• The Golden Rule

    Ed Perry is a former marine biologist who studied sponges; they are easy to photograph underwater since, as he says with a grin, they don’t swim around much. He now works full-time building black powder rifles, old-fashioned flintlocks, the same type of gun used in the American Revolution. A few weekends ago, I stopped by to pick up a double-barrel 20-gauge shotgun; it was heavy, exquisitely crafted, and also a reminder that during the American Revolution, actually hitting the intended target was rare, especially on rainy days when the saying “Keep your powder dry” was good advice. A wet day in 1776 was likely to be a day off or a marching day if you were, say, one of the Ethan Allen boys from Vermont.

    Just as I was about to leave, Ed drew a line on a piece of paper and said, “If you had to cut this line into two parts while maintaining a sense of both unity and diversity, how would you do it?” Cutting it in half wouldn’t work since there would be no diversity, but some random spot—say, cutting the line near one end—didn’t help with the idea of unity. The answer was to cut the line at the “golden ratio,” so that the ratio of the large part of the line to the small was equal to the ratio of the entire line to the large part. (Specifically, this works out to be about 5 to 3 or, to be exact, 1.618 . . .) This is also the basis for the famous Fibonacci series, in which the next number in a sequence is the sum of the last two numbers (1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, 3 + 2 = 5, 5 + 3 = 8 . . .). As this series progresses, it approaches the golden ratio of 1.618. And as Ed pointed out, with a bit of transposing, these Fibonacci numbers were also the figures used in the da Vinci code. He went on to show me that this ratio was used in all the parts of an 18th century rifle, barrel to stock, rifle length to barrel. And as any architect knows, the same ratio was used for centuries in building design.

    In Vermont, most of us live in small towns. Ours has a firehouse, two churches (each uses the services of the same minister), and a country store, Sherman’s, that sells pretty good coffee, miscellaneous hardware, jarred pig’s knuckles, beer, and nickel candy but no gas (for years, to discourage business the sign on the pump read “$8.21/gallon”). We also have a small library with Saturday night movies, a surplus of sap houses, a veterinarian, a lawyer, and two large farms. If you make the time to talk to the locals, you’ll find out that Doug’s last deer was shot at 84 yards using a long-barreled pistol with a scope and that Nancy knows more about what to do on a horse than many cowboys. Axel is always ready with a fish story, and just when you wonder if even half of it is true, he takes out a few color prints that prove him no liar. And there is no dearth of expertise in town about bread baking, logging, farming, hunting, Shakespeare, training dogs, history, playing the blues, construction, big equipment, and auto repair.

    It isn’t easy to scratch the surface of a Vermonter, but once you see the pattern you’ll see it in everyone you meet. The larger part is self-reliance, the knowledge that on a cold wintry night you can head down into the dirt-floor basement and restart the furnace, find the horses that broke through the fence overnight, or tell the difference between sugar and red maple. The smaller part is an intimate sense of place, to know who lived in Beattie Hollow a generation ago, the last time the Sheldon store was still open for business, or who was buried standing straight up in his grave. As in the golden ratio, the two things are intimately related, and together they form a constant, a thread that runs all the way from the town line by Hebron to the end of Chambers Hollow, where if you look closely enough, you’ll also come across the haunted chimney.

    We often measure life by the number of new experiences we accumulate; Vermonters measure what remains steady. There are good years and bad years in sap production or the number of deer weighed in at Sherman’s store, but each of us is expected to measure up in the eyes of our neighbors. That’s the golden rule in country living, a sense of self and place in service of others, a formula that can be calculated right down to the last decimal place.


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