Monday, May 24, 2010
Pages 31-38 "Within the Bounds of a Subsistence Oriented Culture..." (Scott E. Hastings Jr. 1982) Native Vermonters in the Miller Pond Watershed: Heritage and Change...
dependent on the larger system , at the bottom of the social ladder, and at the mercy of the market economy and larder political institutions--i.e. welfare, large government, etc. Their autonomy gone, they are almost nameless identities in a sea of mass production--P&C, KMart, TV Culture. Whereas, in Fairlee or Strafford, storekeepers take the time to chat with customers, employees in these places can be fired for talking. The large friendly buttons they sometimes wear does little to cover up the fat that any initiative or originality has been discouraged, and the smile, if there even is one, lasts only as long as one passes through the check-out line. Outside, one sees old cars, crashed in vehicles, pasty, tense faces, and cross parents scolding their children.
John Chaffee of SEVCA 28 and Nicholas Boke (1988: 16-17, 41-51) both point out that most Vermonters are oblidged to work in the growing service industry (ibid: 41,43), which is controlled by out of state interests and corporations in many cases. Many Vermonters do not have the skills, credentials or personalities demanded by these employers. Furthermore, while there are college educated and competent people in this area, for some reason social services, schools and town governments in the Upper Vally repeatedly are replacing local people for out of state expertize, claiming that local talents and judgments no longer meet the needs of the growing area. The recent replacement of Lebanon's high school principal, Whitaker, is only one of several examples I have noted in the last few years. In consequence, native Vermonters who leave their rural homes risk finding themselves disempowered, serving a growing class of upper middle class, essentially urban elites, and excluded from the "good life" their new neighbors so avidly espouse.
Public Services/ Education
Traditionally oriented natives do not see themselves as choosing these changes, but rather as being pushed against their better judgment. Having got along just fine without modern services, programs, and material things, why should they need them now? True, as more and more people inhabit the towns, and as natives move away or become suburbanized, these lifestyles and attitudes become the standard. Nonetheless, a sizeable number of people I spoke with see the demand for services as related to an invasion of people with non-Vermont values--progressives who, confronted by cultural differences, and expecting services and amenities similar to their home towns, require the general public to provide what traditionally has been done by families and individuals.
Taxes, for instance, might be thought by progressives to redistribute income, and provide opportunity and/or relief to low income people. Yet, from another perspective, these taxes only go to support a certain class of people, at the expense of the natives. For instance, school systems are demanding more and more revenue each year. Yet, how is the quality of education measured? Who decides? Are arts, special ed and expensive gym facilities essential? Generally, college oriented people tend to come from college educated parents, middle class students tend to perform better for middle class teachers, and tend to aspire to middle class futures. But why should working class native people pay high taxes to put middle class newcomer children through a system which is designed to teach one group it is superior to the other, and then prepare the overtaxed class to be the docile servant of the other (Harris, 1985: 323-324)? Education has been touted as the solution to class inequities, and as the means to assimilating ethnically different people. Yet, for all the tax dollars
spent and all the hours spent inside these institutions, the truth is that class distinctions are as great or greater than ever before. If anything, assimilationist practices have only served to disempower people and to remove them from their community base of self-determination.
Yet, many Vermonters believe that teachers need higher salaries, and will therefore vote to raise taxes for better services. However, as one teacher put it:
"I can give my student the most challenging assignment available...but as long as his father needs him to keep the farm from going bankrupt that assignment is not going to be done...what does that...(i.e. his salary)...do for educational excellence if my student doesn't own a dictionary?...(Likewise), should I be involved in a strike, I would be striking against farmers, shopkeepers, mill workers...(Keizer, 1988:7)"
At least one interviewee felt that the teachers in this area are part of a growing "element" acting to destroy traditional town values. Another interviewee complained that teachers are being paid full time wages for a day's work, but can be seen sitting with their feet up, smoking in the lounge, and some only come for a day or two for "enrichment" programs. He questioned what his son really learns, as he has to hire a tutor in the summer for his son, to catch up. Yet another backwoods person felt that the kids are allowed to "run the school", and that stronger discipline would improve the situation. In other words, none of these people feel they are getting their money's worth, despite the fact that amongst so-called progressive newcomers Thetford Elementary has a reputation for being one of the "better" schools.
At the high school level, traditionally students from Strafford and Thetford have attended Thetford Academy. Newcomers that I have spoken with, however, prefer to send their children to Hanover, thinking this will better prepare them for college admissions. Caroline Bird, in The Case Against College, suggest that many students would just as well without higher education, and that the emphasis on creditials and the value of liberal arts has no solid basis in measurable terms, certainly it guarantees neither happiness nor higher income (1975: 79, etc). The wish for 'better' education then, may be simply reflect the desire for cultural self-replication, if not snobbery.
The majority of Thetford locals, though, do not send their children to prestigious institutions, or even to college at all. (Town Report, 1989) Naturally, cost is a prohibitive factor. However, according to father David Mcllhiney, there is also a "...northern New England working class ethos that provides tremendous peer pressure on kids not to be smart, not to succeed in school...I hear the stories of the families who have little support of education, who have little opposition to truancy...(Boke, 1988: 45)".
Historically in Thetford, truancy and discipline were problems especially in the backwoods Sawnee Bean and Rice's Mills (Tucker Hill/Grove Hill area) districts, during the first decades of this century (Thetford Town Report 1887, 88,97, 1915, 1918, 1923) and as compared to other districts in the county. In these earlier days, "...some...(parents)...openly state that they have no interest whatsoever...(in shcooling)...(1887: 30)". Today, I still hear tachers discussing the fact that their students and families do not expect them to attend colleges, and really don't concern themselves with academic performance. Amongst the Abenaki in Thetford, only the chief (Howard Franklin Knight, Jr.) has a college diploma, at least one senior member has an eighth grade education, and another backwoods interviewee I spoke with mentioned having only a minimal education as well.
In fact, some locals expressed the feeling that college educated managers, etc. are overly
arrogant, believing that they know it all, yet in fact are incomptent. This perception of educated people extends to well-paid social workers, state bureaucrats, etc. who may be referred to as intruding 'do-gooders'. State and local efforts to raise taxes for socially oriented programs seem to the backwoods Vermonter as oppressive impositions. When a woman in Strafford suggests that her group could provide "...a great day care...", or senior center, if only people would swallow their pride and accept sliding scale services, which are enabled by the taxes"...we pay for...", she speaks as if oblivious to the fact that these taxes are what make housing unaffordable, and consequently split up families and generations, necessitating day cares and senior centers to replace family connection. When she made this statement, a woman who earlier protested zoning against subdivisions because they prohibit families from giving land to their children, got up and walked out, presumably overwhelmed by the cultural gap between them.
Likewise, in some cases, newcomers might be faulted for demanding newer roads, to support commuter cars and ridiculously long driveways for vacation residents. Natives in this area seem to drive pick up trucks appropriate to the back roads, or avoid them altogether. Newcomers want small energy efficient cars to speed down the highway to work in more urban settings. In Strafford too, new developments have occurred precisely in those area where accessibility is poor, on back roads which offer a getaway from people (Valley News, May 26, 1988:9). In the Whitcomb Hill area, for instance, I noted several new cabins tucked away in seemingly uninhabited areas. From the looks of these well-built dwellings, my guess was that these represented those newcomers who want to enjoy the area secluded from the community, outside the village.
C. Ecological Politics
Clearly, backwoods Vermonters also want privacy. On the other hand, while they might not live in the villages as do the classics, they nonetheless tend to build near to existing town roads rather than investing in miles of driveway to get to a hilltop view. Native Vermonters have no romantic illusions about the expense and nuisance of mud, ice, grading and snow removal. They seek to make their lives easier by staying near a town road. They do not drive Mercedes at 5 miles per hour on a class 3 road, nor do they demand that the road be paved as soon as they move in, as occurred in one case in Union Village, and appears to be happening to Strafford. Instances such as the above contribute to the feeling that flatlanders are completely out of touch with rural live and ought to go home to where they came from.
Then again, until recently, hidden backwoods areas have been the enclave of lower income people:
"...unless you go out of your way to find it, it's awfully easy to miss what one local social worker calls 'the horrible trap of poverty...' It's hidden in the towns, down those streets we avoid, in the countryside at the end of deep-rutted dirt roads...(Boke, 1988: 41)"
The cabins in Vershire, for instance, while being outside the main village and on dirt roads, are along the town maintained strip, are much smaller, and are made almost from scrap materials. Likewise with cabins along Barker Brook, Swanee Brean, Abbot Brook, etc.
Newcomers, expecting a 'nice' community, tend to be baffled and frustrated by the locals, and tend to portray them in negative terms, often while attempting to by sympathetic. Like earlier white settlers, the flatlander sees the native as backward. In one example, a conflict between a selectwoman and some Connecticut people included the following insults:
"...He told me I didn't know anything, that I'm stupid. He's always telling us how stupid we are..." The flatlanders: "...she is arrogant and she is ignorant...(she) also criticized Johnson's house on Copperfield road, which needs a coat of paint...'How can anyone who lives the way she does know anything? She told me I was a flatlander and that I should go back to Connecticut where I belong...There's no guidance at all in this town, no zoning, no nothing...People live in dirty, filthy dumps with no sewers or septic tanks...(Behind the Times: Oct. 1988: 1, 29)"
Along the same lines was a letter to the editor which praised the beauty of Vermont, while trashing its people:
"...Mr. Lillie, if you and other native Vermonters revere the hallowed grounds and dirt roads of Vermont and, above all the animal habitats, why then do you sell to flatlanders in the first place? ...if you and others really care for Vermont and its beautiful countryside, why not ask some native and local Vermonters to clean up their acts. I've seen land covered with broken-down houses, old trucks, and cars and heaven knows what else. Also I've seen some of the most deplorable animal living conditions. The ugly sights and odors of some of these places are sickening especially if one lives near them...Please don't classify all flatlanders as the invading enemy. We too, love beauty and Vermont (Bea Quinn White, 1988)
Some new Vermonters, seeking to preserve the "beauty" of Vermont (an adjective also used frequently in the Governor's Report, 1988) by voting and lobbying for increased restrictions on land use. Some efforts include increased environmental legislation, such as Act 250 and Act 200, stricter zoning laws which prevent subdivisions in designated areas, and the Land Trust movement. Although some Vermonters supports and participate in these activities, I observe at their meetings, that it is a middle class elite, many of which are newcomers, who are the primary organizers and leaders of these efforts. These certianly are the people most articulate about the problems, and often the most favorably positioned to donate time, money, and land.
Zoning is justified by the notion that there is one tradition in Vermont--the classic. One classic notion is that of the village and farm--as expressed in the Governor's Report "...the traditional rural scene in Vermont, characterized by concentrated settlement in villages and open countryside dotted with farms...(1988: 8)". While I found some supporting evidence for this pattern, particularly in Thetford (Child, 1988), this ignores the reality of backwoods people who have lived outside the classic village centers for over one hundred years, and for the Abenaki, for at least ten thousand.
I tend to think that the village as norm idea reflects the southern New England, or (explicitly, in one case) British, background of its proponents, and the ideal of the dairy farm and quiet village, as well as deer hunting, reflects an orientation which seeks to replicate southern New England ecology and culture, just as Europeans sought to replicate their homeland in America. The southern British colonies early one attempted to replicate the village settlement patterns of Europe. Likewise, the climate there encouraged larger population densities and a more extensive agriculture than in the north, for both Europeans and aboriginal peoples (Cronon, 1983: 41-42). As I have mentioned, the
white settlers of Strafford and Thetford primarily originated from Connecticut or New Hampshire (Hemenway: 1092), and to a lesser degree, Massachusetts. To the extent that Vermont has in places emulated the above mentioned design, it has been through the efforts of people derived from this cultural stock.
In Vermont, however, settlements were more dispersed, both aboriginally and during white settlement (Hastings, 1982, 83). While the Abenaki did live together seasonally in some areas, hunting territories were dispersed according to family bands (Haviland, 1981: 155-6). People spent large amounts of time geographically seperated from each other, and there may have been families whose lifestyle was primarily dependant upon game, (Cronon, 1983: 41-41). Particularly inland, and as one leaves the Connecticut Valley for higher elevations (as in Strafford, Pero Hill, etc.), the growing season get increasingly shorter, making agriculture less feasible as an economic base, and preventing dense, sedentary population 29. The incursion of white settlements only served to seperate and disperse any remaining aboriginal peoples all the more.
The first Vermont settlers trickled in slowly at first, clearing where they chose rather than in a pre-determined pattern. For a long time, there were few if any settlers west of the Ompopanoosuc (Hemenway: 10193) i.e. in the area I have identified as having an Abenaki component. Even in 1877,
the hilly parts of this particular area of Thetford were sparsely settled (Beers: 75,79, 60, 56), as they are today. Likewise, in 1877, Strafford, also, had a number of settlements on its Eastern edge, along Abbott brook and the Miller Pond area, but these were spread out rather than clustered in villages (F.W. Beers: 75). It does seem true that a majority of people settled nearby the village; however people always had the option of living in the backwoods or in the hills. Land was not expensive, and even delinquency in taxes did not necessarily require forfeiture of the land, as towns provided for indigent residents.
Today, many native Vermonters stay clear of the newcomers' organizational meetings, and view any legislation with suspicion and/or hostility. Zoning to them is a violation of their property rights and freedoms. They resent the fact that it costs, for instance, $1500 simply to subdivide land to give away, to their children. They wonder why it used to be normal to splie one's property, keeping it in the family. Now so called environmentalists want to prohibit the practice by limiting lot sizes--but this prevents family continuity and connection with a homeland. The natives observe that flatlanders came to get away from all this, yet then introduce "...more regulations than we ever even thought of...". Likewise, Act 250, which many newcomers feel makes the state particularly desirable to live in, is seen by backwoods people I spoke with as an unnecessary and odious oppression. On fairly young Abenaki man from Thetford, for instance, saw no reason to require the expensive septic systems the state now requires. Worse, another believed that the State only passes people who have money, and that native, low income people can't build because the executors of this legislation descriminate against them. As he believes, Kunin doesn't believe they constitute an "...improvement...".
For generations, Vermonters have enjoyed the ecology of farms and forest because their economy, and because they inherited this lifestyle of small landholdings and independence. Population density was controlled by the difficulty of making a living; and after the first wave of immigrants, many Vermonters went west for better land, or migrated to urban areas with
better-paying jobs (Barron, 1984). Those who stayed behind had strong family ties, and/or were willing to get by with what they had. A low population density furthermore prevented overexploitation of resources, and mitigated the environmental impact of individual's activities and ecological patterns. Besides the obvious problem of population growth, the local economy no longer demands upon self-sufficient, closed systems. Employment opportunities have changed, as the service industry mushrooms and rural jobs decline (Boke, 1988: 41-43, 48-49)31. Commuting has drastically changed people's horizons, and now products can be imported to remote areas.
Finally, people are choosing their domiciles for cultural, rather than strictly economic reasons (meeks, 1986: 214). They want to preservean ecology for aesthetic reasons, and rather than rely on the goodwill of their neighbors, they seek to impose coercive legislation to maintain the environment which they prefer, despite the economic and social consequences for natives.
Before preceeding to the next topic, I wish to deal with an "alternative" version of the flatlander-as-catalyst-for-change which is also popular and influential in this area, i.e., the:
Back to the Landers
While the flatlander, particularly the tourist, vacationer, or newcomer frequently exposes this ignorance of country life, other non-natives have come to live here and adopt many of the same lifestyles as their neighbors. Particularly since 1960, Vermont has seen a dramatic increase in this group, sometimes referred as the "back to the landers". They may raise animals, garden, split wood, and even argue passionately to preserve Vermont--thus "...Out Vermont (ing) the Vermonter...(Meeks, 1986: 323)". At times their zeal may seem to stand in the way of economic and social progress, as they protest locally run gravel pits, commercial development, industrial plants, etc. which might economically benefit natives.
Ultimately, though, they tend to share similar cultural perspectives with the flatlanders and classic Vermonters who come from the same cultural origins. What is different between the native and the flatlander using the land is that the folks who come to do these things don't have to for their survival. Like an anthropologist reading a culture, these people self-consciously define their values and have chosen to settle away from their roots. The more radical amongst them may be in conflict with their own parents, at odds with mainstream society, eager to protest. Without family nearby, they look to state-sponsored programs for solutions to their problems, and expect public monies and legistlative action to promote their particular ideologies. They may have come here without tremendous monetary resources, nonetheless, they generally have good educations and fairly well-off families of origin. Their migration into the area indicates both an outlook which seeks to find a better life, even if it is defined differently from their parent's, and the resources (monetary, personality, job skills) to find it. If necessary they could relocate, and they expect their children will similarly find their own way in the world. They want the best for their children, and their sense of that best, perhaps unconsciously, has been shaped by their earlier middle class upbringing.
In contrast, to persons born and raised in the same home town, what matters is relationships with people, and one's relation to the land becomes a matter of course. For backwoods Vermonters,
particularly Abenaki, social mobility exacts the price of losing one's birthright. Even for classics and newcomers who have lived in the area for awhile, it seems that to really 'make it', one must be willing to pull up roots and go in search of jobs elsewhere. However, people who are connected to a place and extended family, cannot move these. As anthropologists such as Marvin Harris have argued, one's culture is intimately linked to one's ecological relations, including economics. Thus, to leave one's land behind, is to relinquish a vital part of one's nature.At the same time, the land here has a strong power, its seasons and rhythms touch and affect people. Some feel overwhelmed by the cold and hardship, others wish to protect and preserve; others try to get away, but "...always come back..." At heart, backwoods Vermonts, like activist back to the landers, wish for the area to stay undeveloped, as this allows them to continue their cultural patterns. But unlike activists who push for restrictive legislation, backwoods folks see that it is they, rather than the newcomers, who are being excluded from the land.
The newcomer sees the material conditions, the artifacts, and the formal shape of local institutions. He seeks to appropriate those aspects which seem most appealing, but rejects the rest, without acknowledging the integration of culture and ecology. If the newcomer prevails, land in the family for generations, may be zoned so as to restrict its development, and taxed to support public services, thus making it unaffordable to all but the wealthy, i.e. those flatlanders buying up old farmhouses. Furthermore, the diversity of the landscape and the care with which it has been managed reflects the small ownership of various personalities. For example, whereas in some instances people need electricity, in other cases alternative solutions might be devised. Likewise, some people might live in small cabins with outhouses, while others require complicated septic systems. Whereas some farmers might maintain a pine woodlot, others might prefer pasture or hardwoods. But when Vermont becomes controlled by regulation, Vermont becomes standardized. People's idiosyncratic solutions cannot paint themselves on the land.
Striving for utopian ideals of social harmony, beauty and ecological purity, the newcomer ignores that these reflect the material condition and lifestyle of the people--that people have made their living off the land, rather than through shopping malls, services industries, retails sales, or industrial plants. When natives seem poor, it reflects the fact that they have lived without those same commodities which require environmental exploitation and which create pollution elsewhere. In other words, if the land seems "untarnished", or "beautiful", this reflects the way the people have lived there. When the people change, the land too changes.
VERMONTERS IN THE AMERICAN CONTECT: RURAL VS. URBAN
Incomes of the sort the flatlander is accustomed to are functions of the specialization of an advanced society, which regulates agriculture and industry to seperate spheres, socially and geographically, Wagner, in "Culture as Creativity", pointed out that in primitive cultures, people are what is valuable, people are what are reproduced, people are the basis of production. To Westerners, people are expendable--things are what remain, production of things marks our history. Thus invention, technology, and education to further the advance of "culture" are valued. People's lives are measured by what they prudice, if not strictly, then in terms of cultural achievement, be
it in the arts, sports, sciences or other 'disciplines (Wagner, 1977). To merely merely interact with neighbors, to maintain a homestead, or a stable income and adequate level of material existence isn't considered enough. Thus, a subsistence lifestyle, while the norm around the world, and the most ecologically sane, is seen as backwards and improvished, particularly to those whose frame of reference has always been middle class social mobility and privilage, but also for Euroamericans generally who compare themselves to those around them and who are educated with the same values.31
To improve one's self, one needs revenue, derived from increased production. Whereas the early Vermonters produced mostly what they themselves used, later settlers began commercial farms, in order to make a profit. More generally, the conquest of America, has consisted of the replacement of aboriginal peoples with centers of energy transformation of mind-boggling dimensions. America has been the natural resource, the raw material to be converted into a civilization, a complex society of immense proportions. For the most part, the assumption that everyone can and should strive to better themselves materially has never been questioned; certainly no connection is acknowledged between social mobility and the poverty of aboriginals who occupied the land, or people of color who provided the labor. Rarely do Americans percieve their material accumulations as resulting from the destruction and heavier exploitation of natural resources and habitats, not only of non-human life, but in turn of human beings, who depend on these same for their own cultural and biological existence. As the original inhabitants have been displaced, so habitats have been destroyed or altered. Subsistence farmers, because they did/do not produce 'competitively' have been pushed under, and now small farmers likewise can't survive.
Some ecology minded people of course do see this connection. However, they do not connect their cultural activities with the notion of surplus economy. Therefore, when they wish for more arts or better education, or pleasant, 'beautiful' surroundings, they fail to realize that these are made possible because of the energy flow of civilizations. In studies of prehistoric civilization and sociocultural evolution, cities, and by extension states, themselves create the injustices and hierarchies between people which progressive-minded people seek to address, as well as the environmental load on rural areas. It is the nature of complex, or 'civilized societies to direct the flow of goods from the rural workers, to the urban (or today, suburban) elites and their support systems, often putting them to what is conventionally referred as 'cultural'-i.e. artistic, religious, non-materially productive usses. Furthermore, as this occurs, the health of the ordinary worker or peasant deteriorates (Harris, 1984: 216-219).
The land itself must produce more and more, far more than the subsistence needs of the inhabitants. This surplus is collected by elites in the form of tribute, forced labor, rents or taxes. In Vermont today, it is collected in the form of taxes, or indirectly from people's labor and rents. Ecologically, an urban-oriented society automatically uses the land unequally, just as people live unequally. The more speciallized and urban the society, the more must be extracted from the land 32. A small town of independant farmers, without alot of services or material demands might be able to use the land extensively (rather than intensively), and not draw too heavily on outside resources. As people demand more and more materially and culturally, and as less and less materially self-sufficient people occupy the land, the farmer is forced either to produce more for less, or find new uses for the land.