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Small Talk


Lake Willoughby, Mount Pisgah, and a few orange splashes of color, indicating rare-to-the-region oaks. 


Two summers ago I spent a lot of time immersed in the woods, with no amenities to speak of save for the things I could charge off my car battery, or water heated over flame. Turns out you can keep a lot of modern life going with a car battery, and hot water is what separates (my) life from a feral existence to something remarkably civilized. I never felt like I was roughing it. Although, it was bare bones enough that the source of every creature comfort became crystalline. It didn’t take long to realize that given the choice between car battery or flame, I’d choose flame every time. 

I went into the woods with no agenda, I just needed some time. And silence. With years of homeschooling in the books and a daughter raised to adulthood relatively unscathed, a parental sabbatical was underway. I didn’t call it such at the time, but hindsight you know. I went into that summer with a certain naivety, as I seem to excel at doing, thinking I’d feel totally fulfilled inside the abundance of solitude, never even considering the idea of loneliness. At least, not until the day a friend asked if I ever got lonely being by myself in the woods. Turns out, that is exactly the tug I’d been feeling after a long stretch alone. My family would come up for a few days here and there, and I was good again. But in time the tinge of loneliness would return, and though never overwhelming, it was worth observing. I’ve always loved solitude, but I guess I hadn’t yet found my metric for the tipping point into loneliness. Eventually I realized if I am to spend a good amount of time up north (like, live there, as is the "plan"), I’m going to need to meet people. What a concept. I’ve yet to convince my Connecticut friends to follow me to Vermont, so the formation of a new tribe seems wise. We are fortunate to be surrounded by family on the ridge, and they are more than half the reason we are so drawn to that particular area, but meeting folks out in the community who share common interests? Yeah, I’m ready for that. 

We know quite a few people throughout Vermont, but not too many in our immediate community.* I guess that’s what I’m going for. People that stop by on a Tuesday afternoon because they are in the area, or people that could stay for dinner at the last minute without much of a production. That was a real perk to urban living at our old house. Some days felt like a revolving door and I do miss it. Even where we live now it is hard to duplicate the informal flurry of people coming and going that we felt at the old place. I’m not sure why I think it’s possible to create this in an even more remote area, but I’m an empty nester now, so I’ve got plenty of time to give it a try. I still love solitude, but I love time with people as well. Probably even more so as I get older. (*Most of the people Adam grew up with have long left the state, as young people tend to do up in that area.)

Fast forward to a couple of farmers we are getting to know. They found their way to my (now defunct) personal FB page, scrolled through my photos, and shared that we “seemed like them!” That they “don’t meet a lot of people like us.” So far our common ground is found in uninsulated dwellings with no running water, freshly baked bread, excellent pork, appreciation for a good chaga find, an affinity for growing food, and Kingdom boys marrying Connecticut girls. Good news for them, they’re going into this winter with (some) insulation. Wool-based, no less. I look forward to getting to know them more in time. And now that I think about it, they did tell us they make hay deliveries on the ridge, so maybe it’s not such a crazy idea for them to stop by on a Tuesday afternoon. 

Another person I’ve met is someone Adam and our aunt have long been encouraging me to connect with. Marie has lived off grid up on the ridge since she was nineteen, which after meeting her, I’m guessing has been about four decades. She’s raised her family, sews clothes, grows food, and fills her days in meaningful ways without much modern influence. If you live on the ridge and invite her over in the winter, she will likely ski to your house. In the months without snow, don’t be surprised if she arrives on foot. Adam has long admired the quiet life of Marie and her family, so he was glad for our chance to meet recently. I was housesitting for family and Marie was coming by one day to do some work for them. It was bitter cold and the first snow would arrive the following day. I’d wait for Marie, say hello and visit for a few minutes, but then I’d planned to skedaddle so she could do her work without me in the way. As expected, no car pulled into the driveway, just Marie and her two feet, extremities bundled in wool and a small backpack across her shoulders with whatever supplies she might need over the next few hours. We introduced ourselves. She said she’d been wanting to meet me because she’d heard I “like to spend time outdoors.” Kindred. We immediately started talking about trees and I shared my observation of practically no oaks in the area. She said St. Johnsbury is about the cut-off point, but surprisingly, there is a small stand on the face of Pisgah, overlooking Willoughby. We chatted some more and made plans to meet again. I left Marie to her work and made my way on 5A, hugging the winding road along the lake’s edge, passing the abandoned dance hall and collection of summer cottages. Soon enough, I spotted the unmistakable stand of orange-leafed oaks among an entire mountain face of late season grey twigged maple, ash, and birch, with splashes of green conifer. Oaks, just as Marie had promised. Acorns everywhere. 


I’ve noticed a trend in recent years where people express disdain for small talk. I’ve never really understood this. I love small talk. The easy ebb and flow between two curious people about nothing serious, but plenty that is interesting. Tell me, what’s cooking in your kitchen? How are your parents these days? What projects do you have going on around the farm? How are your animals handling this year’s record snow? The drought? How about that banner year for sap and blackberries? 

Why do we have to be so profound and philosophical all the time? What if by showing interest in the small aspects of life we gain a better understanding of the bigger picture. Small talk. Over the fence with neighbors or across the counter at the market. I’m a big fan, and I’ll do my part to keep it alive. 

This has gone in a bunch of different directions. I guess what I’m trying to say is it looks like I’m meeting people up north, slowly but surely. And if I find myself wanting to meet a few more, maybe I’ll take an ad out in the local paper, it’ll read something like this: Friends Wanted. Must be down to earth and good-natured. Enjoyment of small talk, great bread, growing food, and knowledge of good acorn spots a plus.