My own experiences in Vermont constitute the worst times of my life, through no particular fault of the Green Mountain State. There, in a third-floor cinder block tenement in Montpelier, I spent most of my eighth-grade year living in fear of my mother’s drug-abusing boyfriend. A decade and a half later, I thought it ironic to find myself back there for a low-residency M.F.A. program, uncomfortable about facing the bad mojo from my past—little realizing that I was about to deal with more bad mojo there as my marriage began to unravel.
So my Vermont and John Elder’s Vermont strike me as two different places—different states of mind, at the very least.
“Vermont is a state where wilderness is recovering,” Elder writes in The Frog Run, a collection of three long essays (and some biographical and bibliographical appendices) that captures what Elders describes as “variations on the theme of coalescence.”
The first essay in this collection offers a vision of wilderness and sustainability in my adopted state, while the second chronicles my evolution as a reader. The third relates our family’s adventure in sugaring and reflects upon the ways it helps us belong more deeply to Vermont.
As transplanted Californians, Elder and his wife first assumed their sojourn to Vermont, made possible because of Elder’s appointment to the English Department at Middlebury College, would be temporary. But at some point along the way, they realized, they wanted to stay. They wanted Vermont to be their home. “Recognizing and celebrating this fact…has felt so liberating,” Elder writes. “[It] removed a range of potential distractions, allowing us to deepen a chosen and committed relationship with place.”
“While lacking the sublime wilderness of the western mountains, this state’s interfolding forests, villages, and farms brought experiences of natural beauty into my daily life,” he says.
The “recovering wilderness” he mentions is Vermont’s attempt to bounce back from the clearcutting that essentially razed the forests flat in the mid-nineteenth century. The forests that have grown back—that continue to grow back—make it possible “to think about wilderness in the future tense, not just in the present and past,” Elder says. And the state is becoming wilder every year, with more than 12% of the forests enjoying some kind of state or federal protection and with an increasing number of private landowners adopting sustainable forestry practices.
“The human community’s flow of food, energy, and transportation must be coordinated with the migrations, browsing, and reproduction of wildlife,” he says. “The most beautiful and motivating vision is an inclusive community of life, not wilderness apart from that.”
The credo he outlines in his first essay is a noble vision, and it’s one he’s optimistic about. It’s not much different from similar credos I’ve seen from Abbey, Williams, Gessner, and others, but at least Elder sees examples of it coming to pass in Vermont. His third essay even chronicles his own attempt with his family to support that holistic, sustainable vision by actively engaging in a land-friendly maple syrup operation.
That third essay is not as charming as it could be, nor is it as grueling as the work probably was in real life. Elder’s narrative account is pretty straightforward without much literary flair. When he says, for instance, that “[t]rying to enter into any new tradition as an adult can be as complicated as tapping into a branch line through which sap is already flowing,” he feels like he’s trying a little too hard. He writes with a pleasant colloquialism, though, like a friendly neighbor sharing a story over a cup of hot carob.
The second essay is probably the toughest of the three. There, he talks about his reading list and how it evolved over time, and how it shaped his development as someone who went from teaching about Brit lit to someone completely immersed in nature writing. He talks about how much he loves certain pieces, but he never made me feel the love, too.
He cites the psalms of King David, Paradise Lost, and the poetry of William Wordsworth, Basho, and Robert Frost as examples. For nature writers, he makes mention of Abbey, Barry, McPhee, Lopez, Williams. “The shadows of deprivation and estrangement, historical folly, and personal grief function to make the moments of connection more dazzling, to convey the possibility of transfiguration,” he says, noting an important difference between their work and the work of earlier writers: “for many of them the darkness around their moments of revelation also includes a world of ecological catastrophe.”
I picked up Elder with the hope that he could help me appreciate Vermont a little more. While his admiration for the place was obvious, he didn’t speak of it with much poetry in his own voice. He underwhelmed me, even though I admired his sincerity.
Worse, there were times he confused me. For instance, his descriptions of setting up the sugar shack and running the sap lines between the maple trees came across with no great finesse or clarity.
But maybe that’s what I need, though—to ditch my old baggage out in the woods under a maple and embrace the past in a different way, maybe spend some time with the rustic no-nonsense traditional lifestyle exemplified by the sugar shack. Or maybe I need to read Basho again, or Frost. Maybe I need to remember browsing for books at Bear Pond and at Rivendell in Montpelier, and story swapping at the Clockhouse Writers Conference in Plainfield, and quiet walks to Robert Frost’s grave in Bennington.
Vermont might be a state where wilderness is recovering, but it’s also a state I need to recover from, still. I’d love to see the state Elder seems so rooted in, but I think it’ll take a writer of a more evocative bent to help me. For now, I’ll just be grateful for Elder’s hopeful tone—it helps me believe there’s hope for me in Vermont, too.