Knee High By The Fourth of July

Knee high by the 4th of July – that’s an old New England expression. In the quaint way old Vermonters have of expressing things, the phrase is a metaphor for how things ought to be as well as advice about agriculture.. Northern New England is one of my favorite places. I love the natural beauty, the history, and the spunky discourse. My Collie Dog, Jelly Bean, and I enjoy laying in an enormous hammock under the oak trees just outside our front door. Roses hang over the old stone wall, and beyond that a wild blue berry meadow to rocky for easy walking stretches off to the edge of the forest. We like to stroll down the hill to the village of Weston. The Weston Playhouse Theatre Company has some of the best theatrical productions I have ever seen. This a wonderful place to live.

Several years ago my husband and I did live here year round. I can’t imagine why we ever moved. Right now, on this spectacular summer day, the garden, meadows, and village around us are so picturesque you have to rub your eyes to be sure its real. The local communities are full of character, vigor, expression and intellect. Robert Todd Lincoln lived here, Calvin Coolidge was born a few miles away, and nearby Lake George inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s landscapes in ‘The Last of the Mohicans.’ This could very well be the most beautiful, interesting, stimulating, and entertaining place I have ever been.

Northern New England is all of those wonderful things, but it does take some getting used to; things like being served scoops of snow-covered with maple syrup and dill pickles, and the idea that nobody ever throws anything away – ever, can be challenging. ‘Sugar on Snow’ with pickles is a tradition; never throwing things away might sound like hyperbole, but it is more truth than exaggeration. The book, ‘Pieces of String Too Short To Be Saved’ by Dr. Bob Laubach, gives touching insight into this hardscrabble region that is part subsistence economy, part incubator of, and heir to, the Age of Reason, and part retreat for the New York City and Boston elite.

Boston Brahmins, New York City literati, and entertainment world luminaries snap up real estate here. ‘Flat-Landers,’ as old Northern New Englanders lovingly call them, have not altered the fierce character and identity of this place, despite the number of articles in The New York Times or The Boston Globe. The local motto is ‘Live Free or Die.’ Ethan Allen lived nearby, and we are a few miles from the village of Thetford , Thomas Paine’s hometown namesake, and a constant reminder that “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” That’s influential writing. I don’t often ruminate about my neighbors this way, but I have been thinking about reading American Literature, and Language and Media this term. I also listened to a provocative National Public Radio broadcast discussing literature versus journalism; books versus mediums like blogs, and letters to the editor, and how each influences cultural identity. The gist was that books were not as effective or desirable, or somehow had less influence affecting cultural identity, because it takes longer for them to circulate through society and for people to read them.

I have to think about that. To me the discussion confused some things like length, method or speed of distribution, and immediacy with influence. We might have different definitions of influence too. Sensationalism, stirring the pot, is not the same thing as influence. To me, the former happens all the time, and the latter happens rarely. I am very willing to give both influence and literature broad definitions and inclusive parameters, but really do feel like quite a literature snob tonight. Paine, propagandist by inclination,  had some noteworthy newspaper men behind him, like Bradford and Franklin, but I have a hard time comparing his work to contemporary opinion pieces. Our little community here throbs with debate, the spirit of Paine’s  rhetoric, Cooper’s romanticism, the theater and the pulse of American intellectual life.  Questions like this are taken seriously and debated openly here.  Here in Northern New England American identity, the unique American capacity for self invention, and literature seem to fuse in a unique way. That’s how it ought to be.  But is that how it is? The Language and Media class can’t start soon enough for me!

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