Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Living Lighter, with Less Room for Error

A friend in California was recently telling me about his two big homes and his BMW, and it reminded me that the distance between Vermont and most of the rest of America is far more than geographic.

My friend is worrying about whether he should trade in his Beamer on a new one. And here in Vermont we’re worrying how close we are to environmental apocalypse.

In Vermont, we have begun to think seriously about how we can grow our own food and live well with fewer cars and smaller houses. In California and elsewhere, the future is always brighter and richer and has bigger things. The trucks will always arrive at Wal-Mart with their cheap goods from China, the supermarkets will overflow with organic produce from Chile, and Starbucks will always offer 20 kinds of coffee drinks.

Most Americans seem to believe that a life disconnected from nature is indefinitely sustainable -- at least judging by the number of SUVs still on our highways, or for that matter, the SUVs filling the student parking lot at Middlebury College. Most Americans have built their routines around cheap energy and what songwriter Nanci Griffith calls “unnecessary plastic objects,” and many have blithely added two, three or even four children to the planetary burden. Most of these kids are learning to be happy little consumers themselves.

At least in northern New England, we recognize what a shifting climate could do to farmers’ bottom lines. We recall when the oil supply was so uncertain in the mid-1970s that you could only buy gas every other day.

We’ve watched the winter temperatures inch upward 5 degrees on average. That turns a lot of snowy 30-degree days into the rainy drizzle of a very long November. And we’ve begun to see that disappearing ice caps and warmer winters portend a deeply uncertain future, climatologically and economically.

Writers Bill McKibben and James Howard Kunstler have given some serious thought to what this future might look like. They find an audience among Vermonters because we already have the advantage of living closer to natural reality -- but also because we are not as materially wealthy and therefore have less margin for error.

Kunstler, the author of scary book called The Long Emergency on the coming depletion of oil reserves, is particularly alarming:

“Get this. No combination of alternative fuels or systems for running them will allow us to have Walt Disney World, Wal-Mart and the interstate highway system. We’re not going to run those things on any combination of solar, wind, nuclear, biofuel, used French fried potato oil, dark matter, or all the other things that we’re wishing for … One of the implications of the ‘long emergency’ is that we’re going to have to downscale everything we do.”

If Kunstler is right, well-off Vermonters don’t have much longer to enjoy that unique combination of a rural lifestyle supplemented by car trips to the Ikea in Montreal and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Less wealthy Vermonters will be hit much harder, of course, as the jobs dry up in the warehouse stores and service industries, and as farming becomes all that much more challenging.

Many of us share McKibben’s belief, in his book Deep Economy, that a partial solution lies in “a shift to economies that are more local in scale. Local economies would demand fewer resources and cause less ecological disruption; would allow us to find a better balance between the individual and the community, and hence find extra satisfaction.” Instead of globalism fed by “free” trade, says Kunstler, we’re going to have to reconstruct local networks of economic interdependency” or “we will starve.”

* * *

Can we make this shift to a more satisfying but less materially abundant life – and do it before ecological catastrophes force a far more meager existence upon us? Can a planet careening toward 7 billion humans come to a sustainable balance -- or are we just a several hurricanes and a few more years of polar melting away from the brink?

These are among the great questions of the age, well beyond what happens in Iraq or how to resolve the inequalities of race or class or North vs. South.

Looking at how my own behavior stacks up next to my beliefs, I find cause for both tentative hope and deep pessimism.

As for the latter, I finally tired this fall of cramming my tall body into a Subaru Outback. Instead of doing the responsible thing and buying what my friend Jay West calls a “Toyota Pious,” I put the Subaru up for sale and bought a used Audi A4. I traded a partial-zero-emission car for one that gets about the same mileage and has the same carbon footprint.

What can I say? I have always lusted after an A4.

On the other side of the ledger, we heated the house last winter with three cords of wood and oil that was 20% biofuel. We’ve been talking to Paul Kenyon about siting a wind turbine on our land. Billy Romp will be out here next month to add another layer of insulation in the attic. We work at home and seldom drive more than 5 miles a day to town and back. A lot of meals came out of the garden this summer. We are lurching toward a lighter life.

Individual steps like these are very important. But it’s also imperative that we demand more of our leaders.

That’s why the local and nationwide Step It Up activities on Saturday, Nov. 3 will herald leaders of the past -- and will demand that today’s leaders take the steps only they can take to pull us back from the brink.

We shake our heads at the benighted ignorance of Iran’s President Ahmadenijad because he denies the Holocaust ever occurred. Yet our own president and a majority of our Congress have spent the last six years denying the reality of global warming.

I don’t mean to diminish the suffering of 6 million Holocaust victims. But if the world’s scientists are right, we may well be facing our own environmental holocaust. We can’t afford to play dice with the planet. Wherever we live, it’s time for every one of us to step it up.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Page Turns at Vermont Book Shop

For lovers of books and music, the Vermont Book Shop has always been a kind of temple. Entering it was like going to church – the high tin ceiling, the walls lined with books straight down to the floor, bursting record bins, the bleary northern light leaking through windows in the back.

And most of all, the creaking floor.

Take a single step inside the big front door and the old floor would give a reassuring squeak. God was in his heaven, there was order in the universe, and inside the four walls of this old emporium there were treasures to be discovered: a new book by a favorite author, a long-out-of-print jazz album, or a greeting from an friend you hadn't seen in weeks.

And so it was with great trepidation that many of us contemplated owner Becky Dayton's announcement, earlier this year, that she would be remodeling the temple.

Wasn't it enough, we aging worshippers moaned, that some of the shelves had already been rearranged? And where had all the vinyl albums gone?

That long row of nonfiction had been moved, too – the gauntlet that ran down the center of the store as you walked in. Why, some of the most turgid tomes in American history had sat collecting dust on those shelves for years. Herbert Marcuse, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky had ruled that province for years. Wasn't that worth something?

You could spend a mere 10 minutes amid the nonfiction and catch up on all that was wrong with America, just by reading the dust jackets. And then you could wend your way to the back for a novel or an album and be reminded of all that was right with the world.

For many years of the VBS -- when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the compact disc had not yet been invented -- there was a clerk in the back whose every working day was devoted to tending the music section. The bins were full of LP's by obscure bluesmen -- Blind Lemon Jefferson seemed to be a particular favorite -- but you could also find the latest rock treasures. The Stones' original “Sticky Fingers” LP – the one with the pulldown zipper on the front cover that many stores refused to carry – was on especially prominent display.

* * *

Those of us who came of age in the Seventies, it turns out, had little idea what an innovation that old music section was.

Dike Blair, who with his wife started the store in in 1949, recalls that at the time they opened, “the record store in town sold only 78's, so we put in LP's.”

The shop first opened in the Deanery building at 5 College Street without enough books to fill the space – so “we partitioned off the back third and used it as a picture gallery for local artists.”

It wasn't long, though, before there were “many too many” books. The Blairs relocated to the old A&P store at 38 Main, where – along with Calvi's, the drugstore, the Lazarus department store, Farrell's and Ski Haus – they helped form a kind of Hall of Fame of post-war Middlebury commerce.

Heading toward the back of the store, one inevitably confronted the bullpen island where the cash register and sales staff resided. The cast of staff characters changed a bit over the years, but very slowly. (Grant Novak, in fact, has worked at the store for 30 years, most of them as buyer and manager.)

In front of the large sales cubicle, a shelf held the latest copy of The New York Review of Each Other's Books. And it often seemed as if Dike Blair was always there, even after his retirement and the store's sale to Laura and John Scott in 1993. One could still envision Mr. Blair, bespectacled in his inevitable bow tie and suspenders and pensively smoking his pipe, a monarch surveying his grand little kingdom.

* * *

Sentimentalist that I am, this spring as the days approached before the VBS would temporarily close for renovation, I made a point of taking photos of the old stacks and aisles. I wanted to be sure I could hold on to How It Used to Be.

Looking to the future, I was prepared for the worst. But I should have known better.

Yes, the creaky old floor is gone. Too worn to refinish, it's been replaced by an attractive carpet. For oldtimers, Becky Dayton points out that there's still a spot where you can step and hear the gratifying squeak of the old floor underneath.

The store is far less cluttered, promising fewer surprises but easier to navigate. There are places other than the dusty floor to sit and contemplate one's next purchase, or just read through a favorite Frost poem pulled from the Vermont section.

Becky paid her staff through the entire July renovation, and she kept the doors open herself when the last Harry Potter novel arrived. That fine old tin ceiling got a fresh coat of paint (“champagne purlescent gold-beige” for those of you keeping score at home). During the blessedly quick process of renovation, there emerged forgotten walls of brick and A&P green tile.
The windows at the back were opened to the sky, and multiple layers of paint were scraped off the old oaken moldings. The crew even discovered a long forgotten fourth window on the west wall, which had been buried for decades behind a bookshelf.

True, the music section and its excellent folk collection are much diminished – an even larger loss in view of John Vincent's decision this summer to close his In the Alley shop and its similarly strong collection. But fine albums by folkies like Richard Shindell and John Stewart had languished in the bins of both stores. There's little money selling CDs in the age of the iPod.

In fact, there's damn little money these days in bookstores, period. The owners of the Briggs Carriage Bookstore, in Brandon, and the former owners of the defunct Deerleap Book, in Bristol, would readily confirm that.

So why would someone like Becky Dayton commit so many of her waking hours to reviving a bookstore that has yet to generate its first dollar in profit since she bought it in 2005?

Along with the other smalltown heroes who keep downtown alive, she's on a bit of a mission.
“It's very important that a good small town have a bookstore,” she says. “It's the Third place, after home and work.

“For some people, the Third Place is a pub or a coffeeshop. For others, it's a bookstore.”

Savoring Sweet September

A doe in the meadow this misty morning, her twin fawns nudging insistently at her underside to draw milk. Then two more does, and another set of twins.

Already the leaves are thinning in the trees along our eastern windbreak, opening up views of the Green Mountains. Every day though, the mountains are less green, as islands of maples turn to orange amid the stands of pine.

In my ideal Vermont year, the calendar would have two Septembers -- both of them following along in the arc of this dry but grand summer.

I lost track of my mosquito repellent back in June. Now days of hazy heat are followed by fog and a sweet rain that sparkles asters and beet leaves alike. The nights -- ushered in by the clambering of geese and punctuated by baleful coyotes – have the coolness of the coming months.

Two Septembers? That's right. And no November at all.

We could shift Thanksgiving forward into October like those sensible Canadians do, and then forgo stick season altogether. From autumn leaves straight to silver bells.

The Red Sox would always be in first place headed for the Series, with the Yankees struggling to break .500. Americans would win tennis's U.S. Open, and all of our street paving would have long ago been completed for the year.

* * *

Last Saturday brought more than enough heat to make a swim essential. My niece Clara and her dad (my brother and only sibling) were visiting from Boston. By early evening of that day, we had experienced a good bit of what a September Saturday can offer.

Swimming holes were at the top of Clara's to-do list, but first spent some time in town. We began with the peace vigil on the Middlebury Green, on a day when the vigil marked TK straight years that people had gathered there on Saturday morning to call for peace after 9-11.

I'm usually in a weekly class at the Otter Creek Yoga studio during the vigil, so I was surprised and heartened by the overwhelmingly positive reception that passersby now give the call for an end to the Iraq War.

From there we cooled ourselves in the nicely renovated Vermont Book Shop, exploring the graphic novels that are among Clara's passions. The marquee event was the Farmers Market, which in this harvest season is an abundance of local meat and produce and smiling faces.

We had intended to buy just a chicken from Scott and Suzanne Young's Singing Cedars stand, but greed and hunger intervened. We ended up with salad greens, red potatoes, four kinds of apples, strawberry-rhubarb jam from Karen Leroy, a half-dozen ears of corn and a cantaloupe from farmer-legislator Will Stevens of Golden Russet, and a chat about the vigil with Rich Hennessy, who helps out his son at the excellent Maple Wind meat stand.

But it kept getting hotter. Being in the company of an adventurous 17-year-old, I decided to try something I've wanted to do for 38 years, since I first saw the falls beneath the Battell Bridge. We left the pedestrian bridge on the west side and scurried up to the base of the falls, feet protected by my Chaco sandals and her peach-red Converse.

Up close, the drought-pinched falls were as tame as they appeared from the bridge. We inched our way along the rocks and -- hooting away -- drenched ourselves by standing under a pummeling finger of the falls.

It's said that the son of Gamaliel Painter, one of the town's founders, drowned in Otter Creek. So people must have once congregated at these falls and the waters below. It's not the safest thing to do, I will admit, and I've never seen anyone other than crazy kayakers get fully wet down there. Perhaps there's a local ordinance against it, but who cares?

At any rate, I now rank it as one of the coolest things I've even done in downtown Middlebury, and there have been a number of them over the past four decades.

Our watery wanderings were not done for the day. After visiting the Vermont Soap Factory Outlet and getting a co-op lunch, we headed up to the New Haven River above Bristol.

I've always known these as Bristol Falls, though their proper name of Bartlett Falls seems to be the common parlance. We dipped in about a quarter-mile above the big falls. There, the unusually low water has turned once-treacherous flumes into gently cascading pools, connected by slides that just scream to be slid. (Again here, adult supervision is recommended, but make sure the adult has plenty of young kid on the inside.)

I can report that the 30-foot drop into the big pool below the falls is as thrilling as ever, and so is the slippery journey up under the falls themselves. The massive rock roof makes a dark, noisy chamber, before you push out under the pounding water and into the brightly lit pool.

We had dinner at home that evening on the porch. It was a feast of Farmers Market finds, produce from our own garden, and a French wine from the late, lamented Eat Good Food.
We had indeed been eating the very best food all day long -- sustenance for heart and mind.

As we drank the last of the wine, a solitary doe came out of the woods into the meadow. She looked cautiously around, and began to graze.

* * *
Note: In an earlier post, I failed to give sufficient credit to the South Village developers for their environmental efforts. The new bank is expected to be Middlebury's first commercial building that is LEED certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). And the project's homes are designed to be especially energy efficient.
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