The stories and essays of a forgotten Vermont farmer and writer deserve a new generation of readers.
By Leath Tonino
Jan 05 2015
In this snowy scene by Rowland Robinson, the road is thought to be Route 7.Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson
A man walks through fields like silver oceans of snow, his boots crunching on a crust stronger than his weight, a full moon overhead. He has been watching the weather—the meltings and freezings—for days and weeks, anticipating these conditions. Alone, stopping now and then to listen for long minutes into the night’s vast quiet, he hears his own breath, an owl’s faraway hoot, a cold-cracked branch in the distance. The man knows these sounds as he knows the moonlit fields; he has lived with these sounds and fields, lived in them, for decades. He is a farmer, a naturalist, and an artist—a writer and a roamer. Like his father and his father’s father before him, he calls this “wide glittering expanse” his home.
One hundred thirty years pass, and another man, a younger man in a busier time, walks the same fields beneath the same moon, his boots crunching on a crust just as hard and smooth and bright. For him, too, these are the fields that call him again and again to wandering. He cuts a diagonal path across one field, pushes through a brushy shelterbelt, steps over train tracks, and enters a second field, at the center of which stands an ancient, leafless tree. He has photographed this tree in his mind’s eye 100 times on 100 winter tramps, shooting it at dawn and dusk and midnight, in storms and calms and cold snaps and everything in between. Tonight, the branches are a blue lattice printed sharply on the snow. Blue ink. Shadows. He listens to the humming road a mile away and thinks of the man who walked here when the tree was new.
The first man, the remembered man, is Rowland Evans Robinson. He was born in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, in 1833 in a house called Rokeby, and died there in 1900. The house sits surrounded by walnut and locust trees on a slight rise just east of today’s U.S. Route 7, the Champlain Valley’s most heavily trafficked road. Fields out back ease into the low forested ridge of Shellhouse Mountain. Fields out front, west of the road, sweep down to Little Otter Creek, its tributary slangs, and a marshland near the mouth of Lewis Creek known by the Abenaki as Chegwalek—“at the place of the frog.”
Bought in 1793 by Robinson’s grandparents, Rokeby has over the centuries been and become many things, including a sheep farm, a dairy farm, an orchard, a stop on the Underground Railroad, and a museum commemorating the lives of four generations of Robinsons. Nowadays, visitors can tour the grounds, peer into crooked barns, or linger in that room where Rowland Robinson, blinded by age, composed stories and essays with the aid of a writing board, which allowed him to follow his lines by touch. Gathered around the fireplace, his wife and children would read aloud what he’d written, jotting down corrections as he spoke them, preparing his manuscripts for magazines such as Scribner’s, Forest and Stream, and The Atlantic Monthly. Rural life: That’s what Robinson knew and that’s what he wrote about.
In the Green Wood. Hunting Without a Gun. Uncle Lisha’s Outing. Sam Lovel’s Camps. A Hero of Ticonderoga. A Danvis Pioneer. Rowland’s 14 books range widely in style, from local history lessons to folktales with phonetically spelled dialects to exuberantly recounted nature yarns featuring animals that creep, swim, soar, and burrow. Silver Fields and Other Sketches of a Farmer-Sportsman, published posthumously in 1921, is a little-known classic, its title essay a paean to the beauty and power of New England’s coldest, sparest months. As with the fields and snow and moon it takes for subjects, it is a shining, timeless thing.
Which brings us to the second man, the man drifting in and out of blue branch-shadows, stamping his feet to keep warm, hooting responses to the owls of his own age even as he tunes his ears to the owls of the past. This man is me. I became this man 10 years ago. Or maybe I should say I became this man over the last 10 years.
When I was 18, my mother moved to a house a half-mile down the road from Rokeby. Though my childhood home was only one town north, and though I was soon to leave for college in Colorado anyway, I felt the move as an ache in my chest. I’d grown up more out-of-doors than in and was not yet ready to say goodbye to the particular pine stands, mucky gullies, and cornfields and hayfields that had literally and figuratively grounded my life. To make matters worse, my mother was moving to a neighborhood, albeit a small one. Having recently read Thoreau’s Walden for the first time, I was none too pleased by this turn toward civilization.
Home on holiday break that first December, snowshoeing beyond the last snug house with its twinkly window-framed Christmas tree, I discovered, to my surprise, the great spacious invitation of the fields—the long blank plains, the huge fresh sky. Barbed-wire fences sifted the wind. Peach-colored clouds went rosy with the sunset. Wild turkeys left angelic wing impressions where they had beaten upward into flight. I followed paths—hooks and swerves of nervous mice, a coyote’s steady plod—and made my own. I met the ancient tree that would become my friend, returning and returning and returning over the years.
In the fields I encountered a stillness that allowed, or drew forth, a corresponding stillness in myself—a profound peacefulness. I came to believe that this quality of land and mind had been around forever, that in some mysterious way the fields and the walking of the fields existed, and would always exist, in a pocket outside of time.
And then, browsing a library bookshelf one afternoon, whom should I bump into but my old ghost-neighbor from up the way: Rowland Robinson, pipe in mouth, smoke curling between us. He reached out across the page to shake my hand, asking if I was ready to go.
Silver Fields begins with a meteorological report both lyrical and precise. Wind directions, specific qualities of rain and sleet and snow, temperatures rising and falling and holding steady—all are recorded with patience and attention to detail. “When the full moon comes pulsing up behind the evergreen-crested hill,” Robinson writes, “it is no time to bide within doors.” The fields crusted to perfection, we’re urged to accompany our narrator on his sojourn, to bundle up and brave the elements for the sake of exploration and wonder. It’s participatory, a shared outing: “Let us set our faces toward the moon and trail our shadows behind us.”
I recall a January night strolling with my sister and her dog, the moon a hole punched from the felty heavens, the snow soft underfoot. Absentminded, perhaps dazed by the “celestial light” flooding the fields, I made the mistake of letting the dog off his leash. He vanished. A white dog against a white backdrop, a shadow cast by nothing—a shadow running—and then not even that. When at last he turned up an hour later, panting and smiling, I almost stumbled on him. He was like a magic trick, like a rabbit pulled from a hat.
So it goes in Silver Fields. The writing is surreal, a mirror held to a dream. Robinson stalks a fox that turns out to be a stump. The tracks of weasels, skunks, and hares, expanded to five times their size by cycles of thaw and freeze, spark fantasies of giants. Images emerge and dissolve, thoughts and landmarks come and go. He takes us into the fields, then into the cattails by a pond that fractures and booms, then weaves us through a maze of trees “that show as plainly as in a summer day.” At the cliffy foot of Shellhouse Mountain he pauses in awe before an ice cascade: “Dull silver, burnished here and there with moon-glint.” Little happens on this slow, aimless meander, but much is experienced. A sense of place is enriched with a thousand noticed details. The toes get cold, and we float on home.
Since that fateful day in the local library, I’ve made it a habit—no, I’ve made it a tradition—to read Silver Fields at least once every winter. For me, returning to Silver Fields is like sharpening the ice skates or shoveling the walk after November’s first storm: It’s something to look forward to, a simple practice to draw me deeper into the mood of the season.
Kicking back by the fire, the book a blanket in my lap, I picture Robinson just up the road, sitting in that room where he was born and eventually died, a blind man gazing into the darkness of his mind and seeing there the brilliance of the “wide glittering expanse.” I picture his hands working over the writing board at some late hour, his family gone to bed, his own fire popping and snapping beside him. He’s walking those fields inside his memory, stopping now and then to lean and listen into the night’s vast quiet. He’s searching for the words that will help a reader 130 years hence feel what he has felt and is feeling now, again.
In my imagination, everything comes rushing back: the smell of spruce and woodsmoke, the faint jingle of sleigh bells, the boot-crunch, the breath-cloud, the stillness. For a moment, I’m bewildered, unsure who’s doing the remembering. We brace ourselves against a “cold that no armor of wool or fur can ward off.” We cast down “a newly minted coin” to “see how dull a dot it is on the surface.”
I set the book aside, finish my tea, look out the window at feathers of snow falling past the porch light. Robinson refills his pipe, settles deeper into his chair, and strikes a match.
“Silver fields is not a good enough name tonight for these shining farms,” my old ghost-neighbor writes in his essay’s last paragraph, the tone celebratory, the line twisting language’s failure into an ultimate gesture of praise. He knows the impossibility of his task; he knows that no words could ever sparkle as the land has and does and will. And yet he tries. For his effort I am grateful.
John Elder, a naturalist and author who operates a sugarbush a few towns east of Ferrisburgh, has written of reading landscapes and hiking through texts. This poetic notion—this blurring of boundaries between literature and elemental earth—has something to do with the way I’ve deepened my relationship with the Rokeby fields and their human and natural histories. How exactly it all works, though, is beyond my understanding. I only know for certain that as I’ve grown into adulthood, the act of reading and the act of walking have twined themselves together to form for me a life. It’s a life that has in turn been further twined with Rowland Robinson’s life and the larger life of the fields. It’s a life that at its best moments is without margin or boundary, in many places and times at once.
A man steps over train tracks, cuts across crust, presses his hands to the crystal-frosted trunk of an ancient tree. A second man, an older man, approaches from a different direction. They gaze into the crown of twisted branches and down into the sharp blue net of shadows, then circle the tree—once, twice, three times—and walk off together. The humming road goes silent. An owl hoots, its call as full and round as the moon.
Rokeby Museum, filled with Robinson family artifacts and other exhibits, is open daily mid-May to late October. Jane Williamson, longtime director, says, “I want and hope that a new generation discovers the writings of Rowland Robinson.” A number of his books are available at the museum gift shop. 4334 U.S. Route 7, Ferrisburgh, VT. 802-877-3406; rokeby.org