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Sydney Lea Recalls the Lessons of the North Country

  • Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea, at home in Newbury, Vt. (Valley News - Libby March)

That remote part of Maine “more east than north of Bangor” where Newbury, Vt., poet Sydney Lea spent time as a young man was populated by a rare breed of stouthearted men and women who made a hardscrabble living from the land. They were, Lea said, “people who were so immersed in the natural world that it was hard to tell where they stopped and the natural world began.”

In his latest book, A North Country Life (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95), Lea recalls the lives of men and women who were ordinary in their time and place, but read as extraordinary characters in an age when technology has made life comparably easy.

“I knew these old characters from a very young age. There was something about them that captured my attention and affection very early on,” said Lea, now 70, in an interview in January at the King Arthur Flour cafe in Norwich. Lea, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, felt an urgency to write their stories, he said, because “mine will be the last generation to have known these people.”

In many ways, Lea considers A North Country Life, his third collection of personal essays, as “the most important book I’ve ever put together, just because it acknowledges my debt and sort of pays tribute to those people. All the outdoor skills I have, I learned from them.” While the essays represent a departure from Lea’s usual genre, they have the same lyrical qualities found in his poems.

“It’s very different from writing a more formal kind of essay. These others are more free-flowing. I never know where it’s going to go, just as when I’m writing a poem.”

Eastern Maine in the early to mid-20th century was a place where women often gave birth in their homes and put up with their husbands’ drinking because there was no alternative. Peoples’ lifespans were often short, but they didn’t complain about their lot in life. They had no time for self-pity, because there were logs to drive down the river, railroad ties to place and game to hunt for dinner. Many died from their labors, Lea noted, because proper medical care was hard to come by in rural Maine.

What they lacked in formal education, they made up for in country wisdom. Spending time in the company of mentors like George and Creston MacArthur in the woods, hunting geese and ducks and cooking over campfires, fishing for bass and trout in places like Wabassus Lake, and eating Annie Fitch’s famous pies were as formative for Lea as the years he spent earning a Ph.D. at Yale.

“I owe a tremendous amount to those people,” he said. From them he learned not only the outdoors skills he would carry with him, but was introduced to their one-of-a-kind vernacular. A “hookum-snuffie” is a wooden hook used to lift the lid of a pot to see if the contents are finished cooking. An empty tin cup “wants more coffee,” and an older person would begin a story by asking if they “minded,” or remembered the time an event took place.

The demands of their lives meant that “they didn’t have an imaginary life,” Lea said. “Life was right in front of them.” Yet they managed to entertain themselves and those around them by passing down stories about the people around them.

“They’re my primary influences, literary and otherwise, because they were such great raconteurs, great storytellers. They had to be. There was no TV or even radio,” he said. He writes in A North Country Life that he was inspired to write poetry by his hunting companions, whose rugged voices he wanted to capture, but not imitate. Few of them may have read his poems at length, but “whenever I compose a lyric, or, especially a verse narrative, I imagine myself as addressing one or all of them,” he writes.

This goes back to Lea’s core beliefs about poetry, which he has sought to spread around Vermont as poet laureate. “I try to suggest that poetry, at least my own, is a person saying something to another person. And if that’s hard, it’s because what it describes is a hard thing to describe,” he said. “But it’s an effort to be more rather than less precise about things that are hard to pin down.”

“A North Country Life” is available for purchase at The Norwich Bookstore, the Dartmouth Bookstore and the Woodsville Bookstore. Sydney Lea will read from the book at the Weathersfield Public Library at 7 p.m. on March 28 and the Bradford Public Library at 6:30 p.m. on April 3.

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.