A Lick of Common Sense
Folks used to have common sense. They didn’t plant their potatoes too close together. They trained a new rabbit dog while the old one was still young enough to hunt. They parked their pickups facing toward home when logging, so they could get out of the woods quickly in case of an accident. They made hay when the sun was shining. They split and stacked wood in early summer, not early fall. They called in the cows after opening the barn doors. And they would never drive up an icy dirt road in winter without thinking long and hard about how they were going to get back home.
They also didn’t spend what they didn’t have. They were never tempted to see what lay on the other side of the hill. They didn’t start to run if it rained. In fact, I’ve never seen a Vermonter run for anything. They just figure that whatever it is, they’ll eventually catch up with it.
To a Vermonter, or any country person, common sense is what keeps you alive. Liars and cheats may not have been welcome, but you wouldn’t tolerate a man without common sense; he would most likely get you killed. A man who was not dependable might shoot another man’s dog when rabbit hunting. (Tom once hunted with a man who did just that and wrapped the offender’s 12-gauge around a maple. The dog recovered.) And you would be careless if you asked him to help out in the sugarhouse; he would be likely to burn your front pan every year. He might also siphon the diesel fuel out of your tractor, jack a deer off your land, or run off with your wife.
Common sense is just another way of saying you learn from your mistakes. Unfortunately, some people, and most animals, don’t. Take a horse. Some will shy away from a puddle of water in the road every time—they keep thinking that it might be 10 feet deep. Chickens don’t bother to look up at the sky, and that’s why they make a good source of protein for red-tailed hawks. And how many times will a dog chase a skunk?
When I was young, I didn’t learn from experience; I just kept trying. I’d go fishing in the middle of the day when the suckers in the Battenkill were easy to see but uninterested in feeding. I’d put up a tree stand without knowing whether a deer would ever walk by it. And I would go hiking in strange woods without a compass, a flashlight, or something warm in case I had to stay out all night.
Now that I am older, I am more likely to think about what happened the last time I tried to mow that wet corner of the lower field or let the International 404—the one with the broken emergency brake—idle on the top of a hill. There is a sweet spot there somewhere, halfway between lessons learned and adventure. It’s the sense to know when to pack your bags and when to double down; when to speak up and when to shut up; when to read the signs and when to ignore them.
A few weeks ago, I had lunch with my 23-year-old, Caroline, who lives in Vermont. She is finishing up college after a two-year hiatus and her heart is on the farm: raising rabbits, pressing cider, growing vegetables, spinning wool—a poster child for The Whole Earth Catalog. I was giving her career advice, helping, I thought, to better frame the life choices that she will soon confront. Unexpectedly, she started giving me advice, and for the first time in my life, I listened. She pointed out that when I ran, I should have walked; when I stood my ground, I should have moved on.
Caroline finished. I thought for a bit and said, “Well, at least I don’t mind making a fool of myself.” She laughed and replied, “Yes, Dad, that’s why we love you.”
That’s the problem with some people: They don’t have a lick of common sense.