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Column: Return from N.Y. in a Vt. state of mind

  • (Micki Colbeck photograph)

  • Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 5/15/2021 10:10:13 PM
Modified: 5/15/2021 10:10:12 PM

My friend and neighbor Randy Coffin, long ago rode the bus from Strafford to New York City to see her future husband, The Reverend Bill, who was staying with Arthur Miller. She carried a pumpkin under her arm for making soup, and may as well have worn long braids and a handknitted sweater, for she was a Vermonter. The British songwriter Sting sings about an Englishman moving through the streets of New York, his walking cane and manners making him feel like an alien. “Be yourself no matter what they say,” he admonishes the listener.

Those words played in my head as the LBDs — my little brown dogs — and I drove the little Honda north on Interstate 91. We had crossed the Long Island Sound on three ferries and driven four hours when we were overcome with a wave of happiness as we crested the hill of our sleepy Strafford village.

After a year of lockdown, the opportunity to visit a new friend who lives in a coastal area, a community of working artists, felt like a worthy adventure. After all, the rule for where we can go is changing as long as we ask, “Are you vaccinated?”

Long Island, a terminal moraine, the last hurrah of the glaciers, is much like Cape Cod. The coastal forests, gnarly and twisted with mountain laurel, red maples and oaks growing out of gravelly, sandy till and clay hardly reach 15 feet above the sound. The gravelly hills and twisted forests are now growing houses — framed, plywood-covered skeletons of houses so large they could shelter a boatload.

I met a few of the doctors, lawyers and psychologists — newly settled to the area and eager to make friends — nicely dressed in handmade silver and gemstone jewelry and painted toenails. They had fled the city over the last year to shelter in a place with fewer humans and stronger sea winds to blow away a virus. They paid millions for a beachside shack and spent another million to fix it up, or they bought an acre in the woods and built a house the size of a gymnasium.

My artist friend drags home twisted dead trees from the woods for sculptures, and discarded treasures from weekly estate sales to repurpose — a beneficiary of a throw-away, tear it down and rebuild it bigger culture. I began to suspect I was someplace new when a woman waiting to get into an estate sale leaned out of her Mercedes and asked what the LBDs were. “Well, they are mixed breed dogs, mutts.” I responded. She had never heard of rescue organizations and wanted to know if she could get a pure-bred Maltese at one of them.

I saw many brown-skinned people. They were laying sod and blowing leaves and tending the shrubs. They rode old bicycles. They were building houses and digging ditches. The brown people, however, did not live here but drove in and out every day from other places, waiting in long lines of traffic to get to where the other people like them lived.

Most of the artists in the community, including my friend, had bought land years ago, slowly making houses and studios where they worked and lived simply. The artists supplied the paintings for the wealthy people’s new walls.

I encountered a few folks, living on the edge of wealth with next to nothing, depending on the generosity of others. In a camper in the woods with no water, a young man does odd jobs for his rent. He reads. He lifts weights. He practices cathartic screaming to the ospreys for hours. In a basement lives a man who once traveled the world, a successful businessman, an alcoholic. He now lives a life of self-denial, meditation, yoga and bicycling. He told me he had been given the gift of an aura and was hoping to eventually vibrate away from here. I asked in all sincerity, “Don’t you like it here?” He responded that he had work to do elsewhere. Trying to challenge his hypothesis with the laws of thermodynamics, he countered with quantum mechanics and faith, which loses me every time. We agreed to disagree and wished each other well. I prefer to have my feet planted firmly in the soil.

My artist friend and I toured a newly finished museum that had been converted from a whaling church. One of the craftsmen who had helped conceptualize the structure and had shaped much of the wood lovingly described the process. A previous owner of the building had removed the center supports and roof so that he could see the sky when he did the backstroke in his lap pool on the ground floor.

It was later pointed out to me that I had met another famous artist earlier in the day and could put that on my résumé. I realized that I do not care about famous and had torn up my résumé long ago. I only care about the beauty of the here and now.

I am passionate however, about getting my food from my neighbor’s CSA, about preserving the wildlife habitat we still have, about the love of my friends who generally have dirt under their unpainted fingernails, about playing music on the porch, and about helping each other out. I do worry now, that over time, those 15-foot elevation houses will be underwater, and Vermont’s undeveloped interior forest blocks will start looking pretty good with our 1,000-foot-above-sea-level hills.

Micki Colbeck, of Strafford, is an artist and a conservation biologist. Write to her at

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