A Vermont teacher, an American thinker and writer, and what kids learn
The other day my friend Sam Young (who, by the way, is running for the Vermont House!), posted a comment on Facebook announcing that his high school teacher had been on ColbertNation. He attached the video for his FB friends to enjoy. (Sam is a computer wunderkind; I just tried to do the same and my computer had fits—so please, just go to ColbertNation and you’ll find it!)
Almost immediately, the post attracted attention from other people his age who remembered Garret Keizer. He was one of those teachers people never forget.
The post was delightful, funny and provocative, all about Keizer’s latest book, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, a book about sound and how 21st century civilization can neither live with, nor without, the amount of noise it now creates. He’s especially intent on showing how noise correlates to economic and social class. Now that’s something I hadn’t thought about!
Years ago, after Keizer was a teacher in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, he wrote a masterful book about the experience: No Place But Here: A Teacher’s Vocation in a Rural Community. It was a book that actually made people want to teach.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve run into Garret Keizer’s work on many occasions, especially in the several essays he authors for Harper’s every year, most of which cause a shifting of the earth on its axis, a profound imbalance, the feeling that something important is coming unglued. The world is not what it seems and certainly not what it pretends.
However, personally, I remember Garret Keizer best for the preface to a book I had a hand in producing. At that time I worked at the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, Vermont and had occasion to write a grant for a project that took John Miller, a very fine photographer, to Brownington Central School to work with fifth and sixth graders on photographs, drawings and writings celebrating the town’s bicentennial. The material produced became an exhibition, a book, and even a CD. Keizer agreed to write a preface to the book for us, and he turned out to be an almost perfect choice. What he wrote tells you what he thinks about community, kids and old people—which pretty much sums up what the book was about.
…. One might also find a suggestion, an appropriately quiet suggestion, that our best defense against the forces that are killing us is a deeper appreciation for those things that sustain life and make it pleasant and interesting. You will find plenty of those things represented in these pages. I wonder how many of Brownington’s young writers and artists recognize what a mighty document they have produced. The images we find in “Voices and Faces” are what an old man wants to call to mind at the end of his life; they’re the visions of an expectant woman when she rubs her stomach and smiles.
It’s not easy to make selections from this little book, but here are a few: some answers to the question: “Why should we learn about Brownington?” and an especially lively interview with one of the oldest people in town, and still going strong.
The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is not like any other place—and it is currently in the throes of an artistic and agricultural renaissance.
The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont isn’t like any place else. While I know that’s true of many places, it’s even more uniquely true of Glover where Runaway Pond ran away some 200 years ago. No matter how interesting the geological incident and human accident are that caused a pond of two billion gallons to make a 26-mile dash to the Canadian border and raise the level of the very large Lake Memphremagog a foot—no matter that I made that excuse for my last quick trip back—what’s really interesting about the Northeast Kingdom is more profound and more dramatic.
First of all, the place is more beautiful than most. This spring the hillsides and valleys are as green as Irish; the gardens and meadows are dancing with lupines. There’s a blue heron nest on the beaver dam. The rain that came down the Saturday of the Runaway Pond celebration was as mammoth as the Pond must have been, turned white water when it broke through the embankment. Lightning stretched the sky wider than the horizon, thunder rumbled like the end time. We were having sugar on snow: two cardboard boxes of snow collected from the winter, syrup from Ted’s maples heated to just the right temperature, raised donuts made by Becky from June’s recipe, the sourest pickles I’ve ever tasted and the first ever made by Sarah, who’s Ted and Becky’s daughter and a medical doctor to boot. She intends to try again.
Rain was promised for the whole weekend, but like most promised rain, it came and it went. On Saturday, it cleared long enough for the celebration on the Glover green. The Bread and Puppet performance of “The Story of Runaway Pond” had just started when we arrived after a superb breakfast at the tiny Busy Bee, the town’s only restaurant, just across from the general store. A few stragglers from the morning’s footrace were still clearing the finish line; we had to dodge through the mud to make sure no one thought we were among them. The Runaway Pond script is based on a many-stanza-poem by Harry Alonzo Phillips, the poet laureate of Glover (c. 1929) and a descendant of Spencer Chamberlain, a half-breed from New Hampshire and the hero of the piece.
“Spencer, the son of brave of yore,
Made this long run at twenty-four;
Descending from a dauntless race,
He met the Devil face to face;
And conquered Death here in the dell,
Which on that summer day befell.”
Chamberlain ran to save the miller’s wife, left to grind at Willson’s Mill while her husband and 59 others dug to create a channel that would bring more water to the Barton River and increase the mill’s production. It’s a run of five miles over fallen trees and through thick underbrush, but he reached the mill just ahead of the rushing water. “Shouts: ‘Woman! Do you hear the roar? The Pond is coming! Climb the hill! Nor prison wall nor granite tower/Could stand against such water-power.’ She stood fearful, “like marble white,” so he grabbed her up in his arms and mounted the hill out of the path of the flood. Since Stefan played the miller’s wife and her son, Cavin, was Spencer in this particular staging, Spencer was a little uncomfortable and fudged the rescue, but just a little.
Of course, over the years the story has been embroidered. Chamberlain stopped to savor a piece of pie. He celebrated with all the diggers with a locally-made beer at the end of the run (and not whiskey as the older accounts report). As he ran around the audience again and again, the cheer went up from nearly every one of us: ” Run Chamberlain, run!”
It’s charming; it’s funny; it’s an honest-to-goodness work of art, and no one from Glover will ever grow tired of it.
People sauntered from one tent to another, buying their Runaway tee shirts, talking to the local entrepreneurs who set up shops on the green. Further down Rt. 16 (that is, Glover Street), we sat with a friend and resident of the Glover Nursing Home to watch the noon time parade sponsored by the Glover Library. The residents were to judge the best of the non-motorized participants (which eliminates those stalwarts of every community parade-the fire engine, old tractors, old cars). Here they came: the cast of the play (the ones that aren’t cardboard): a wheeled contraption depicting the pond (rather abstractly, I thought – the water, two runaway fish, a jug of whiskey….); an old Glover Fire Department wagon drawn by two handsome draft horses; the model of the Old Stone House that’s been in every parade in the county for the last twenty years; a miniature horse named Thomas and two alpacas; two ducks; the twenty visiting descendants of Spencer Chamberlain. Further down the street, at the town hall, was a splendid quilt show with turn-of-the-last-century quilts alongside some contemporary beauties.
In the afternoon when the rain returned, guides recruited from the area’s naturalist élite, took intrepid hikers into the woods, through streams and up bluffs on geological jaunts to the dry bed of the pond. There was a self-guided tour as well. But I was doing sugar on snow with family and friends on a hilltop farm. So much for science, said I, as I watched the rain from the window.
That evening at Glover Graded School, after a church supper, the school kids presented their version of Runaway Pond. Not brilliant theater, but their parents were proud and everyone yelled “Run Chamberlain, Run” as the star of the production raced around the gym. Then, the MacArthur family (the three surviving children of Margaret MacArthur) sang. Margaret died almost four years ago now, but twenty years ago she worked with neighboring Craftsbury Graded School kids, to write a song about Runaway Pond. The MacArthurs sang songs from rural New England, and especially Vermont—songs about family, snails in the garden, peace- “O had I a golden thread.” A door was open on the other side of the stage and outside, children were swinging on swings-up, up, higher and higher. That’s when I understood more profoundly than I usually do that one of the reasons all of this was so compelling is that they’re all here—great grandparents, grandparents, parents and kids. Glover is one of the few places left in the United States where the children come back, where the generations have rooted themselves so deeply in the seasons, the land and the history of the place that they come back, and most of them stay.
The next day, the deluge could no longer be held back and it was pouring when we arrived, but they were there, one hundred or more people. The shape note singers had finished their hymns and gypsy tunes; the Bread and Puppet band was playing jazzed-up renditions of the old songs that are so deeply part of us we forget we know them word for word until we hear them again. “The Story of Runaway Pond” was presented once again. There was a competition among newly baked cakes and pies. Everyone was drinking coffee from an old copper kettle that was first used at the centennial 100 years before. I dipped my cup in and was surprised at how good the stuff tasted, especially in an interminable rain. Vermont’s fresh-faced governor showed up. He’s Republican and most of the people present were Democrats or Progressive party people, but we were polite and he pulled it off nicely, reading the history, saying all the right things while his aides held an umbrella over his head. He pulled the rope to unveil a new plaque, and looked on as the Chamberlains were introduced—as well as a surprising number of descendants of the original diggers. All these people with all this history.
The rain was still coming down as some children dug up a time capsule.
But there’s far more to the Northeast Kingdom than Runaway Pond. Add it to what’s happening at Parker Pie in West Glover. Until seven or eight years ago, it was a failing general store. I used to stop at its single pump for gas on the way home. Today, Parker Pie has become a first class deli and restaurant (its specialty pizzas are to dream about), a meeting place for every age, and a music venue whose popularity is spreading across the state and into a few others, and Canada besides. It’s wall-to-wall people on Thursday nights when bands of every variety show up. I didn’t stay long enough to see him, but Johnny Rodgers, a stone mason and the local Assemblyman, my used-to-be neighbor, debuted a comedy routine there last Saturday night. Local artists exhibit on the walls and sell their goods in the deli.
At the same time art galleries and new artists are springing up all over the region and, while dairy farms die or turn into mega-dairies, small organic vegetable farms, sheep and goat cheese makers, maple syrup producers, honey bee farms, Christmas wreaths, apple orchards, breweries and wineries are happening everywhere.
All of this and more is happening because years ago the back-to-the-land movement of ’60s and ’70s hippies and the funky political pageantry of Bread and Puppet joined with the energy, creativity and down-to-earth hard work of local people: Scots-Irish, French Canadian, German, you name it…. The result is a renaissance of horticulture and animal husbandry and art and literature that has grown like the wild lupines and this year is exploding into bloom all over the Kingdom.
Some of the young people who migrated to the region four decades ago are gray-haired now, but still creating, still making, still changing this part of the world, alongside their children and their children’s children, and all those people whose roots go back for generations. Old artists are flourishing in the Northeast Kingdom.