Sounds of Silence
The Calvin Coolidge homestead sits just south of Route 4 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. It is a collection of buildings—a general store, the Union Christian Church, the white clapboard Coolidge home with an attached barn, and an assortment of smaller homes and outbuildings—located in a small salad bowl valley that, to this day, feels remote and unattached to the modern world. This is where Coolidge grew up, where he took the oath of office (in a modest front parlor after Warren Harding’s sudden death), and where his father ran the general store. On the second floor of that store is the “Summer White House,” a modest, and probably exceedingly hot, office where the affairs of nations were discussed while one could hear the clicking of horse-drawn mowers in the fields below.
America’s heroes used to be the strong, silent type. Shane. Gregory Peck. Chuck Yeager. Lincoln. (The Gettysburg Address lasted all of three minutes.) Coolidge was born out of the Vermont tradition of holding one’s tongue, reserving one’s opinion until asked. As Coolidge often said, “I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm.” As president, he was even more guarded: “The words of a president have an enormous weight,” wrote Coolidge, “and ought not to be used indiscriminately.”
We live in the midst of change. This makes us hungry for the promise of action, for the proposition that we need a new vision of the future. I recently had lunch with Peter Workman, a well-known book publisher, and his response to my query about how he was dealing with the digital revolution was, “Well, we are going to publish the best books we can.” Coolidge would agree; “Four-fifths of all our -troubles would disappear, if we would only sit down and keep still.”
Walking in the woods is my meditation, my yoga. (For Vermonters, “downward dog” refers to a beagle hot on the trail of a brownie heading at full speed downhill.) During the past week, I was shadowed by a great horned owl who flew from branch to branch, swiveling its impassive head to get a better glimpse of the intruder. Minutes later, I saw a bear and her young cub walking through a lime-green clearing about 40 yards away, neither of them aware I was standing in plain view. Last weekend, I stumbled across a turkey hen and her brood and then met up with a good-size doe, feeding just a stone’s throw away. The woods are indifferent to human affairs; that is why nature’s conversation—birdsong and the helter-skelter scurrying of chipmunks—is restorative. The words in our heads float away, are absorbed by leaves, break apart into individual letters, and then disperse on the wind.
A recent midday hike brought me to the top of our mountain and an encounter with a summer storm. To the west, a bank of glowing cast-iron clouds was threatening. The wind picked up, the leaves turned silver, branches waved, and I headed smartly down toward my pickup. And then thunder crashed; rain came in sheets, spilling off the brim of my hat; and I stopped under a large oak and listened.
Silent Cal, as Coolidge was known, understood the sounds of silence, the power of words left unsaid. He was also quick-witted. Dorothy Parker once claimed that she could make him say at least three words. He responded, “You lose.” But Coolidge was also a farmer poet, and his inspiration was the small state of Vermont. In his most famous speech, he said, “Vermont is a state I love . . . It was here that I first saw the light of day; here I received my bride; here my dead lie, pillowed on the loving breast of our everlasting hills.”
At the center of life in Vermont is stillness, a lifetime aversion to precipitate action, and a noble preference for listening over talking. Coolidge was never a popular president and, according to a recent Gallup poll, ranks just ahead of Rutherford B. Hayes and Richard Nixon. We are eager to follow leaders who construct a narrative about ourselves and our time and who, like Don Quixote, take action, tilting at windmills. The lesson of Coolidge has been lost: Be humble in the face of nature, work hard, and beware of riches. “Prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshipped.”
Standing just outside Coolidge’s farmhouse, I considered that, just a century ago, a president was born to a shopkeeper and farmer; that his constant companion was the smell of freshly cut hay, molasses, and cider; and that he took inspiration from working the fields. At the store, I bought a bag of maple jelly beans for the kids and slowly turned back down the gravel path toward home. It may have been the postcard light or the circling of a red-tailed hawk, but I thought I heard “Step up,” the sudden chatter of a sickle bar, and the heavy clang of a whippletree through the silence.