The hillside above the Coleman farm, on the day of Ralph Coleman’s Celebration.
Ralph Coleman died in November 2016. By noon today, when the celebration was scheduled to start, there were hundreds of cars up in this field. He was a farmer. He cut lumber, made maple syrup, and officiated at weddings. He was licensed to inseminate cows with bull sperm. I’m not sure what he grew, in addition to a lot of different kinds of vegetables. Hay, probably, and other things to feed cattle. His brother was the dairy farmer, not Ralph. He was a father and husband, army veteran, college graduate and deacon in the church. “Farmer” has a very broad meaning up here. You know how the word “geography” as an academic discipline has grown to encompass all the ways we occupy and make use of the surface of the earth? Maybe farmers practice applied geography. . In this village there is usually a handful of tent-pole people like him, men or women, who stand at the center of a network of families and friends. The networks interact, overlap and intermarry. They are both the centers of gravity and the gears of change. Their names are on old dirt roads. There is Coleman Hill and Coleman Pond Road, for example. Then there are the roads named for the Ameden family, the Chapin family, Worden family, Gilfeather (this is the guy who bred the Gilfeather turnip) and others.
Some friends and relatives of Ralph’s made a map of the old apple trees on Ralph’s farm and his brother’s adjacent farm which were once both part of their father’s farm, just uphill on the mountain. Some of these apple trees were over 100 years old. I had noticed them, the various times I drove past on my way to visit Ralph and Kathy. They made you wonder: black knotty fist-like things with bright green wands sprouting out of thick dead limbs. Turned out there were 24 different kinds of apples in that orchard, including some that were “natural,” in the sense of being a variety that had not ever been documented. They gave this map to Ralph as a gift the week before he died.
Originally, of course, this whole area was Abenaki, a Native American tribe that has only recently won “registration” status. Over time many Abenakis married into settler families, so it’s not unusual to meet someone from around here who is at least part Abenaki. We have friends in the village who fit this description. As a people they were also decimated by settler battles and then back in the early 20th century, by the eugenics movement (that’s another story). But mainly, for the last 200 years, Vermont has been a long way from major battlefields. Vermont sent the highest percent of men of any northern state to the Civil War (where they died of diseases to which they had no previous exposure or immunity), but the battles themselves didn’t happen here. You could have an apple orchard planted 100 years ago and it would still be here. Houses have burned, fields cleared for sheep have gone to woods, floods have changed the shape of the valley, but nothing has been bombed into ruins or flattened by war machines.
Therefore things have fallen down or been abandoned to decay but nothing has been purposefully destroyed for the purpose of erasing it. The ancient roads are still here. You can consult history, here. You can see where the old railroad went, where the bridges were. You walk along in a forest and there’s a wall and nearby, a cellarhole. Yes, things have changed, but the past is not gone. There are Abenakis here, too, the original people who lived here — not many, but some.
Here is a photo of the stone steps, built by who knows who, that lead down to the pool below the Pikes Falls waterfall. How long have they been there? They could have been there as long as anyone wanted to climb easily down the steep slope to the pool at the bottom of the waterfall, and that would be a long time.
Here is a poem about what can be done in the absence of war. I wrote it a while ago, six years after my mother died. No one was living in her house, the little house where I am now, at that point. I had come to check things out one late fall when the leaves were off the trees and everything was gray and cold. The war of that moment was our invasion of Iraq, which was already a disaster. People in Baghdad were up on the roofs of their houses watching “surgical” bomb strikes get closer and closer.Within days of our invasion — hours, actually — the museum had been looted. That was nearly 15 years ago; this month’s city to be destroyed was Mosul.
But when I came up to the door of this little house in Vermont and put the key in the lock I found that the key worked and the door opened. I was overwhelmed by what a unique gift that was. In this world where houses were being blown up, doors kicked open, for me to be able to travel a thousand miles, walk up to a door, put a key in a lock, turn it, open the door and go inside and close the door behind me and find everything just as I left it was something like a miracle. Not like an apple tree that has been fruiting for 100 years, but similar.
Here is that poem:
OCTOBER, 2005. My mother’s house in Vermont is an old cottage on a river-stone foundation in a river valley village under a mountain. Before my mother, it belonged to my great-aunt. For now, it stands empty, but I have the key. Wind has blown the trees bare. There is ice on the roads, snow on the fields. Two thousand U.S. dead in Iraq, so far.
LOCK AND KEY
I. Travel a thousand miles or more
Take out the key, open the door
A lamp on the table
A cloth on the table
The rooms are chilly but it’s all there.
See what is possible In the absence of war.
Rain, frosted gray leaves on the yellow grass,
Slush, weeds, brambles, dry raspberry canes,
Out back, a cold barn full of old things put up there by people long dead, and beyond that is the river, while up on the mountain there is a graveyard
Where these same long dead and the newly dead are still resting.
They have not moved or been moved.
See what is possible.
See what is possible in the absence of war.
My key turns in the lock
Because we agreed
That this key should turn this lock.
The agreement, not the key
Opens the door.
Things I need here: Matches. Paper. Dry wood. Blankets, although blankets will not substitute for matches, paper and wood, or vice versa. Light, preferably electric, or if that fails, kerosene or candles. Something to eat. Cooked, if possible.
I have these things! Here is a section of the New York Times from last summer. Here is wood that has been on the porch for a couple of months, protected from rain and snow, and even more wood that has been brought into the house and dried, and some more that my father put down in the basement before he died, twenty years ago. There is a big bucket of good kindling.
In the bedroom there is a blanket chest and in it there are blankets, threadbare but plentiful, some of them woven by people who lived in this village back when people spun and wove, and sheep grazed on the mountains.
The stove works, the oven works, the toaster works. Even the refrigerator, which uses too much electricity, works. If I want something else to eat, I can go out the front door and up the street to the store and buy it and come back and cook it. It’s all here. Nothing has been disturbed.
See what is possible.
Up on the street, in the store, I run into Betsy. She and Bill were friends of my mother. Betsy tells me, “Bill misses your mother. She was such a wonderful musician. You know, we have given up singing. He has given up the flute.”
I say hello to Bill who has been waiting outside in the car. He says, “I have given up the flute and we have given up singing with our singing group. W will never have to go out on a Wednesday night again, never! Never drive down the mountain in rain or snow or whatever! Never again!” He seems happy, or at least proud. He bangs the steering wheel with his left hand. “You know what?” he says. “I was just in there – “ he gestures to his right, in the direction of the town offices – “to see if there was any space left in the Wyndham Hill graveyard. They said it was getting pretty tight up there. Back when I didn’t think about those things, there was plenty of room. Too bad, it’s near us and would be convenient.”
In the absence of war, an old man can decide to give up the flute and choose his own gravesite. See what is possible.
All around us, ordinary life goes on:
Jenny’s son has a wheat allergy and has taken up smoking.
A tree fell on Grant’s car last night when he was driving up Route 30.
Susan’s son will join the Navy.
The town hall has been painted the original color, red.
Holly Kron has brought the general store and will start selling hot “to go” items as soon as she gets her license.
There is a special scholarship for the children of volunteer firefighters.
Woody shot a moose and ate it.
The names on the gravestones tell who is lying beneath. It is not only the rich whose names are written down and remembered.
See what is possible.
There are the three rivers: big, small and tiny, that flow together through the town. There are three bridges. One was nearly washed out in the flood of 1976 (we are due for another). Three rivers, three bridges, three roads, and the rooftops, the church steeple, the smoke rising from chimneys, the flock of birds circling in the wind, the snow, the clouds over the mountains, the sun on the clouds.
From a distance, in this case, from Chicago where I have a job, a thousand miles or more away, the village is so little, covered in snow, surrounded by mountains under a gray sky; it is like a picture.
Now look at this other picture: it is a book with a photo on the cover. The photo shows an old woman who stands in front of her house. Like my house, there is a mountain in the background but it is a different mountain, a different country, yet there in the foreground you see the same snow, the slush, the gray weeds and brown brambles, just like here.
She is wearing a knitted hat, a sweater, a coat, boots, red gloves and an apron and over it all, a shawl. She looks out of the picture at me.
The photo is about her house, which has been smashed by a bomb. Chechnya, where the young and the old lie unburied, the mass graves unmarked. Where no old man chooses freely to give up singing, to stop playing the flute.
In a quiet world, the the lock and key keep something in place.
The lock stays with what stays, behind the door. The key travels.
Do you have it? No, I have it. This is the key.
When this key turns in that lock, that door opens.
Put the lock on the possibility of an uninterrupted life. Put a lock on the choice of an old man to give up playing the flute when he decides it is time to give it up. Put a lock on the graves that show the correct name of the people buried beneath, the graves they have chosen. Put a lock on the three rivers, On the basic necessities, On the lamp lit at evening, On the cloth on the table, On the chilly rooms, On the door of the house that has a roof intact and a wood stove inside, Blankets and kindling and even a piano, “He misses your mother, she was such a wonderful musician.”
Put a lock on her memory, Betsy’s memory of my mother, the musician. On the door of the future. Put a lock on these, and give the key to those who will come. Tell them, “We who placed the lock, agree with you that that is the key.”
You can go now. Take the key.
When you come back, everything that you left behind will all be here. See what is possible in the absence of war.
Food at Ralph’s celegration, plus a grill, a cooler of drinks, and a dessert table
A current photo, with students from Ton Duc Thang
Here are two students from Ton Duc Thang who came to the US and are studying in San Jose, preparing to go to college here. They are both named Mai, so one is called Judy, and they are sisters. Judy is studying law and Mai is studying labor studies. They drove up to Berkeley one weekend. Both of them have been in the US for nearly a year – maybe more — and their English is quite good. They were able, for example, to tell me that the word for “demonstration” and “strike” are the same in Vietnamese. This is the kind of thing we should know.
Mai and Judy and I went into the City to go to a concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. On the way back, we came out of BART and a young photographer named Matt Wong was taking pictures for his portfolio. Here is our portrait: