At midlife, a Vermonter tries to reconcile memory and change in the community he loves.
By Ben Hewitt
May 29 2019
Vermont landscape painting.Photo Credit : John Clark Olson
In July, an ocean of high pressure settles over us, and the long summer days feel longer still. It is warm when we wake, hot when we work, and it would likely feel even hotter when we bed down for the night if not for our nightly swims in the spring-fed depths of the pond. Despite the heat, I start a small fire in the wood stove every morning, just enough to brew coffee and do what cooking needs to be done for lunch, which we’ll eat cold later, if we eat at all. On these hot days, sometimes a glass of cold milk with an egg yolk or two and a splash of maple syrup is the only thing on the menu.
The wood stove is the sole cooking range in our house, and kindling a fire at the height of summer reminds me of the cabin I was raised in, for it, too, featured only a wood range for cooking. I was 6 when my family moved from our northern Vermont homestead to a rural community about 10 miles north of Montpelier, the state capital. I do not remember much about the move, though I do remember the novelty of so many amenities: Hot running water and electric lights. My very own bedroom, and, just down the hallway (a hallway!), a flush toilet. An electric range. My parents never left; they are in their 70s, still feeding the wood stove, my father still tending a small garden, my mother still walking daily along the ridge of a neighboring meadow. They did at some point replace the original electric range with a new one that has too many buttons for my liking; when we visit for a meal, I can never figure out how to get it to do my bidding.
In those days, a full four decades ago, our new town was made up primarily of working-class folks. Many of my schoolmates’ fathers ran heavy equipment or worked in the woods; many of their mothers were full-time homemakers, or kept the books for the family construction business. During rifle season, the shoulders of the back roads were dotted with parked pickups, nosed into the forest’s edge, their drivers deep in the woods in search of the big buck they’d been scouting all summer.
Despite the fact that Montpelier was barely a 15-minute drive along a winding stretch of blacktop, few of our neighbors worked there, it seemed to me—though perhaps there were more than I remember or knew of. Still, I’m certain that 40 years ago, the village where I spent much of my childhood was a place radically different from what it is now.
Oh sure, there are still plenty of tradesmen and -women inhabiting the hills and hollows around my parents’ home, and come hunting season, you’ll still pass the occasional gun rack–equipped pickup truck. But just as surely, things have changed, and in looking back, I see that my parents were part of that change, and in particular my father, with his deskbound career, commuting to town in his little Honda to earn the money necessary to support his young family. Then, he was among the minority; now, the town is predominantly for commuters driving to well-paying service-sector jobs in Montpelier and, to a lesser extent, Burlington, another 40 minutes to the north.
There’s nothing unique about all this. Changes are happening everywhere, although of course it’s my home state that I know and understand best. For instance, I know that in 1971, the year I was born, there were more than 4,000 working dairy farms in Vermont, and today there are fewer than 800. I know that over the past 30 years or so, annual sales of hunting licenses have dropped by nearly half. I know that in just the past decade and a half, 20,000 more homes have been built on land of less than 50 acres statewide. In other words, properties like the very one my parents purchased when I was a boy—a sturdy Cape situated on 10 acres—are increasingly commonplace. And as the land is steadily, inexorably carved into smaller, more numerous parcels, many ringed in “No Trespassing” signs, our common access to the land changes. And as our common access to the land changes, our relationship to the land changes: It becomes primarily a place of recreation, rather than vocation or even avocation.
A culture changes for many reasons. Money is high on the list, and, indeed, economics is the primary driver in Vermont’s loss of dairy farms. Simply put, milking cows is too much work for too little money. And while you’ll rarely hear farmers complain about the former, you’re sure to hear them lament the latter, and for good reason: Most Vermont dairy farmers are being paid less than their cost of production. A friend of ours who milks about 60 head recently told me he’s losing $5,000 every month. He’s refinanced pretty much everything he owns and is crossing his fingers that the price of milk increases before his notes come due. And if his 200-acre farm is forced out of business? Eventually, perhaps, it becomes 20 ten-acre home sites. They’d be beautiful building lots—the views are outstanding. I can see why someone might want to put a house on one. Put up “No Trespassing” signs. Sit out on warm summer evenings, surveying their domain.
There is a feedback loop that is amplified when a farmer quits farming, or when a logger quits harvesting trees, or when a hunter decides not to renew their license, and the family deer camp is slowly subsumed by the forest. There is a feedback loop when the rural places that so many of us know and love become less and less accessible, when we ourselves feel compelled to protect what is ours, perhaps in part because we recognize the scarcity of it. Maybe even because we wish to protect it—after all, not everyone lives with the land in the same way, and today we have more options than ever, and some leave scars. Last summer I stumbled across the aftermath of an ATV gathering in the far corner of our unposted land; the machines had left deep, muddy, purposeful trenches in their wake, a flesh wound that, in time, would heal. As my anger would subside.
I think a lot about the future of this place I love so much. And by place, I mean this land, this town, this county, this state, this region. I mean the people and the land and the animals. Streams and rivers, lakes and ponds. The trees. I love the trees, the ash that are succumbing to the emerald ash borer, the old mother maples that form a tunnel where the road narrows at our friend Tom’s farm, just a mile down the hill. I drive past them every day. They are scarred from the town plow and the occasional misjudgment (or, let’s be honest, lapse in sobriety) of passing drivers. The spruce and fir I harvested last winter, sawn into lumber and now framed into the walls of the rental house we’re building. I love the trees maybe most of all.
It is only now, in middle life, that I can see so clearly that everything is dependent on everything else. The way we live now, as individuals, families, and communities, will inform the way we live tomorrow, and the way we live tomorrow will inform the day after that. Some of the ways we live will be informed by circumstances beyond our control—the price of milk, say, or the demand for forest products, or the broader economic and cultural forces that define our lives in ways that are often hard to see.
Not all this change is bad, of course, and yet it can feel that way to me when I see yet another farm auction notice, or drive past our friend’s barn after dark, the lights shining through the windows, and know he’s in there milking his cows, losing money on every gallon.
Sometimes I worry New England will become overly reliant on our collective nostalgia, while retaining just enough of what we’re nostalgic for to remind us to be nostalgic for it. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, I suppose, and I’m as susceptible to it as the next person. But when it becomes our only connection to the things we care deeply about, we have lost something very precious indeed.
I now live about 20 miles north of the home my parents moved to when I was a boy. This community reminds me very much of where I grew up: Farmers and loggers and tradespeople. A smattering of artists and teachers. Big parcels of land, mostly unposted. Come deer season, lots of trucks. Actually, come any season, lots of trucks. When I tell people where I live, they’ll often say something like “Oh, I love it up there. It’s the way Vermont used to be,” and the look of nostalgia on their face is unmistakable. But I know that this place will change, too. And I know that, just like my parents 40 years ago, my family and I are part of that change.
I sometimes wonder if this is why I cling so stubbornly to our wood stove, even in summer. It’s a connection to my past, an easy conduit to early memories of hauling firewood in the back of my father’s little Honda, or even just the way it felt to sit by its iron sides, soaking up the heat. But maybe it represents something even more; maybe it’s my small contribution to keeping something the way it was. For just a bit longer, at least. I know that in the big picture, cooking on a wood stove isn’t going to stem the inevitable tide. Sitting in my chair on a summer morning while I wait for the fire to perc my coffee, I am merely the smallest of eddies in the midst of a very strong current.
That’s OK. I’m not looking to change the world. Like so many, I’m just enjoying the fact of something so ingrained in my life that it’s become ritual. That, and I really want a cup of coffee.