Here are some excerpts from my forthcoming book, “Taproot: Coming Home to Prairie Hill.” The book is composed of short chapters; three of my favorite chapters are below.
It’s too early even for seeds. They’ll just sit there, soaking in the cold rain, battling the cold soil. It’s certainly too early for geraniums or pansies. In the Northwest I’ve seen them grow in pots all winter, but early April in Vermont could be winter, a hard New England winter following a string of false spring days.
I plant the pansies anyway. If there’s no hard frost, they’ll spread, and soon I’ll have thriving clumps to fill, then overflow, the large planters by the front door. For now, I put them in individual pots and walk them to the small pines. Under their low branches, they’ll sit out the cold like penguin chicks, snug under their fathers’ leg feathers until it’s time to expose them to the weather.
The pansies look back at me out of their cheerful yellow and lavender faces. Lions mostly. That’s what those faces are. After so many decades, pansies continue to hold all the magic they did when I was a child and pansies grew rampant in our city garden in Cluj, an old Transylvanian city in Romania.
We lived on a street lined with chestnut trees. The city’s main park, just a short distance away, was an eastern European version of formal French landscape design, with wide boulevards for strolling, dandelions for stringing into necklaces and tiaras, and a lake for boating and ice skating. I loved all these places, tame and safe, with clearly defined borders, which were nevertheless so much more mysterious and thrilling than life inside our house or relatives’ houses, where the adults talked and talked about terrible things.
But it was our garden, shady and damp, hidden from the street by a stone fence and overgrown shrubs that offered a daily haven.
Romania in the 1950s was a poor country, squeezed under the Soviet thumb. My father had managed, through bold bribery, to retain his tailoring shop and employ two or three apprentices. We were therefore better off than most. Our house was relatively large and had hot running water. Our pantry was filled with shelves of glossy preserved fruit and we had meat several times a week. On special occasions, I was given chocolates and oranges, imported from exotic places and secured with huge bribes. As only the second child and the first girl born into the remnant of our extended family, I was a symbol of survival and regeneration, and more than that: a miracle, utterly spoiled and endlessly loved.
Still, there was no television, virtually no toys and a meager supply of picture books. I was an only child until age six, and there were very few children among the family members who had survived the Holocaust and those of my parents’ social circle. School didn’t start until age seven, and my most grand gift, a bicycle, didn’t arrive until just a year earlier. So make-believe, by myself, was the entertainment of choice. And it was always better outdoors.
Make believe was inhabited not by the people who actually lived in my world, but by vague historical events and characters from the single book of fairy tales I owned. In my solitary games, vanquishing Turks mingled with tormenting Nazis, and I stranded both in the prickly bushes where their skin was torn to shreds and their eyes consumed by the fantastic insects I gathered or the stinging bees I chased toward them. Sleeping Beauty slumbered in a green cave of overarching shrubs, and princes flew over the treetops. My only live companions were the ants, for whom I built forts made of stones and planted gardens of decapitated flowers. The ants were intransigent, but with the aid of water, shovel and endless time, I managed to sometimes bend their movements to my will.
The pansies were my real friends. Being plants and immobile, they always did my bidding. They had faces, happy ones, with crinkly black eyes and furry lashes, and wide smiling mouths in an upside-down heart shape. Best of all, with their varieties of color and markings, they were all different, like people, and could be turned into any imagined heroine or villain.
The world of the garden was an escape from the adults, who pinched my cheeks, exclaimed over my height, and begged hugs and kisses. The incessant demand that I smile was frightening. As living proof that Hitler had failed, I was expected to be radiantly cheerful, a chubby package of pink cheeks and beribboned laughter. But I was thin, serious and thoughtful, perhaps made so by the emotional husks with whom I lived, whose reliving of the horrors they’d experienced in words and glances, in tormented faces, accompanied every moment.
In the garden, they couldn’t see me and I couldn’t hear them. Insulated from the adult world and its endless narratives of suffering and death, I was safe in the shrubbery, my head bent to examine a seed head or over the demanding construction of a mud house for the pansy-people. In the garden, I learned how to make the outdoors my refuge, my claim on sanity, igniting a flame of pure and lasting love for the natural world.
When I was six, my mother spent a week in a hospital just outside the city. On Sunday, my father and I went to visit. I remember nothing about the bus ride, the hospital, my mother being ill or any worries I might have had. I also don’t remember how I sneaked away, leaving my father holding my mother’s hand and their fading voices as I moved away from the open door, then quickly down the long hallway. What I remember clearly is the fascinating world outside as I wandered to the tall trees beyond the cleared area by the building.
Here suddenly was nature on a new scale, vastly larger and more intricate than our little garden or even the city park. The trees didn’t follow the straight lines of the chestnuts on our sidewalk or the oaks along the park boulevards. Here, there were no paths to follow at all. I could walk anywhere, my steps muffled on the dark forest floor, hidden from the world.
A messy place, with towering trees whose branches began far above my head, with undergrowth that made walking difficult and getting lost easy. Ferns grew thick at the feet of the giants. I climbed over massive roots, upholstered with blackgreen moss. Dark berries grew in the few open patches. Lost to the world of humans and their fears, I gorged on their winey juiciness. A branch with prongs at its end became a tool for digging under the layers of fallen leaves. There I saw a universe of earthworms and glossy black beetles. Vernal pools glimmered darkly and I stirred each one with muddy hands.
The air shimmered green. I climbed toward a knoll and scrambled to the topmost boulder. I could see an open field, where all was drenched in sun. I walked there and sat down, and the tall grass bent over me, holding me in a feathery nest.
Later, back in the woods, I sat on a log and listened, but heard no familiar sounds. The only reminder of the world was the wind in the treetops, which came from somewhere far away, even more mysterious than this forest. My adored father, my mother sick in the hospital, the loving aunts and uncles, all were remote and unmissed. Alone but not lonely, and utterly unafraid. Thirsty, probably hungry, but unaware of either in this wild, seductive world. I was bewitched.
I must have been gone a very long time because by the time I was found by my father and some strange men, the sun had set. It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I thought of what my father had endured the afternoon I discovered wilderness.
Casting a Shadow
Building a house is a lot like raising a child.
There are all the months of gestation, when the only sign of the human to come is an expanding abdomen and faint kicking. Once born, progress is rapid. Within the first three months the infant is transformed from an alien looking, vegetative being into a tiny full-fledged person who responds with smiles and musical cooing. Just weeks later, the infant is turning over, holding the bottle, flirting. Then after the first year, the heady rush slows to an observable process.
A full month had passed since the cabin had been moved up the hill to make room for the rapidly evolving house. And since our last attempt to hammer out a contract with Michael, even a sketchy one. Our changes on each new version were met with the same solution: let’s do T&M (time and materials). Let’s not, we insisted. We need a number. Even if it’s a moving target that ratchets up daily. T&M would deprive us of even the illusion. It would turn us into control freaks who would obsess about the length of the lunch breaks and the trips to the hardware store.
We made several more half-hearted attempts to work out something Michael would accept, but it was mid spring, the subcontractors were lined up and ready, figuratively pacing the perimeter. It was time to build, contract or not. A friend described how his addition, which was roughly the size of our house, was agreed on over a mere handshake. (He later sued the contractor for unfinished and shoddy work.) We took a leap of faith that could have ended in crushing disaster. But over the next seven months, as the house rose, so did our confidence in Michael and his crew. Visitors who knew more than we did confirmed that the house was being built with enormous care and attention to detail. A clear case of beginner’s luck.
Once again, we divided up the research and decision-making, thus mostly avoiding marital discord. The labor was equitably divided. The one with the least talent, experience and interest in a particular area got to nominate the other to that project. Thus, since I knew or cared even less than Ted did about the heating, electrical and other systems, these became his to try to understand. All finishes — from paint colors and floor tiles to staircase design and window framing — became mine.
The daily communication with Michael also fell to me. After the first few encounters, the two pronounced male egos began to raise hackles and other unpleasant things and were clearly not about to form a warm bond. Being a woman, I found it easy to dispense regular ego massages, keeping all the wheels properly lubricated.
Months of excavating and earth moving, of trenching and compacting, of pouring foundations, embedding footings, and raising of frost walls left me impatient. All these months, all these checks, and still nothing, or at least nothing that led me to believe a house would soon, within the promised time frame, rise on the spot.
One late-summer weekend we walked inside the perimeter of the four-foot–deep hole, only our heads above ground. The layers of earth were now all gray cement, not conducive to aesthetic visions. The following Friday evening we hopped around on the girders and across the foundation walls that divided the space into rooms that until now had existed only on paper. Long after the sun had set, we climbed in and out of the “house,” and walked from room to room, admiring the view from each, jumping across the low walls, a couple of awkward Gullivers. I stood a long time in the kitchen, peering at the Adirondacks, seeing myself at the future sink in that spot. The prospect of a built house seemed suddenly more than possible.
By the following week, piles of wood were heaped on the ground beside the foundation, a shocking amount of fresh lumber, maybe half an acre of forest chopped, peeled, cut, sliced and delivered to build this one modest-sized house. The siding would be cement board, the floors ceramic tile, the construction stick and not post-and-beam, saving who knows how many trees. And still, the amount of wood was shocking.
Then magically, as we rushed up the driveway the following Friday evening, full-sized walls rose to greet us. They were mere bones, an intricate skeleton built of two-by-six lumber, but there was no doubt; they formed the recognizable frame of a house, an admirable, larger than envisioned house. And just days after that, the floor girders and joists were in place, and the framing rose to the headers. We could no longer climb across the walls; we had to come and go through the door openings, and gaze through gaping window holes. We stayed long enough to see the moon rise and float to a focal point right above the center of the house.
In the morning, I watched a wavering stream of Monarch butterflies through the open roof. Then another, shorter stream, followed by a longer one. A couple of feet above the fields, just missing the tallest grassheads, were many lilting butterfly trails, all flying toward points south of Birdseye. Singles, pairs, a half dozen orange and black wings almost stroking the grass, rising on unseen air currents, turning the gray day shimmery. The migration continued all day, sometimes faltering to a few stragglers but then picking up numbers until the air was filled with silent winged movement. I was afraid to walk, afraid to hit these frail creatures, afraid they would hit me and shatter.
Every late summer since then I wait for the predicted Monarch migration. Their two thousand five hundred mile journey to Mexico’s Sierra Madre starts somewhere north of us. They still have almost all those thousands of miles to go.
I rise early and watch intently for this otherworldly event. But each year, the numbers dwindle. Illegal logging in the Sierra Madre has slashed their numbers. Dry, Monarchs survive below freezing temperatures, but wet, they freeze to death in the damper, colder winters already produced by climate change. Finally, they depend on milkweed in their larval stage. Milkweed grows in fields, and as the available uncut fields in their summer habitat shrink, so do the Monarchs.
Up here, we need no scientific studies; the evidence is in the sad little groups of Monarchs that meander over our fields in September, a more terrible reminder of their demise than a total absence would be. I pray for these remnants. I pray for enough goldenrod and yarrow and asters to provide sustenance. I pray for no wild wind to tear off their wings. I look at the small spruces we planted as a windbreak. We’ll encase each in a snug cocoon of burlap before winter arrives. But who’ll protect the butterflies?
Waiting for the remembered profusion but ready to settle for a remnant, I try to recall the heartbreaking lines in “I Shall Never See Another Butterfly,” penned by a young inmate in Terezin, a concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, where tens of thousands of children were held for months or years before being transported to death camps. I can only remember the last stanza. “That butterfly was the last one/Butterflies don’t live here/in the ghetto.”
Of course not. They barely live in our free world, free to destroy butterflies.
Once the girders were up, the work proceeded at a brisk pace. By the following weekend, the headers and beams were in place, followed by the roof trusses.
It was a thing of beauty, this skeleton. Built of varying widths and lengths of wood, lovely and rugged, delicate and sturdy, a genius of design. Like a suspension bridge or a series of moving gears, it was a show-and-tell of complex engineering. And as I would admire a newborn baby, so common and yet miraculous, I admired this cunning and exquisite creation, trusting that for all its seeming fragility, it will withstand the weight of sheetrock and of weather and of decades.
Two weeks later the roof was covered up. I wasn’t sure I liked this new solidity. It shut out the sky. The space seemed confining. The large open playpen had been turned into a large cage of hundreds of bars. I wanted to see the moon drift across from the east to the west wall. Instead, the moon cast a huge shadow of the house across the barren earth.
The confinement though was a quantum leap closer to a cozy retreat safe from the elements. I could now walk from room to room and see our life in the house. Bread rising in the kitchen. Visiting children rising in the guestrooms. Future grandchildren peering laughing around doors. I could clamber up the ladder to the second floor and feel myself gratefully climb into bed. Coming down, I had visions of drifting through furnished rooms, straightening chairs and pillows, sipping tea. Instead of the mountain of weed-sprouting earth created by the bulldozer, I would be gazing at tomatoes and pumpkins glistening with dew, and birds cavorting in a birdbath.
There were still months of demanding work, heavy equipment and noise ahead. Trucks rumbled up the driveway, delivering more lumber, boxes and boxes of roof shingles, miles of wires and pipes, palettes of wallboard. How many nails had already been hammered into this house by how many multiple thousands of hammer strokes? How many hundreds of cuts had been made in lumber used in the girders and joists, the framing and beams? The activity was surging with the lengthening days.
Early in the spring, a couple of returning tree swallows had set up their domicile in a birdhouse mounted on the cabin. Four white eggs were laid. Perched for long periods on the birdhouse roof, facing thoughtfully in the same direction, the future parents stood watch.
Then the men and machines moved in. Ignoring the screeching, rumbling, tearing mayhem, the swallows remained on their roof, stolid, determined. At times, one would fly off and the other would move into the house to wait. They met the clamor with outraged cries and low forays, swooping close to the men and machines before landing back on their perch.
One of the young carpenters built a three-legged stand and positioned the birdhouse on top of it. There followed an afternoon of wild protestations, with mama and papa circling their house in its new location, emitting a cascading series of complaining calls. By evening, having vented their opposition, they moved into their old home in its new location. It was close enough, after all, and the eggs had not been touched.
The birds carried on, and so did we. We didn’t know when the babies were born, but when the house seemed empty one day, I peered in and saw them. Three impossibly small and naked beings huddling in the far corner, pushing deeper away from my inquisitive gaze.
The family remained there through June and July. We watched the babies emerge one by one, and amid the roar of construction, leave on their maiden flight. One windy day, when we could see the bobolinks were holding on for their lives on the wildly swaying grass stalks, someone noticed that there had been no activity for days. The swallows had left, perhaps for saner fields, until their journey south.
Along with possessions, I’ve been trying to rid myself of behaviors, specifically those that create conflict with our new community. Success has been slow and spotty. I continue to be too demanding of myself and others, and I have to remind myself on each occasion to not judge people hastily. I struggle to bury these traits under the accumulating changes being wrought in us. Living alone on this hill, exposed by turns to nature’s coddling and its violence, is precipitating much of the change. Vermont’s people are also forcing us to reconsider long-held values and learn new ways of being part of the social fabric.
In Vermont, much of the time, you can’t tell a book by its cover. Its people don’t fit into covers, no matter how roomy, oddly-shaped, elastic.
There’s the truck driver who earned a philosophy degree from one of the Ivies. The seamstress was a fine arts major. The quiet medical technician regularly leaves her tiny house to scuba dive in the world’s remotest waters. The retired high-school teacher stacks boxes in a mail-order warehouse so he can live in Vermont and is very happy, thank you. The former corporate executive raises llamas on an uphill farm and sells Christmas decorations fashioned from their wool. A friend with two advanced degrees sews potholders to sell at craft shows. And the erudite farmers compose newsletters that between recipes for sautéed chard and stir-fried radishes explore the philosophy of local production and its impact on the world’s future.
Out for a short hike on a late fall afternoon, I met a very old man in an even older parka walking toward me slowly, a crooked stick in each hand. We greeted each other. I wondered if his teary eyes and red nose meant he was cold. And that ancient, huge jacket. Was he, could he possibly be homeless, camping out here? What would happen to him in the winter? Searching for an unobtrusive way to determine if he needed help, I engaged him in conversation. Since I was somewhat lost, as I am on every hike, getting directions was the obvious opener. In a strong voice, the old man pointed the way, including shortcuts and lookout points not to be missed. Impressed, I carried on the exchange, learning that he was the undisputed owner of all those hundreds of acres of fields, cliffs and streams and lived in the tiny brown house I had passed at the entrance.
This meeting did more than confirm Vermonter’s refreshing attitude toward displays of wealth. It began to clear the fog surrounding the vanishing contractors. It explained why they were friendly and pleasant but quickly chose not to even try to get a crack at building our house. Living in a small state with an even smaller population, people know each other or know of each other and are therefore friendly. This was not the case before we moved here when we found them frustratingly uncommunicative, but then we weren’t living here. It was, I realized, not the size or the shape or even the engineering elements that made the house “green”; it was us, just as we suspected. These people may have been folksy but they were also intelligent, and they understood that we would bring our big-city attitudes to the project. We’d demand professionalism, an aesthetic quality bordering on perfection, and a business attitude that would broach no waste of time. It’s how we were used to functioning because that’s what our environment demanded of us. And they knew we were sure to demand it of them. They also knew this was not their style and why should they try to change it for us?
Vermonters are on the whole well read thanks to the long winters, well educated thanks to an across-the-board commitment to education, well informed, and politically progressive. They are ingenious, finding imaginative ways to implement the ethic of fixing and reusing whatever is around. Ted raised $300 for the library at the town-wide yard sale with out-of-date dental tools that he sold for a dollar a piece. Hearing the inventive uses for these tools – from needlecrafts to auto repairs – was instructive.
This devotion to home-based innovation, coupled with Vermonters’ relative poverty, may account for the dismal shopping opportunities the state offers. Anything less than a decade old is deemed fashionable. Most of the time, I’ve learned to enjoy not being judged by my bag and shoes. I’m happy I can let my hair go naturally “silver” without getting critical stares. But I still refuse to wear fleece, Vermonters’ three- season garment of choice.
Among Vermonters’ unconventional aspects is their attitude toward careers. Work of any kind is only a means to an end. And the end is very modest: a basic shelter in a pretty location, a reliable vehicle, a bicycle, canoe, snowshoes, fresh local produce. Time for hunting is another requirement for many. Work is neither honorable, nor respectable, nor important. It just is. It’s rarely discussed and never used to establish rank. It’s what you do to live, and once you have enough to live on, it’s sufficient. Working more to earn more or growing a business for greater prestige and income are generally not considered. Just enough is enough.
This is an excellent attitude that meshes perfectly with the state’s economy, which is small and likely to remain so. With a slowly declining population of just six hundred and twenty thousand people – about a third less than suburban Westchester County –- and environmental restrictions that hamper large development of any kind, there are few jobs with growth potential. Young people leave, then often return when they have families, wanting to raise their children here. Others forego professional success in return for all the intangibles the state offers.
Unable to overcome decades of conditioning in Manhattan’s hyper-competitive career hothouse, I am often lost. Unable to slap on easy labels, I am learning to let people reveal themselves, slowly. I’m learning to speak more slowly, to listen better, to not fill the silent spaces that punctuate conversation, to ask for the other’s opinion and offer mine only when asked.
Age discrimination is another bad habit I’ve discarded. With so few people around, one cannot socialize only with one’s age group. People’s friends come in all ages and are chosen based on criteria other than age. It’s inspiring to see how vital an octogenarian can be or how much people much younger than me can know about things I know little about, from vegetable growing to community organizing. This diversity helps make up a bit for the racial diversity that makes New York so rich and which is so absent here.
People in Vermont know each other. Far fewer than six degrees of separation exist between any two residents. Because the state is actually a sprawling city, with the interdependence and familiarity a city implies.
Out biking one morning, we stopped on the steps of a neighboring town’s library to check the map. The librarian came out to see if we needed help. We didn’t, but we had a short chat about the Friends of the Library group in our town. The following afternoon, stopping at my town’s library, the librarian repeated our conversation verbatim.
“Is anything wrong?” she inquired, seeing my dumbfounded expression.
“No, nothing, I just can’t believe this non-news traveled so far so fast!” I answered.
“Oh, well, everyone knows everyone here, you know.”
It’s something I try to remember before any thought that forms in my brain escapes my lips. Secrecy and anonymity are not options here. Still, the high degree of tolerance for the right to be eccentric, even woefully misguided, makes life here for “direct” people like me possible.
The knowing goes both ways. We are as known as we know. The UPS driver decided long ago that it was easier to drop off our packages at Ted’s office in the village than drive up our hill. Sometimes, he finds an even better shortcut.
“I was waiting in the doctor’s office when suddenly I hear this booming, familiar voice,” Ted’s assistant recounted to me the other day. “It was the UPS driver. He said he was so glad to see me because he had a package for the people on the hill and wanted to leave it with me. In the waiting room! He was about to run to his truck when I stopped him. I told him he really should deliver it to you directly, since I only work every other day. Deliver it to the address on the label, I said.”
He was taken aback, she reported. Of course! Why, he wanted to know, when he could just give it to her right there? What did the address on the label have to do with the happy coincidence of them meeting just when he had a package for us, saving even the short trip to Ted’s office?
So what did he do? Did he bring me the book I had been waiting for? Of course not. Two days later he dropped it off at the office, for me to pick up. I could complain, but what will that do to the goodwill I’m trying to build among all the people who know me, or know of me through others, or will soon know me? And how likely am I to succeed in changing the prevailing attitude? A few years ago, I might have tried. Now I know better.
This newfound patience was sorely tested as I was being prepped for one of those routine and exceptionally unpleasant medical exams. Chatting me up in a vain attempt to make me relax, the nurse noted the book I was holding and asked if I liked to read. No, I wanted to say, I carry books everywhere I go, on my head, as an exercise in good posture.
Here, I thought, was another opportunity to show that I have learned how to get along in Vermont. Being unfriendly is simply not an option. People who know each other are friendly to each other, and while we two didn’t know each other, the assumption was that henceforth we would. Still, I deliberately chose to behave as I would have in a Manhattan clinic.
The nurse, however, was not to be put off. She proceeded to questions about my work. “Write,” I said, and stopped, determined to say not another word. But this was enough information for the nurse to make an astounding connection.
“That’s so interesting!” she enthused. “Just last week, I had another woman, also a writer, in this, in this bed!”
This can’t be right, I thought. What about privacy? Professional discretion?
She continued describing the other writer’s past and current professional life. After the second item in her CV I knew exactly who had undergone the same test a week ago. I was planning my opening sentence when I would call her to report what I learned. This amused me for a while, until a new thought struck me, which I had no time to explore before I was put out.
Who, lying in this bed next week would be hearing about my test and calling me for a good laugh?
When people here say that virtually everyone knows everyone else, they’re barely exaggerating. Within certain parameters, that is. The Northeast Kingdom is a separate, remote world, even more sparsely populated than the rest of the state and some ten degrees colder on average than the “Banana Belt” down by us. In the first four years we lived in Vermont, we had no occasion to go there, but were finally drawn by its wild beauty. Then there is Burlington, a major metropolis by Vermont standards. About a third of state residents live in and around the city, forming their own separate sphere of “urban” Vermont. That leaves about three hundred and fifty thousand in the rest of the state, inhabiting nearly ten thousand square miles or about a third of the land area, with an average state density of sixty-seven people per square mile.
So it’s not surprising that we’re constantly meeting people we know. Not only in the village but at concerts, the farmer’s market, the co-op, fundraisers, at one or the other of two summer theaters, at restaurants, bookstores and at a busy calendar of community events. We’ve met and chatted informally with the lone Vermont representative to Congress and with the governor several times. Of course, we meet the people who frequent the same places we do, so this is a largely self-selective process.
The surprise is that not only Ted, who is a thoroughly social animal, but I too enjoy knowing and being known. Being greeted by name at every stop in the village is an unexpected pleasure. Finding groups of acquaintances ready to share their spot on the green at summer concerts elevates the quality of the music several rungs. Getting involved in the community and in causes is especially gratifying, since it takes relatively little money to make a noticeable difference. In the end, we miss the world-class culture of New York City much less than we expected. It can’t hold a candle to the pleasure generated by close interaction with the sincere, intelligent people we are learning to appreciate. Plus, we tell our New York friends, culture is available all the time, from excellent music to professional theater to big-screen classic movies. Sure, it’s on a smaller scale. But there is the added pleasure of knowing that so many people we know are enjoying the same words or music. There is always so much to talk about.
Still, we warn our friends in New York, and anyone contemplating a move. “Don’t move unless you must.” Or unless you want to live your dream, I add silently. The gap left by the people with whom we’ve gone to school, raised children, worked daily for years is real. There are no substitutes for friendships formed through years of sharing the experiences that define our lives. So don’t move because you found a better climate or a state with lower taxes. Stay where you are. You will miss the sun much less than lifelong friends.