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Without appeal to authority I can fix the date by deduction. It was after things began to happen to me that I can remember, but before I started school. Therefore I was four years old and it was the winter, the Christmas, of 1931. Dates and other numbers aside, I recall the details very well, so well that recall is not exactly the right word. It's inadequate.
There are incidents in one's life—some large in terms of consequence, others in retrospect apparently trivial—that can be virtually re-created when the proper interior buttons are touched. These—these what, these phenomena of the past?—seem to retain sensual weight and quality. Colors, shapes, voices, faces, smells, tastes return as they once were, in arrangements and sequences they once had. The Christmas of 1931 is one of half a dozen such moments that exist for me in this peculiar area between simple memory and near spookery. My mother, father and I were living in a barely winterized summer cottage on the shore of a marshy Michigan lake about 10 miles south of Kalamazoo. I have only dim, disconnected memories of why we were there and what we were doing, but having often been told about it by those who are older, I have now a fairly accurate understanding of the events leading up to that winter and that Christmas.
For virtually everyone who remembers the early 1930s, the overwhelming event of those years, the one that still marks the entire decade, was the great Depression. My family, like most others, was caught in the awful economic storms, and though our lives were not so disastrously blighted as those of many, they were changed and disarranged. In the decade before I existed, my father had graduated from college as a botanist and landscape architect, an uncommon profession and one which I understand was then regarded by many, including his own father, as being essentially a frivolous one. However, in the flush times of the 1920s landscape architecture turned out to be a surprisingly good calling. Around Detroit there were a lot of tycoons and sub-tycoons and pseudo-tycoons who had done very well recently with the automobile and were anxious to display their good fortune publicly and ostentatiously. One conventional way of doing this was to create large estates vaguely modeled on ancient British country homes. Along with slate roofs, marble statuary and mahogany paneling, they wanted gentry-type grounds and gardens. But they did not want to wait a century or so for nature to do the job. Instead, they hired landscape architects to create for their new homes at least the illusion of old and deep roots.
Many years later, when times were somewhat better, my father and I drove from Kalamazoo to Detroit to take in a Tiger-Yankee doubleheader. On our way to Detroit we made a detour through what had been the heart of the exurban estate country. We stopped at one overgrown property on which the only completed structure was an imposing gatehouse. Near it, crowded by scrub sassafras and sumac, was a magnificent copper beech. My father looked it over and told me how it came to be there, though he may have been talking as much to himself as to me. Indicating the property with a nod, he said, "The owner had a kind of majordomo who was in charge here. The spring and summer we worked here, the owner was living in some kind of palace in Italy. The majordomo looked over our plans and said they were fine, but he said when the owner came back in the fall he would want to see mature plantings, not young stuff that had to grow. I found this beech—must have been 30 feet tall then—in an old nursery on the other side of Detroit. We dug it up with excavating equipment, balled it and put it on a big flatbed. The majordomo pulled strings and got some power lines temporarily raised. We brought it from the nursery to the estate around two in the morning, with a police escort. The bill for that one tree was almost $3,000. We never did get paid."
That tycoon and a lot of others like him did not pay, probably did not even come back to their unfinished estates that fall, which must have been 1929. One of the first orders they gave to their majordomos was to stop buying boxwood mazes, yew hedges and $3,000 copper beeches. Few professions could have been as vulnerable to the Depression as landscape architecture. Almost instantly my father's training and talent had no market value, and he had little choice but to retreat from the city, from the estate country. At least he, and by then we, had a place to retreat to in the southwestern Michigan countryside from which he had come a decade earlier. Caught up in the euphoric, cost-be-damned spirit of the '20s, my grandfather had purchased most of the eastern shore of a mile-long, weedy lake. His plan had been to create what is now called a recreational community—put in some facilities for warm-weather fun and games that would entice people to buy lots along the lake and build summer homes. After 1929 most people were not much interested in a second home because they were often hard-pressed to keep their first one. Beyond a lot of subdivision stakes hidden in the uncleared thickets, all that had come of this grand scheme were half a dozen cottages—three of which were occupied by members of our family—and behind them a pretty nine-hole golf course that my father had designed during the plush times more or less as an experimental exercise. Later, when he was again able to practice his profession, building golf courses became one of his specialties.
It was to this place, itself a monument to the dislocation of the Depression, that various members of our extended family came in 1930 to weather the hard times. My father acted as greenkeeper for the golf course and, on the rare occasions when there was any demand, as a self-ordained golf professional. My mother and assorted aunts collected fees and sold concessions in what was pretentiously called the clubhouse. (It was in fact a one-room cabin which, if the resort scheme had materialized, would have been the caddie shack.) The clubhouse crew was seldom overwhelmed by business. Greens fees were 50� for nine holes, 75� for all-day play, but even so business was slow. I remember how slow because as I grew older I would hang around waiting for players, either to sell them golf balls I had found on the course or hoping, usually without gratification, that one of them might want a caddie. My mother recalls things more statistically. "Usually we took in less than $50 a week," she says, "but there was a Fourth of July weekend, probably in 1932 or 1933, when we made $102. I can remember sitting around in the afternoon hoping to go over a hundred. Just after supper two foursomes showed up, and that put us over. It was like winning the lottery."
Although $50 a week was not an inconsiderable sum in those difficult times, the golf course produced such income only during the three or four warm-weather months. And from that income, maintenance expenses (not many, because labor, contributed by members of the family, was not counted) had to be deducted before what was left could be divvied up among all the relatives. There were a lot of other small money-making or money-substitute projects. A large communal garden was planted between the caddie shack and the 9th green and this provided us with most of our vegetables. A swatch of rough along the 5th and 6th fairways was fenced off for sheep, although not very efficiently because the Judas goat was forever escaping to roam about the course begging tobacco from golfers and, occasionally, butting them when they did not come across. Once a week or so someone not otherwise engaged would row out on the lake and—for sport and dinner—come back with a mixed bucket of bass, bluegills and bullheads. The adjacent marshes were full of big bullfrogs which, later on, a young uncle showed me how to gig, as well as how to dress out the legs. There were lots of squirrels and rabbits, occasional pheasants and rarely a deer or, as it was thought of then, venison. A chicken yard was the most dependable source of more or less free protein.
We were more fortunate than many in having considerable land to work and forage, but there was a chronic shortage of money for everything from tractor parts to electricity, things that could not be grown, found or caught. Very occasionally someone like a bread manufacturer, a coal distributor or a physician, more immune than most to the Depression, would commission my father to do a small landscaping job. To cut costs he searched out and used wild species and materials. Years later, when he was designing large and much-admired private and public landscapes, his use—out of preference then rather than necessity—of wild trees, shrubs and flowers became a professional trademark.
In the winter he cut wood, mostly oak that grew abundantly around the golf course. The cottage was heated with this wood, and sometimes he could sell it—at $3.50 a cord, $5 delivered. As anyone who has cut down a cord of firewood, dragged it in, sawed it up, split it and ranked it knows, this is a very small return for a lot of labor, but this was a buyer's market, there being a lot more oak and a lot more people who had the time to cut it than there was money in southern Michigan. He also trapped the marshes, getting mostly muskrats but always hoping for a then-rare mink. This was wetter and colder work than woodcutting and not much more lucrative, for much the same reasons. Many more people could go out and catch furbearers than could afford to buy fur coats. It took seven or eight muskrat pelts to equal a cord of wood. One mink pelt would do it, but even a good trapper was lucky to get two or three mink a winter in those marshes.
All of this—having his profession vanish, being reduced to doing odd jobs to scrape together four or five dollars a day, never knowing, no matter what he did, when and if conditions would improve—must, I can understand now, have been a gut-wrenching experience for my father. We talked about it only once directly, and that was long after it was over. A war had been fought and good times had returned. People were again hiring landscape architects. He had an office, with draftsmen and a secretary, at which I stopped by during a college vacation. I asked if I could use the cottage (which long before had reverted to summer-only use) for a New Year's Eve party, and we got to talking about the winters when that had been our only home.