Published November 1, 2012. From Cook's Illustrated.
I was recently given a book titled Vermont Is Where You Find It. Full-page black-and-white photos face off against simple snippets of conversation on the opposite page. One of my favorites is, “Did you ever find the horse that everybody’s been looking for?” The answer: “I thought if I was a horse where would I go and I went and he had!” I also liked, “Hey, you, how do I get to the Plattsburg Ferry?” The reply was, “If I was going to the Plattsburg Ferry, I wouldn’t start from here.” The last conversation was, “How far is it to Fairfax?” “Dunno.” “Does this road go to Fairfax?” “Dunno.” “Say, you don’t know much, do you?” “Nope . . . but I ain’t lost!”
I found myself picking up the book over and over again, looking at the photos, and rereading the bits of humor. Did I describe the book? Well, it’s 7 by 9 inches; it’s thin, just 120 pages; and it’s hardbound with a faded barn-red cloth cover. Like Vermont, it’s unassuming.
I soon realized that the book had captured the essence of Vermont: Make a life from just what you need. The clothes are sensible, the farm equipment is old and just good enough to get the job done, and the houses are white clapboard, with higgledy-piggledy additions added only when a family has grown beyond the four walls. A Vermont landscape slowly develops into a perfectly natural state, groomed by cows and horses, tilled, seeded, and harvested to produce winter fodder, and houses are placed in practical spots, near a road and not high up on a mountainside since Vermonters never look out a window to admire the view. (That’s because they are outside all day in the middle of the view.) Barns, sheds, henhouses, and sugar shacks are all located near the back porch so it’s easy to do chores. Large maples line up next to stone walls since the meadows in between are meant for grazing. Every bit of landscape is there for a purpose, because it’s useful, or has finally outlived its purpose, at which point the tractor or harrow is left to rust at the exact spot where it broke down.
The same can be said for conversation in Vermont; why use 10 words when five will do? Calvin Coolidge was once introduced with a long oratory regarding the virtues of a sturdy oak walking stick that was to be presented to the president as he came to the podium. When the speech was over, he rose, accepted the gift, looked at it for a few seconds, and said firmly, “Ash.” One word was sufficient. Economy of words is a lost virtue.
The images come one after another: a bearded old-timer whittling a stick, his cap tilted back and off to one side; another wearing a banded fedora in a rocker, reading the Burpee catalog. Kids and dogs around the water pump, in the backs of wagons, and on the front porch of the country store. A Gloucestershire Old Spot sow with a litter of piglets. Farmer Johns, work jackets frayed at the cuffs, hats with earflaps, and tall rubber boots half-laced. An older man in a wool three-piece suit with a weathered, contemplative face. Flatbed wagons pulled by teams with towering mounds of loose hay. A bend in the dirt road, skirting around a 200-year-old maple; a road twisting down out of the hills toward a town in a distant valley; a dust cloud on a dry, dirt road from a horse pulling a dogcart; and a hot, summer road ending in a covered bridge. Dumpling women with flower-print dresses and wire-rimmed spectacles sewing patchwork comforters. White churches and white marble tombstones. Snow-dusted yards, dented sap buckets, piles of rough kindling, and axes held in midair. Barns attached to houses, carriage barns, horse barns, and three-story barns. Corn being shucked, cows being milked, and logs being sawn with two-man crosscut saws.
The book asks, “What’s he talkin’ about?” The answer is, “He don’t say.” And one about sheep: “Nice lot of sheep up there on the hill . . . ’bout ready for shearin’, too.” The response: “Appears so . . . from this side.”
Then, all of a sudden, I realized my mistake. Old-time Vermonters didn’t own anything. Things were borrowed to make a living: a maple tree, a horse team, a wagon, or a water pump. The objects in those landscapes owned themselves: the trees, the dogs, the cows, the pastures, and the winding roads. What old-time Vermonters needed to live happily was to live without needing.
I end with a story that is no stranger to this column. A city kid was visiting Vermont for the summer and was seen poking a toad with a stick. A local boy came up and said, “Stop poking that toad.” The city kid said, “Well, it’s my toad, and I guess I can do what I like,” at which point the Vermont boy looked at him hard and then said slowly, “Here in Vermont, he’s his own toad.” Just so.