Not One Thing But the Other
My mother was a doctor of sorts, a school psychologist who spent most of her career as a professor, both sober and respected. On a warm summer evening, however, she'd often enjoy a snort or two of Jack Daniel's, pack me and my younger sister into the back of an Army-surplus Jeep, and shoot up Southeast Corners Road like she was running moonshine, the bugs whipping into our faces like hail, the Jeep occasionally lifting up on two wheels like a catamaran sailing too close to the wind. Those days in Vermont were full of creosote, rough-sawn boards, homemade peach ice cream, mice nesting in waders, and swimming holes so cold they could shrink a full-grown sow down to the size of a woodchuck.
I know a successful New York book agent who traded in her flats for muck boots and now makes goat cheese. Lawyers have become pig farmers; a former librarian waits vigilantly, a .22 in hand, to shoot weasels that have acquired a taste for her turkeys; a backhoe operator and native Vermonter writes his invoices in a fine, feminine script; and a no-nonsense flatlander from Connecticut has become the local dowser. I wonder if the only things that are absolutely true to their nature are rabbit dogs and electric fences, since both are singular in purpose.
Many things in our bucolic small town in the Green Mountains of Vermont aren't what they appear to be. I hear rumors of girls flagging down truckers for a good time and the story of an otherwise-upstanding citizen who is a bit light-fingered when shopping in local stores. A hundred years ago, the local newspaper carried similar stories. In order to determine if a fence was of legal construction, our town had a unique approach. One police officer weighed 300 pounds, one was six feet eight, and the third was extremely small. "It was recently voted that all fences on which a fat man could sit, which the tall man couldn't step over, nor the little one crawl through should be deemed legal fences." And, in 1926, the paper printed the fish story of all time. "Clarence Holden who won a Mt. Anthony Club Tournament in 1910 has recovered the medal awarded him at that time...It was returned by Herbert Booth who said that he found the medal in the stomach of a big brown trout caught a short distance south of the point where the medal was lost ten years ago."
Crime, especially violent crime, was common among our bustling community. Mrs. Philander Moffat was arrested on the charge of attempting to poison her husband. In 1894, a woman burned down the family barn with a cow in it. A kitchen dance in 1911 resulted in a fistfight over a young woman that ended in the death of a fiddler. In 1936, John Fox was found hanging from a large elm down on Lincoln Lane, and there are rumors to this day about foul play. A man who was alive when I first moved into town was said to have buried more than one body up in Beartown; a pair of entwined dead raccoons found on one's driveway was his special calling card-a warning to keep your distance.
Run-ins with wild animals were common if not exaggerated. A correspondent wrote to the local paper in the late 1800s that "two men, long since dead, rode a big bear down the side of the mountain. They got him pretty tired but...pretty soon, while they were having great sport, the bear got mad." The result was one badly injured Vermonter and a dead bear. Leroy Fitch was coming home down the western slope of Birch Hill when he heard, off to the left, "the quick tread of an animal," which he supposed to be a sheep. "Turning in that direction, he beheld, not over 7 rods distant, an animal that he declares to be a panther."
Over the years, a town is many things. It is an accumulation of histories, barns, kitchen dances, fish stories, practical jokes, fistfights, family grudges, teachers, ministers, loggers, hunters, and schoolhouses that have long sunk down into the weeds. Vermonters are not just New Englanders or Yankees. They come from Tidd or Kent Hollow, from the gentle lower slopes of Swearing or Minister Hill, from the old Ford farm up past the Bentley place. You live where you were born. The dirt under your boots tells a story. The saphouse may be where you had your first kiss. And you remember every hunting dog you've ever owned, every draft horse, and every deer that you have shot at and missed.
By the turn of the 20th century, our town had started to empty out, since better soil had been discovered by Vermonters called out of state by the Civil War. Yet our sense of place remained undiminished. A letter submitted to the newspaper in 1892 read, "We moved on to what is called the Bowen place and...from there you can...see the villages nestled among the hills and the long stretch of the Green Mountains losing itself away in the south beyond Bennington. The once comfortable farm buildings are a heap of ruins and where there were once splendid meadows and waving grain, now only sheep are pastured. Although the glory of the hill is...a thing of the past, it still holds loving places in the hearts of...its children." That's the thing. We are in love with a place that has been many things. It may change again, it may have been something else, but the rocky ground beneath our feet, the first cold night in August, and the last run of sap tell us now and forever that we are home.