My Love Affair with Vermont


I can’t say how it began, but I know I’ve always had this love affair with Vermont, even though I’ve never lived there.  I suspect it has a lot to do with its mountain greenery, since I’ve always been partial to mountains, those silent sentries walling out an octane world fulsome with pursuit and possession, safeguarding neat valleys of Yankee towns and villages anchored by white steepled churches.

I grew up in Massachusetts with vistas much like this, and Vermont, New England at its best, not far away.  I can’t think of a wooded vista excelling that stretch of aerial road known as U. S. 9 connecting Vermont’s  quaint Bennington and Brattleboro towns in the south that I used to travel often.

A few years back, or 2005, I finally canvassed the state right up to the Canadian border before twisting back to the Massachusetts coast by way of New Hampshire’s lofty White Mountains.  One special delight was visiting Swanton, just south of the Canadian border.  My grandparents had called it home.

Retaining its small population contributes to the state’s Edenic luster, despite the continuous threat of emigres from New York and Massachusetts, not infrequently buying up commanding views, cutting trees, and building spacious palaces of material privilege.

In Vermont box store giants are rare, and thus town centers of mom and pop stores prosper and prove gathering places.  Smallness and simplicity turn back the clock.

I like the democracy of these towns with selectmen, not mayors, held to account by their  citizens in weekly meetings of equals.


For many of us, Vermont means dairy farms, cradled among gentle hills, producing cheeses by the score; undulating countryside redolent with flaming fall foliage and winter’s maple syrup like no where else.  But it’s also a place of considerable waterways, despite being New England’s only landlocked state.  Every town seems to have its murmuring stream or running river, which sometimes menace human artifacts with storms like last year’s Sandy.  And then there’s Lake Champlain, America’s sixth largest lake, 120 miles long, 14 miles across at its widest point and 400 feet deep.  What grabs me most are its myriad covered bridges, more than anywhere else, archives of a past of horse-drawn carriages catching shelter from cacophonous clouds unleashing summer deluge.

Apart from scenic splendor and sanctuary replete with serenity, I like the state’s progressiveness.  Vermont, by the way, is the only state represented in Congress by a socialist, registered as an Independent.  Small as it is, no state ranks higher in promoting the welfare of its citizens.  It was the first to abolish slavery.  It was also first in granting women the right to vote in 1880.  Unlike neighboring Massachusetts which recently blinked under religious pressure, Vermont has now joined just Oregon and Washington in passing death with dignity legislation.  Vermont was the first state to allow civic unions and, later, gay marriage.   Looking towards the future, it’s promoting a single payer, non-profit health system akin to European and Canadian models.  Concerned about climate change, it has joined eight other states in offering rebate incentives to purchasers of electric cars.

At times, I think of Vermont as almost another country independent of the body politic. In fact, for fourteen years, it was just that–a sovereign nation before joining the Union.  Funny I should write this, but when I was in my twenties I had looked to New Zealand as my deliverance from a meaningless Asian war, burning cities, and assassinations of progressive leaders, including a president who gave possibility to Camelot.  New Zealand responded with immigrant status and employment, yet I didn’t go, for my American roots lay deeper than I knew.

A few years ago, I visited New Zealand and beautiful Taranaki which would have been my home.  I happened to meet several American ex-pats, one of whom shared that California had grown stale for him with its exponential growth in population and social burden, despoiled environment and plighted cities, accelerating crime and sky high taxes, inflated mortgages and a growing economic divide.

I wish now I had asked him if he needed to go so far, even as I had once thought of doing.  Why not Oregon, Washington, Montana?  Why not Vermont?

I wish I had asked myself that question when blessed with those options uniquely granted to the young.


Of Emily Dickinson and Spring Blooms

Foxgloves in the Homestead garden
Foxgloves in the Homestead garden

The opening and the Close Of Being, are alike
Or differ, if they do,
As Bloom upon a Stalk–(1089)

I’ve always liked Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  She has this pithy way of putting things in a few, well-chosen words; a prism mind that turns things over for a thorough look; a quiet defiance that goes its own way with surprisingly modern skepticism;  a willingness to break free from fettering meter; best, a probing of the human heart in its pangs of love and grief.  I admire her honest wrestlings with God and matters of eternity.  She wanted to believe, but not by forfeiting her intelligence.

I  like how nature finds its way into virtually all the nearly 1800 poems she largely wrote in her upstairs bedroom at the Homestead, looking out on the main street of Amherst.  Every sort of plant and creature seemingly populates her poetry, including not only birds, flowers, butterflies and bees, but caterpillars and even snakes.  She kept an album of pressed plants and often slipped a flower in with her many letters.  While few Amherst villagers may have known the woman in white was a consummate poet, everyone knew she kept a great garden.

A holdout in that era’s high tide of Christian belief, she adopted her garden as her daily church, a  place of intimacy with the divinity of life:

Some keep the Sabbath going to church__
I keep it staying at home
With a Bobolink for a Chorister–
And an Orchard for a Dome–

Some keep the Sabbath in surplice–
I, just wear my Wings–
And insterad of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton–sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman–
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last–
I’m going, all along (236)

That garden and its seedlings had disappeared by 1915, when the Homestead’s attached conservatory, her father’s gift, was also dismantled.  Fortunately, beginning with 2005, that garden has been lovingly restored, based on diligent research, to its likely layout and, along with the Homestead, is now owned by Amherst College.

I bring up the subject of gardens because gardening is something I’m fond of as well. Every spring I re-thumb my garden magazines and books, looking for new ways to retool bloom and beauty.  This year, I thought of Emily Dickinson and my several visits to the Homestead.  Since it’s rare I can get back to Amherst in my birth state of Massachusetts, why not the next best thing and find room for a Dickinson look-a-like in my backyard, a space swimming in the flowers that Emily loved like violets and arbutus, daffodils, tulips and crocuses, daisies and roses.

Flowers, “Nature’s sentinels” (912), launched meditative moods in Dickinson, who drew upon metaphysical poets like Herbert and Vaughan for nuances of the Infinite.

For her, nature’s seasonal rounds resonated life’s own temporal rhythms with its undulations of joy and sadness; the immediacy of nowness and the anguish of letting go; the fact of mortality, and yet hints of something more.  That works for me as well. –rj

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