Snowy Farmstead in the Big City

Only this afternoon I was tramping through snow covered hills and steep woods in Western Massachusetts…

Sounds of a sparkling creek deep in the valley rose up, ricocheted off tree bark and splintered into sunlight. We came upon an old, clapboard house in a clearing at the top of a hill. A beautiful, solitary house attended by a huge, bare tree that sent broken branches crackling high up into the cold, blue sky. A lichen-covered stone property wall stood like an ancient megalith.

Cross-country skis had crisscrossed the un-ploughed, narrow road that passes by but there were no footprints approaching the house. We ventured forward, crunching unmarked snow to peer inside, eyes just above windowsill height. There, a collection of spare rooms with low ceilings. Finely crafted and painted, wood fireplace mantels glowed with light reflecting from snow – a Wyeth watercolor in whites and grays. Through the glass, a winter still life in three dimensions, a museum diorama of a real life lived.

I was told the owner, an investment banker, retired to this generational, family homestead to live on the remnants of farmland. He had retreated to his dream and died one day, seated at the table sharpening his tools, happily fulfilled. The house is mostly abandoned now but still in the family. Apparently, they refuse to sell.

Bursting into a run to catch the train back to Pennsylvania I hop, breathlessly, aboard. Moments later, the Massachusetts woods are but a memory packed in my hand luggage as the train pulls away from the station. I settle into the din of cell phone conversations, and languages mingling in the air with the un-mistakably tangy odor of someone’s boxed Amtrak dinner. The pleasantly efficient train conductor in his distinctly Spanish accent makes his rounds as the train clacks and whistles into the night…

The intercom sputters, “Ladies and gentlemen, please sign the upper left hand corner of your ticket. Please remove all personal belongings next to you and place them on the overhead racks. One seat per customer. We have a full train tonight.”

“Pheeladelphia?” the conductor checks in with a smile, “Enjoy the rest of your journey!”

Parading lights, buildings and bridges of the New York City skyline pass by in a tableau as the new World Trade Towers under construction seem to slowly lift an elegant, prismatic finger to all who would dare cross us.

“Trees in Winter”

Joseph G. Brin © 2012

The farmhouse, back on that snowy hill in Massachusetts, sits quietly under the stars now, I presume. There’s no electricity there, no streetlights – fields roll into a phosphorescent sea.

I wonder what that investment banker thought about the trajectory of his life as he roamed the farmstead “getting away from it all?” I wonder what he would have done if he had been given the chance to do it all over again? I wonder if the spiritual comfort he sought on the hill was unattainable in the Big City or if big cities can be designed to provide inner peace, too?

When day breaks in Philadelphia maybe I’ll unpack that memory of the snowy farmstead – and see my city in a new light.

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and teacher based in Philadelphia, PA. He is writing a graphic novel on Al Capone to be published on Kindle.

Brin’s fine art rowing poster site: Art and strategic design for a bully-free Philadelphia (“B. Free.”) (

Twitter: @AncientGlass

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