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Life among Vermont's hippies, hunters, bears, and moose

Loving the city didn't prevent me from needing some country. So in 1969, when my daughter was seven months old (and at the same time as I'd begun to write essays), I took another plunge and bought an eight-room house on forty acres near Barton, in northeastern Vermont, plus an old Volkswagen Beetle to get to it.

Marion and I dug out the gravity spring up the hill, where our water flowed from, put in a heater to make it hot, a bathtub, and a little gas furnace to supplement the 1921 cast-iron wood stove. We hired a carpenter to jack up the sills and resettle them (the price of the house had been $5,000), a mason to rebuild the chimney, and a roofer. We filled the woodshed from the discard heap at a dowel mill down the road, bought more lily bulbs and cultivated the roses, the rhubarb, and the horseradish, limed the worn old lawn and spread ashes on the lilac beds, rented a P.O. box and acquired a library card.

The place, of course, snowballed in importance for me during the next three decades. I wrote about it frequently as I gained familiarity, and in the 1980s dictated a good number of New York Times nature editorials from the nearest pay phone, six miles downhill, because our road had no electric or phone lines. We kept chickens, goats, dogs, and Molly grew up with memories of kerosene light in the evening for at least part of every year, and the sight of deer and the occasional bear, of foxes hunting woodchucks and killdeer soaring, woodcock diving, and snipe wheeling in lariat loops. It was an eight-hour drive from New York to Wheeler Mountain, which curved around in front of our house and that of our only neighbors, Karl and Dorothy Wheeler, but seemed farther because the cliffs looked more like Idaho than Vermont. Bobcats had colonized them, ravens nested on them, and people came from Montreal and Burlington to climb them.

While house hunting, I'd found that the real estate agent I was looking for in town was married to the owner of the gas station where I stopped to ask directions (which, passed from father to son, was still in the same family at the millennium, as were Barton's other principal businesses, and the village still had about a thousand people). Avis Harper rook me along a few back roads where a guy might step out on the porch with a shotgun to see what we wanted, then passed me on to Em Hebard, who had kept a general store, served as a Republican state legislator, and later wound up as Vermont's treasurer. Em had enjoyed, however, a secret, early "socialist" period in Washington, D.C., and Greenwich Village--a job in the Agriculture Department at the tail end of the New Deal, and then a sublet over a jazz club in New York City, where he could sit out on the roof and listen to jam sessions all night. So, whether just through luck or else insightful fellow feeling, he brought me straight to the raw corner of Orleans and Caledonia counties, where I fell in love.

The Wheelers, though almost eighty, weren't selling their land. Karl had been stationed in Brownsville, Texas, during World War I--and his only child, Hilda, was there. Then, after the army, he'd been employed as a railroad fireman near home, until the Depression derailed that job and he took over his father's farm, under the 2,400-foot mountain that bore their name. Unlike Dorothy, Karl had plenty of kith and kin around, who, like Dorothy herself, gradually became my friends. Dorothy had grown up in the Shaker colony in Canterbury, New Hampshire, where her father acted as the handyman after her mother's death from TB (and she took an unsentimental view of those crabby Shakers). Making do with Karl, she had sold cottage cheese and buttermilk, cream and pies, eggs and cakes, to the summer folk on Lake Willoughby, going the five or ten miles by horse and wagon, and had boarded a few of the jitterier single ones in her spare room, when that sort of arrangement flourished as a custom in New England. Best, she'd liked writing a weekly column for a newspaper during their salad days while Karl was on the railroad. Now they called Karl's nephew at suppertime at 5:15 each afternoon on a CB radio to tell him they were okay.

Next door to the Wheelers, in the only other house on this four-mile stretch of dirt road--and no road paralleled it in either direction for at least another four--lived the Basfords, who did, however, want to sell. Donald was a housepainter seasonally and otherwise made a poor living brewing corn whiskey and bathtub beer. Kay, the witty English war bride whom he had brought home a quarter-century before, cleaned house for the pharmacist's family downtown and warned me in all fairness that in the wintertime it got so cold here that their rabbit dog would jump into the oven in the morning when she first lit the stove. Also that the man who had built the house, around 1900, had shot his mother-in-law and, a few hours later, himself. She pointed to the bullet holes and said not she but other people suspected the presence of a ghost.

Kay was eager to achieve the benefits of electricity. They had given up their couple of cows, and an attempt at Christmas-tree and ginseng farming, and did subsistence vegetable-growing and ate deer meat. I got to know them pretty well after they had ceded their house so gladly to me, and their story is a sad one. Donald beat her; she fled one midnight, hitchhiked to safety, and returned to Britain for three years; then came back to nurse him through his strokes and decline. Donald was a saturnine, unrelenting iconoclast, a north-country agin'er from the get-go--about politics, religion, social norms, and what have you. Unlike Karl's relatives--sometime hunters and trappers who also ate raccoon or bear or bobcat meat--Donald didn't maintain a wider net in the community than that which bootlegging provided him. They paid their taxes much quicker, worked at the high school, served on the Rescue Squad, joined the American Legion. Nevertheless, an acidulousness like Donald's raffish outlawry is a kind of shirttail cousin to the cynicism that goes with lawyering or writing, and Donald benefited for a while from (besides mine) the powerful friendship of our most distinguished citizen in Barton, Lee Emerson, Vermont's "last balanced-budget governor." If the snowplow hadn't pushed up Wheeler Mountain Road for a week or more, despite Kay and Donald's standard bribe of a glass of apple cider and a deer-meat sandwich for the driver, Lee would leave his law office over the bank and walk across the hall to the Town Clerk's office, or place a potent phone call to the Town Garage, and the truck would be there in an hour: and no sandwich. Donald used to paint Lee's big house on Park Street, with the mansard roof and turret.

A feud with the Wheelers had begun when Donald accused Karl of molesting his stepdaughter, Mickie, while dandling her on his knee during her visits just up the road (accurately, Dorothy said). Karl thereupon cut off Kay and Donald's access to the original spring that the two houses had shared for fifty years. Mickie herself became a friend of mine briefly, years later, after her parents' deaths and before her own, from alcoholism--and her bitterness was directed at Donald, no one else. She'd seen him hold a meat fork to her mother's throat and rape her on the living-room floor--next to where we were sitting as we talked. Or force the two of them, with a pistol at their backs, to race the wall for hours on a Saturday night, his "English whore and her little bastard." Mickie had escaped through marriage after high school, but unfortunately she picked a crook, who earned her a year in jail as an accessory to one of his burglaries. (Hiring an attorney, he got out sooner.) She said her favorite husband had been the one who beat the shit out of Donald on a visit home, left him hog-tied on the floor after he'd bloodied Kay, and told Kay to burn the house down when they were gone--which was a tried-and-true method of dealing with unwanted relatives in Old Vermont.

Mickie was a blowsy, commonsensical, attractive sort of woman with a drinking problem, visiting her mother's grave before she stopped to chat with me, with a son in tow, or her new fiance (a guy twenty years older than she and missing some teeth, whose chief charm seemed to be his Social Security check, but certainly quite gaga over his good luck), and worried about her children. She had returned to Barton, her hometown, after another shipwreck. But the children's switch in schools was being blighted by the memory people had of Mickie's return another time--one August maybe twenty years before--when, as if to spite her parents, she had danced naked on the stage of a girlie tent-show at the county fair. Her kids needed to fight with other kids every day in order to defend her name. She told me her drinking had started when she was only nine or ten, a "little waitress" carrying glasses of bathtub beer downstairs to the customers and secretly sipping from each.

Kay Basford used to tell me that she had had "two daughters," the bad and the good, but I didn't realize at first that both were poor Mickie. Mickie had been so loved by boys as a girl that two separate fiftyish men stopped in, the year of her death, to revisit the house where they had felt her spell. Her worst early experience, she said, was when Donald had sold a darling, cast-off horse that he'd picked up for her a few months before. Sold it to the local mink rancher for drinking money: and hadn't warned her. She happened to be standing in the schoolyard at recess when she saw it rolling by--her precious Blacky--tied in the back of the knacker's truck. She screamed and screamed, but there was no way she could rescue it, even by jumping on her bike.

I mention all of this as a prelude to the ambiguity of driving around Vermont. I found Donald himself companionably humorous and irreverent in an axe-swinging sort of way, and Kay flirtatious, tasteful, rather wise, until Donald stopped me one noontime outside the drugstore and told me he was going to kill me because his wife had just run off to England and I must have helped her because how else could she have gotten the money. Actually, from the pharmacist's wife--yet he couldn't prove it, and didn't kill her either but moved into a trailer down the highway with a woman who was rumored to have killed her husband (ruled a suicide, though supposedly the pistol was left out of reach), until Kay came home and Donald had his several strokes and lay abed, cursing at his helplessness.

We had a district attorney, elected by the county at around that time, who was not an attorney; he had to hire a green law-school graduate to do the lawyering for him. And our postmistress referred to almost anybody with a foreign accent as an Eye-talian. Not more than a few years back, night riders from the next town had shot into the house of a black minister, a newcomer, and driven him out--a spasm of violence that was condoned by the state police who investigated it, as well as by our county newspaper. More recently, the local sheriff lost his bid for reelection after being accused of sleeping with the game warden's wife. It was that kind of place. And when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, my wife and I went to the Hotel Barton to watch the spectacle in the lobby (plus take baths for a dollar a pop--we didn't have hot water yet). Although the spectacle was breathtaking, at dusk the clerk turned off the TV set and went upstairs to bed at his regular hour--sent us home laughing. But this lovely, rambling, three-story, eighty-year-old building with a wraparound porch burned on the night before Thanksgiving a couple of years later.

Other "flatlanders" besides us were showing up, but they were mostly of the generation ten or fifteen years younger than Marion and I, the so-called hippies of the baby boom, born during the hypersexual years of World War II, not in the depths of the Depression, and thus less cautious and skeptical, more communal and programmatic, settling year-round on other $100-an-acre abandoned farms, with the secondary aim of trying to change the world. I wanted the world changed, too, and so have remained fascinated ever since by the flower-child experiments of some of these boomers, and the fallout.

A leading edge at the moment was the commune movement here along the Canadian border, near the sources of the Connecticut River and in the watershed of the St. Lawrence. It had been Rogers's Rangers raiding territory during the French and Indian War, and an area of disaffection during the American Revolution and the Civil War. Disaffection, insurrection, slave- and alien-smuggling, draft-dodging (one of my current friends was regularly guiding draft resisters into Canada about now)--so why not a bit of pot-growing and free love in the name of brotherhood? Although north-country folk, in fact, were often offended by this new counterculture, they tended not to go and snitch to the narcs. Their grandpas had outraced Customs men in low-slung roadsters during Prohibition, or hidden the dudes that did. And thus one of Barton's leading businessmen, after hearing confidentially from the local state trooper that a certain single mom who had shown up wearing a peasant blouse, earthy skirt, a glassy look, and windblown hair was really a federal plant, tipped off her neighbors, so that she fished in vain for information from them for a whole year.

As a New Yorker, I disliked what drugs were doing to the city, and the hippies' notion that shuttling the stuff down there was a romantic livelihood and a lark. But I was in the mountains for the wildness; and one of the commune leaders joined me for a forty-mile walk through the forests (twice as far as I went with an official Fish and Wildlife biologist) and became a dear pal. Another dropped in unexpectedly on me at Wheeler Mountain with three cohorts to check my bona fides, but thereafter allowed me a free run at his Farm, where the women gardened bare-breasted because they thought it helped the veggies grow. And another let me watch him snort cocaine, if I chanced to be around--though a dealer from the city who was making a pickup told me that if word got out, I would be tied up, put in a bathtub, and the hot water turned on. The only broken law I knew of that seriously angered me was when some hippie hunters would shoot a moose--of the first, protected few that were wandering in from the faunal reservoir of the Maine woods, where they had survived the nineteenth-century slaughter--and hold a barbecue.

Life sports a Janus face, spendthrift and yet miserly, with both a grin and grimace underneath. We often weep in seizures of intense happiness, for instance, and smile in grief: just as, in my stint in the army, working at a hospital morgue, I'd noticed how commonly the dead had managed at the last a benign or temperate sort of smile. This circularity is neither alarming nor incongruous, but rather seems to make things whole and complete. In the summer, dancing butterflies of pretty colors will congregate where I've gone outside to piss in the grass. The glint of tiger-yellow or cobalt-blue in their beautiful wings may be enhanced by the minerals that they so crave and that my body has declared surplus. And if a nesting phoebe soon grabs one, she is going to profit also--which is a foretaste of the myriad uses that more extensive portions of me will eventually be put to.

As during my three trips to northern British Columbia in the 1960s, I was in the country to take risks and seek linkage, in a place where the very reason that change is slow is because of those many links and risks. My neighboring writers, Wallace Stegner and Howard Mosher, doubtless felt the same. Stegner, whose literary and teaching careers were in the West, willed that his ashes be scattered in a bed of ferns at his half-century summer house in Greensboro, Vermont, because he said it had been altered less destructively during his lifetime. And Mosher has constructed, over several decades, a "Kingdom County" in his fiction from Vermont's Northeast Kingdom's ligaments and legends. We would go around, Mosher and I, sometimes together, scribbling at a hot-rod race or a cattle sale; and I ceded the old-timers mostly to him, just as he left the counterculture, and the mud-wrestlers at the county fair, and most wildlife to me.

To recapitulate the stages of my education in Barton is difficult because the biota itself has been evolving; the people and land values changed. Vermonters began playing golf, traveling like summer people, and voting like Oregonians. And the moose and coyotes--which are such players on the scene today--came in after I did. The Wheelers' pastures grew up to woods, changing the populace of birds. Winter wrens, hermit thrushes, and ovenbirds supplanted the bobolinks and field sparrows and meadowlarks. Fishers (having been all trapped out for the fur market in "sable") were reintroduced to the state about the same time that I was, primarily so they could control the oversupply of porcupines, which had no other natural enemies. I'd had to shoot nine porcupines--which were gnawing at my house for the salts porcupines seek in their diet--in the first year alone. But in another dozen, the "hedgehogs" and the "fisher-cats," as people call the two species, were back in balance. Meanwhile, warming winters brought wild turkeys, as well as turkey vultures, north from gentler climates right up to the Canadian border, to shake hands with boreal birds, like blackpoll warblers, three-toed woodpeckers, and spruce grouse. In Connecticut, where I'd lived as a boy, I'd live-trapped weasels, seeded baby turtles in different ponds, kept gopher snakes and homing pigeons at the age of ten or twelve; then wandered in grizzly territory in British Columbia. So meeting a black bear in a beech wood or a gawky moose in a cattail glade was not an unprecedented experience. And the pairs of barn swallows, chimney swifts, the green-and-yellow garter snakes, the flickers, pewees, and chipping sparrows that Kay Basford had protected (the one cruelty of Donald's that I witnessed was when, while painting my house, he caught a snake and painted it red) were already friends of mine from boyhood.

I've now accumulated more than thirty years of close observation of the matriarchal colonies of garter snakes that live under my house, not to mention underneath the Wheelers' too (which was next inherited by Dorothy's niece). Although not big, they are relics, to me, of the dinosaurs, and superb survivors, more anatomically advanced than pythons, for example. Through having caught and released them by the many dozen, I've known individuals for long periods--old blackened males that finally needed some help with the special exertion of shedding their skins, or perhaps a week of in-the-house heat in order to digest a last meal in September, after a lean dry summer, before going underground to hibernate all winter. These snakes breed in May, immediately after emerging, but a pregnant female will fast for a month or so, as her womb swells by August, displacing her stomach. When she ages, she will live and breed for a few extra years if you capture her and feed her earthworms during the crucial couple of weeks in early autumn, between when her babies are born and when hibernation must start in such a rugged climate. Otherwise, in her exhausted condition, she may not be able to muster the energy to locate, grab, subdue, swallow, and digest enough prey to put on fat for those eight months of suspended animation (and wriggle out of her old skin). Although by now she is a confident hunter, she may get caught, still engorged, by a shift in the weather--a freeze, a snowfall. If the sun that is the engine of her metabolism loses heat before her innards process that last meal, it will rot inside her during hibernation and burst and poison her. I've watched many births and seen the twenty or so babies distribute themselves afterward in little yearling bands. Also the later confrontational hostility between garter snakes from different maternal colonies, and especially between the mothers themselves, if they are suddenly caged together--although the crisis of captivity dissolves their belligerence after a day or two, and they'll coil amicably, just as they hibernate every winter, balled in a common mass together under the wood bin in the Wheelers' basement, or under the Basfords' old milk cooler, buried in the ground outside my garage.

The bears I've known--because of the eight thousand acres of state-owned forestland close around--seem to have been able to maintain a continuity of vastly larger but possibly somewhat comparable arrangements. Five to fifteen square miles is said, by those who study bears, to fill each breeding female's needs; and I would guess that in the broad vicinity of this notch I've kept aware of the resident sow's biennial birthing of her cubs, and then eviction of them the following year, when a series of males revisit her in June and the baffled yearlings begin blundering about in search of footing for themselves, except for a daughter from that or a previous pair who will remain within her mother's territory, as a sort of understudy. I've watched the amorous, rangy, burly males, and the disowned, panicky cubs, at that summer juncture when the world turns upside down for them. I've lain on the ground in many cherry seasons and listened to a feeding trio--the mother and her cubs--munch fruit close to my house, after dark has settled down. They were well aware of me, but the old female knew I was harmless, and was only intent on warning off other bears--who wished to descend from the ridgeline of Wheeler Mountain to my chokecherry bushes and apple trees to fatten for their winter's sleep--with deeply directed growls. The clocking of her seasons and her years, her shifts from cave to cave for different winters or different pregnancies, her quarrels with my dogs, and nattering vocalisms while educating successive pairs of cubs (and bathing in the Wheelers' tablewater spring, until the niece's husband fenced it in), have engrossed me as much as the more recent advent of coyotes--who howl so personably in July, once their pups are mobile, from the vicinity of their den on the slope above my house.

Constancy is what we want--the snipe and woodcock whickering in loops every spring during their mating flights; and killdeer even earlier. Barred owls and white-throated sparrows also making themselves heard about then; and "a ton of" robins landing from the south, flocks desiring to beat the crowd--fifty, ahead of the next fifty, foraging the field. Wood thrushes, mourning warblers, waxwings. And the later sharing of the land, by which my local doe deer delivered a fawn in mid-June in the waving grass and full-leaved willow trees alongside the same stretch of stream, a hundred yards in front of my door, where the coyote pair had flirted and bred repeatedly for a couple of hours, till sunrise, four months earlier--coyotes that would have nourished their two-month-old pups with the newborn fawn if they had known. So would the bear have eaten it, if she had been alert to the matter. More meaty was the moose calf born the last week of May in a glade three or four hundred yards from my house, and closer to the coyotes' den. But the succulent plant life right there permitted the cow moose (as big as a horse) to stay close for a while, and neither the coyotes nor the bear would have been fool enough to mess with her.

Life is flux, but habitat in Vermont has lately been turning somersaults, when it's not state-owned, as everyone tries to make his mark with a chain saw, skidder, bulldozer, or fancy landscaping--or simply double his money by buying and splitting up a bunch of acreage. Given an opportunity, the red-tailed hawks are likely to return to the same nesting tree, if it's not cut; and blue goshawks will drop by every fall to try for the adolescent snowshoe rabbits that no bobcat has ambushed. The years that you live on your place acquire a bounce because you know that the wood frogs will sing again in the snowmelt, and spring peepers right after them, when the red squirrels are nibbling maple twigs for the sweet sap and song sparrows get back--once the zero nights are well past, when you had puffed your own feathers like a nuthatch and sat mute. Red-winged blackbirds, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, yellow warblers, yellowthroats: this is wild plumage, not civilian, and the names speak to the effect spring has, as birds materialize variously in migratory pulses, and the sow bear rummages in the swamp by Wheeler Pond for jack-in-the-pulpits and fern roots and sedges, and the waterthrushes strut, the tree frogs climb the poplars, and ovenbirds make the woods ring with teacher-teacher-teacher, just as teachers like me feel that the term may end.

My life was bifurcated between New York and Wheeler Mountain--that carbonation and these still mineral-waters. I loved the kerosene lamps, and then the city's electricity, in six-month bouts. And my marriage provided me with a solid flooring to write essays, because employing the pronoun "I" appeared to take more assurance than working anonymously as a novelist. (In 1970 not a lot of writers were using it.) The problematic part, however, was that Marion could never learn to drive; and although she gladly gave our daughter over to the life of the country every summer and did enjoy being in a small town, I doubt in twenty years she ever walked more than two hundred feet beyond our house except on the road. She was a city person, as was I; but she was so wholeheartedly a metropolitan New Yorker that half of my life, half of what I loved, we couldn't share. The country, with its mysteries, frightened her--its tracklessness and shifting skies, night cries and octopus-armed vegetation.

We'd married for the backup we provided each other--the layers of enthusiasms, authors, historical perspectives, that we filled in for or lent to each other--besides the sexual chemistry and limber parrying of marriage. Marion had never dropped a fallen friend and hadn't a pennyweight of New York brutality; had been so loyal to her high school, Evander Childs, in the Bronx, that she'd refused a proffered transfer to the much flossier Hunter College High, near midtown in Manhattan; then insisted on going to City College, like a good Evander graduate, until her older brother leaned on her to accept a scholarship to Barnard. But Marion's alternative to New York (and most New Yorkers do need one, whether it's Nova Scotia or a charter boat in Jamaica Bay) was Tel Aviv, rather than anywhere to the north or west or south. Her heart was there; and over time, like two Roman riders--with legs spread, each of us straddling two galloping horses as though around a circus ring--we drifted apart, because only one of our plunging horses was shared.

I never went to the country to leave the cruelties of the modern world behind. Like Marion, I loved New York and didn't stop considering myself a New Yorker (nor did Marion regard herself as an Israeli) or think the rural matrix kinder. In Barton we had a wild, cruel county fair with cunnilingual girlie shows--$3 for a lick--famous among carnie types as far south as Alabama, that the Quebecois poured across the border by the thousands to see. The director employed prisoners as cheap labor at his cedar sawmill and limped because, it was said, he had been shot in the foot as a kid by a farmer he'd stolen a turkey from. His son was one of the men who had driven the black minister out of Vermont. And our dogcatcher once shot a stray dog in his own living room in front of his small, crying children, according to a friend of mine who was drinking with him there. I could go on with tales of the spiritual penury and hardscrabble misery in these ice-rasped hills. But I wasn't in Vermont for a respite.

Under Wheeler Mountain, I peered out my windows as if in a bathysphere, watching birds of passage or random mammals--a stalky bobcat, a sinuous fisher--and the wide, ancient, homely cliffs that towered up with cracks across them like the pentimento of a thin-lipped grin, and two slightly mounded, snoutlike nostrils near the top. The rock itself was not a monochromatic granite but striped with dark, and stunted spruces clung to precarious indentations, like green brushstrokes along the face, except where recent avalanches had marred the visage, stripping it of hard-won soil, like a vertical palsy after a stroke. As I'd done as a boy, I transplanted nesting turtles to different ponds when I found them egg-laying on a sandy road in June, or the hatchlings in September. My pace on a moose trail was city-quick, like the accommodation to congested agendas and scrambled viewpoints you make in a metropolis--but not so unlike a countryman's improvisations either, except in tempo. Then, during a rain shower, I'd duck under a tree, where city-time stood still. The canopy of leaves deflected most of the falling water; and I'd wool-gather, or watch a mink twist underneath a boulder after a salamander, and notice beyond it--where a stretch of soggy ground had drowned an aisle of trees--a vista opening toward a concave facet of the cliff that I'd never seen in all my previous walks.

I might become aware, also, of a scent from quite another sort of prehistory: a personage whose black hairs had rubbed off against the bark over my head, and who had left macho claw marks reaching idiosyncratically here and there above where I was sitting as a message not to me but to other beings. Strolling on between rain squalls, I'd perhaps find another kind of bear tree, a nursery birch with two cubs hunkering in the upper branches while their mother fed in a swale a mile away--or an ample, large, old, nutting beech, smooth-skinned, that generations of bears had climbed, impatient to consume its fruits even before they fell. It was claw-scarred wherever bears had shinnied up, ten, twenty years ago, as though with archeo-handprints that had fossilized. These spoke to me, like the moose tooth-furrows that had stripped the bark in a poplar copse, or a buck-banged willow trunk by a stream's ravine.

The "ledge hawks," as Dorothy Wheeler used to call the peregrine falcons that nested on the mountain before pesticides wiped them out, are reappearing in a tentative fashion--already well established on Mount Pisgah nearby. But raven pairs have been thriving way up there throughout, hollering like howler monkeys as they school each annual quartet of chicks--flying them down off their fledgling ledge into the maple trees and firs, the butternuts and basswoods, orchards and meadows--all of the complexities of humor and food. Hazelnuts and carrion, squirming or pouncing things, berries and bugs. The parents instruct their young in eating a shrew: and then the mouse that the shrew had been eating; then a spider on the apple that the mouse had been gnawing; and the apple itself. Hearing a coyote bark, they all flap over and spot her gobbling grasshoppers in a hayfield, and gobble lots of those, while staying out of her reach. Seeing a bittern from the air that has been fishing in a marsh and is poised with a perch crosswise in his beak, they stoop and startle him, bully him, and lift it when he drops it, take the fish to a tree, and make a little meal of that. In the pasture above the bittern's pool, a cow has been giving birth. So wait with patience on a branch until she finishes. Then seize the afterbirth before a fox that's circling, sniffing the prize, feels brave enough to dart close and grab a part of it beating out a turkey vulture too--vultures being more instinct-ridden and slow, like a roadkill bird.

The ravens' acrobatics enable them to finesse some of the mincing of habitat that is underway below, as people shop about for patches of property like new habiliments that they can try to construct another persona from. Having done mergers and acquisitions, or worked in malls or cyberspace, they hope raw land may be a new costume to get comfortable in, plus a hole in which to park some money, and a keepsake to leave to the children, if nature ever becomes their bag. When I chat at the soda fountain in the drugstore with a new guy, it can become like watching amateur theatrics. Landed gentry, or Natty Bumppo--How'm I doing? he asks. Or I may learn that he had won a dismissal on embezzlement charges in a previous domicile. One aging neighbor of mine roamed through the woods in a killing fever, shooting any bird or animal on sight, as if their deaths could postpone his own. Quite the opposite is a friend I have, beached here by divorce, who is a former Green Beret and has quit killing. He confronts poachers on my land with his AK-47 and asks if they want a duel. Or else, in a more suicidal mood, he'll spread his arms and tell them to blow him away--"I want to die." He sometimes fantasizes that the CIA has posted snipers on the cliffs of Wheeler Mountain to wipe him out because of the villages in Vietnam that he saw flayed. Another friend, with memories of combat as a Marine in South Korea to exorcise, will blacken his face before dawn and creep into the woods, sneak behind a poacher, and put a choke hold on his neck. Up the road, however, is a fourth-generation farm family whose daughter is studying to be an opera singer, and who, when they notice that the mother bear whose territory we share is hanging out with her cubs, just witness her activities without wanting to make her into a rug.

A quiltwork, if not a crazy quilt, of landowners has spread across the old farmsteads that other families jettisoned. A gentleman not far beyond them, who was both a Seventh-Day Adventist and a psychiatrist, was raising Ilamas, but died taking off in his homebuilt airplane. We still do have an elk farmer, growing antlers for the Chinese medicinal trade. And a man I know produces South American parrots and Central American king snakes for pet wholesalers in what used to be a dairy barn. Across the road from this former hippie, breeding tropical parrots and serpents, lives another flower child, who bid goodbye to his commune's disintegration by setting off alone on his stallion, Ace, and rode from Vermont to Oregon. But after that heroic effort, he didn't stay; just visited his mother and trucked Ace east again to use for logging and plowing right where they'd started. Similarly, a woman who crewed a couple of years on a yacht in the South Seas returned to work on a weekly newspaper. And a man and woman who had established modern dance careers as a touring duo came back to build their studio and base themselves in the Northeast Kingdom.

To feel at home is the essence of adulthood. And when I poked around with Bimbo, my white collie, looming like Sancho Panza in the backseat window, I'd drive for an hour or so and park where some back road ended, scramble across a beaver dam, a moosey bog, and then up to the top of West Mountain (which is actually east of East Mountain), or one of several others, tuck my sleeping bag under a white ash tree (for its quiet rustle), boil a pot of rice-and-something in spring water over a wisp of a fire, and gaze at the roll of the forest and sky. The wind's seethe was soothing to dream in, once I'd caught my breath and eaten. Notch Pond, South America Pond, Seneca Mountain, Bull Mountain, Ferdinand Bog, Unknown Pond, and the spread between, without houses, barns, cabins, or pavement in any direction as far as you could see. Only a gaudy lightning storm in a menagerie of clouds--or the cerulean blue that we know the physics of but not the more significant explanation for why it evokes such a sense of equanimity in us, and peace and glee. I'd lie and look and almost seem to join the sky, as water vapor is sucked up. What I like to call serene turmoil--or the Brownian motion undergirding life--is not dispiriting, because it never stops. If the seas did quit sloshing, the moon tilting its crescent, clouds scrimmaging, leaves falling and sprouting, we would promptly wish to bury ourselves. And human nature being nature, I've often found the effect not different to walk ten miles in the city. The moil there also produces a serenity in me, because underlying the swarm of sights is the same sensation of enlargement. But the equanimity and, cumulatively, the jubilation are quite the same.

I had a friend who lived in a busted trailer by the lake in Barton on his old-age check and from the trotline he kept rigged for fish and the night crawlers that he raised and sold to day-trippers who put their boats into the water at the public-access point near him. He owned no car but, come October, would hail a Greyhound bus on the highway and go to Florida on his fishworm money, living in a rooming house a few blocks from the ocean, and (as slim and funny as he was) dodge proposals from the widows there. Although born in Vermont, he had the open gaze that vastness lends--the bigger sky, huge spaces he had encountered when he went west as a kid in the 1920s and homesteaded on the Alberta prairie, in the grand mix of Indians, Metis, Mounties, outlaws, and railroad men. He was a blithe man when death took him.

Another neighbor is a former dairyman, a practicing Christian, share and share alike. If somebody robs his house, he'll say they needed the stuff they took more than he did. He used to try to convert me to accepting the Lord, but lately seems to recognize that our ideas of what is sacred aren't so incompatible, and are equally under siege. He sees things as Creation, as I do, but, perhaps fearful of being disillusioned, is less interested in the biological details, and--again, like me--foresees the end of the world we love, or else unnerving alternatives. I sometimes attend the evening services of his Solid Rock Assembly of God Church for the hymns and tears and general hugging, which can be a mild catharsis for me too, at least at lonely moments and mostly watching others do it. We both know that true religion is not teary for long, but ebullient, even in the face of unnerving alternatives: that Brownian motion (to use my metaphor) will override the changes.

My friend, having retired from milk-testing, tracks the headwaters of every nearby stream, the movements of our moose herd, besides going fishing, and fulfilling his paternal duties to five grown children caught in the current venal whirl. Being a Bible believer, he envisions a God more immutable than mine. Immutable, however, in what way?--mercifully, implacably? Like the endgame of a new technology, that remains a mystery. We're less bewildered than suspended in a state of dread. Our faith itself makes us more vulnerable than a cynic or an atheist. We are ebulliently in dread and under siege.

The other friend--that combat veteran who gets a choke hold on some of the poachers who hunt my land--once held a buddy's severed head in his arms all night, lying hiding on the ground while a Korean "gook" patrol searched for him also. When staying in my house, he's been known to shoot a hole through the woodshed because a woodpecker had tapped on it and he thought the knock might be an intruder. Like the ex-Green Beret who imagined CIA snipers on the cliffs who wished to terminate him for what he did for America in Vietnam, he's in the woods partly for his wounds. But he says that he was injured more during his childhood, before he ever joined the Marines, when his father threw his mother down the cellar stairs and nailed him underneath the back-porch stoop. The Green Beret came home, bought a piece of pretty land and put a trailer on it, but then the man he'd bought it from shot another man and the sale dissolved in legal riddles, For relief, I've seen him shoot his crossbow at a straw target.

In other words, it doesn't end. Yet that is how the West was won, the frontier settled--by wounded folk like us. And the regularity of the arboreal and faunal cycles, the rolling weather so dependably unpredictable that it jounces you as air pockets do a plane and you can't go on autopilot--and the bronco-ing landscapes, pummeled not just by recent glaciers but, in the case of Wheeler, a 300-million-year time frame--medicates us. I prefer a house that looks upward at a natural panorama, instead of down, as if you'd conquered everything you see: which will soon be webbed with roadworks, anyway. Gazing up at fastnesses that the clouds, in a mime show of Animalia, alter almost hourly, I watch the mountain go from being a sperm whale's broad profile to an immense, snouty sphinx, and then a pubic travesty of a vulva-and-bush, 400 feet in height. Or just a surf wall of rock, a breaking gray comber taller than that.

The solidity of the town I'd chosen, Barton, lay in its longtime grocery-and-meats family, the Comstocks, and the Harper family's garage, likewise going from father to son, as did E. M. Brown's feed-and-hardware store, which mixed its own grain formulas from freight-car loads at the Canadian Pacific Railway siding, and constituted an anchor for the dairy farms for twenty miles around. Almost everyone in the village ate at the counter of the Ruggles' drugstore once in a while (also a business that passed from father to son); and when Lee Emerson retired, his law practice, in the brick bank building, was taken over by Bill May, from one of the town's oldest families. There had been water-powered mills and little factories alongside the tumbling falls at the outlet of Crystal Lake since the 1860s, manufacturing tables, chairs, toilet seats and water tanks, piano sounding-boards, Peerless ladies' underwear, and wagons, buggies. Also a wool mill, a gristmill, an iron foundry. The water-closet seats were fashioned out of oak or cherry to look like mahogany; and the carriage maker was equally classy. This considerable commercial history underpinned Barton's middle-class pretensions, though by now the only factory of any size was Ethan Allen's furniture operation in the next village. Dairy farming and pulp-logging for the New Hampshire paper industry were Barton's other economic main-stay; or cutting yellow birch and rock maple for Ethan Allen, or cedars for making fencing, tamaracks for railroad ties and barn floorboards, or sawmill spruce and pine. Real estate wasn't much of a factor in 1969; you simply went to the agent's home and drove with him to look at hundred-dollar acres. Or insurance: I insured my home through a retired shop teacher who told me on his front porch how--as an infantryman in an advanced platoon in northern Italy in 1945--he had watched Benito Mussolini being hustled away from his last mountain hideout at Salo by German soldiers, before the partisans seized him at Lake Como and strung him upside down.

The suburb of my boyhood, New Canaan, had been a regular Connecticut town in transition toward becoming a high-end bedroom community when we moved there in 1941. It still had a two-story Checkerboard feed store to supply the relic farms around; a rinky-dink railroad station on a trolleylike spur line; volunteer firemen who responded from their homes to a code of whistles blown at the firehouse downtown that told them where to go; and a local tackle-football team that grown men played on in games against the neighboring towns, in the park. The golf course was a modest nine holes (though I remember watching Babe Didrikson Zaharias swatting an exhibition round, and Don Budge and Bill Tilden once on the tennis courts). The genteel scramble began in earnest after the war, with titans such as Thomas J. Watson, the patriarch of IBM, occupying dachas, Philip Johnson building his glass house (much ridiculed at the time), and narrow roads named after real Siwanoy Indians--Ponus, Oenoke, Wahackme--becoming grandiose. My father, in fact, wrote an article for the historical society about "Indian Rocks," a traditional campground a mile or two from us, where corn had been pounded in scoops in the stone. It soon became a forcing bed for advertising, technophile, or banking wealth of the postwar decades, however; and as a small boy I used to walk the putting greens of The Club with my father and a few proto-captains of the new industries. He occupied a middle level in the pecking order of all this ferment, so before puberty I learned to recognize some of the ethology displayed.

Barton, by contrast, didn't get a golf course until twenty years after I arrived. Instead, town softball teams played on a diamond on the river bottom behind the drugstore, as a main event all summer long--and not just the Little League, and then the Babe Ruth League for teenagers, but the Frontier League, or Northern Vermont League, for adults. There are still some local games between teams sponsored by nostalgic merchants who buy the uniforms, but fewer; and the men's basketball league is gone. The funeral director, on Church Street, was a charitable man who had wanted to be a priest when he was young. He used to put on movies for the kids in the Town Hall, at cost, on Friday and Saturday nights, and make popcorn. But that is over. A friend of mine bought coonskins and other furs to sell to New York dealers, but he is dead. Next to nobody traps. The mink are doing so well that they prowl right into the sporting-goods shop in the basement of the drugstore and eat the bait fish, kept alive in a tank there, waiting to be sold to day-trippers.

The fluctuations in how land and the houses on it are employed puzzle many people (being occupied intensively for two months, then not for ten), and require considerable elasticity from the wildlife too. New cottages spring up, but the owners live like suburbanites, in their cars, if not indoors; and the mammals and birds will form concentric circles of mini-habitat around each dwelling--robins and flycatchers exploiting the lawn, wood warblers and woodpeckers out beyond the fringe. Foxes hunt and den closer to a house than the coyotes (who will eat a fox) normally choose; and deer feed and bed down closer than a moose. Although accordioned into ever smaller parcels, the land can yet retain a certain stubborn ecological value if it's manhandled less: if, that is, the people are away somewhere, or mostly on the Internet, or else in front of the TV, instead of being out sugaring, or driving cows around, cutting hay and corn and firewood, trapping bears, and shooting owls and "chickenhawks." Wild critters can swing right into a summer person's door-yard in the early fall and grab whatever rabbits, squirrels, and the like that have been sheltering there. Or when the snow flies, you'll see a bobcat's tracks go into the cellar and out again, and mouse nests demolished. The people bought the cabin to kick back in, watch the wrens, keep a boat, a diary, and entertain eccentric thoughts, dodge extraneous conversations--plus possess the inestimable privilege of merely thinking about it when gridlocked in the city.

The woods become a proscenium for many folk to strut their stuff in particular roles they may have picked: whether as a sandaled Gandhian; or a "beaver-trapper" clumping about with a full beard, green wool pants, and mud boots; a Mafia don with a pistol in an ankle holster and a cultivated manner of menace; or an old-time fiddler, hirsute and picky, with a yoke of oxen to boot. In the 1970s, cropped-headed women and Prince Valiant men hilled potatoes, home-schooled their kids, argued at public meetings, and bid for a grain-sack full of laying hens at Souliere's Tuesday-night animal auctions. I was chameleon enough myself that I hung out more with these heterodox hippies than with either the middle-class pillars of Barton society or the guys who turned dowels into table legs and Stained furniture for Ethan Allen.

Now newcomers tend to try to dilute the character of any place they move, so that it won't seem unsettlingly different from where they left. But the hippies only sought to alter Vermont's morals, not its wider mores, and for years put quite a brake on change. They burned stovewood, plowed with horses, maintained numerous farm stands, helped or bartered with their neighbors, and disdained pecuniary ostentation. Yet, having few fixed rules and private spaces, there was also a trickster, totem-pole quality, a sliding variability to some of these communes. The faces and personalities were often tiered, as if piggyback, until, next week, the arrangement switched. Scouting up a humpy road to reach one of them, you never knew what you'd stumble on, a buttermilk picnic or a bad acid trip. Would they build their New Jerusalem or piss it away? Eventually they did piss it away, for the most part, in six-pack binges and false starts; left dozens of jerry-built dwellings abandoned in the woods. But all this took at least a decade of angst and merriment. And some tough nuts did hang on, such as the friend I'd bushwhacked the forty miles of forest with. A Bronx boy, a Coast Guard veteran, Al had run Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker soup kitchen near the Bowery in New York and was a committed idealist, though more of a loner than a leader. The leaders crashed.

I had my dog and sleeping bag, so I could stay over if it suited. But usually I wouldn't, because I liked to be at home at work when the sun rose. There were anomalies in several of these Brigadoons, such as the Medieval enthusiast who had floated in on the tide of heads yet was said to be sleeping with his own daughters to tutor them in sex, because that's what the thanes supposedly had advocated. And some lesbians were reported to have fertilized themselves with a turkey baster from a wooden bowl that a couple of men had volunteered to jerk off into, so neither could later claim paternity and the women might bear their kids in simultaneous solidarity. But in general, a commune visit was cheery--the ballooning conversation and the good salads. And the hippies blended with the locals better than contemporary uplink people, with their bicoastal assets and cyberspace income. The hippies and the farmhands, or an assembler from Ethan Allen, might meet in a beer joint and Begin to trade car parts, or else ice-fish and do a little redneck pot together. They could all use a chain saw, pound nails, drive a bread truck, or kick cow shit. In both cultures, all work was regarded as of equal dignity and futility, and a night's mischief (if not the underlying alienation) was fairly similar--the junker cars and woodpile winters, the beer runs and disheveled children.

Now that everybody wants a "place" somewhere, people bump into one another with far less rhyme or reason. The guy training a pair of coonhounds on the weekend to clear his lungs of the reek of furniture stain, and a matron walking in the woods with a cell phone and a mushroom guide--who has a chalet down on the lake but winters in Arizona--act gingerly when they meet at a footlog across my stream. Ours is a town where three bank robbers used simply their deer rifles for the stickup (directing traffic outside the bank as if the barrels were batons), and then perhaps put the money in a boxcar that rattled into Canada, while the cops were tipped off to search through manure piles. And who knows if the show-offs who scattered play money in front of the grandstand at the next demolition derby--from a jalopy painted THANK YOU, HOWARD BANK--were really them? Around the same time, the grandstand roared to life when the then governor of Vermont was officially introduced to the crowd by the master of ceremonies, before giving a speech, as "a Porky Flatlander." Our later bank robbers, on the other hand, were just three vacationers from New Jersey, doing it (as they told a friend of mine, who saved their newspaper clippings for them, after they had got away) "for the rush."

Continuity. How fast the poplars grow, and how slow the oaks. The staunch white pine that I still can't see the top of when I am standing underneath, though a forester told me it would be all but dead of blister-rust disease a quarter-century ago. The barn and house each have new metal roofs that ought to last them much longer than that. My marriage didn't last (nor is Marion even alive). Yet the place somehow did. The continuity of reddish-sided jumping mice and white-throated sparrows, two-lined salamanders and blue goshawks, short-tailed weasels and star-nosed moles. The smell of the cedars, and the joe-pye weed (like vanilla ice cream), while a nighthawk dashes softly overhead and a mink frog brusquely calls. A toad starts singing, and a big green frog--then one of the cliffs pair of ravens seems to answer or mimic the green frog in a similar voice. A male bear descended steeply from his den overlooking my house in late April for a stillborn calf that had been left for him. And the resident female roamed sideways separately on a gentler gradient that her cubs could handle from her den--catty-comer in the V of this mountain notch from his wintering spot--to find the one left in order to get her off to a well-nourished start.

Thirty-some years of yellowthroat song from the raspberry patch in back of my house, and a Nashville warbler in front, spotted sandpipers by the pond, and a pair of young beavers trying to colonize my stretch of stream but beaten back by shallow water in the fall, though they may have pooled enough for a kingfisher to hunt. Two moose, heading there, slanted across my back field last evening as I finished this. But they would have been deer, looking toward my window, when I came to Vermont.

Edward Hoagland's memoir and seventeenth book, Compass Points, will be published in February by Pantheon. His last essay in Harper's Magazine, "Writers Afoot," appeared in the October 1999 issue.
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Author:Hoagland, Edward
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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