Book Notes: Reading up on what makes Vermont Vermont

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/16/2021 7:14:39 AM
Modified: 12/16/2021 7:14:05 AM

Perhaps the most affecting piece in Volume II of the Vermont Almanac is a compact essay by Tom Slayton about Vermont Life.

Slayton edited the state-owned magazine from 1985 to 2007, nearly a third of its 72-year life span. Started in 1946 as a way to lure both visitors and residents to a state that had experienced stagnant population growth in the first few decades of the 20th century, the magazine was by turns promotional and inquisitive. It presented Vermont as both a playground and as a serene place to live as the rat race overtook cities and suburbs.

“I hoped that Vermont Life could help both Vermonters and visitors value, and ultimately protect, the Vermont that we know and love,” Slayton wrote. “Though small, it’s still beautiful, unusual and valuable.”

The state shut down Vermont Life in 2018. Since then, both longtime residents and newcomers have had to look for other sources to understand what it means to live in Vermont. Despite the sometimes idealized way it depicted the state, Vermont Life has been hard to replace.

The best way to do it might be to read older accounts. When Vermont’s population grew by 10% to 15% a decade in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, many of the new residents were artists, writers and musicians looking for a beautiful, inexpensive place to live within a day’s drive of New York, Boston and Montreal. Many of them wrote about moving to the country, and Vermont publishers, from Stephen Greene Press in Brattleboro to Countryman Press in Woodstock and the legendary printer Stinehour Press in Lunenberg, were happy to publish them.

I’ve got a couple of these autobiographies on my shelf: The Center of My World, by Marshall E. Dimock (1980 Countryman), who bought a Bethel farm in 1935 when he was still a political science professor at the University of Chicago, and I’ll Take the Back Road, by Marguerite Hurrey Wolf (1975, Stephen Greene), who moved to a Jericho hill farm in 1948 when her husband got a job at UVM medical school.

Then there are town histories, such as Hope Nash’s great Royalton Vermont, printed at Stinehour in 1975, and before that Eleanor Lovejoy’s 1911 History of Royalton. Or The Connecticut, written by a previous Vermont Life editor, Walter Hard, for the Depression-era “Rivers of America” series.

For that matter, old copies of Vermont Life and Vermont History aren’t all that hard to find.

I doubt many people read those older sources now, consumed as we are by the present and its visual vocabularies.

The best contemporary resource might be Vermont Almanac. Based in Corinth, the Almanacis meant to give readers a look at the past year from a distinctly pastoral perspective. “Stories from and for the land,” its subhead says, and its pages are filled with entries about foraging wild nuts, growing mushrooms, the weather, saving seeds, baking bread, canning, Abenaki language, the farm economy and other facets of Vermont living, written and illustrated by more than 70 contributors. It revels in the state’s low-key majesty, of the sort found among the microbes in a teaspoon of topsoil.

I devoured it, skimming parts, in a sitting the evening I picked it up, and I look forward to revisiting it during the winter. It’s even printed in Vermont.

As much as I enjoy it, I also wonder whether it reflects the state, which seems increasingly suburban. Looking at the Upper Valley, even the most rural precincts — Tunbridge, Piermont, Barnard, Orange — have bustling commuter traffic to Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Etna Road and King Arthur Baking.

The Almanac’s masthead is telling, staffed as it is by “Sugarmaker & Editor Dave Mance III,” “Christmas Tree Grower & Editor Patrick White” and “Forester & Editor Virginia Barlow.” Do all farmers now have to be knowledge workers to make a go of it?

Probably not, but Vermont has always prized flexibility and diversification over putting all your eggs in one basket.

Another book that came out in early December furnishes a pocket history of Vermont that goes down like a children’s aspirin. I Could Hardly Keep From Laughing, written by the redoubtable Bill Mares and illustrated by Don Hooper, is billed as “An Illustrated Collection of Vermont Humor.”

In a foreword, Vermont cartoonist Jeff Danziger writes that the contours of the state’s sense of humor “depend on the general agreement that Vermont is poor, small, and beautiful.” Given home prices, is Vermont still a poor state? For many it still is, but the point is more debatable now than it was even 20 years ago.

“What Vermont humor is best defined by is what it is not,” Danziger continues. “It is not cruel. It is not transient. It is not self-amused. It is not loud or slapstick.”

Mares, an author and former teacher and state representative who lives in Burlington, starts by citing a book titled Vermont Laughter, by Robert C. Davis, whose father was a farmer.

“It was a humor of scarcity and a joy in small things,” Mares writes.

The joy of the book, in addition to its exploration of the dry Vermont wit, is in Mares’ knowledge of the state. Within the first few pages he brings up Calvin Coolidge, Vrest Orton, Keith Jennison, Dartmouth professor Allen R. Foley, Vermont Life editor Hard and Gov. Deane Davis before moving on to Woodstock’s own Bill Boardman and, one of my favorites, Vermont Lifer, a sendup of the state’s magazine.

The book also revisits some of the work Mares did in the 1980s with Frank Bryan, including their book Real Vermonters Don’t Milk Goats. They carved out space for Vermont natives to poke fun at the state’s many newcomers and for newcomers to fit in.

In an attempted taxonomy of the “Real Vermonter,” they conclude that “Most of all, Real Vermonters never, ever try to look like Real Vermonters.” The hallmark of fitting in is not trying. It’s Vermont; no one cares what kind of boots you wear.

Leafing through the book brings up a range of writers and comedians, Willem Lange, David Budbill, Peter Gilbert, Kathleen Kanz and many others, including younger comics working today. Hooper, a former Vermont state representative and secretary of state who lives in Brookfield, gets a chapter to himself at the end, which is preoccupied with a decidedly unfunny subject: climate change.

Vermont is a changing place — climate, habits, mores and on and on. If you’re new here, read up so you’ll know what you’ve missed.

A bookstore’s birthday

Hanover’s Still North Books & Bar celebrates its second birthday with a party from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday. The shop is offering assistance from “guest booksellers,” authors Flynn Berry, Alexander Chee, Katie Crouch, KJ Dell’Antonia, Vievee Francis, Lauren Groff, and Liniers, who will sign books and make recommendations to people shopping for books.

How art is made

AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon is holding a series of artist demonstrations, everything from oil painting to wood carving, book arts to pottery, from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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