One of the reasons that I love coming to Vermont is that it is both a living place, where people continue to use the land, and a place where natural beauty has been protected and fostered for a long time. Much of it is genuinely unspoiled. How this came to be is a story I love to explore, and today offered a chance to do so in a variety of different ways. We set off bright and early for ripe for adventure. Our destination was Woodstock, a little more than an hour’s drive south, and one of the prettiest towns in Vermont.
Our first stop the Marsh-Billing-Rockefeller National Park, the only U. S. national park that according to its brochure tells “the story of conservation history and the evolving nature of land stewardship in America.” I knew that in the middle of the 19th century Vermont was deforested, the trees logged and the land used for pasture to the great detriment of the environment, but I was unfamiliar with the history of George Perkins Marsh, who was the first person to respond to the crisis and whose 1864 book Man and Nature was one of the founding texts of the modern environmental movement. He was born on the property where the park now sits. Both he and Frederick Billings, who bought his childhood home and the farm across the street, developed and practiced the idea of stewardship as caring for and conserving the landscape of a place. Accordingly, the park is home to the oldest continually managed forest in the United States as well as the oldest Norway spruce in Vermont.
We started our adventure in that forest with the “North Woods Quest,” a 45-minute, mile-long walk/scavenger hunt that comes with its own set of rhyming clues and environmental exhortations printed on a brochure that was handed to us in the welcome center. “EXPERIENCE YOUR AMERICA” it says on the front, and we did, strolling through a pasture and the forest, stopping to see how a tall White Pine tree might look to a squirrel:
Approach a pine tree, looking at the ground
(as if you were looking for a bug)
Get close as you can and spread your arms around it,
(as if giving the tree a hug).
Close your eyes, and tilt back your head,
And think like a squirrel (either grey or red).
Now open your eyes wide, and look straight up towards the sky.
Wow! This tree looks like it’s a mile high!
Using this singsong verse as a guide, we also saw a tree that had been mined by a woodpecker and identified beech, ash, northern red oak, and sugar maple trees.
At the end of our walk, after we had been told:
Caring for our planet’s future is what we all must do
So that your kids, and their kids, and their kids too
Can visit healthy National Parks, and other beautiful places
Experiences that are sure to put smiles on their faces.
We strolled past a stand of birches where we found a Robert Frost poem I wasn’t familiar with called “Birches” (another lovely little touch in the park is that Frost’s poems are posted in thematically appropriate places). Here Frost longs to reach for heaven while still enjoying all the pleasures of this earth; I especially like his statement that “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”
Certainly watching Tommy eagerly answer Ranger Rebecca’s questions while we toured the mansion on the property filled me with the motherlove that is irreplaceable. The mansion contains a number of paintings by Hudson River School artists, some Tiffany windows, and a large collection of china, not your standard fare for a 6-year-old. But he looked at everything and really enjoyed the Alfred Bierstadt painting of Yosemite, asking if we could go there someday too so that he could paint it. Thanks to conversation easements, the view from the porch of the house is almost identical to what it looked like over a hundred years ago; at the end of our tour I took a picture of the boys in front of it (it’s at the top of the post).
After a quick snack we went across the street to the Billings Farm and Museum, which is both a working farm and a museum of rural history. We’ve been there many times before and so made a fairly hasty tour of the barn (Little Chick, despite his love of animals, always gets a little freaked out when faced with the size and smell of real cows and horses) before going to look at the exhibits about rural life.
Our interest was flagging a bit until the end when the boys discovered, in the middle of the juried quilt exhibit, a room where they could create their own quilt patterns using blocks and colorforms. Teddy made one quilt star that he said was “nocturnal” and another that was “just ordinary” while Tommy worked intently with a set of magnetic colored blocks to make his own “crossword puzzle” quilt.After we were finished up at the Billings, we drove along the Ottauquechee River to Quechee Village.
We were on a pilgrimage of sorts, to the Famer’s Diner, one of the places mentioned by Barbara Kingslover in her book Animal Vegetable, Miracle, a favorite of mine. I have made lots of efforts during the past year to feed our family as much local food as possible and was curious to check out this restaurant, which serves diner food at reasonable prices, but tries to get 80 percent of its ingredients from local sources. As it says on their website: “We’re a great diner based on a simple idea: prepare and serve hearty meals with fresh ingredients from area farmers and small-scale producers.”
We were all hungry and ordered mountains of food including milkshakes, hush puppies, and hand-cut French fries covered with cheddar cheese and bacon. Oh, so good.
While we were eating, Teddy noticed a small train circling the parking lot. After we were finished we walked over to investigate and discovered the Vermont Toy & Train Museum, a small and musty homegrown kind of place. The stickers that serve as tickets say “I Had One of Those” on it, and indeed, we were only in there for a few minutes before I uttered those very words. The toys were displayed by decade, and in the 1970s case were a Dorothy Hamill doll complete with wedge haircut and gold medal, a Six Million Dollar man inside his own rocket ship, and an I Dream of Jeannie doll who was peering out of the top of a plastic bottle about ten times bigger than she was. There was also an entire case set aside for Star Wars toys and Matt noted approvingly that they had both versions of the Han Solo figure. The boys played with a Star Trek pinball machine while Matt and I explore the most impressive part of the exhibit: hundreds of lunch boxes, most of them dedicated to television shows. Among them were the ones you might expect (Welcome Back Kotter, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, Little House on the Prairie, Mork and Mindy) as well as some surprises: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, KISS, and my own personal favorite, The Flying Nun (On one side, Sally Field hovers over an airplane wing while the man piloting looks at her in amazement).
We stayed until they closed and then stopped quickly on the way home to look at Quechee Gorge, “Vermont’s Grand Canyon,” one last peek at the sublime.
So there you have it: nature, agriculture, consumer culture – all in one very full day. It was one of those times I was glad that Teddy has given up his nap (a fact I’m sure I’ll need reminding of this fall when we are back to our normal routine).