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John Mahoney's Free-fire Zone
John Mahoney
John Mahoney
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is editor of the Log Cabin Chronicles.

His previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 05.18.02
Fool's Hollow, Quebec

JOHN MAHONEY

BOOK REVIEW
Granite & Cedar: The People and the Land of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom

John M. Miller & Howard Frank Mosher

To begin, there was the thrill of recognition.

I knew these faces in my heart, I knew these buildings, those small vistas, the dead cars behind the barn. This was home and home, said Robert Frost, is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.

There was a resonance, an immediate appreciation of the 65 images and the tale laid out before me on the kitchen table. I had never seen Granite&Cedar before this moment yet we had a history, this book and I.

Granite&Cedar does not break new ground -- others have been there before*. [See endnote] But, it does set a higher standard of excellence from content through production to final bound and boxed product.

As one whose great-great grandfather's great-great grandfather was living in the Vermont wilderness in 1748, I want to say that John M. Miller and Howard Frank Mosher got it right about the Northeast Kingdom.

There are no vast expanses of rich, river-bottom farm land pictured here, no stands of corn row upon endless row, no mighty stone barns filled to the bursting with fodder for the lean winter months.

No, Miller and Mosher's Kingdom is a place of rocky hillside farms where 'picking stone' out of the thin topsoil is process, not event -- the last glacial dump 10,000 years ago insured that.

The fields and pastures are small, by modern agricultural standards, hacked from the forest. It's an unending struggle to keep the trees at bay -- let a field go unmowed or a pasture unvisited and in a short few years the puckerbrush comes back, then the serious trees soon reclaim it.

Miller is of the Northeast Kingdom. He knows these things, and comes by his knowledge through blood and bone.

Mosher came from away several decades ago, made his choice, and let the land claim him.

There are no false notes in Granite&Cedar and I would resist any shrugging-off that this is a romantic portrayal of rural poverty.

Here, 'Use it up, wear it out, make it do' are not words borrowed from Mother Earth Magazine. It's been a way of life for two centuries.

The stash of used stoves and appliances is not a junk pile but a resource center, as is the collection of junked motor vehicles behind the barn.

Miller's published vision of the Kingdom doesn't include any young people, although near the end of the book there is an image of a hardscrabble backyard in which there is a rusted and wonky child's swing. So we know they are there. And there are no urban images, although the Kingdom has two large towns that are urban by Vermont standards, and a number of substantial villages.

The photographs and fiction of Granite&Cedar, then, deliver not the 'whole' truth but get at a greater truth.

The people of Miller's Kingdom are well into middle age. You'll meet Vermonters with faces as rugged and weathered as their land and outbuildings, people who radiate a sense of enduring all that comes their way.

They come at you straight on -- not confrontational, not questioning, asking nothing, expecting nothing: 'This is me, here I stand.' They are grounded, shaped by the land upon which they make their lives.

The gravedigger standing by his latest hole is not an unwelcoming figure -- he's a man doing a job that needs doing. The tableau of village men cinched in time and space on the porch of the Davis General Store is classic -- Madame Tussaud could do no finer.

Their clothes are not costumes or fashion statements, not badges of status and office, but body coverings against the elements. If your jacket zipper is broken, secure it with a large safety pin -- the 'everyday brooch' of Aunt Jane Hubbell in Mosher's short fiction, Second Sight.

In thirteen short segments set in the mid-1960s, Mosher has tightly woven a tale of a people and a way of life disappearing in the face of accelerating change. The Interstate -- the High Road as flinty, old-maid school teacher Jane Hubbell calls it -- will soon push through on its march from Boston to the Canadian border, and beyond. Contrary to the expectations of all who know her, she does not rail against the coming of the High Road. No, she says she is ready to render unto Caesar.

Her Hubbellville, where she taught for forty years, is gone -- the people dead or moved away, the homes and outbuildings abandoned. 'Second homes,' she says, 'might be preferable to no home. Any community might be better than no community.'

But first, before the bulldozers of progress come, her family dead must be removed from harm's way. By hand with shovel and plank, a pair of oxen. And she threatens to shoot if state workers appear before this job of work at Pauper's Field is finished.

Smart, ramrod straight and righteous, Mosher has created a memorable character in Aunt Jane Hubbell. Her gravestone reads simply 'Daughter, Teacher, Sister, Friend.' I received my fifth grade schooling in a Vermont town from her contemporary -- Miss Mildred Pierce -- and I feel I know Miss Jane Hubbell well.

At book's end some years later, Rob Hubbell -- her nephew -- says:

'I looked down at the half-dozen second homes that had been built on the mountain recently, including ours. Hubbellville was gone, and the Pauper's Field as well. No one lived year-round here now; and nowhere on the mountain were we out of earshot of the steady hum of the long-distance trucks on the Interstate.'

The thirteen sections of Second Sight include The High Road, False Spring, The Cedar Bog, French Canadians, Hubbellville, Granite&Cedar, Nooning, A Kingdom Mountain Love Story, Easter Water, Leaving No Job Unfinished, Ghosts, The Legacy, and Second Sight.

Among Howard Frank Mosher's other published works are A Stranger In The Kingdom, Where The Rivers Flow North, Marie Blythe, and The Fall of the Year. 'Rivers' was made into a movie starring Tantoo Cardinal, Rip Torn, and Michael J. Fox.

John M. Miller has also published Deer Camp: Last Light in the Northeast Kingdom (1992), a splendid series of photographs of the deer-hunting culture that is so much a part of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Granite&Cedar is published by the Vermont Folklife Center and Thistle Hill Publications, and distributed by the University Press of New England.

*Endnote

Some thirty years ago -- in April, 1972 -- ten of my photography students at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont and I published Soul of Vermont with the Goddard Press. It was a humble attempt to share the essence of a place and people whose lives were undergoing rapid change.

The project began in the autumn of 1970 and came off the small student-operated offset press in the spring of 1972. It was during this same period that John Miller began making the images that would be included in his book nearly thirty years later.

And so, when I began leafing through Granite&Cedar to get my first feel of it, I said aloud: "My God, it's Soul of Vermont."

There are several connections here. Mason Singer of Laughing Bear Associates, one of Vermont's top graphic firms, designed Granite&Cedar. Thirty years ago he was a student at Goddard College, and he designed Soul of Vermont.

Joel Spector, who bound the slip-cased copies of Granite&Cedar for the Stinehour Press, was a student at Goddard College when Soul of Vermont was in the making. His first reaction, he told me, was identical to mine.

All of which is only to say that there are currents and flows of ideas and energies in the universe and, if you get your finger inserted in the right place, you may find yourself a conduit.

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