Jay Parini: Vermont a haven of mountains, red barns, clapboard houses, covered bridges
Bad weather comes in winter, he says, with ice bending trees and snow blocking roads
Now, Brattleboro deep under water, ruined covered bridges and homes, Parini says
Parini: Vermonters left to clean up in the calm, bright weather Irene left behind
Editor’s Note: Jay Parini is a poet, novelist and biographer. He teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. He wrote “The Last Station,” which was made into movie starring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. His latest book is “The Passages of H.M.,” a novel about Herman Melville.
I’ve spent most of my adult life – over three decades – in Vermont. To some degree, it has been like Eden itself, a shelter from the American storm: leafy mountains, red barns and white clapboard houses, quiet dirt roads with covered bridges, village greens, lots of fresh organic food, ex-hippies galore and the open waters of Lake Champlain, which treads a narrow path over 100 miles between the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west.
The county where I live – Addison – has refused to let in the big box stores, such as Walmart and Costco We prefer our country stores, where you can buy anything from maple syrup and cheddar cheese to nails or diapers for a baby. Bernie Sanders, a socialist, is one of our two senators.
We were the first state to allow civil unions. Soon, a single-payer health care system will be put into place – a bold experiment that might show the rest of the country how to do such a thing. Rumor has it that the number of cows in Vermont exceeds the number of people.
And we don’t get many hurricanes or tropical storms up here. They haven’t been words in our local vocabulary. The problems with weather usually come in the dead of winter, and they involve large quantities of ice, which gather on the birch trees and bend them to the ground. I sometimes have to head to the nearby college where I teach – a three-mile journey – on cross-country skis. And that’s a satisfying mode of transportation.
But as everyone knows by now, we just got hit by Irene, with devastating results – especially on the eastern side of the Green Mountains. More than 200 roads were closed at one point, with stretches washed out by flooding streams.
The lovely town of Brattleboro, once the home of Rudyard Kipling, was deep under water, and people are still trying desperately to clear away the mess. One famous old covered bridge is gone – a pity, as we have the highest concentration of covered bridges anywhere in the United States, and it’s always a shame to lose one.
Even where I live, on an old farm outside of Middlebury, on the western side of the state, we had winds that tore up trees by the roots. Power lines were down. Branches still litter the ground around my 150-year-old house, and several shingles were blown from the roof.
The Otter Creek, which runs nearby, is dangerously swollen still, reminding me of that great line in T.S. Eliot: “The river is a strong brown god.” I’ve never seen the river this color before: deep brown. My youngest son, a feisty teenager, just asked me if he could swim in the creek. I told him about the people swept downriver only two days ago, one of them still missing.
What is weird is how bright and calm the weather has become, leaving behind so much destruction, stirring up stories that will probably linger by the fireside for decades. The sky is suddenly clear as gin. There is no wind, just the aftermath of nature’s wrath.
I feel a sense of awe, thinking of Irene, how it moved through us on a dark Sunday, churning through the night, turning the field beside my house into a pond. Now it has left us – thank God – having taken its nastiness elsewhere. It has left Vermonters to pick up the pieces one by one, like Adam and Eve after the Fall, having to deal with the fact that a snake came through the garden.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jay Parini.