Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Town Boy Moves to the Country

You learn a lot when you leave the village and move to the country.

You stop worrying about when you'll cut the grass – and start worrying about how to get the haying done. You're no longer picking up sticks and leaves from a small patch of yard. Instead, you're chainsawing giant aspens that have come crashing into the meadow.

Several years ago, when my wife and I moved back to Vermont after too many years away, we bought a dream house in town. We weren't sure how quickly we'd readjust to cold gray days after living in a sunwashed, soul-free suburb. So we opted for the sleek newness of an architect's design and the skilled craftsmanship of young builders. Oakley Smith and Owen McClain had put their hearts into creating the place, and it showed in our splendid new home.

Compared to where we'd lived for so long, it was a palace. Radiant heat, vaulted ceilings, a bathtub big enough for two, bamboo floors, warm lighting and deep carpet.

The Middlebury green was a minute down the hill. There were ever-changing views to the majestic Adirondack peaks. We were all set.

And yet.

And yet the old Vermont called us.

Early last year, my wife started longing for something different. We'd come back to Vermont, she said, but the house didn't feel fully like Vermont to her.

When a friend mentioned that a house with some land on the northeastern edge of Middlebury was about to go on the market, she looked at it once and proceeded to persuade me that we had to have it.

Within three months we had taken on a second mortgage, and three months after that we had moved to the freshly refurbished, early-ranch-style house. It looked like it belonged in some other soul-free suburb -- except for the views and the openness and the almost scary amount of privacy and quiet.

We were just 3 miles from our former home. But now we were out where the road and the sly collide, where the Green Mountains rise like humpback whales from the green valley.

* * *
I once remarked to my dad that, having grown up in a small town in western New York, every time I hear a car horn honk, I still instinctively turn to see who's waving to me. In that small a place, you pretty much knew person everybody.

“You can take the boy out of the country,” my dad mused in reply. “But you can't take the country out of the boy.”

And so in some ways I was already a country boy at heart when we moved out of town. Nonetheless, living amid woods and meadows is an entirely different order of magnitude of country living, compared to living in a small town.

These days I am learning, as Robert Frost put it, “the need of being versed in country things.”
For example:

· Splitting and hauling wood is a lot more involved, and a lot harder on the back, than sitting back to enjoy the results.

· The same goes for tending a sprawling garden, compared to having fresh salad every night.

· Getting snowed in isn't nearly as cozy as it sounds – at least not when it means you're missing a day of powder skiing.

· A woodchuck may look from a distance like a cute piece of scampering carpet. But give him half a chance and he'll turn your garden into compost.

· The same goes for deer.

· Addison County clay is stronger than any shovel.

· Having a septic system is vastly different from having town sewer services. When the state decides
to stiffen its septic regulations, get out your wallet.

· When people tell you to watch out for the poison ivy, they mean it.
Sometimes it feels like we've been adopted by angels. Steve and Nicole from QES, who helped the previous owner look after the property, have taken us under their wings, mowing and plowing and prepping the garden.
When the pipes froze after we got a new woodstove and didn't turn on the furnace for 10 days, the guys from Macintyre spent hours getting the pipes unfrozen and filled with fresh antifreeze. They barely charged us for all their hard work. Maybe they felt sorry for us.

As we watch the seasons revolve around us – meadow to lush summer green, then to brown and white, a nesting woodcock along the drive, a fox's den 50 feet into the piney woods – we revel every day in this splendid semi-isolation.

It's a rural way of life. But only truly rural because this world we live in is so cultivated.
We're hardly hermits out here. A great comfort of contemporary country life, to be honest, is that town is so accessible.

With Carol's and the co-op and college just minutes away, we often, though temporarily, trade the country for the pleasures of town.

Even Thoreau regularly left his cabin for the village.

“When tired of trees,” Frost said, “I seek again mankind.”

Gov. Douglas: A Man for the Eisenhower Era

Someday, Vermont will elect a governor for the 21st century.

Until then, though, we'll be saddled with a guy stuck in the mid-20th century Eisenhower era that shaped his early years. He'll continue to govern as if the outdated perspectives of the 1950s are what's best for Vermont.

Along the way, he's helping push the state down the long, perilous flight of climate change, and he may just take the Vermont economy with him.

It was bad enough to watch Gov. Jim Douglas veto healthcare reform and, last month, meaningful campaign-finance reform, which would have diminished the influence of big money on Vermont's grassroots election process.

But the real tragedy is his recent veto of comprehensive, carefully thought-out legislation to stem global warming and improve the state's energy efficiency. With that veto, Douglas has done more than just prove how stubborn a seemingly nice guy can be when his core political principles are offended. He's made the state more vulnerable to climate change, the key issue of our time and the biggest threat to the American way of life -- and indeed, to human life on the planet.

And the governor has essentially pointed a gun straight at the heart of several key Vermont industries.

The crown jewel of this year's legislative session was passage of the comprehensive bill on climate change and energy efficiency. Among other things, the bill would promote solar energy by restoring state tax credits for homeowners. It would jumpstart larger hydro, wind and solar projects by allowing "group net metering" -- meaning these projects could generate revenue by feeding energy back into the grid. It would enable businesses and homes to be heated at lower cost (a big reason advocates for low-income people support the bill). By encouraging efficiency, it would reduce Vermont's reliance on expensive, distant, and increasingly unstable sources of petroleum. It would reduce air pollution.

Closer to home for many Vermonters, the legislation would provide hope for the tourism, maple sugaring and ski industries that pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the state every year.

Why is that true? If global warming continues, maple trees soon won't grow here anymore in abundance. You'll be lucky to get good maple syrup north of the border. The brilliant fall displays of color will be a distant memory related by grandparents. There, too, leaf-peeper tourist dollars will flow northward.

And then there's the ski industry. When there are crocuses coming up in the garden in mid-January, you don't have to look any farther than your own backyard to know that, unless we stem the killing heat that is engulfing our planet, Vermont skiing will melt and die.

Should the legislature failed to overturn Douglas's veto -- the most likely scenario -- it will be interesting to see how all this plays out politically next year.

If truth in advertising prevailed in political slogans, Gov . Douglas would run for reelection in 2008 under a banner that read, "I Don't Really Care about Vermo andnt Tourism." Or maybe it could be, "I Put Corn Syrup on My Pancakes."

Better yet -- "Winter in Vermont: It's Way Overrated."

His toughest critics have started to wonder if the governor has just forgotten about representative government. Yes, he's one of the few people elected on a statewide ballot. But it's abundantly clear that at this point he doesn't share the political philosophy of most Vermonters, or their abundantly demonstrated interest in curbing climate change. The only surviving Republican governor in New England, Douglas "represents" a state that has the country's most progressive congressional delegation and has for years now sent solid majorities of Democrats to both houses of the legislature.

Yet taking a page from George W. Bush's playbook, he has in shown remarkably little flexibility in shifting his no-tax stance even when fresh government revenue can legitimately be part of the solution. He seems to have little interest in accommodating the majority opposition or innovating in the face of crisis.

Gov, Douglas thinks we shouldn't fiddle with the old "tried and true" approach to providing Vermont's energy needs. That's a recipe for fiddling while Vermont burns. Scientists are telling us we've got just a coup le decades to address climate change -- or face catastrophe on a global level.

The governor's key rationale for vetoing the energy bill was that it imposed a "new tax" on Vermont Yankee, the state's sole nuclear power plant and a facility under the ownership of the multi-billion-dollar Entergy company. He ignores the fact that the bill taxes wind power and nuclear power equally -- and would eliminate an unconscionable tax break that has long benefited Vermont Yankee.

Would Entergy in any way be threatened if a new tax free prevailed for Vermont Yankee? Would the company even really notice? Does an elephant care if a single gnat lands on its rear end?

And yet Governor Douglas has wielded his veto pen to defend out-of-state energy giant whileVermont grows hotter every year. For now, it appears we'll have to keep waiting for him to drop his Ronald Reagan imitation and get real about working with the legislature to craft ways of dealing with the day's most pressing challenges. Even Reagan raised taxes when it was obviously needed. Mr. Douglas apparently lacks that kind of political courage.

And so we wait for an alternative. Looking at the Democrats' bullpen, you have to conclude that Douglas will remain governor for a long time. And even if the Democrats do manage to come up with a strong gubernatorial candidate, there's always the danger that the Progressives will sabotage the election by running their own candidate and again hand the election to Douglas -- as they so stupidly did when Douglas was first elected governor in 2002.

In the meantime, Vermonters can look forward to warmer winters that more closely resemble November misery, dwindling revenues from tourism, sugaring and skiing, and higher costs for heating and transportation.

Unless the legislature miraculously finds a way to override Douglas's veto on a two-thirds vote, Vermont's majority -- and the climate along with it -- will continue to fume.

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