On a long, cold night in winter, the village of Newfane, Vermont, a small community in the southern Green Mountain foothills, draws in upon itself.Under a fragrant blanket of woodsmoke from the villagers’ stoves and fireplaces, muffled by snowbanks, behind warmly lighted windows, its householders settle in. Nobody is abroad. No sound breaks the silence unless it’s the infrequent swish of a car’s tires or the guttural rumble of a passing snowplow. On a winter night the village enters a deep stillness.
In the morning the little settlement takes on a far different, far livelier aspect. Newfane village is some 60 houses and other buildings that amount to a white-clapboarded, black-shuttered, Greek Revival epitome of small-town New England. Living here is a little like living inside a work of art—a wall calendar, say, or an old lithograph. In winter, the plain white houses of the village practically vanish. They’re hidden, like a hare in the snow. The village disappears, and the clocks stop.
The village, as a geographical and political entity, dates from about 1825. That’s a lot of years, a lot of history. In spite of it, the place is curiously preserved. Swap automobiles for horses, and a time-traveling visitor from the days of John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster would know right off that he was home.
Despite the antiquity of the village, however, it is, as a setting, thoroughly up to date. It’s also quite diverse. Newfane village is the home or the workplace (or both) of a couple of hundred people, of all ages and many occupations. We have storekeepers, lawyers, teachers, courthouse workers, bank workers, garagemen, hardwaremen, electricians, restaurateurs, builders, artists, retirees, booksellers, veterinarians—even authors. The village is a busy place.
It’s a busy place, and, in winter, it’s somehow a more sociable, more chipper place than in other seasons. You can see this in the village’s various points of human exchange: the store, the post office, the bank. Sure, the varied lives of the villagers intersect at these locations year-round, but in winter the intersections are warmer and more leisurely. In winter, people have a little more time for one another and for the small ceremonies of our common experience, including the ever-popular game with the weatherman, in which he reports on conditions and his listeners report on his reports.
Coming into the post office on a snowy morning, I find George and John waiting for the mail.
“Going to be a big snow this time?” John asks.
“I heard a foot upstate,” George says.
“Boston said only a couple of inches,” I put in.
“What do they know?” George asks.
Approximately the same conversation is to be heard from one end of town to the other. The villagers shake their heads and go about their business as best they can, but not without having a rueful little laugh together at winter, and at themselves as winter’s unwilling servants. Winter is an ordeal that is not avoided or defeated, but shared. Therefore, it’s in the depths of winter that the village is most perfectly a community. We pay attention. We focus. We set things around our houses to rights. We lay in supplies at the village store. We know the snow falls on all alike, sending male and female, young and old, rich and poor slipping and sliding helplessly into the ditch. Winter puts us all in the same boat.
It puts us all in the same boat, but it does more: It makes us almost glad to be there—something that cannot be accomplished by talent or hard work or strong character, but that can be accomplished by humor. Winter breeds wits as summer breeds mosquitoes. What you can’t avoid or overcome you must endure, and humor aids endurance. John is on his way home to work on his driveway. He had it nicely cleared last evening, but the town plow came along in the night and left a ledge of snow the size of the Hoover Dam where the driveway meets the street. John has a heavy job ahead of him.
“See you fellows later,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of snow to shovel.”
“I don’t know why you bother,” George says. “I mean, in six months most of it will be gone.”