When I was young my best friend and I would ride our bikes to the small area of woods still left in the ever-expanding suburb where we lived. We’d discovered the remains of an old log cabin in that spot and were captivated by it. We dug among bits of paper, broken plates, scraps of cloth and other things left behind, trying to imagine the lives of the people who had once lived there.

Our world is inhabited by ghosts, all those who have been here before us. If we are lucky, the structures they once lived in remain. Deciphering what’s left is the work of amateur archeologists, but informal and intimate. Walking in the woods of Waldo County, I’ve often come upon old foundations, stone walls, crooked apple trees planted long ago. Sometimes these are places I’ve heard about, places that were once part of busy communities that succumbed to changes in commerce or politics or roads. But more often they are puzzles, abandoned homes with intriguing clues glistening in sunlight.

When I moved away from the farmhouse where I once lived in Ripley, the house was in need of a new roof, among other things. That was 1980 and since then it has fallen to ruin, slowly collapsing back into the land. My son and I have visited it several times, venturing through a maze of Japanese knotweed and burdocks, broken boards and disintegrating walls to get inside. Scraps remain. A child’s drawing stuck to the wall. A stainless steel sink. A rusted wood furnace. I don’t need to guess at these stories. I know them.

In this poem Kate Barnes reflects on such a find. Kate was Maine’s first poet laureate. The daughter of Henry Beston and Elizabeth Coatsworth, she spent summers in Maine as a child and eventually returned here, to Appleton Ridge, in the early 1980s. Her poems are full of horses, dogs and love for the world around her. This poem comes from her book, “Where the Deer Were,” published in 1994 by David R. Godine. Kate died at Harbor Hill in Belfast in 2013. You can read more about her at https://directcremationofmaine.com/tribute/details/13964/Catherine-Barnes/obituary.html.

The Stairs

Midway on the overgrown wood road,

a farmhouse used to stand.

It has fallen down.

Nothing is left there but the stairs

going up in the air by themselves.

Today, at the end of September,

the yellow maple leaves drift sideways

and gather on the sagging steps

once worn by so many footfalls

but now abandoned like ancient tribesmen

left behind on the bank of a river

they could no longer cross.

A Micmac sorcerer

said the gods lived in the air,

a little higher than the trees. Perhaps

that’s still true. Perhaps it was here

that a man lay with his head on a stone

watching the angels

climbing the stairs as clouds do

on a rising wind, as the winter stars

pause one moment on the black edge

of the sky — and then step upward.

Judy Kaber is Belfast’s poet laureate.

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