Sunday, July 25, 2010

The impossible Vermont state motto

Cut off, cut off along the Mad River in Vermont. Every so often a car goes by. I look up and see that the fog has lifted off the green hill behind the inn. I think I've left the city reality behind, the sweat and stress of it, so I should be able to breathe freely. Freedom and unity are big ideas. Something is making noise, a generator or something. It dawns on me that I can't be cut off like electricity unless I die. "Cut off" is something you can hardly pretend to be these days -- hell, even this so-called country inn has wi-fi throughout, the door always open to world beyond, the heat and the job, the incessant search for meaning.

No matter how early I wake, the birds are already up and singing. I slept soundly last night, cut off from the sounds and smells of the city. At dinner, newlyweds from Mississippi on their way home from the White Mountains of New Hampshire talked about the weather, how much they were enjoying the cool air up north, as opposed to the brutal heat back home. "But," our hostess explained, "It was that way here too just a couple of weeks ago. In fact, it was too hot to eat outside." Nothing is sadder than newlyweds talking about the weather in a dining room filled with strangers listening in on their conversation. Couples are the same the world over -- either coming together or drifting apart, like matter throughout the universe, subject to weak forces and strong forces, blown about, falling in or falling out. It makes no difference if they're on their honeymoon or not.

I wouldn't want to be cut off, really. I see these artisans, having come up here from New Jersey, New York, from the city and suburbs, with their big degrees and even bigger doubts about whether the life worth living can be lived on processed foods. Now they make cheese, or bread, or wine. They operate dairies, farm vegetables and herbs, raise animals, and can pickles. Serious people, politically engaged, believing in raw milk and the moral value of eating locally grown food. They charge a pretty penny for their products, but even so they're struggling: government policies favor big corporations, it's impossible to get loans to expand, the distribution network is tangled, inefficient. They come up here to live a clean life, wholesome, organic. They pour their sweat into making something healthy and delicious. And they do it.

But it's not enough -- they have to do more -- either grow their businesses and leave something for their children, or stay tiny and stagnate, living out the rest of their lives working seven day weeks, seventeen hour days, tethered to their animals, their equipment, and their need to be consistent producers. The demands of their product's life-cycle keeps them awake. After they've done what they set out to do, they start to question themselves -- is it enough? Can it ever be enough? And yet, ordinary people love their cheese. Yes, it brings a wonderful sense of satisfaction...but is it a life?

They're cut off from the culture that bred them and they can't go back to it without abandoning their present lives, wedded as they are to cheese, and to the idea of goodness, and of nurture. They've devoted themselves to the interconnectedness of all things. But it's not enough: they've got a business to run, with all its attendant capitalist demands. Quist would put it this way, "There isn't any human activity that doesn't have its down side. Nothin's ideal. Whatever you do, you're either growing or you're shrinking. There's no standing still in this life."

I walk among the exhibitors at the Vermont cheese festival and taste their products. Some are delicious, some are better on the plate. Everyone here has chosen to be here, producers and tasters alike. The day after tomorrow I'll go back to the city and its freaky-deaky dramas with a small cheese-filled cooler in my trunk. It'll be just like ordinary life.

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