Playing By the Rules
Vermont has always been considered the “outlaw” state, in part because the mountains and dark hollows are hard to navigate and easily swallow up bank robbers, revolutionaries, and worse. In fact, Daniel Shays, the Massachusetts farmer who turned against the government due to a fight about property taxes, brought his followers up to a mountaintop a half day’s walk from our farm. This ragged group of outlaws spent the better part of 10 years on top of Egg Mountain, enduring killing flu epidemics, ice storms, and rocky soil until they were finally pardoned. Some of their stone walls are still visible today, though I can no longer find the overgrown graveyard and the exact location of the old schoolhouse. A lot has changed since my guided tour by a local hunter back in the 1960s.
This outlaw legacy has given Vermonters the freedom to play by their own rules, at least when it comes to the social order. In our small town, a few still remember the hanging tree down on Lincoln Lane, and there have been rumors for years of bodies buried up in Beartown. At least one neighbor constructed a whiskey still in his basement; plenty of weed has been grown in the middle of cornfields or high up in the mountains; and small, half-rotten hunting camps are occupied in mid-November by long-johns-clad souls looking for a bit of peace and quiet and the first unlucky three-pointer who happens to walk by. Diets are often a bit odd too: Some eat home-pickled cow tongue, Sonny Skidmore held up his parlor ceiling with crates of Pepsi, and others have been known to sneak out at night to secret locations to harvest large clumps of hen of the woods mushrooms. Some neighbors have made a handsome living off of sidehill gravel pits; others have gotten paid for carting away junk, some hazardous, that was then deposited in their own backyard, while others still cling to the old mountain farm ways: trading cattle and haying fields. Dogs have been shot for straying once too often, deer are often jacked out of season for meat, and I once came across a severed moose head in the woods during rabbit season. (Not quite sure where the other 1,000 pounds went to.)
Vermonters rarely play by the rules (unless we are talking about the golden rule: being neighborly). In fact, their first question is often, “Whose rules are they, anyway?”—a query that too many of us avoid. Who decided that nonfat yogurt was worth eating? Who thought up the idea of a $250 dinner? Who convinced us that hunting for our own food is a sin? Who decided that e-books are better than paper? Who invented yellow-colored egg whites for breakfast? Who introduced revolving credit lines, derivatives, and variable rate mortgages? Who pushed us to visit China rather than our own backyards? What happened to black and white, warm comforters in cold bedrooms, hot wood cookstoves on Thanksgiving, bird dogs stiffening to a full point, and the notion of conversation around the dinner table? Plus we have passed a lot of nonsense about happy, safe childhoods along to our kids. It was quite a while ago, but I seem to remember my mother stepping aside now and then, allowing me to pick myself up off the ground, nose bloodied, to give it another try.
Vermonters like folks who have a set of rules, but they like them better if they follow them. That way, folks know what to expect; you stand for something. About a year ago, Matthew Waite died suddenly when a tree crushed the cab of his pickup in a windstorm, and hundreds showed up to pay their respects. He stood for something. Charlie Bentley had a terrible tractor accident when his head got trapped between a set of moving disc harrows and the ground. A few months later, he was back farming. He stands for something. Everybody who ever walked into the yellow farmhouse was fed well by Marie Briggs: a thick slice of buttered homemade bread, a couple of biscuits, a molasses cookie or two, or a seat at the table at noon dinner if you showed up on time. She stood for something. In the sixties, Jenny Skidmore invited the hungry, unwashed hippie outcasts over to her Saturday night saunas and gave them a good feed to boot. She stood for something. And anytime somebody needs to find a lost cow, gets locked out in the middle of winter stark naked, or needs a horse put down and buried, they call Tom. He stands for something.
Whenever someone says that we are playing by a new set of rules, that we can indeed get something for nothing, I remember what a bachelor farmer once told me at a corner-house social: “A poor man who stands for something isn’t poor.” That’s not a new rule; it’s an old one.