The Gray Farm is a residential development of about seventy-five houses in south-east Princeton, N.J. It is bounded on the west by South Harrison Street, on the south by Lake Carnegie, and on the north and east by a lengthy curve of Hartley Avenue—my street. In the center of the tract, running from Hartley to the lake, are many acres of dedicated green space called the Common Land: open fields and pathed woods.
The Gray Farm was developed around 1960 by the authorities at Princeton University as an imaginative way to allow faculty, whose salaries at that time could rarely gain them entry to the town’s commercial housing market, to build their own houses. Certain restrictions applied, naturally, the chief of which involved eligibility and resale: only tenured faculty and certain administration could participate, and when they eventually sold they must sell back to the University. The original Gray Farmers rightly regarded themselves as pioneers of a kind, and they shared a strong feeling of community expressed through a neighborhood association so active as to have about it something of the whiff of a 60s commune. The Grounds Committee—charged with maintaining and beautifying the Common Land for the enjoyment of all residents—was among the most active.
Utopian communities are notoriously short-lived, and the neighborhood association (the “Gray Farm Neighbors”) had already lost much of its original ardor when we took up residence in 1988. By now it has slightly the air of the last days of the Venetian Republic. Practically all the founders are dead or scattered in retirement communities. In changed circumstances the original economic rationale of the Gray Farm no longer obtains. Many of the original houses have been torn down, replaced by grander piles whose inhabitants often do not even join the “Neighbors”. We do have an annual meeting, but with only about a quarter of the residential families represented. What I regard as the Gray Farm’s greatest asset—the beautiful woodland and lakeside paths of the Common Land—are seriously under-utlilized.
But the Grounds Committee continues to exist. I have been its chair for many years. I now have but one regular helper—a woman not too much younger than I—and we have a half-day community work party once a year, for which perhaps twenty people will show up armed with secateurs and pruning saws. The University mows the open fields in the summer, but we are largely on our own in managing the woods, making new plantings, keeping up the paths, and so on. I have sometimes felt rather lonely in my role as groundsman and, truth requires me to confess, a little unappreciated. Not any more.
About ten days ago I was working on my firewood piles when two neighbors came walking toward me through the common ground. One of them was the President of the Gray Farm Neighbors, and he carried before him, in semi-liturgical fashion, a brightly wrapped package. I was amazed to hear that it was a neighborly gift offered to me in appreciation of my alleged services over the years as Chairman of the Grounds Committee. My wife also materialized about the same time—she of course having been in the plot all along–and we all moved into the back yard and sat for a moment on the lawn furniture, not yet abandoned to its winter mothballs. There I was urged to open the package.
It turned out to contain a handsome L. L. Bean flannel work shirt in bright plaid. I do my own shirt shopping at the Saint Peter’s Thrift Shop, where one can occasionally find such a quality item, though only if seasoned by a few years of pre-ownership. So I was delighted. Still, my benefactors urged me to look more closely. Only then did I note that peeping out the shirt pocket was a small envelope. Upon investigation the envelope proved to contain two tickets for excellent seats for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for Wednesday night, a week ago today.
Good seats at the Met are not cheap. Putting that in a slightly different way, they are very expensive. The luxury of the evening, already in excess of our sumptuary habits, was further augmented by the provision of a car and driver who whisked us home after the three-and-a-half hour performance. But the munificence of this astonishing gift from friends and neighbors lay as much in its imagination as in its material.
The Met’s production is mounted in part to mark the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth in 1913. Perhaps someone among my neighbors had read my essay of two years past (“East Anglian Church Crawl”), in which I waxed enthusiastic over a tour of “Britten country” in and around Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Be that as it may, the subject of Shakespeare’s immortal play is magic in the woods. It is tonally complicated, for the fairy world is not without its dark side. The teasing of Bottom is deployed along a kind of ethical razor’s edge. Britten’s beautiful music fully honors the complexity, affirming the moonlit enchantment without entirely avoiding its anxieties. One of Shakespeare’s themes is the evanescence of dreams, often beautiful but always fugitive. The official setting of the play is supposed to be Athens, but the sylvan landscape seems much more like those of the south of England or the eastern seaboard of the United States.
The current project of the Grounds Committee is bulb-planting. I want to get a thousand more daffodils into the Common Land by Thanksgiving. In the autumn of the year, in the autumn of a life, this seems a worthy aim. The bulbs promise a brave show in another season.