In a New Collection of Essays, a Former Urbanite Reflects on Life in Vermont
State of the Arts
Bradford, Vt.’s small, independent newspaper, the Journal Opinion, has been published weekly since the end of the Civil War. One reason for its longevity may be that it brings news to readers in the Connecticut River area that’s relevant to their lives. One recent front page reported on a “wayward” selectboard member with attendance issues, a 10-year effort to bring broadband internet connection to the region and a rise in local speeding complaints.
Those concerns demonstrate the pace of life summed up in Voices in the Hills: Collected Ramblings from a Rural Life, a collection of editorial columns written for the Journal Opinion by Nessa Flax. For more than 10 years beginning in 1995, the Ryegate Corner resident wrote 500 words a week about life in northeastern Vermont under the title “Rambling Reflections.” The book assembles 126 of these ruminations under one paperback cover, complete with useful flaps for keeping one’s place. Light and entertaining, Voices in the Hills combines moving personal reflections with paeans to Vermont’s natural beauty and small-town ways.
Flax grew up in Virginia and California in mostly urban and suburban environments, so other flatlanders in particular will enjoy comparing notes with her on how the North Country differs from the rest of the country. For example, like many newcomers, Flax puzzles over how rarely locals can be enticed to come in for tea. Entering someone’s home is an “intrusion,” she says in “Real Vermonters Don’t Sit Down.” They prefer to stand in doorways and chat.
But not front doors; those formal entryways often “hover” on the front of houses over nonexistent steps, Flax notes. As she recounts in “Front-Door Phenomenon,” Vermonters appreciate the finished look a front door gives a house, but sometimes consider actually building steps to it a waste of time and resources: It’s the mudroom entrance that actually gets used.
Flax’s tributes to Vermont’s natural beauty can be saccharine; she admits to being “a hopelessly sentimental sap,” for whom “beauty often moves to tears.” But she also observes that some aspects of North Country life, such as fall colors, really are inspiring every time. “Unlike winter weather discussions, foliage critiques don’t compare past with present,” she writes in “Leaf Liturgy.” “Natives will say, ‘There’s never been a winter like the one of…,’ but I’ve never heard anyone insist that one long-past fall puts all others to shame.” Fall, she concludes, “enchant[s] people into pure appreciation of the present.”
Flax often draws from fiction’s toolbox for her witty anecdotes about North Country folk — many of them old-timers who bring to mind characters portrayed by filmmaker John O’Brien in Nosey Parker and Man With a Plan, or by short-fiction writer Bill Schubart in The Lamoille Stories. “The Garbage Man” is her ode to Walter Wilcox, the man who picks up her trash “in rain, sleet, hail, snow or heat.” Flax quips, “There are few things in life as reliable as Walter. The sun rises and sets each day, and on Wednesday Walter picks up our garbage.” When he doesn’t appear one day, she calls and receives a litany of complaints from the man about feeling old. Only then does Flax reveal to readers that he is 84.
Voices in the Hills tends toward a certain familiar portrayal of Vermont: a land of homegrown wisdom, rugged locals and green hills that are best left unchanged by all but the seasons. In his blurb for the book, Sen. Bernie Sanders writes that Flax captures “what our values are, and why we love our state.” It’s a perspective that, like fall foliage, continues to enchant no matter how familiar.
"Voices in the Hills: Collected Ramblings from a Rural Life" by Nessa Flax, Bunker Hill Publishing, 303 pages. $22.50. Reading and book signing on Saturday, July 14, 1 p.m., at Phoenix Books in Burlington. bunkerhillpublishing.com