconvenience; it is recognized as a normal part of life in this agrarian community. The paths on each side of the road seem to be enough to guide the herd.

Trying to move hogs in the same manner would be disastrous. Hogs need a more definitive boundary. I don’t know if it’s their eyesight or temperament, but hogs rarely move in the desired direction voluntarily. It’s usually a noisy, furtive operation with much human/hog interaction. Hogs are insensitive to defined paths; I think sometimes that it’s on purpose, to exert their will over their human wranglers.

In our farm lot, the main entry path splits into several well used parts. An immediate right turn leads to a side pasture along the drainage ditch. A little further along, a right branch leads across the ditch, up the low hill, to our vegetable garden alongside a large pine tree. The pine tree provides a little shade for summer days. Pine trees are not generally welcome in crop areas; this one is massive and vegetable rows start a considerable distance from the trunk. Garden workers welcome shade of any kind from summer sun.

The large central area of the lot anchors several lesser paths, one through two gates to a side pasture, one down at the end of the long barn that leads to the fields on a back hill, and splits to cross a small branch to other fields and the Nottoway swamp area. Most farm activities start out in the central lot and move to the work of the day through gates and down paths. Equipment is stored either in the open or under shelters built on either side of the square barn.

Our horses and mule know the routine and plod along most paths without guidance. Farm work animals need basic commands, but not much else. Our stock is fairly gentle and well behaved. Some of my family are not.

One path less used than others connects a back field with a hidden field through a short stretch of woods. It’s the only woods path on our farm and it’s an unexpected pleasure when I’m permitted to tag along on days when that field is visited. It’s also a path to a deeper part of the woods on a hill top where deer can be found regularly. Deer and other animals create a path alongside boundary fences; all are funneled into the sights of a waiting hunter. Wild game finds its way to our table regularly.

A path connects our back door to the water well, another to the woodshed. A path leads to our boat at Shady Brook. Paths lead to our relatives houses at Walters and Charlie’s Hope. Paths connect our lives to other lives.

A path leads from our back door, slightly downhill, between the sycamore trees, angles a little left, turns right at the end of the woodshed and stops a short walk later at the door of our outhouse. It’s a two way path, used by everyone in our household routinely. The “little house” is the brunt of many jokes and elicits a smile from most folks when it’s mentioned in conversation, but it is a necessary part of most farmsteads in our neighborhood. A Sears Roebuck catalog is usually a part of the dialog.

Paths are a natural record of our comings and goings, of our life. Paths are our history, some well recorded and maintained and some allowed, through disuse, to almost disappear back into the earth. visible only with close scrutiny. Some gates are closed and abandoned, their purpose long since forgotten. I pause at gates, curious as to where the path leads.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at