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.
Justine, 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.
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.
The tapestry is a family heirloom from the 1780s, a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry VI.
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.
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.
Dian’s studio and study.
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)