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A Yankee Notebook

May 12, 2014


MONTPELIER – The Vermont Legislature wound up its annual business in an overtime session on Saturday, May 10. As if on cue, spring finally arrived the next day. The coltsfoot, which had been acting surprisingly cautious about blooming, suddenly sprang into full yellow. Its leaves, which don’t emerge till after the blooms have gone by, are still hidden; so the duff alongside the driveway looks like an ocean floor studded with sea snakes: all those little yellow heads bobbing in the breeze on slender stalks. Gardeners and farmers can now get out onto their land.

This thought recently created a little epiphany for me. (It helped that the weekly Wednesday evening entertainment in the legislative chamber is called Farmers’ Night.) Suddenly it was clear why the Legislature – famous for its original roster of agricultural types – has from time out of mind met from January till May. Those old-timers, just like the long-ago woodsmen in the logging camps, were getting away from the farm (and home, too, maybe) during the down time.

The hired man could see to the milking, the shingle-splitting, and the sugar-making while the boss was in Montpelier making laws. And if the lawmakers played it just right, they could plead pressing state business till they were sure the sap buckets had all been washed and put away for the year. The representatives could return home, with a paycheck pending, just in time to start the spring plowing and help with their wives’ kitchen gardens. The schedule was a stroke of genius.

These days the reasons for adjournment are less attuned to spring planting, but the old schedule, as traditional as the swallows’ annual return to Capistrano, remains. A note of excitement creeps into news reports of “last-minute negotiations,” till at last the final votes are taken, the final gavels descend, the Governor compliments (or doesn’t) the session’s accomplishments, and the city empties out, just in time for the arrivals of the first tourists, come to motor through newly opened Smugglers Notch, visit sugar houses still boiling for their benefit, and experience spring in the Green Mountain State.

Many of them express surprise at the almost intimate nature of the place. A capital without a McDonald’s? A governor who knows personally or at least by name most of the people he meets on the street? Incredible! They don’t realize that the smaller the village you come from, the more people you know. And where’s his security detail? Hard to tell. Years ago a few of us climbed part of Smarts Mountain, over in New Hampshire, with then-Governor Jeanne Shaheen. She arrived with only one other person, a photographer. During the climb I asked the photographer what kind of camera she had in the neat bag under her arm. “Colt .45,” she answered. Oh.

It’s hard to imagine that scene in New York or New Jersey, where passions run higher and anonymity is more common. When I was a little kid, we lived three blocks from the great chateau of the New York State Capitol. What went on in there, however, seemed as remote as Mars.

Think what a bubble we live in. We read and hear daily – even 24 hours a day, if we like – about life on the national political stage: Supreme Court decisions, threats of filibusters, politicians trying to get traction for the next set of elections, climate change arguments, legislative gridlock. Sometimes it seems to me that our two senators and one representative could get to Washington and back faster by clicking their heels and shouting,, “Beam me up, Scotty.”

Yet here in the valleys of of the Battenkill, Winooski, White, and Missisquoi all of that is hardly discernible. There are a few ominous hints of deterioration: indifferent sap runs; unreliable snow cover on cross-country trails; infestations of ticks, emerald ash borers, and woolly adelgids. But there are so few of us – and so few dissidents to convince – that these are problems we probably can cope with. Hurricane Irene was a major wakeup call; but everyone who could turned to and helped, and it seemed that every third Vermonter owned a backhoe, front end loader, bulldozer, or dump truck. Vermont Public Radio morphed for a while into a sort of Alaskan bush radio, transmitting personal messages, requests, and offers. (My favorite was the gal who asked plaintively whether anybody’d seen a blue Geo Tracker floating down the Ottauquechee River.) All of this fostered the sense that, no matter what our political or philosophical persuasions, we’re in this little boat together, and it behooves all of us either to row or get out of the way.

The deer have quit tramping through the yard at all hours. They’re turning red for the summer, and the does are up in the swamp having their fawns. The turkeys have mysteriously disappeared; my daily offerings of rolled corn now go to crows, jays, and mourning doves. I’ve been tracking on the Internet the northward migration of the hummingbirds from Central America, so as to have their pink water ready when they got here. But they’ve beaten me to the punch; Mother saw one today teetering on a crimson Christmas tree ball she has hanging from the porch ceiling. Hang on, guys! Tomorrow morning the fountain will be full.

The main source of discontent here at our place is the tension between the things that need doing – pine stumps to be grubbed out of the lawn, porch post and railing to go up, bathroom fan to be hooked up and vented – and the murmuring of the boats out in the barn to be taken out and put into the water. I’ve got a list of major items, and minor items that take but a few minutes, and have pledged to do at least one a day. The summer looks busy from here, and perhaps more distracting than lovely. But as I think about it here at my desk, through the open window come the song of a white-throated sparrow and the cooing of a mourning dove. Where is life apt to go better?

Photo by Willem lange