The Vermont Creed
Calvin Coolidge once remarked that Vermonters might be called upon to restore the Union through their free spirit and support of liberty. I might amend that notion by pointing out that the “Vermont Creed,” as it were, is shared by millions of working-class folks around the country. It can be summed up in two words: “seen worse,” a wry, tough-minded statement of independence, with a streak of macabre humor thrown in for good effect. Here is my version of that creed.
Think Locally: The phrase “think globally” was not coined by a Vermonter. The first question that comes to mind when we hear about a logging accident, a scandal, or someone winning top prize on the buckboard is always, “Did it happen in town?” Vermonters know that what’s closest to home matters most. If you don’t care about your own backyard, you aren’t going to be of much use to the rest of the world.
When You Don’t Know What to Do, Do the Work in Front of You: This is an old Coolidge saying. Don’t dither. Don’t fret. Don’t think of the myriad possibilities when faced with a difficult situation. Just do the work in front of you and things will always work themselves out. (And if they don’t, at least your chores will be up-to-date.)
Worse Things than Death: Vermonters don’t think about death much; they just die when they having nothing left to do. Once you’re dead, you are no longer useful. If you are no longer useful, you might as well be dead. That’s also true of the living, as any Vermonter will tell you.
Every Day Is a New Day: One of our retired neighbors, John, used to tell me this almost every time I saw him. I’d ask, “What are you up to these days?” and he would say, “Every day in the woods is a new day.” He’d have a spark in his eye and a spring in his step and tell me about logging, cutting firewood, maintaining trails, and clearing pastures. That’s why he always looked forward to getting up early, even in later years when he was having trouble walking. The trees needed him.
The Early Bird Gets the Worm: Many a year, I have planted the corn too early, before the cold weather was done and before the soil temperature was up to 70 degrees. After two or three hot days in late April, having hooked up the planter and filled it with seed and fertilizer, off I’d go. Then it would turn cold and wet. The seed would rot in the ground. And Charlie Bentley would turn to me after church and say, “Guess you planted too early. Again.” The early bird gets the worm, not the corn.
Look, Aim, Then Shoot: When I first learned to rabbit hunt, I would blast away as soon as I saw a “brownie” moving across the snow or out of a stand of pines. On one particular occasion, after I had unloaded all five shells in my 20-gauge semi-automatic, our neighbor Tom asked me, “Need more ammo?” That afternoon, Tom’s dog Bucket pushed out a good-sized rabbit and Tom waited for what seemed a solid minute. Five yards. Ten yards. Twenty yards. Thirty yards. Tom finally shot and brought the rabbit down with just one shell. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.
Be Useful: Vermonters would answer the old Zen koan about the tree falling in the woods right off the bat. If nobody was there to hear it, it didn’t happen. Same thing for people. If you volunteer for rescue squad, set up tables for Old Home Day, or pitch in as zoning administrator, you exist. If you can’t be counted on in a pinch, you are like a tree falling unobserved in the woods. It just doesn’t matter much. All you’re good for is firewood.
Know Your History: A newcomer to our town just built a house in a flood plain, just 100 yards up from the Green River. Now, the field hasn’t flooded in over half a century, but most people in town know the story of the last time it happened. And most of us figure that the river is about due for another spring flood. Except, of course, the flatlander. The zoning board never mentioned this when reviewing his application. This brings up another Vermont rule of thumb: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Mind Your Own Business: Last year, one of our selectmen proposed a law restricting the use of four-wheeler ATVs. He was sick and tired of hearing them run up and down logging trails near his house. He got quiet support all over town: at the country store, gassing up his car at ChemClean, and at the odd church supper. Then he called a town meeting to vote on his proposal and got the bum’s rush. Seems that his neighbors didn’t mind a bit of gossip but knew better than to seriously interfere with other people’s business. That way, they won’t interfere with yours.
Waste Not, Want Not: When I was 12 years old, I purchased a lemon meringue pie from Marie, the town baker. When I got home, I shot upstairs to eat it. My mother, being instantly suspicious, came up to my room to check things out. I hid the pie under my patchwork comforter and, in my panic, ended up sitting on it. The next day, Marie asked, “How was the pie?” I told her the truth, including the part about throwing it out afterward. I had never seen her so mad. “You threw it out?” she said quietly. With great restraint, she added, “That pie was still good eating.” There is, I learned, a world of difference between real country living and just playing at it.
Life Is Fair, Really! Vermonters don’t envy the flatlander with the $2 million house or the fisherman who won the $25,000 salmon tournament up on Lake Ontario. They know that life is fair, which means that the rich flatlander will end up divorced and the lucky fisherman’s pickup will run into a bull moose. Life is indeed fair; it always gets even.
Don’t Look in the Mirror: As far as I can tell, Vermonters don’t use mirrors. That’s because they don’t care what they look like, and that, in turn, is because they don’t care what anyone else thinks of them. No point checking on the three-legged dog to see if he grew an extra leg overnight. Some things in life are just not gonna change.
Check the Weather: Vermonters check the weather first thing in the morning and then two or three times during the day. That way, they can reassure themselves that life is, ultimately, beyond their control, a notion that provides a sense of well-being. Who better than the weatherman to remind us of man’s shortcomings?
Make Hay While the Sun Shines: There is never a perfect time for anything, but there is a right time for everything. A real Vermonter knows the difference.