Landscape is sometimes even better than biography for giving insights into a person or group. Any casual ride through the dense woods of Vermont will tell you that the people who live in those little set-back houses behind carefully stacked fire wood are not exactly social gadflies. They spend much of the winter gazing out of frosted windows, and tending to a fire that is always hungry for another log. You can well imagine the daily grind of such dwellers as they pull on heavy jackets and boots and trudge outside in a world skeptical of mammals who don't bother to hibernate.
Cold eats at the heart and shrivels up the desire to reach out to others. And winter keeps dragging snow in on clouds like some lumbering freight train coming down from the north or from the Great Lakes to the west. You must be vigilant about your roof, which can buckle under the weight of a foot of new snow. Many roofs around here are skirted at the eaves with aluminum sheeting, over which is nailed a wandering heating cable to melt the snow, to avoid having an avalanche come down on you as you enter the house.
Inside such houses is the slightly stale air of a closed space, with its ash dust hanging suspended in the occasional sun motes. The dust settles on everything in the living room, from chair arms to lampshades, to knickknack shelves, which look like those neglected exhibits in a roadside museum. A slight cough is not just the punctuation of small talk, but a sign of how long someone has been breathing in this subtle irritant and ignoring it. The grayish light of such rooms casts a mood over the lonely interiors of most such remote houses in this little state. It induces introspection, the desire to keep a diary of life under a ticking clock, a muffled cry from somewhere outside, the knock of a wooden beam within the house.
The other day my wife and I drove up into the far north of the state, to Grand Isle, a sprawling island in the middle of Lake Champlain, twenty-six miles below the Canadian border. Choppy gray water lies on both sides of the road, the towns are small, gathered within a grid of narrow streets. The afternoon was well along when we roamed around the little dairy farms and wooden silos. Here and there were old, peeling motels popular back in the 1950s. As severe and restrained as this landscape seemed, it was a resort for families who piled into tiny rooms and went out each day to splash in the lake water. Think Sweden as you gaze upon these scenes that could have inspired Ingmar Bergman's film, Wild Strawberries, with its flashbacks to better days and the decay of the present time.
A young woman in a convenience store stood idly at the counter wearing yoga pants and a heavy sweater. She was pretty but her looks had mellowed early. "How cold does it get here," I asked her. She was taciturn by nature and took a deep breath. "It'll be three degrees tonight, not counting in the wind chill," she said with a glum little smile. "I bet you're ready for Hawaii for a few days," I said. She laughed. "I'd like to see something pretty, in a nice warm place." She didn't need to say anymore. I paid for our fruit drink and left, and saw her watching us as we left the parking lot, no doubt wondering where we had come from.
Along some edges of the land were large houses, summer places put up by lawyers and businessmen from Burlington, no doubt. They were showy, like the mansions you find along the Rhode Island coast in towns like Bristol and Warren, and over in Newport, the center for lavish self-indulgence. Lake Champlain lacked the panache of the Atlantic coast; it also had a long sad story to tell about hardscrabble living and the iron fist of northern weather. But there they were, empty, dark inside, beautifully kept up by a few gardeners and painters on retainers during the winter. The have-nots had their bungalows in town, with tiny pitched roofs of green shingle, and the rooms raying out from the nave of the house as money allowed. Northern etiquette permitted a certain amount of litter and junk in the yard; tidy yards were a sign that you must be hoarding an extra bit of money in your mattress, and not suffering like your neighbors. So there they were, heaps of rusting junk, old bed frames, a boy's bike, a barrel missing some staves and beginning to sag. One ambitious soul had erected a greenhouse, but the panes were broken and the dirt inside was no longer black but glazed like a doughnut with hoarfrost. Old tractors were parked in ruts of the yard, and a few old cars were wedged into a row of briar bushes at the back of the house.
You won't find luxuries in the local stores; the food is generic, and unhealthy for the most part. This is potato country, with ground beef as the staple most nights. Lots of cans of salty soup, and sugary breakfast cereals, and six and twelve-packs of thin beer, the sort that arm chair quarterbacks nurse along through a night wind and a hard freeze. Wives were generally heavy-set, with their looks pretty well drained out of their plain faces. They reminded me of English housewives, with ruddy cheeks and watery eyes, and a knowledge of the land that would astound you if you could lure them into conversation. The kids were ordinary, with eager eyes and mouths used to boredom. They had grown up with a tough skin and a simple outlook, and hunted with their fathers or picked berries with their mothers. They accepted the leaden pace of the pendulum measuring out their mortality. This was, after all, the land of old people, white haired men toddling along with a dog, spindle-legged crones wearing a heavy coat and shuffling to the beauty parlor or the neighbor's house. A world of bread and butter pickles, jars of home-made sauerkraut, jugs of apple cider in the cellar, smoked deer meat, bins of stubby carrots and spuds, pressed flowers in a family album on the window sill. Nothing flamboyant or daring; the shower curtain was the only sign of weakness in a stern will, depicting a beach with heavy surf and men and women on surfboards. The rest of the bathroom was drab and austere, a room you might find in a convent or an old folks' home.
But humor was quick and well-honed. I have found myself offering up a pun and getting a come-back so fast I was nonplussed. "How's the weather around here," I might ask someone while pumping gas. "It's more like whether or not," a man said wearing faded overalls and an old fedora. "You can't control things, you just go on living under the hammer," he added. I could have been chatting with Robert Frost, whose tart humor turned an ordinary poem into a green apple. "Have you any discounts for senior folks like me," I asked a clerk in a country store. "About the only discount you might bargain for is with the undertaker," he replied, without smiling. Okay, death is the only negotiable price you'll pay in this harsh country.
The land is generous in the summer; a hot sun and a short summer mean you can almost hear the rosebuds opening, the big floppy zucchini flowers twisting open the green pods to spread their parasols in the rain. Tomatoes hang like the brass balls of old pawnshops, heavy, and full of smoky odors as they bend the branches. And fall is a pyrotechnic display of slow-moving fireworks, reds and piercing yellows, russet colors of all hues spread out in the woods and mountain sides as if to so soften the blow of coming winter. It's a compensation and there are few once the cold weather starts to circulate on the wind. The soul of Vermont reflects the same cautious thrift as nature, wasting not one acorn or pine cone on the frivolous. The squirrels are smart, hard-working monks of the forest and gather up their food early and stash it away in a myriad of blackened holes in the trees.
There's no such thing as lagniappe here, the New Orleans practice of tossing in another filet of fish or a bright red apple after you paid for your purchase. Generosity is the mirror of frivolous, wasteful nature, spewing out fruits and vegetables from its vast cornucopia of long, fertile summers. Here everything is weighed to the ounce, and calculated with great miserly astuteness before exacting pay. Any tradesman you hire will treat you accordingly and demand the last penny within legal limits. No one gives away anything unless your loyalty as a customer has melted a heart here and there after many years. Everyone is expected to labor under an old Puritan god, and to mend frayed sleeves and collars, wear one's soles down to the tack heads, and keep an old car running that has rusted out its rocker panels long ago.
Tough leather souls and wary hearts have been the land's tutelage on those who live here. The muse of Vermont consciousness is a sun setting behind the spidery black branches of a winter night, with the snow ice-polished and glinting like flint. Magic is everywhere in the weather's humorless vocabulary, in the birch tree's black and silver bark, in a marsh full of wild turkeys, the crows roaming the empty air like punctuation marks from an old book of sermons. You don't dream out loud here, you permit the few stray fantasies to move about as you sit warming your knees in the first hours after sunset.