Friday, May 7, 2010
Pages 16-23 "Within the Bounds of a Subsistence Oriented Culture..." (Scott E. Hastings Jr. 1982) Native Vermonters in the Miller Pond Watershed: Heritage and Change...
In sum, the East Side of the watershed appears to be the home of a working-class, native backwoods community of Vermonters with a significant but unmentioned Abenaki heritage.
By contrast, many things unite native rural Vermonters, regardless of history. Wheter farmers, loggers, or contractors, they have in common a rural quality of life and a common interest in retaining their homes, community integrity, and independence. Although I think there are differences between the Abenaki, backwoods and classic Vermonters (Fifield, 1988). In some respects the nature of the land, as well as generatons of institutional assimilation and ongoing social contact, have served to blur these differences. At times, a backwoods person may identitfy with classic values, or, particularly as farms close down, classic types might engage in backwoods behavior. The distinctions I have made, then, are somewhat arbitrary, and emically not usually recognized. They serve in this paper as conceptual frameworks for understanding the subtle dynamics and distinctions between people who collectively make up the category "Native Vermonters", which is an emic category. A synonymous term I will use is the term "locals".
A. Physical Appearance and General Impressions
Native Vermonters tend to speak, dress, live and eat practical things. There is no great reward to be had for getting above one's neighbor, and impressing others is not a valued quality, particularly amongst the backwoods type. In my interviews with people I noted a few who had a strong native accent, making it difficult to understand them. Apparently this is also experienced by middle class people raised in outlying Upper Valley towns, such as Hanover 14. On at least one occasion, I wondered if members of one family weren't referring my questions to a more articulate (in my lingo, that is) member of the family. Friends of mine living in the area have also related instances of not being able to communicate with certain family members who were nonetheless understood by their own family. More generally, the use of ain't and other non-standard English terms and phrases frequently distinguishes locals from outsiders as well. Finally, min, and one woman frequently used profanity in our conversations, and would sometimes apologize for this as they talked.
The possessions and style of locals are not flashy or stylish in appearance, which would only make them stand apart from their neighbors, but they certainly are comfortable and serve their purpose. In the past, people didn't have a lot of store bought items, because the economy was still linked to the family farm and to the homemaker, who coud sew or knit her own clothes, etc. No doubt mail order catalogues also provided clothing and other necessary manufactured items, as well as local stores. Clothing, then, is one visual determinant between native and flatlander. People I visited often wore old T-shirts or faded dresses, even torn or stained clothing; never anything dressy or fashion conscious. Here again, class economics play into this. The stereotypical Vermonter wears simple, practical clothes, suitable for work. At the Tunbridge fair, I observed men in green farm pants. Other articles include a plaid wool jacket, usually green or red and black checked, work boots--such as Sorrels, but not exclusively, or rubber farm boots, a stocking or baseball cap, and of course an
American pick up truck, covered with dirt, dust, and rust.
As mentioned earlier, no one paints their houses often, and the yards are frequently have old unrepaired barns, sheds, or vehicles. Inside, the furniture and decor looks lived in. By contrast, the second home of a New Hampshire property owner looked spotless and uncluttered, with the furniture resembling a store display. The native Vermonter who has lived in the same house for decades, or even generations, however, fills the house with him/herself. Things do not necessarily match, they are added and incorporated over time. To make a showpiece of one's home has no value, although there is certainly nothing squalid or unkempt about it.
People in this area traditionally associate themselves with a particular town, and even particular villages. Some villages communicated more with others, depending upon religious affiliation and class differences (Fifield, 1988). One woman I interviewed, for instance, suggested that since she grew up in Thetford, she couldn't tell me much about Post Mills, a village of Thetford, where she had lived since her marriage. Some people I interviewed were born and raided in the same town, while others had moved to their present house from a neighboring town, years ago. Some families had occupied a particular area for generations, and roads or hills took their name. This was true for both the backwoods and the classic families.
Being with one's family and neighbors remains a mainstay of the culture. Of the various people I survey 15 the majority appeared to be living with, adjacent to or within a few lots of at least one relative--generally a parent and child, occasionally a brother. In one case, the father and brothers appeared to share living space, and to run the family logging operation. Within neighboring towns, several more relativs could be found--giving one almost a sense of dynasty--certainly a sense of kindred. Older interviewees discussed how their children helped them with weatherizing, home repairs, or cooking at family gatherings. Frequently these offspring and even grandchildren would run by us as we talked, or be working in another part of the yard. When asked, people could generally tell me about one or more of their relatives--cousins, half-brother, etc. In one case, four generations were present. I also learned that one must "...be careful what you say, you never know who might be related...". I was in fact frequently surprised to find out either through perusing town records, or work of mouth, just how true this was. Beyond tha, even when I mentioned a non-relative acquainted with other interviewees, I found they were able to pass on new information about that person, and enjoyed hearing updates. This only reinforced my sense of a connected community.
In some ways, certainly for the older generations, people in this area are insulated from metropolitan American society. While certainly some interviewees had worked out of the state (the army being one such employer), some people have never travelled to nearby urban area, such as Boston, and most have little occasion to do so. While TV doubtless diminishes porvincial identification, rural Vermont remains inaccessible to all but one, at most two stations, and the same can be said about radio. There are no movie houses in these towns, and the library hours are limited as are the selections. As one gets away from the Connecticut River, there are hardly any shops, other than the local store and gas pump in each village. Women, particularly elderly, may not drive. Furthermore, during winter, going out is a major undertaking.
One's sphere of activity and knowledge, then continues to be social relations with family and townsfolk--church--and work. Some common social activities include VCR/TV, talking on the CB radio, Lion's Club or other clubs, Volunteer Fire Department and town government, going into town for supplies, catching up on gossip and the mail, Church drinking, and family get-togethers. The people value self-reliance and private property, yet community sharing and neighborliness are equally important. Barn-raising, voluteerism, pulling a guy out of the snow or mud, etc. are some examples. Still today, one finds people almost eager to stop for a stranded car, willing to let one come into a house for a phone call, to jump start or pull a car our free of charge, or even offering to fix a broken snowmobile.
People claim that in the passt, everyone knew everyone in town, and felt free to drop in on each other anytime. My own experience has been, that in complete contrast to the stereotype of the close-mouthed, taciturn Yankee, people are friendly, relaxed, and enjoy chatting--finding no problem with talking an hour or more if one is willing to listen. In part, I believe this reflects the fact that many of my interviewees were self-employed, or unemployed dued to disability or retirement. In a large way, these people seemed almost dying to talk, tell their stories, and were "...tickled..." that I had bothered to come by. As one person said, he had "...nothing to do and lots of time to do it in..."
Even economic exchanges reflect a sense of trust and community feeling. Rather than making a fast buck off of one's neighbor, the exchange/ sale of commodities and services involves a social interaction. In town, I am never asked to provide ID to write a check; likewise many people buy items from the local store on personal credit. If one cheats another, the town quickly knows. News travels fast, and people rely on social networks for doing business.
Most people think in terms of their particular locale. Identification with one's town remains strong. Traditionally, each town has retained its sense of autonomy, often resisting the State when it disagreed with its policies. Vermonters even today dislike any sort of coercive program, even if it might appear to their advantage. For instance, the state has introduced programs to alleviate taxation on agricutlural land. While people I interviewed too advantage of these programs, they nonetheless implied to me that the state was screwing them, since they would be severely penalized for any reniging on their part. Likewise, some Vermonters dislike coercive programs such as the seat belt law, gun control, immunizations and so on. Environmentalist legislation requiring expensive septic systems, zoning laws, and the appropriation of lands for state parks are seen as intrusive violations of property rights. Traditionally, town government has been run by public meeting, where everyone can be heard, and likewise one's votes and stances are clear to all. People often get into heated arguments, and can be very direct and frank, particularly if they feel they are being railroaded or cheated. Reports of selectmen's meetings can at times be entertaining, if one is not directly involved in the conflict.
On a personal level, social conformity has been maintained by public pressure. In the four towns in this ara, there is at most one constable, often part-time at that. Until recently, for instance, no one locked their doors as they had no reason to fear their neighbors. On the other hand, people of the backwoods type seem quite willing to look the other of the law, as long as their interests
are not involved. In Strafford, for instance, there is one town drunk descended from one of the original families, who can daily be seen slowly cruising along in his pick-up, beer in hand. Rather than defer to official authority, a backwoods native tends to settle his own disputes, even if it involves violence. Thus, the reputation for being "ornery". In local parlance, the term is "rowdy", which suggests tolerance for individualistic behavior. In my interviews, I heard a number of stories wherein backwoods people used force to punish violations-particularly against wives or property. 16 Stories varied from shooting a man dead in the house (decades ago), banging a neighbor's head against a wall (recently), selling fire to a logging rig in retallation, and grazing a trespasser's bullock's with gunshot. I likewise heard threats to kill and any future marauders, and was shown household weaponry. Further contributing to the macho impression, rifles are openly displayed on the backs of pick-up trucks, regardless of the season.
C. Ecological Relationships
The land has a particularly strong function--serving as a focus of activity, although not necessarily providing one's livelihood. Activities include, ATV/ snowmobiling, weatherizing, shoveling and plowing snow and ice, doing odd jobs and repairs, stoking the woodstove, felling trees, splitting and stacking wood, gardening, berrypicking, harvesting, pruning trees, sugaring, caring for animals, fishing, hunting, trapping, etc. Activities vary according to the season, and many do have economic value. Even though many native Vermonters do not get their sole support from these activities, still, they do bring in something useful: food, fuel, extra income, or tax abatement via the current use program, and significantly contribute to the lifestyle of the people. These activities tie the people to their land and heritage. Also, the lack of entertainment such as found in urban centers reflects the fact that the people here have plenty do right in their own backyards and neighborhoods.
The Dairy Farm: Classic Image of Land Use
In State reports, and public debate, agriculture is seen to be the backbone of rural Vermont. To quote Scott Dean of St. Albans: "...Agriculture is the foundation of our economy and culture...(Report of the Governor's Commission, 1988:7)." Yet only certain types of agriculture really seem to "count". One former farmer in Strafford related to me how he had decided to get out of farming, yet still saw himself as one of the only four farmers left in town. He ignored the operation of a number of sheep and horse farms, as well as some homesteaders with as many livestock, al beit smaller and more varied, and the commerical apple orchard on Old City Falls road. Seemingly, a farmer to him was a cattle farmer; or other types of agriculture were not included in his thinking. Likewise, most official efforts at saving the rural character of Vermont are aimed at the dairy industry.
Statewide, dairying does account for 79% of Vermont's agriculture (meeks, 1986: 283). On the other hand, most of the land in Vermont and in this watershed really isn't suitable to modern dairying farming needs (Meeks, 1986: 262-272), and dairying has not been competetive with other occupations. In fact, "...by the early 1980's, Vermont agriculture was responsible for only 5% of the gross state product...(Meeks, 1986: 274)". Cultural explanations must be sought to explain the popular importance of the Vermont cow farm.
Emically, the preference for dairy farms is related to its function of keeping open fields, since dairy farms require more land to produce comparable income than other types of farms (Meeks: 282-297).
Public debate has centered around the fear that farms are closing down, and will either become overgrown, or be sold to developers, ultimately to the environmental degradation of Vermont (Report of the Governor's Commission 1988: 13-15). In response to these concerns, the Vermont legislature recently passed Act 200, to require towns to plan development, and to enable them to impose impact fees on developers. Likewise, the current use program has been in effect to encourage farmers to stay in farming. Land conservation trusts have begun to organize in the watershed area, with one Strafford's selectmen a primary supporter and organizer. Specifically, the Vermont Land Trust has decided to use Strafford as a model town (Heil, 1988:1,8). Townspeople have been meeting to discuss these ideas, design and send out surveys, and develope an inventory format aimed towards promoting open space preservation.
reforestation is bemoaned by classic Vermonters as a loss of agriculture potential, a return to the wilderness which earlier white settlers improved and subdued. "...Small farmers have enhanced the beauty of our countryside in a way that nature cannot reproduce,' wrote Dr. D.S. Peterson of Williston...(Report, 1988: 7)". State biologists argue that deer and aother wildlife depend on open, cleared areas to thrive. I did find one classic interviewee who identified a deer yard, where, according to him, once one was sure of a sucessful hunt, but now overgrown, had few deer. In light of this attitude, mowing hay and grazing animals has almost become a public service, resmebland of suburban lawn upkeep. The 'good' Vermonter, then, maitains his property according to agriculturist values, but increasingly, without the traditional economic incentive. This hobby farming is derided by natives as "make-believe". In fact, dairy farmers themselves stand to benefit from less competition as other farms close down (Meeks, 1986: 282). "...Ironically, it is mainly newcomers who are most vocal about preserving Vermont farmland and farming...(Meeks, 1986: 252)".
Since farming requires labor, the "good" Vermonter likewise works both himself and the land--he sees himself as a caretaker, a farmer who controls the ecology of the area according to a certain ideal. Along with aversion to the forest goes the preference for hardwoods, not only for their value as fuel or forestry products, but also for the light they let in. In areas of large farms, and generally near the classic farms, the pines are removed and the view is often expansive and sunny. Pine trees are referred to as wolves, reflecting their propensity to grow up in untended fields, and, I think, the perception that they are unwanted intrusions on this man-made landscape.
Interestingly, I found that many of the backwoods types, particularly in Thetford, were living amongst the pines, preferring the privacy they offer, perhaps not minding their presence. Perhaps this reflects a different ecological orientation also. One Abenaki interviewee, for instance noted that there used to be more pines in his area. My impression was that he bemoaned their loss. The regional name for the Abenaki was Coos, meaning white pine, because this area was heavy with the species. Unlike the southern New England peoples who maintained parklike woods to encourage the passage of deer, the northern Abenaki cleared minimally, did not burn extensively (Cronon, 1983:50), and depended more on animals such as bear, beaver, and moose (Day, 1978: 154), who thrive in undisturbed forest areas (Johnson, 1980). To whites, the pines indicate weeds grown up in fields. But another way to look at it is that the land is healing itself. As Howard Knight put it, "...the farmer is the closest to the land, but he still rapes the rapes the earth..." Of course, another explanation for the
landscape/ settlement pattern is that the pine covered lands represent the least agriculturally valuable areas, which were briefly settled, then abandoned (Wilson, 1936: 97-115), thus becoming and remaining more accessible to working class non-farm people, including Abenaki family members 17.
Although many natives' ancestors are listed in the Gazetter as farmers (Child, 1888), many, if not most of the so called farmers, past and present, may have only farmed part time, as a supplement or complement to other income. In fact the definition of a farm has always been sticky, including just about any operation larger than three acres, even in 1959 (Meeks, 1986: 256) Only those farmers with prime farmland could really maintain profitable commercial farms, so that dairy farmers represent a very specific class, historical period, and geographic area, even within the state as a whole. The hilly areas of this particular watershed do not lend themselves to modern farming, and very few traditional farms of the area remain in operation 18.
These are however, other agricultural and land-use related possibilities which are and have been exploited by the residents of this area, including as I have mentioned, beef cattle, sheep, small livestock, produce lumber, and resort/ recreational use such as horses, skiing, hiking, games reserves, fishing, etc. However the lots required for other agricultural enterprises are often smaller than those required for commercial dairying (Meeks, 1986: 283), and often are smaller than feasible for current use programs. They do not serve the function of keeping large tracts of land in pasture, which meets the image and desires of the classic image-makers. Recreational programs do use large tracts of land, but are still practices by the backwoods Vermonter today. These folks not only do not farm now, but have engaged in other occupations for generations, suggesting that in this area at least, the classic image of the hard-working dairy farmer amidst pastoral rolling pastures, which activists are trying to rescue, does not fit many North Country people who are nonetheless both rural and native.
Hunting: Backwoods Inheritance
A significant activity in this area is the pursuit of wild game. Since this was the traditional Abenaki subsistance activity which distinguished them from British settlers (Thomas, 1976: 9,10). I was particularly interested to see what role this activity played inthe lives of local people today. Letters to the local newspaper, the Valley News, (December 1987-January 1988) suggested that to some readers, hunting and trapping are outdated activities, considered to be obsolete, unnecessary, and even cruel. I had further read that newer residents tend to make land less accessible, particularly in Windsor and Orange counties, by posting (Meeks, 1986: 245).
What I found from talking to hunters and native residents, however, was that hunting is almost taken for granted. Its significance seemed slightly greater to those backwoos types I interviewed, although classics and southern New Englanders also participate. Locally, raccoon hunting, ice fishing (one the Connecticut) deer hunting, trapping, birding, and jacking 19 were all viaable pursuits. Despite
nonhunters' associations with male aggression, hunting was not exclusively a male domain, as I did talk with a woman hunter. I was also told by the head of the trappers' association, Bill Doyle, that significant numbers of women are learning to trap in Vermont. In Abenaki stories (Masta, 1943) and from conversations with John Moody, I have learned that Abenaki women also hunted and fished. In the recent fish-ins, one woman in particular brought in the best fishing catches. Likewise, the Thetford area chief twice told me about his own grandmother and her prowess and aim with both arrows and knives. On the other hand, I have never actually seen a woman in the field in this area. Some of the women I spoke with expressed reservations about killing, even when, for instance, a raccoon was pestering the garbage. One old Abenaki woman from Beaver Meadow, not too far from Strafford, reportedly used to shout to hunters "...I hope you fall!..."(Moody, 1988).
Rather than question the legitimacy of hunting, several people expressed frustration or regret that hunting had declined in recent years. The importance to some of this activity was suggested by the amount of storytelling which occurred when I brough up the subject, and especially by the intensity of feeling which could evince, even to the point of characterizing their feelings generally about living in Vermont. Notably one French/ native's comment that "...Vermont's no good anymore, there ain't no deer...". Unfortunately, in light of the decreasing abundance of game or fish in the area, some residents apparently give up the activity (Meeks, 1986: 245) 20.
Still, I did not see several groups of men, often in heavy camouflage, carrying weapons. Many of these were from out of state. In fact, when I asked residents about posting land, they sometimes felt this was their protection from "gangs" who tended to drive the deer and spoil their ability to wait quietly for a catch. Perhaps it is far-fetched to make the following connection, but I found this difference in style interesting in light of the fact that aboriginal southern New Englanders likewise hunted differently from the northern Abenaki. The southerners, like these intruding gangs, tended to drive the deer; whereas the northern peoples preferred to surprise the deer, as by stalking (Cronon, 1983: 50) (Haviland, 1981: 164). Local hunters confirmed to me that the deer are very clever, and that quiet, stealth, and waiting patiently are necessary to make a catch.
Additionally, out of state hunters deplete the supply of game, where many people feel already there is a shortage. Furthermore, out of state hunting offends people's sense of property. Backwoods Vermonters value the right to dispose of their own property, and resent invasions of their privavcy and/ or control. However, in practice, they were more than ready to share, if asked. For eample, one person strongly resented the State's presumption of "...selling tickets to other people's property...", particularly to strangers. As I was talking to him for his tips on deer hunting. They together reveiled in his successful catch. Likewise, a trapper I spoke with related how really he had no problem with posting, as all one needed to do was ask for right of access. More problematic to him was the rapid rate of development, wherein his trapping spots were becoming occupied with new houses.
As a property owner myself, I have been aware of local hunters coming to us each year, and have noted their sympathy and interest in efforts to discourage disrespectful or abusive persons from using the land. Although there are quite a few non-resident owners and newcomers who post their land, native residents do so also, but for different reasons. Newcomers that I have spoken to seem to be generally afraid of hunters per se, and are often philosophically opposed to hunting. Natives wish to preserve this resource for themselves, and protect themselves from outsiders. A Grove Hill,
backwoods type, for instance, told me he had gotten four deer off of his land 21. On the other hand, the backwoods natives I spoke with indicated that posting was like waving a red flag in front of a bull, and that their best course to take was to post "by permission only". Unfortunately, we found, as did one of my classic interviewees, that these signs were generally ignored, as were direct requests to leave the land.
Another role assumed by some interviewees was that of the caretaker. Individuals reported looking out for irresponsible individuals, from patrolling for "jacking" to protesting does left to rot on the ground. One Abenaki in particular objected not so much to the animal's being killed, but to its being wasted. Wasting food goes against traditional Abenaki culture 22 even today, in Missisquoi (Jed Merrow, nd). Likewise, casually pointing guns at people drinking too much were frowned on. Native Vermonters consistently noted the shortage of deer, in both Strafford and Thetford, whether they hunted or not. Various explanations were offered, from excessive doe hunting, to predation of young by coyotes, to destruction of deer yards from overgrowth. To my surprise, however, none of the native Vermonters related this decline to human development or construction practices, although this was mentioned by Bill DeVaux, the owner of a gun shop in Norwich, in an interview in the Valley News (Corriveau, 1988: 20, 22).
To the backwoods types, hunting especially evinced strong feelings. This suggests that while a deer does not have much meat, it is nonetheless an important resource and cultural symbol to these people. Fathers take pride passing this skill to their children. Hunting is perhaps one of the few persisting aspects of North Country survival and culture, predating commercial agriculture, and accessible to everyone. While other sources of animal protein have been introduced from Europe, these do not have the same taste and quality, and require far more intensive labor.
In the past, hunting encompassed more than the deer season, and possibly accounted for more of people's diets. For example, one 96-year old man mentioned how his peers used to go 'coon huntin'. Raccoon apparently tastes good. One individual did approach us about 'coon huntin' on our land, bt I suspect this is less commonly practiced than in the past. On the other hand, because backwoods people were not large dairy farmers, small game could have provided additional food to their diets. Certainly, there are people today who find it worthwhile to leave work during hunting season. For example, one November day, my car happened to fall over a snowback on Gove Hill, and I was obliged to call a tow. En route, a wounded deer ran across the road and into the woods. Without hesitating, the dirver of the tow truck pulled over, grabbed his rifle from the gun rack behind us, excused himself, and left me sitting there with the engine running on the hillside for several minutes as he dashed into the woods after it. Unfortunately, it got away.
Hunting as an activity requires a different idea of land use than farming or suburban residence. On the one hand, it requires a sedentary orientation. Hunting requires mobility, or at least access to large areas of land. Given the duality of these two activities co-existing, value of sharing are essential. In today's world, without the farmer, the land becomes inhospitable, and when sold becomes divided into smaller parcels which block passage of both game and hunter. Without the farmer, or residents' goodwill, the hunter loses access to quarry. However, the hunter keeps the area from being overgrown with pests which destroy gardens, crops, and livestock.
Finally, when pursuing game, one follows different paths. One gets off of human constructed