Swooning over Heady Topper, tipsy with localvoreness and artisanality, 21st century Vermont is awash in delicious, righteous back-to-farm-roots hipness.
This enviable cornucopia, a tasty dish lightly sauced with indulgent fadishness, has been served up with a subtle side of romanticism, obscuring Vermont’s hardscrabble agricultural roots. Don’t get me wrong: Today’s back-to-the-land visionaries, reinventing agriculture, work hard to enliven our palates and quench our thirsts, from mesclun to mead, smoked bacon to Barr Hill gin and bounteous cheeses. Meanwhile, a host of Vermont sustainability thinkers and activists are trying to shift agriculture’s long-term direction.
But as we sit down to eat that plate of free-range, organic, gluten- and GMO-free heritage whatever, it’s easy to ignore that we live a “suburbural” life, an odd hybrid of suburban and rural existence firmly tied to a commuting lifestyle, and that most of us enjoy our just desserts and meals disconnected from underlying agricultural values. The truth is we are a far psychic distance – and long shimmering frozen food case – from the days when keeping chickens and making farmstead cheese was not righteous virtue but hard-pressed, arduous farm necessity, forming a cultural bedrock of the state. In a way, I often wonder if we aren’t collectively admiring a lovely pie crust that turns out to have no filling.
This reality floated in my brain, spinning unpredictably like an inflatable raft on a summer lake, thanks to an interesting literary journey back through time. It left me struck by how much Vermont has changed and how little we think about that – and feeling oddly wistful about what has been lost compared to what has been gained.
The vehicle for this experience, in both felicitous coincidence and total happenstance, was two books whose era, themes and depictions dovetail remarkably, even though they take place in different locales and their writing styles could not be more divergent. Unexpectedly, they took me beyond their individual stories to deeper reflections: chapters amounting to more than the sum of their words.
Before talking about the books, let me put in a good word for reading – some of you out there still read books, right? – from pages that have long since dropped off the bestseller list or Amazon what’s-hot matrix. In a society terminally obsessed with immediacy, updates, trendiness and technology, an older print book today has about as much glamour and attractiveness as a Salvation Army thrift store. But as anyone who’s ever been to one knows, there are gems to be found.
Mine were picked up at Montpelier’s Kellogg-Hubbard Library book sale, which I frequent to support the library and because, importantly for someone with a no-longer-supple neck, the collection is arrayed so that you can rummage visually through the titles in a way bookstore stacks don’t allow. The books are cheap and always an eclectic collection, some from years-ago bestseller lists, but mostly unheralded volumes that beckon due to an interesting title and cover, the author or topic, or jacket blurbs and recommendations. The joy of a good find should not be underrated and I count it part of the appeal and allure.
I sort of knew what I was getting with the first book of my duo, “Seasoned Timber,” a fiction work by prolific Vermont author Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1958). A glance at the pages revealed old-style typeface, prose and long paragraphs not at all au courant today. But the story line – a struggling hillside academy in a fictional Vermont town in the late 1930s, a love story, a conflicted headmaster and looming war abroad – appealed to me, and even more did curiosity about her depictions of life in Vermont 70 years ago. As a longtime Vermont resident, I’ll also admit to a touch of chagrin that I had not read any of her books.
The other book was a slim nonfiction volume published in 1997 called “The Orchard,” by Adele Crockett Robertson. The title caught my eye because I’m an apple aficionado with a small orchard, and the theme because it was about preserving a farm. The cover cinched it, because it had praise from no less than John Updike. I walked out with both, along with a dozen other titles. Several months apart, I read them and was transported back not only to the Great Depression era, but unexpectedly to a vanished rural countryside where economic survival and hunger, not prandial pleasures, fed the agricultural impulse, and connection to the land was visceral and essential, not commercial, recreational or touristic.
That cranial jolt sputtered the old noggin to thinking about how we view agriculture, and life, in Vermont today.
How far we have traveled
Let’s start with Fisher first. “Seasoned Timber” is an old-fashioned morality play on many levels, with surprising resonance: Will struggling Clifford Academy accept a trustee’s huge gift with serious strings attached (no girls, no Jews.) What sort of education should the academy provide? Should it raise tuition and go after wealthy out-of-state students, knowing that means some local students won’t be able to afford to go there? What is the proper role of the school’s board?
Does any of that sound familiar? Plus ca change…
That’s where familiarity ends though. The cast of characters who play out these themes no longer seem all that familiar to us today, and their language sounds dated and fusty. Take Nephew Canby, speaking to his uncle Timothy Hulme, the headmaster: “You’re the only man in the round world that still writes his own letters, Uncle Tim. For heck’s sake, why don’t you have a stenog?”
Well, heck, there’s not much familiar with the academic milieu either. “Letting his young audience make their own selections, Timothy roamed from Wodehouse, W.W. Jacobs, and Howard Pyle to Stevenson, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington – even, one afternoon, preposterous as this was, some of the Uncle Remus stories.” To which a modern high schooler would say, “who?” (excepting Twain, one hopes). And the rest of us, looking at societal illiteracy and declining reading habits: Whoa, is there a lesson there?
Then there’s the fact Fisher’s writing style is hopelessly out-of-synch with today’s easy-reading tempos. She crafts the main protagonist, headmaster Hulme, using complex internal monologues and debates as he struggles at running the school and the arc of his life when he unexpectedly becomes infatuated with Susan Barney, a teacher 20 years his junior. Hulme’s agonized and detailed reflections seem wordy, over-wrought and slow-paced as he’s whipsawed by mixed signals, uncertain if he is misreading clues in her attentions. Staggering between hope and doubt, reality finally sinks in when he discovers that his nephew Canby, affable but uncouth – there’s a word whose rare use today itself is emblematic of changing times: Is anything uncouth anymore? – has won Susan’s heart.
Fisher’s bedrock was hard times and paucity, the daily living struggles of the academy’s students, the uncomfortable winter cold of interior rooms and a harsh outdoors endured with threadbare coats and mittens, roads closed by snow, thrift as an ingrained necessity, mechanical ingenuity as a way of life. This is not just beyond memory for most Vermonters now, but even beyond connection in many ways, clad as we are in fleece, driving SUVs and turning impatience and gratification – prandial and mercantile – into a national trait.
As editor Mark Madigan explains in his forward, Fisher aimed to write a story about a Yankee sense of fair play acted out by a range of characters whose actions cover a vast spectrum, odious to noble. Duty and community, tolerance, lack of pretension and indomitable spirit are the honorable Vermont traits emphasized, juxtaposed with the “boorish, bigoted and exceedingly successful business tycoon” on the board who wants a more exclusive school.
But my takeaway, plowing through the 485 pages, was a remarkable sense of entering a familiar physical landscape whose social, cultural, economic and linguistic signposts have become unrecognizable seven decades later. Fisher’s bedrock was hard times and paucity, the daily living struggles of the academy’s students, the uncomfortable winter cold of interior rooms and a harsh outdoors endured with threadbare coats and mittens, roads closed by snow, thrift as an ingrained necessity, mechanical ingenuity as a way of life. This is not just beyond memory for most Vermonters now, but even beyond connection in many ways, clad as we are in fleece, driving SUVs and turning impatience and gratification – prandial and mercantile – into a national trait.
Published in 1939, Fisher’s book was an inadvertent re-awakening to vanishing Vermont values and an elemental simplicity of life, where entertainment was popping corn in a fireplace hearth, cracking butternuts and singing ballads, skating by a bonfire, taking a group hike up to the “cobble,” or reading aloud.
No, I don’t want to go back there, nor would I impose it on anyone. But such scenes, scattered throughout the book like so many leaves under a fall maple tree, crunch mentally underfoot in “Seasoned Timber.” They have their own false romanticism, of course, but they hint at how far we have traveled to a different Vermont. Swathed in our prandial world of frappucinos, bounteous beers, artisanal moonshine and wood-fired ovens, under-Armoured and carbon-fibered, LED-lit and Camel-backed, malled, strip-malled and credit-card mauled, living deep in our digital and smartphone deliriums with a virtual trail and persona slithering behind, we are GPS-certain we know where we are – when the truth is, I’m not sure we have any idea where we are. Let alone where we are going.
Deeply rooted in ‘The Orchard’
Some of this was inchoate until I read “The Orchard,” whose Hemingwayesque brevity of sentences and simple yet profound sentiment is a counterweight to Fisher’s ponderings, but whose story turned out to be the perfect segue. Its poignancy stems both from its tale of the hardships of farming in the depths of the Depression, and the fact the farmer was a beautiful young woman bucking the odds and very male cultural conventions between the years chronicled, 1932 to 1934. Tucked in the pages are photos of her as a lovely teen and young woman, and looking at them one marvels that someone with such a privileged background – her father was a doctor – marshaled the strength, gumption and hard labor to try and save the beloved family orchard and homestead in Ipswich, Mass. (An added delight to “The Orchard” is that Adelle Crockett Robertson’s manuscript was written and then tucked away, until found by her daughter and then published.)
For a reader, “The Orchard” provides insight and intimate details on the rigorous daily chores and seasonal rhythms of running an orchard (and farming in general): Pruning, balky spraying equipment and nasty chemicals, managing bee hives and pollination, weather worries, the varietal vagaries of Russets and Greenings and Northern Spys, the crunch of harvest time and pressure to pick the crop – the whole motley pile of anxieties that go with any agricultural venture.
To this heady mix add Robertson’s remarkable personal grace, humor and pluck, and the irrepressible characters she comes in contact with. Think equal parts Howard Frank Mosher’s tall tales and poet David Budbill’s indelible people, and you’ve got an idea of her story. Her alliance with hard-working Frenchman Joe LaPlante, a tight-knit Polish family of pickers and the Jewish merchant who unexpectedly throws her a lifeline, her standoff with a bunch of apple thieves and her unsavory competitors, all create an indelible picture, both comical and heart-breaking, as all farming can be. There is not an ounce of romanticism in “The Orchard,” just the tart-sweet flavor of Robertson’s honest emotional ups and downs, facing the hard truth that failure meant both going hungry and going under, and her rugged obstinacy to make it all work.
Farming for Robertson was integral to the emotional fabric of her life, to her very survival and preservation of the family home, and interwoven in ways we have lost touch with, perhaps can no longer even understand.
But just as with “Seasoned Timber,” reading her chronicle with today’s eyes led me down an unexpected path, to a view as striking as hers overlooking the sensuous ocean marshes of coastal Ipswich. I was captivated by how her view of the orchard was indistinguishable from its agricultural purpose, by how deeply rooted she was in the land as a farm enterprise. Farming for Robertson was integral to the emotional fabric of her life, to her very survival and preservation of the family home, and interwoven in ways we have lost touch with, perhaps can no longer even understand.
So many of us are transplants, rootless, raised in cities and the ‘burbs, owners but not users of land. We’re making a living far from the fields with our wits instead of our hands, not tied to our landscapes by any fundamental agricultural purpose. One thing, sadly, has not changed: Like Robertson, many of us are still just barely eking out a living, but that’s transpiring in a different way, almost really in a different universe.
Unmoored from the commoditized land we live on, I can’t help but feel after reading these two books that we’re adrift in a way that’s detrimental and fundamentally unhealthy, filling up with emotional junk food and physical nostrums to fill the void: Reality TV! Six steps to Six Pack Abs! Yoga! Personal Trainers and Life Coaches! Celebrity Magazines! Instead of tending an orchard, we’re picking through a daily deluge of digital chores, harvesting anxiety and disconnection and a dubious crop of benefits. All of this is a long way from putting farm boots on the real ground every day.
Cruising the weekly farmers’ markets, celebrating our artisanal bounty and Vermont Fresh way of life, I think agriculture today is like a colorful tapestry hung up to admire and enjoy, at least if we can afford $4-a-pound tomatoes, $7 a glass fancy IPAs, $15-a-pound cheeses and $27 organic chickens. Whizzing through life immersed in our digital cocoons, mountain biking, hiking and skiing across the landscape we admire visually or own a piece of, is a very different relationship than the one Fisher and Robertson knew and wrote about.
We can’t go back, of course, wistful though I may be, to a different time and slower pace. We have indeed, come a long way, baby. But as we extoll our good fortune to live and eat in the Green Mountains, a dish of past reality might help us to find some balance. It might keep us rooted, even if tenuously, to old-fashioned but still-needed Vermont values that provide a counterweight to a society where excess, indulgence, and lavish gratification are served up as an example every day.
“Seasoned Timber,” Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Mark J. Madigan editor, University Press of New England; “The Orchard, (a memoir),” Adele Crockett Robertson, Bantam Books.