A Home Place Provides an Escape Hatch

Times Staff Writer

At least once each year my wife and I try to get back to the East Coast to tend our trees in another Orange County, this one in North Carolina, just south of the Virginia state line. Over the last 10 peripatetic years I’ve come to see these 20 acres in the country as psychic insurance, a home place where, in the frequently quoted words of Robert Frost, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

This kind of looking back over your shoulder is typical, I’m told, of the first few years in Southern California. Like many who have come from the East for economic opportunity and professional advancement, we hedge our bet, preserving a back door, an escape hatch in case things don’t work out.

North Carolina’s Orange County is a lot different from this one. There is plenty of moisture in the air and, if you look in the right direction, it is green as far as the eye can see, year-round. Driving the country roads, it is possible to see in the plowed fields on either side the exact point where the red clay of the Piedmont gives way to the sandy brown soil of the coastal plain. When it rains it pours, and when the sun shines it is clear.


There are no orange groves, but our little trees--apple, cherry and peach so far, plus a row of white pine saplings--have become a kind of talisman for us. On each trip back from our wide-ranging travels we are always a bit anxious the first time we turn onto the long gravel driveway, not knowing how many of them have survived. They are a living link to the land, a pledge that we intend to return one day, if only to rock on the front porch of a retirement home.

We weed, prune, mulch and rake. In the Yucatan last year I bought a machete to clear new areas for planting, only to discover that the fish-line “weed eater” is considerably more efficient. We put in tall wooden stakes, plastic trunk guards and chicken wire in hopes of protecting the trees during our lengthy absences. And each year, we plant a few more, just in case. Whenever a drought hits the Southeast we depend on the kindness of our neighbors to keep them alive.

‘Stay Out of It’

Frankly, I’m a little surprised at how important this ritual has become. I was raised in the suburbs of New Jersey, where the First Law of the Wilderness was “stay out of it,” and the closest I ever came to planting a tree involved sending five dollars to Israel. My wife was a corporation kid, bouncing around from coast to coast, never in one place long enough to put down roots.

The land purchase was made in 1975 by five college friends from the ‘60s--three single men and a couple with a child--all firm in their belief that North Carolina would always be home. It is a long field, surrounded by evergreens, bordered by a stream. We were so convinced that we would be close friends forever that the partnership agreement we reluctantly drew was, as our parents pointed out, laughably sketchy.

None of us could afford the land, even at the dirt-cheap price, but somehow we made the payments and invested more to make the acreage livable. First came an unpaved driveway, then a well, phone and power lines. Septic fields, foundations, and--gradually--houses. Only the lot where our house will be remains vacant.

Notwithstanding, when it came time to marry, I wanted to have the ceremony in our field. Several nights before the wedding we planted the first fruit tree, a gift, by car headlights. As it turned out, the wedding was probably the last occasion when all of the partners gathered under happy circumstances.


Legal Tangle

Friends do grow older and apart, and they fall in love with people who are not necessarily friends. By 1983, with one partner (me) in China and a second in West Africa, a third was demanding to be bought out in a vain attempt to save a crumbling relationship. Recriminations were exchanged; lawyers were consulted.

There have been other changes as well in our old Carolina home.

Nearby Durham, where we were all undergraduates together, bears a startling resemblance to the city depicted in last season’s short-lived television series “Hometown,” which was itself a clone of the movie “The Big Chill.” One of our Duke University classmates is the newly elected mayor, several others form part of the City Council majority coalition and our old college president is the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate.

Yet visiting only once a year, we’re acutely aware that what was once a community of similarly minded--if not completely like-minded--veterans of the 1960s is not immune from the pre-middle-age angst afflicting many members of the Baby Boom generation throughout the country. More than a dozen contemporaries have started successful small businesses in town and some of the old comrades are having more difficulty dealing with success and affluence than they did with poverty.

According to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and several national magazines, Durham is primed for “a major economic takeoff.” Although modest by Southern California standards, commercial and residential gentrification has begun to change the face of what was once a charmingly gritty factory town which barely suffered the presence of several colleges. Tobacco warehouses have been transformed into trendy shopping centers and condominiums and textile factories have been gutted to be made over into apartment complexes. There is even a modest downtown expressway.

Road to Progress

This prosperity is making some people rich, and others uncomfortable. Country roads are getting paved as upscale housing developments and shopping malls take large bites out of woods and farmland. Twenty-five miles upwind of Durham and our trees, a gigantic nuclear power plant is about to go on line.

By now the chigger bites and blisters are beginning to fade, although the ink is still wet on our latest check to the partnership for maintenance. There’s no guarantee that when (if) we ever make it back to North Carolina to savor our fruit, the home place we find will be recognizable, or whether we’ll be able to see the forest for the 7-Elevens. Where there is plenty of moisture, there is also sometimes mildew.