Saturday, January 26, 2013

deep roots

A version of an assignment I worked on last fall when I was staying at my friend Theo's cabin:


Euclid Farnham's wife is trying to shove a head of cabbage into the refrigerator.

“This is not working,” she calls from the kitchen, her head buried in the depths of the appliance.

“This is not working,” Euclid repeats to himself, rising from the rocking chair by the woodstove 
where he's been discussing, among other things, how history and conservation are two sides of the same coin. He shuffles into the narrow kitchen. Seventy-nine years old, he's lived in this house his entire life. His family inherited it “down to the kettle” in the throes of the Great Depression.

“And the squash is getting gooey,” Priscilla Farnham mutters from within the fridge.

“The squash is getting gooey,” Euclid repeats. “What do you need me to do?”

“Take this.” Priscilla shoves an armload of fall produce at her husband. “There's no room in the crisper. We should never have bought those grapes.”

“Our problem is we have the world's smallest refrigerator,” Euclid explains en route to the pantry. “Look around this room. We have seven doors and two windows. Where do you put anything?”

“Oh, hell,” Priscilla says from the kitchen. There's a loud thump. Just then the phone rings – an old-fashioned, actual-bell ringer. It's a library group asking to book a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Claus at their Christmas party, roles that Euclid and Priscilla have been playing for decades despite the fact the Euclid – lean, with a gray mustache and thinning hair – needs a good deal of padding to fit the part. He takes the call and makes a note on the calender.

“It's a real ordeal, getting involved in all this stuff,” he says wryly, sitting back down. Not only is he the only Santa anyone can remember, he's also served as town moderator and president of the Tunbridge Historical Society for more than 30 years, and recently retired as cemetery commissioner and president of the Tunbridge World's Fair, an annual agricultural event. He's been a justice of the peace, the town lister, the trustee of public funds, a dairy farmer, a maple syrup producer, a soldier, a Republican, a Democrat and an author. The one thing he has not been is a father.

“I'm the end of the Farnham line,” he says. “That concerns me, it really does.”

Farnhams have been in Tunbridge, Vermont for eight generations – since before statehood in 1791. Euclid's ancestors walked north from Connecticut alongside Ethan Allen's family after the Revolutionary War, hauling their belongings on horseback through the forest until they reached the present site of Tunbridge. They've survived a Mohawk raid, fought against a dam that would have flooded the town, and lived through natural disasters that nearly did flood it. Euclid describes events from the early 1800s as though talking about yesterday's Red Sox game.

“My family's been here so long, I grew up with all this history,” he says. “If I don't write this down, a lot of it's going to be lost. It's the roots of the community.”

In Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, the western writer Wallace Stegner writes about the “deficiency of community” and lack of “deeply lived-in places” that can result from the transient, mobile culture of the American West. Coming from a nation built by pilgrims and pioneers, Americans have long searched for identity and opportunity by taking to the roads, trails and highways. Leaving is in our blood.

Staying is less romantic. Staying means grappling with sustainability. It means preserving resources. But when you stay, your history sinks like taproots beneath the land until you become part of a place. You remember, for instance, what the forest looked like before the American chestnuts and elms all died. You know there used to be salmon and eels in the First Branch of the White River, because your mother told you how she sat on the banks and fished for them. When you know these things and you care about a place, you have the power to protect it.
For decades, though, the Farnhams were the exception, not the rule, even in blue-blooded New England. Throughout the 20th century, droves of families and young people left Vermont in search of richer soil and better opportunities, and the population of Tunbridge dwindled from 2,000 to less than 790 by the 1960s.

Even Euclid's grandfather left for a while. In 1880, Grandfather Farnham was swept up with the great migration west, joining millions of others who left their homelands and sought new opportunities and better futures by pushing ever further into the new frontier. Grandfather Farnham found himself drawn to the the fertile, boulder-less expanses of Kansas, but his own father, a Civil War veteran, wouldn't let his son out of Vermont so easily. 
“In a last desperate attempt, he took a train as far west as he could go to convince him to come back,” Euclid recounts, his gray eyes flashing. “He was successful, thank heaven. I've been in Kansas, and it's long and flat and boring. I'm glad I'm not in Kansas.”

Euclid is glad he's not anywhere else but on Whitney Hill Road in Tunbridge, Vermont. In the 1950s, he spent three years in the army traveling through Europe, and in the early 1980s he spent a month exploring National Parks west of the Mississippi. 
“It's great out there,” he says. “But I just – I just missed the hills of Vermont. I missed the hardwoods. It's a silly thing, but growing up with the maples and the beeches, when I got east to Minnesota I felt like I was home again.”

Today, the hardwood forests that Euclid loves are changing, along with nearly everything else. The state has turned from staunchly Republican to staunchly Democrat (a move Euclid applauds), many of the old family farms have been hacked into smaller and smaller plots, and much of the old pastureland has reverted to forest. 

“It seems like everything is happening to our forests,” he says, ticking off the diseases that have swept New England trees in his lifetime. “We lost our chestnuts. The elm trees are gone. The butternut trees are well on their way. The beech trees – well, the reason I'm burning beech this winter is I'm told to burn them for wood or they'll die anyway. It seems like one species after another is going.”

Seasons have changed drastically since he was growing up. Winters are warmer and natural disasters are more common. Sugar bushes and apple orchards are suffering. There are fewer fish in the rivers and the rivers themselves are less stable due to decades of human intervention. 

But today, a second wave of back-to-the-land revivalists buying land in Vermont, and they're doing it with the radical intent of staying. The local stigma against “flatlanders” is lifting, and demographics are slowly shifting. Euclid's neighbors on Whitney Hill Road now include a young law student who put his career on hold to build a cabin, a Jamaican farmer (the only black man in town) and his artist wife, and a publishing agent who's no longer chained to New York City thanks to broadband internet. None of them have roots in Tunbridge. But they all want to stay. 
The recorded history of Tunbridge, Vermont currently resides in its entirety in a cramped office in Euclid Farnham's house, but within the year a new fireproof room will be completed at the local library and the collection will be moved. Euclid and Priscilla are deciding what to do with their house – a piece of living history itself – when the time comes. Meanwhile, Euclid is working on his third book about Tunbridge history, preparing to leave eight generations' worth of research, observations and anecdotal knowledge to his new neighbors. He hopes it's enough.

“If we lose our roots,” he says, “then future generations have lost a lot.”

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