Travelogue LXIII: Vermont I: Landscape

September 1st, 2016 I’ve been back in Vermont for two weeks now. At the end of the day, this place comes and will always come closer to home than anywhere else I might live. It’s in my blood, familiar as the back of my hand.

The aesthetics of Vermont are winning me over again, as they always do. It’s a sort of resting, this–to stare into the distance and see nothing but woods and clouds and perhaps a single mown field on the horizon. You can hardly do that in Germany. It’s a country full of green spaces, but with 82 million people in a land the size of Montana, the next village is almost always in sight. Here, so much of what one sees is defined by emptiness, and that emptiness is breathtaking.

This time, instead of posting my own photos I am handing things over to my very talented mother and sister, who have captured a great deal of beauty on the farm in the last two years. Most of the pictures were taken from our front porch.

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Travelogue XXXIII: Humans of Vermont

Vermont is full of extraordinary people. The Green Mountains seem to attract the hardiest and uniquest of souls–both those who have been born and raised here, and those who have chosen to make a life in the state. The Vermonters remind me a more than a little bit of so many of the Germans I have gotten to know, actually, especially during my time on the farm in Kulmbach–politically liberal and socially open-minded, intensely practical, environmentally conscious, slightly hippie and invested in sustainable living, and with a deep love of language and tradition and place. It may take a good five years before the old timers will accept a newcomer, but once they do the friendships are deep and lasting.

In Vermont, especially, I am fascinated by not only how people live, but where–what physical objects they surround themselves with, the type of structure they choose to live in. There are our neighbors Hannah and Dave, for instance, who lived in a school bus for years while building their off-the-grid bungalow with a wall of glass windows facing into the mountains, or Joe and Bob from down the road, who raised a family in an octagon-shaped home made of rough-hewn granite with storage space for the cider press and barrels of maple syrup. And so many more.

Below, a few of the other people I have had the privilege of getting to know during the last two decades, and the spaces they call home.

IMG_3191Justine, Montpelier, Vermont: ninety-one years old, shepherdess, reader of storybooks and teller of tales. Before she moved full-time to her Montpelier apartment, my siblings and I spent countless afternoons on her falling-down farm in Northfield. She fed us tuna fish sandwiches and ginger ale floats, and we fished the dead mice out of her pool before jumping in in our underwear. She taught us all to knit, and we spent hours digging pieces of old china out of the creek bed at the bottom of her field. Her collection of ancient silver spoons was delightful, and my sister and I picked different ones for our ice-cream each time we visited. When my brother was born, she knit him a sweater with her own wool, still a bit stiff with lanolin, bits of hay spun into the yarn.

Her apartment, where she has lived alone since the death of her Latin-teacher husband a decade ago, is full of the mementos of a long and full life–turn-of-the-century artifacts, photographs and old books, pressed flowers and butterfly wings.

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The windowsills of Justine’s farmhouse were always full of her findings–smooth stones and feathers, seed pods and colored leaves. She has carried on the tradition in her apartment.

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The tapestry is a family heirloom from the 1780s, a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry VI.

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Her windows overlook the dam on the Winooksi River. “The river is different every time I look out the window. Isn’t that wonderful?” she said.

Dian and Tom, Chelsea, Vermont: I met Dian during the hottest afternoon in July three summers ago. My mother had dragged me into town to watch our stand at farmers’ market and I was doing a poor job of it–half dozing, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain propped open in my lap. All of the sudden, Dian was standing in front of me. “Do you like that book?!” she said, and then we talked about Mann for half an hour on the commons in downtown Chelsea, population 800. Sometimes life is awesome like that.

Dian is an actress with a degree from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, an author and journalist, a painter, director, dancer, and erstwhile sword-fight choreographer. Her husband Tom writes and illustrates children’s books and plays his own compositions on the old upright piano in the bedroom.

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Their home–The Palace of the Artists–is a restored camp, with colorful doors and an adjoining studio and windows looking into the birch woods and the mountains. It is full of their own artwork and beautiful objects collected during a lifetime of world travel. In the back yard, there’s a little gypsy wagon, where you can sleep in the summer.

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Dian’s studio and study.

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One of Tom’s two loft-studies–“This one’s for writing my books, and the other one is for looking at my stocks,” he explained. (photo: Anna)

Travelogue XXXI: Home

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Oh rhythm of my heart is beating like a drum
with the words “I love you” rolling off my tongue

No never will I roam for I know my place is home
where the ocean meets the sky
I’ll be sailing

Rod Stewart

It’s almost surreal: two days ago I was drinking chai tea in a cafe across from the Mainzer cathedral, watching the stone turn red in the setting sun and the theater fill up with people. And now I am sitting in front of a fire in a drafty farmhouse in the middle-of-nowhere Vermont, where the air permanently smells like sheep manure and the farmers are just starting to tap the sugar maples. The terms of human existence are different here–dirty rubber boots and vet visits instead of European philosophy and champagne at the opera–but equally as beautiful. And in the end, it’s the life I know best. I was a bare-footed farm girl long before I knew the heady, complicated world of German literature even existed.

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Headed home from the airport in Boston over Route 110–one of the prettiest drives in the state and, actually, in the world.

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The state is full of Covered Bridges….

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Will’s Store in Chelsea, VT, my home town–they make superb homemade ice-cream with a machine that dates back to before the first World War. Also, I saw more flags on the drive home than I saw during 8 months in Germany. America is a patriotic place; Germany is absolutely not.

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South Royalton Food Co-op, twenty minutes down the road. We stopped to pick up some bread to go with dinner.

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The pictures on the wall are of the farmers who stock the store—Buy Local at its best.

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong.

John Denver

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Home at last: the grand view of Grand View Farm.

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Moses the fat barn cat. (photo: GVF)

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Chore time. (photo: GVF)

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Starting seeds in the Greenhouse. Note the snow drifts on the left-hand side–it’s over two meters in places.

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The view from my bedroom window.

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Wood fires.

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I haven’t seen the stars in months. It is good to be home. (photo: Anna)

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Nota Bene: Photos credited to Anna were taken by my insanely talented sister. 

Photos credited to GVF were filched from our farm website

 

Reading List II: Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer, Die Farm in den Grünen Bergen

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The Zuckmayer’s farm was near Silver Lake in Barnard Vermont–it looks about the same today as it did in 1940.

 Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer: The Farm in the Green Mountains, 1949: part memoir, part diary, part fascinating account of rural life in 1940s Vermont, the state I grew up in. I’ve been slowly reading it since Christmas, mostly on the train between Mainz and Frankfurt. And, check it out–it’s even available in English!

The authoress Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer was an actress in Berlin in the 1920s, where she met her husband. Carl Zuckmayer was a prominent author and playwright from Mainz, where he is still quite a point of pride–I’ve seen his plays at the Mainzer Staatstheater, and gone to an exhibit about his life at the local library. They fled Germany with their two daughters in 1939 and, after a short stint in New York City, acquired a run-down farm in Barnard, Vermont. They were upper-class Europeans and artists, utterly without prior experience in farming or rural life, but they somehow made it all work.

In many ways, minus of course the exile and the upper-class-European-artist part, it’s the story of my parents, who also moved to Vermont decades ago to raise a family and start farming from the ground up, through trial and error and sheer force of will. I spent the first 18 years of my life on our sheep farm and Bed and Breakfast outside of Chelsea, another tiny village not all that far from Barnard. It’s a small world.

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The rams’ shed on our farm after a snowstorm–cosy and picturesque, sure, but not fun if you’re the one who needs to bring them water twice a day.

I can understand so much of what Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer writes in the book–these are things that haven’t changed at all in the last century in Vermont, things I know every time I go back to visit. The sounds an old post-and-beam farmhouse makes when it gets cold, for instance, or the way the snowplow rattles the windowpanes at 4am, the way that all travel slows to a crawl during Mud Season, the vow that you make to yourself every year on slaughtering day to never eat meat again, the way you structure a day around caring for animals, what it means to make a living with your hands on a small piece of land that you own.

We seem to have traversed much of the same ground, too–she spends an entire chapter describing her monthly pilgrimages to the libraries, theater, and art galleries of Dartmouth College in Hannover, New Hampshire, that ivy-league sanctuary in the middle of the sprawling Connecticut River farmlands. I spent my teenage years driving an hour and a half over bad roads to sit in those same libraries, to look at the art and to attend live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. To me, as to Alice, Dartmouth College was an oasis, a mecca, super-saturated with the sort of refined intellectual and artistic beauty that struggles to find a place in any rural landscape.

Above all, though, it’s the people I recognize most from her descriptions. The Vermonters–they haven’t changed a bit in the past century, and probably never will.  It’s all the same: the liberal politics and tough-as-nails self-sufficiency, the immediate and lasting suspicion of anyone not born in the state, the willingness to impart copious free advice at all hours of the day and night, the fierce devotion to place, tradition, community. She writes, “Vermont is a relatively poor state in comparison with the rest of America, but they do not shy away from their poverty, and they do not love wealth. Their autonomy and sense of balance grants them independence even in the most uncertain times, and gives them their sense of pride and fearlessness.” Indeed.

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Mud Season, Vermont’s fifth season, at its best–the road that runs along side our farm last April.

On the other hand, though, there are many things I do not know at all in the world Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer describes. What it feels like to leave one’s family behind forever, or to live in a land of peace and plenty while one’s homeland is being torn apart by the bombs of the very country in which you have found shelter–I can’t say that I can relate to all that. And yet it was the experience of so many thousands of European intellectuals and artists from Alice’s generation, men and women who left Europe to start new lives in Los Angeles or New York, or on a farm in the backwoods of Barnard, Vermont.

With all that in mind, what has lingered with me the most after reading is the strength of Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer herself. Reading between the lines, it’s clear that she was the driving force in the family, and a vital support system for her husband who would rather have been back in Europe writing books and directing plays. It was because of her great will that her family was able to pull together in a new land, and because of her energy, curiosity, and good humor that they were able to thrive. That’s true heroism, there.