The attraction began in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1959. I was a freshman in high school, newly arrived in the U.S. and drowning in a river of southern English. I would grasp at words as they floated past, but could not reconcile the currents that engulfed me with anything in the Primer Curso de Ingles that had been my sole preparation for school in the Deep South.
It was a Catholic high school, so miracles and visitations were not unheard of. Mine came in the shape of a freckled girl whose family had just moved to town, and the miracle was that the first time she opened her mouth in class I understood everything she said. Her words were as clear and precise as if she had clicked them out on a typewriter. She did not stretch her vowels out like taffy, and though she spoke faster than the southern kids, I could tell exactly where each word began, and where it ended. I could follow her train of thought. It wasn't that different from mine.
She took me home with her one afternoon and her mother, her father and even her little sister all sounded the same. No drawn-out diphthongs, no languid cadences. Here was an entire family whom I could understand.
My friend and her parents were from Massachusetts, which I learned was in New England. I thought that someday I would like to live in a place where everybody spoke like that.
Graduate school took me out of the Deep South, all the way to North Carolina. By the time I arrived in Maryland in the 1970s, language had ceased to be an issue: I was not only dreaming, but even counting in English.
The back-to-the-land movement was in full swing then, and I was determined to achieve self-sufficiency in the acre and a half that surrounded our house. I had an ambitious vegetable garden with an asparagus bed, and twenty-seven fruit trees. For protein there were a dozen laying hens, and two Roman-nosed Nubian dairy goats who looked vaguely like Barbra Streisand.
As I had never grown a tomato, pruned an apple tree or milked a goat, I did a lot of research at the local library. This consisted mostly of reading back issues of Organic Gardening and The Mother Earth News, and I noticed that many of the articles and letters to the editor came from New England. The writers alluded to sugaring in the spring, and to goats coming into heat as the trees began to turn in the fall. They advised readers to be vigilant about frozen water buckets in winter, and to keep a stack of old blankets handy for covering tender veggies in case of September frosts.
September frosts! As I sweltered in the heat of the interminable Chesapeake Bay summer, the fantasy of living in a land where gardens snuggled under blankets, water buckets froze solid, and roadsides were free of that tropical menace, the kudzu vine, became more and more compelling.
The library also had a shelf dedicated to books about country living. These were more lyrical than practical, and I read them with the same passion with which as a child I had read about Heidi and her goats. It was there that I first found Noel Perrin, Louise Dickinson Rich, Scott and Helen Nearing. In the children's section I discovered the illustrations by Tasha Tudor. I had read Thoreau years earlier, but the life he described seemed impossible to translate into the twentieth century. The writers on the country living shelf, however, were very much alive, and they had one thing in common: they all lived in New England.
In the 1980s, as the Maryland countryside succumbed to suburbia, I had to give up my little homestead. But at the least provocation I would launch into nostalgic stories about the hens I had kept and the goats I had known. “What do you mean, you kept hens for eggs,” people would say. “Don't you need a rooster for that?” The reactions when I mentioned my elegant Nubian does were so predictable and so dispiriting, having to do with tin cans and foul smells, that I soon dropped livestock from my repertoire of party conversations. Would I ever live where I didn't have to explain or excuse the things I really cared about?
It took almost four decades—about as long as it took the people of Israel to get to Canaan--but I finally made it to a place where the roadways are free of kudzu (and, because this is Vermont, of billboards as well), and MacMansions are few. Where a near neighbor makes world-class cheese with her goats' milk. Where, when I tell people I keep hens, they ask “what kind?”
Yesterday, in yoga class, the woman who usually sits on my right was late because one of her sheep had gotten loose. After final meditation, while we were rolling up our mats, the woman who sits on my left gave her a short lecture on the best kinds of livestock fencing. As I was walking out, the instructor confided that she is thinking about keeping bees--her gesture towards saving the planet.
From where I sit at the computer, I can see my hens pecking and scratching at the newly-green grass. In the garden, the spinach is up but growing slowly because of the cold spring. The apple trees are in bloom, but I have a stack of blankets ready, since a hard frost is predicted for tonight.
The farmer who hays our field dropped by on a chilly, sunny day last week to discuss plans for the coming summer. He complained about the rising costs of diesel fuel, and told me his philosophy on breeding cows—he prefers to wait until they are two years old, when their pelvises are fully developed, because it makes for easier births.
“You know,” he said, finally getting around to the real topic, “this field of yours really needs manuring. I hope you don't mind. It'll stink badly for a couple of days, but that won't last.”
His speech was as crisp and clear as the Vermont air, and I could understand every word he said.