Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Pages 24-30 "Within the Bounds of a Subsistence Oriented Culture..." (Scott E. Hastings Jr. 1982) Native Vermonters in the Miller Pond Watershed: Heritage and Change...
roads, and travels overland. People who engage in this activity, then, see the terrain differently than those whose orientation is directed by roads and villages. Places that seem disconnected when travelling by automobile become close by and connected when walking. Snowmobiling and jeep trails also connect one, but hunting requires particularly close observation. The popularity of ATV's can nonetheless be seen in terms of their permitting greater exploration of the landscape, and reflects the values of people who think in practical terms, enjoy being together out of doors, and engaging in physically stimulating activity.
In sum, traditionally, the people of this area have been oriented by home and the lay of the land, by the seasons and the weather--cycles tied in with the ecology. Economically, these Vermonters are intergrated into a larger economy and political structure, yet in other ways they seem to still be living and thinking in terms of small communities and even clans, in rhythm with the land, thinking in terms of homeland, subsistance, and continuity. While it is true that some natives engaged in farming, and many still value this activity, very few engage in it for their livelihood, and of those who do, only on a small scale. In fact, many of the most economically viable farms are owned and operated by non-natives. The Vermont farm is ideal native prototype, then, represents a mythic past, one which is disproportionately supported by non-natives.
On the other had, there are other aspects tot he native's lifestyple which reflect and depend upon rural ecology. The hunter, for instance, often owns limited acreage, and thus depends upon both the cooperation and scarcity of neighbors. Other aspects include privacy, freedom from interference, a sense of ownership and pride, mobility, access to subsistence related resources such as wood, gardens, syrup, fresh water, etc., as well as a sense of community cohesion and stability. Classics tend to see these benefits as dependent upon a farm economy. However, these positive aspects of lift existed before white settlers arrived, and before the growth of the diary industry as we know it today.
PROBLEMS AND CHANGES
A. In the Community
Although low income Vermont has been isolated and stable, dependent on emigration for this stability (Barron, 1982) and never overpopulating the state; since the 1950's and even the 1940's, but especially the 1960's (Meeks, 1986: 207), Vermont has had increasingly to cope with a growing population of immigrants, particularly from southern New England, New York, and even New Jersey. This has caused considerable stress on local Vermonters, as many cannot compete with the resulting greater material, social and political demands of this new culture. Many of the social and political goals of the newcomers seem orrelevant to the rural orientation of the area, while public programs which they support address only the symptoms, not the root of the problems. Worse still, newcomers tend to favor protective legislation which threatens the economic viability of the backwoods lifestyle. To the backwoods native, maintaining his rural ties and lifestyle makes the difference between cultural integrity and independence or wage slavery and suburbanization, particularly since many of the options available to newcomers remain inaccessible if not undesirable to the natives.
Generally, it has been in the past few decades that improvements in transportation, the building of the interstate and the paving of major roads such as 132 (potter, 1971, 11), the introduction of electricity and the telephone (ibid: 1-2), and the development of Vermont's tourist industry--particularly skiing--having made the lifestyle of this area more accessible to newcomers. Additionally, it has made the possibility of working in a more urban setting, such as Hanover, while living in a remote area, feasible. This accessibility has exacerbated economic and social tensions everywhere in the state, as formerly rural areas now find themselves inhabited by suburban-oriented people with different expections and lifestyles. Although many locals work in Hanover, often they hold low-status positions and retain their roots in their communties. Newcomers, however, are not so rooted, and frequently feel alienated from their neighbors. Their bewilderment at native behavior often expresses itself in negative terms. At the same time, they tend to hold and defend an idealized image of pastoral lifestyle and ecology, to the dismay of their local neighbors who find themselves struggling politically, economically, and socially to maintain a foothold in their home towns.
In my area, the statistics for Strafford and Thetford are somewhat different, as Thetford has experienced far more population growth and particularly attracts "flatlander" outsiders wishing to commute to the Hanover area for professionally oriented jobs, via Interstate 91. Strafford, by constrast, has been a bit more isolated. In the 1960's, when Thetford's population was ballooning, Strafford's population declined (Meeks, 1986: 205-6, 208). My guess is that many locals departed at that time in search of non-farm income, or else died from old age. Strafford and Vershire in 1979 had between 60-80% native born residents, as opposed to less than 60% in Thetford (Meeks, 1986: 322). Perusal of the Telephone Directory, as put out by the Newton School PTA in 1988, indicates 45% of Strafford residents are natives. In the Skunk Hollow/ Miler Pond area, the percentage of natives was roughly 53% 23. Inside the watershed area, as noted before, famillies still own areas of land in continuity. However, there are increasing numbers of new houses nearby, or sometimes between relatives, indicating that the land has been sold to newcomers. Still, although people do sell their land, many subdivisions in the area have been to family members. Likewise, some of the new houses and migration can be attributed to people moving from more expensive towns, such as Norwich and Thetford. Vershire, in particular seems to have a large number of cabins put up on the dirt roads leading from Miller Pond into the village. Judging from their modest condition, these seem to be backwoods constructions, as opposed to the more upscale newcomers' 'getaways' being developed in Strafford.
In fact, some people see their lifestyle as slipping away. As a middle aged backwoods native of Thetford put it "...People are running for their lives..." but there is nowhere to run to. His brother, who owned a lot adjacent to himself and their father, pulled up his roots, sold off his share of the family homestead, amd moved to the nearby town of Vershire--only to find his taxes doubled in a year. In another case, a Strafford man said he couldn't afford to live in town when he retired. When people near him expressed dismay and offered to help, he simply said "...Oh, I'm going to retire here,
but I won't be able to afford it...". His family farm is now for sale. Many of the people I interviewed were particularly handicapped,in that they live on limited incomes, due to disability or retirement. Other, younger people perhaps have more options, yet generally, wages and opprotunities are not keeping pace with the growing costs of living and real estate, including property taxes as well as rents 24. As one Strafford woman put it, "...I pay more in taxes on my house now than I originally paid for it..." In Upper Valley Echoes, Ira Stevens likewise mentions "...that farm we bought in Lyme in '32, we paid $2,000 for it and 160 acres. Now the house alone is for sale for $500,000...(Croft, 1989: 1).
Farming, for those who engage in it on a small scale, no longer makes economic sense, or simply doesn't appeal to young people, who leave to find work elsewhere. One backwoods person who had given up dairy farming, had moved to Strafford after leaving Norwich roughly 15 years ago, to get out of paying the taxes, and to avoid its increasing suburbanization. Several people I spoke with discussed plans to move to Maine, or even Canada, even though their family, heritage and roots have been in the area for generations. The idea of selling out was not viewed as an opportunity to "...make a killing...", as one newcomer Vermonter described selling a home in Vermont's rising speculative market, but rather brought up very negative feelings, almost tears. As one Gove Hill man put it, "...I can't tell you how sick I feel inside...".
While economics play a key role in people's decisions to leave the area, the changing nature of the community seemed important as well. One backwoods man in Thetford, besides not wanting a property tax assessment comparable to his neighbors, also felt crowded by the extensive development scheduled to go in uphill from his small house. In blunt terms, "...Pardon me ma'am, but I want to be able to take a piss out my back door if I feel like it..." Other interviewees reated to development with a emphatic "...Jesus, Stratford's getting built up!...", comments about lots of new houses going up, questions about how many houses we planned to build on our co-op, and shocked reactions that we were practically putting up condo's, etc.
People frequently complain that whereas they used to know everyone in town and feel welcome at any door, now no one knows any one. Town officials in Stafford are dismayed by the impersonal and threatening, even belligerent manner of some residents, particularly over road maintenance. Rather than coming in to discuss differences, selectment find themselves receiving letters promising to go to court over roads they had never even heard of; or meetings called in protest about problems not known to exist. In Thetford, the political problem is acute, as class differences are quite strong and there is a very vocal and radical element in the town. Likewise, just as Vermont has shifted from Republicanism to electing a Democratic governor and nearly sending socialist/ independent "...Bernie Sanders to the congress...", Strafford nominated Jesse Jackson in the presidential primary.
Andrew Nemethy, in Meeks' Geography (1986: 325) remarks that natives frequently are avoiding town meeting, feeling their votes no longer count. In Thetford this year one particularly vocal backwoods type was admonished by the local newspaper simply to stay home this year, rather than stir up unpleasant controversy (Valley News Op Ed, Feb 10, 1989: 20). This person related to me how he and others had been harassed, and he felt many people who agreed with him were simply too timid to speak up or protest. In Strafford, the meetings I attended suggested that there was a pretty even mix between old timers and new, but that the backwoods types (as opposed to classic) that I know of either were not in evidence, or sat to the rear of the room, clustered together, and did
not speak up. In Vershire, where people have been moving to, it appears that the natives still run the town, judging from comments by friends who live there, and reading the selectmens' reports in Behind the Times, a northern Upper Valley publication.
Whereas I earlier epmphasized family connections and neighborliness as important to people's lives, some interviewees clamined never to see their family: "...I see him about as much as I see you...", and not to go beyond their particular territory, almost taking pleasure in being "...just a country boy...". Some are noted for their animosity; the Kendall brothers reputedly refuse to speak with each other, another despises his daughter-in-law and son. Locals will warn new people to stay away from "rowdies", or refer to others as "damaged", "drunk" or "clannish", i.e. hard to approach. One interviewee lamented that no one rejected the traditional values of the town anymore. He claimed people used to really participate in barn-raisings, etc, but no one helps anyone out any more.
Since my own experience of the Upper Valley has been that people are quite helpful and friendly, I speculate that either this friendliness is a vestige of a time when people were even more closely knit, and the ethic if not the practice has remained, but still works more strongly than in a truly urban area; or possibly this reflects the degree to which is now possible for neighbors to travel in completely different circles. This last possibility only empasizes the breakdown in social cohesiveness in the area, and the increase in stratification and alienation between neighbors.
The Flatlander Invasion
The values of the backwoods native contrast with the more Calvinist and romantic images of the farmer, which appeal to not only the classic Vermonter, but particularly to a new class of "...radical elites..." which as appropriated Vermont image to meet its own needs. Whereas the tourist promotes the economy, but ultimately goes home and leaves the land to the native, the newcomer attempts to instill his ideas into the institutional framework permanently. Often this is accompanied by rightous justification, as the newcomer is convinced of his moral superiority. Increasingly, the native Vermonter is faced with the choice of clinging to traditional ways but struggling to get by, or conforming to norms he did not create.
As I taked to people locally, listend to "leaders" organizing Vermonters, looked carefully at their followers, and listend to their presentations and casual remarks, I observed that members of this new class claim the state as theirs, yet do not depend on land-based economy for their subsistence. These people statewide consist of flatlanders and newcomers, as well as urbanized Vermonters. They consist of an increasingly large number of middle class people, some retired but many more young adults, well educated, often owning valuable property. Their dialogue gears itself to similarity educated people. Those with eitgth grade education and urbane experience, as well as class privilege, often fail to see how their programs and values reflect their own ethnocentric opinions and interests.
Many of these new people come from southern New England, or even farther away, hopng to make a better life for themselves. They often have high expectations and preconceptions about the nature of land use and community (Meeks, 1986: 321), which don't fit the more diverse and often unromantic reality. When reality doesn't fit their dreams, they attempt to politically force reality into their utopian molds. As a result, natives feel that their tradtional independence and opprotunity to
live as one could is being attacked, often under the guise of progress, social justice and environmental protection.
One thus finds two or more groups of people living in the same town, viewing each other with suspicion. Cultural, political, and economic conflicts play themselves out through a sort of esoteric/ exoteric interplay, each side adopting images of each other and themselves. On the one hand, the flatlander tries to be a "real Vermonter", on the other hand, natives may or may not fit the stereotype, but may adopt or personify these traits in social or politically tense situations. 25 Likewise, the stereotypes of the flatlanders serve to explain the native's economic distress, and to bloster self-esteem. When one sees high-priced merchandise, for instance, one can justify its inaccessibility in terms of its being for a flatlander clientele. Rather than experience one's self as at the bottom of the economic and social ladder, one can see one's self as a leader and respected equal among peers--i.e. other natives like one's self.
By natives, the flatlander is viewed as a rich, arrogant, but generally stupid outsider who thinks he knows everything, but relies on the Vermonter to pull him out of the ditch, set him straight, etc. In the distant past, natives taught settlers how to survive, how to use medicinal plants, how to hunt and trap, etc., As stated earlier, even recently, Abenaki were employed as guides to sportsmen. Locals likewise give newcomers hints about the best deals and ways to get by, from yard sells and wood dealers to getting a septic system approved. On the one hand, natives enjoy teaching their skills to 'novice Vermonters", on the other hand, they lament that flatlanders, despite intentions to enjoy the rural lifestyle, inevitably bring with them the very things they sought to escape.
In many instances, people, people, particularly of the classic type, attempt to maintain friendly relations and to downplay differences, in an attempt to cooperate, etc. On the other hand, typical comments which come out almost in spite of themselves are "...You are here because you were trying to get area from what you left...", or, ...What I really enjoyed about this town was knowing everyone--that's gone...". Again, I heard the comment from one woman that "...Thetford used to be recognized in villages and farm land, but now out-of-state money has come in, and all you see is desolation...and they all want to work in Hanover..." People on a one-to-one basis wish to be friendly, offer support, etc. On the other hand, they will tell you they are hurting--that the process of even single lot development by newcomers serves to crowd them, make their own homes unaffordable, and create tension between the haves and the have lesses.
In the public arena, I frequently read quotes from officials and writers to Valley News editorials which explicitly state the desire to people out. Likewise, one's status as a native or flatlander can be used to defend or defeat public issues or to win elections. In 1986, for instance, a heated and almost vicious campaign was waged against a school appropriation bill in Strafford. Supporters maintained its necessity and cited State requirements to push their position. Opponents implied that this violated native values and was evidence of flatlanders taking over the town. 26 Likewise, one dissenter at a meeting at a meeting I attended, felt it advantageous to point out that Governor Kunin herself is not a native Vermonter. In Woodstock, State consultants advised upgrading Route 4 to a four-lane highway. Viewed by some as yet another expensive, unnecessary and intrusive idiocy, destined to create more development, dislocation, and influx of outsiders, people protested. The Woodstock town manager put it: "...We'll be damned if we're going to encourage more out-of-staters to come through here...(Heil, 1988: 1,5).
In Thetford, the animostity was once very directly and forcefully expressed. According to Ken Korey, in the Town of Thetford in the 1970's, rowdies frequently attacked cars which belonged to outsiders. I see this as a clear expression of these people's sentiments. They apparently wished to convey the message that the town was inhospitable. Similarly, some natives will approach new neighbors at times and harangue about flatlanders, how rough times used to be, etc. On our land, a local guy came by and told us scare stories about terrible winters about floods in the area. Again, at the end of the deer season two years ago, one backwoods type put up a frightening effigy of an old man, hanging like a caught deer from his hunting cabin: "...for the flatlanders...".
B. Changes in Economic Orientation
While the flatlander may be seen as a invading menace, he also provides Vermonters with a source of income. Just as the Abenaki earned money from the fur trade, subsequent Vermonters have expoloited the tourist trade and the northeastern markers. In a sense, today's flatlanders come from the very same places that the traditional enemies came from, i.e. the Iroquois from New York, or British settlers from the south. They have always seemed to the native inhabitants as overrunning the country, demanding tribute or taxes, posing a threat of overpopulation or overexploitation. Either they have romanticized Vermont, or they have degraded the natives as uncivilized and backwards. Yet, without the outsiders, the native would not have access to desired items, whether guns and cloth, Europeans plants and products, or industrially made cars, videos, plastics, etc.
Whereas once the land was the primary source of the economy, now farms are becoming hobbies, particularly for wealthy people who can afford to buy, maintain, and pay the taxes for them. Newcomers seeking to homestead are viewed suspiciously by native as "playing", or living in a land of "make believe". Around Vermont, farm skills are promoted as crafts, quaint cultural activities to attract tourists, much as Native American comunities have exploited traditional arts and technologies to raise revenue for their people. Homespun wool gets a better price than machine made, "natural" soups, sauces, breads, etc. as well as the more traditional maple products, specialty cheeses, organic produce and meats are sold for mint prices to the health-conscious and yuppies with the inclination and money to buy them. In the fall of 1988, Strafford, specifically, hosted a sheepherding demonstration which brought a good crowd, and local fairs likewise bring in their share of newcomers and hobbyists.
These activities in themselves can be said to enhance te diversity and versatility of Vermont's economy, and may provide traditional farmers with new options as the traditional agricultural patters fail to keep pace with increasing economic demands. As stated earlier, the state has always actively encouraged tourism, even in the nineteenth century (McGrath, 1988)(Meeks, 1986: 140-156). State supported magazines, such as Vermont Life, meanwhile have advertised that Vermont is here for the taking; thus selling flatlanders the advantages of rural life and pushing up the real estate market (McGrath, 1988).
Classic Vermonters tend to go along with the changes somewhat, in that they accept change as inevitable and wish their children to be able to do well in the future. Those who already have some
capital, land, or resources, can put the new markets to their own use. Likewise, contractors and builders are in high demand, and their wages have been increasing somewhat. Furthermore, flatlander or no, increasingly people are giving up their rural activities in favor of better jobs in town, and store bought material conveniences. A continuing and increasing interest in modern things, including not only electric appliances, VCR's and better vehicles, but also health care, store bought convenience foods, paper diapers, etc., has also made the rural lifestyle less appealing to younger people. Gladys Silloway, for instance, mentioned that her daughter complained about needing to work rather than stay home with her children because of not having enough money, and only when she finally got her VCR, she felt she had "...the essentials...".
At the same time, this change in material culture necessities a cash-oriented economy. Whereas once people could derive most of their material needs from their land and labor, the new commondities and sources of energy cannot be produced at home, even if people want to or remember how. Whereas one might have bartered or exchanged with one's peers, who were to some measure accountable to the community, now prices and to some extent even wages are set by anonymous entities whose values and points of reference seem arbitrary and removed. Local banks, for instance, are increasingly being taken over by out of state institutions, with rules regulations unsuited for rural people (Allen Hunt, 1988).
Unhealthy as well, is the way real estate has skyrocketed in the last few years, so that people working and living in the area feel they cannot afford to stay. The popularization of the classic Vermont creates competition between the rural self-sufficient economy, and the tourist-oriented recreation and service business which promotes the classic Vermont image to the exclusion of other aspects of Vermont life. People who enjoy the recreational opprotunities of Vermont wish to buy or build second homes, and the influx of relocated people with higher incomes frum urban employment pushes the real estate beyond the means of lower income natives. Farmers, already finding themselves stressed to make a living due to overcapitalization and Western competition, cannot afford to pay the rising taxes, and selling their land may bring in more revenue than farming (Meeks, 1986: 281-283). Developments further increase the appraisal of land, and in turn the appraisements of neighboring land, even for those people who are not in the market.
Locally, prices are often set according to the most wealthy consumers, namely the flatlanders and newcomers who find the inflated prices a bargain. Country real estate, as I've state, reflects this outside money, but so also do clothing boutiques, restaurants, toy stores, and even farm stands. As Keizer, himself a teacher, puts it:
"...there are two Vermonts: the Vermont of ski lodges, craft boutiques, and fine restaurants; the Vermont of rusted trailers, failing farms, and the endless cough. Teachers...(and other middle class newcomes)...who work in the latter are nevertheless able to move somewhat comfortably in the former. When I go out to eat, I meet more tourists than neighbors. If I go to "Queen city" to shop, I meet more teachers than anyone else I know..."(Keizer, 1988: 8)
Especially in towns just south of Thetford and Strafford, such as Lebanon and Hartford, I see people aspiring to better themselves, or even just to stay even, yet see it all slipping away as more and more money is required for less and less 27. While some people no doubt do find a better life, many have lost touch with the land, and the sense of community. They see not better off, but