Monday, July 27, 2009


In his 1970 landmark book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler described life in the coming 21st century with such depressing terms as the concept of transience, the throwaway society, the hurry-up welcome and the economics of impermanence. He predicted that change itself would become the greatest challenge to the personal sense of well-being on which most of us base that thing we call happiness. With this in mind, it’s not hard to explain why many of us take refuge in objects, rituals, old photo albums, and places . . . especially places, that become touchstones with our past while reassuring us that not everything has to change in the twinkling of a mega-byte.
Part of my personal love affair with much of rural and coastal New England, lies in the perception that there, change is not quite as rampant, nor as discordant as elsewhere; there I can walk on wide board floors laid three centuries ago, and kneel in lovingly-kept cemeteries where Revolutionary war veterans sleep beside sea captains whose billowing sails plied still-uncharted oceans; where stone walls were laid by the great, great, great, great grandfathers of those who still tend them, and even the white picket fences are mended and painted by the legatees of a present generation who have walked on the moon.
Even within this setting, I weep inwardly to see old barns surrendering to gravity, and paving machines burying the history of road-builders long dead. And so I cherish most those outposts of continuity which remain outside the heavy hand of change. I especially love to walk beside the flowing waters of Furnace Brook, which passes by our annual destination site on the ancient graded dirt road whose name is eponymous with that of the waterway. First, a little history.
Vermont is not about counties, although it has fourteen of those. Vermont is all about towns, and it has 237 of those (plus 9 cities and 4 gores). The town of Chittenden is one of the largest in land area, and has a very long pioneer history. Even before the Civil War, (and certainly during it), the region’s dense forests, plentiful water sources, and limestone and manganese deposits fed the iron foundries of an era when cannons and equipment fostered a family of industries. The forging of iron spawned a need for charcoal, and charcoal furnaces and kilns grew up close to the very resources which enriched an otherwise agricultural area. The famous Pittsford Furnace gave identity to the brook I love and the road which parallels it.
For nearly forty years, I have sought the peace and solace found along Furnace Brook at the end of each annual sojourn. Even if our arrival is in the dark of night or in the course of a rain shower, it is usually no more than minutes before I have changed shoes, donned a wind breaker if necessary, snagged my favorite walking stick, and left Toffler’s world behind me. With this groundwork having been laid, perhaps it will be easier to understand the thoughts provoked by the simple experience which prompts this column.
It was early on a cool October morning, the air still a pearly white from the last of the night’s dew fall, the beckoning autumn-tinged foliage draping the empty road ahead of me as I strolled upstream. A lone jogger came into view, approaching from the opposite direction at a steady but relaxed pace, both arms swinging rhythmically at her side. As she got closer I noted the wires leading from one jacket pocket to the ear phones plugged securely into both ears. “Beethoven, Bach or Bluegrass” I wondered as we silently passed each other. Only a slight wave of one hand indicated that my presence registered. “Dedicated runner”, I thought. Allowing for the fact that I knew nothing about her motivations, I allowed myself the indulgence of wondering at how much she was missing. And so I began to listen intently as I built a mental list. Furnace Brook itself dominated the aural scale as it passed over rocky rills, lengthy riffles, occasional rapids, and long stretches muffled by a few extra meters of distance from the road. The Doppler effect of a varying geography changed the rhythm and decibel level by the moment, from a mesmeric murmur to a crashing exclamation point, diminished by the intrusion of a small bridge it passed under, and reawakened by a stone weir which once empowered a long-ago mill race.
There were other sounds, just as much a part of the morning: a white throat sparrow called its hear sweet Canada, Canada, Canada pronouncement from the top of a lightning-struck spruce, far above the humble chickadees which sprinted from branch to branch right overhead amid their always-cheerful chatter. Pausing to admire a grove of new maples, I heard the bleat of a lamb farther downstream somewhere, as well as the complaining raucousness of eastern blue jays. A red squirrel announced his noisy presence while surveying the riches of this year’s beechnut harvest. Bending to examine the exquisite symmetry of a thistle bloom, my ears registered the hum of honey bees exploring its pollen potential against the complaining of crows holding a convention in a nearby pasture. From deep in the surrounding hardwood forest, I caught the glissading song of a hermit thrush, perhaps my favorite of all back-country sounds, its notes capable of resurrecting an endless procession of boyhood memories.
Many other notes were added to my early-morning musical collage: The crowing of somebody’s rooster, the distant clatter of a chainsaw starting up; the cry of a red tail hawk high up on one hilltop, and the common-day contribution of a barking farm dog, and a screen door being slammed.
Often today, when at home or afield, I picture the stranger and her ear plugs, and I think about the neglected art of listening.

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