In The Country


I’m in southern Vermont, where I don’t know the proper names of any of the plants or animals. But their shapes and the sounds they make are more familiar to me. The trees are a normal kind of big. The birds make pleasant calls that are indistinguishable from one another. For some reason I am less interested in knowing who (meaning what species) they all are. I feel that I know them, because they are East Coast birds, and that’s enough. If I had lived here for decades, as the residents of this house have, maybe I would know who’s who. But when I go to a place, I’m looking for a feeling, mostly of vague belonging. I would much prefer to belong to a place, I’ve recently realized, than to be in awe of all that is unfamiliar about it.

On the West Coast, nature is a kind of multimillion-dollar museum exhibit: look at how big they (presumably God) made these trees, meaning both wide and tall, and stupefyingly so, for us museumgoers! It is not easy to say what the West Coast feels like, but Museum of Earth is as close as I can get. From the very beginning of my time there, nearly two years ago, I wanted to know who was who: who was hanging around my porch day after day, and I soon learned. Mostly: Steller’s jays, black and blue jays with a variety of loud calls that can mimic other creatures, including squirrels, and Anna’s hummingbirds, green and neon pink birds that can hover in place way up in the air, like a police helicopter, in a way that looks like showing off to potential mates, but is really a method of surveying the land.

I have been away, on the East Coast, for three weeks now. Today is the first time I think to ask myself: do I miss the flora and fauna of the Museum of Earth? Before arriving in Vermont I spent two weeks in New York City. I think the city, my former home, lobotomized my fondness for the birds and trees of California from my brain, and left me with gratitude for New York City, and also gratitude for being able to leave New York City and come to southern Vermont. I hardly think about California at all.

This is my future parents-in-law’s home. They bought it and the surrounding 40-acre property 45 years ago for about the price of one of the Kardashians’ lesser cars. The back of the house faces west, toward Haystack Mountain, whose peak and surrounding area happens to look exactly the same as Mount Tamalpais, the sleeping lady, the mountain in Marin that I can see from my apartment in Berkeley. But Haystack is much closer, and so it is more green than blue, its trees all discernible, and in front of it are tall pines that block the view from any of the properties on this hill, which rolls down into the town. Going down that road you pass a few properties and a cemetery. One property is marked by a sign that says FREY, which I use, when running, to let me know that I have run 1.5 miles from my in-laws’ house, and which I only remember to look for because of James Frey. The road out onto that main, paved road, from the house, is a dirt road. Most of the vehicles that come down this road are tractors. The men driving the tractors display a mix of attentiveness and distraction. Sometimes they scan the front of the property, looking out for the dogs, and sometimes, usually on the way home, they tap on their iPhones with one hand and steer with the other.

There are surprisingly few animals here, at least during the day. There are sometimes crows traipsing through the field to the left, which is part of this property, but is separated from it by an old wooden fence. There is the odd turkey, or at least a turkey feather, which my dog will find back in the woods, clench between her teeth, and parade around, even though the other dogs are unimpressed by her find. The loudest animals (turkeys, pheasants) are the least frightening. They make crashing sounds in the woods, which are startling, but then they emerge silently from the brush and skitter away, as if they’ve just broken something and don’t want to be held responsible. Chipmunks cross the road in front of me like scorpions, their tails straight up in the air, immoveable as they run. One night there was a toad on the back lawn, which one of the dogs accidentally stepped on while running in the dark back to the house. This caused the toad to flip in the air like a car upon impact with another car. He landed upright and continued to squat there, frozen, until (I gather) we all went back inside. I decided he was not dead because nothing with such good posture could be dead.

This is not Nova Scotia, which I prefer to call home and where I am headed next. But it’s close enough to it, and just as rural or more so. When I run here I get the same pleasant mix of comfort and discomfort, of familiarity and alienation, that old I am not quite of here that I experience everywhere, but which, owing simply to math, becomes less true over time: when I have spent 20 years in New York, or 20 years in Berkeley, or 20 years in Nova Scotia, I will not be able to say that I am “not quite of” any of these places.

Running, as it always does, makes me feel that I know this Vermont town better than I do, or just in a way that most people don’t. I know that the dirt road in front of the house is cooler to run on than the tarmac or the grass, because there is water just under it, and that to the naked eye, the road is flat, but to legs in motion it has subtle inclines and declines that can feel just as challenging as steep hills if you’re tired. About a quarter of a mile away, on the steep dirt road with the view of the entire valley at its steepest point, the houses feel almost as familiar as if I knew the people who live in them: their mailboxes tell me how far I’ve gone, how far I need to go, how far I could go if I wanted to push myself. What do drivers on this road do, except listen to NPR and watch closely for other cars, because the road is just a little too narrow to fit two comfortably? What they don’t do is agonize over this road’s excruciating hills. To get through them, I count every other step to 90, over and over again (90 is about equal to a minute, so this is an approximate way to know how far you’ve gone). Counting, for us eccentric runners, can be more interesting than thinking.

We sleep in my significant other’s childhood bedroom. I ask him whether he finds it weird that this is the room he spent his entire childhood and adolescence in. “Not really,” he says, and I marvel at the possibilities that “Not really” (as opposed to “No”) leaves. I never spent more than four years in the same room growing up, and I can’t imagine not being haunted by any of my rooms, if I was to sleep in them again now. When I think of each of those rooms — what they look like now, who sleeps in them — my stomach drops.

My desk is a three-legged round table big enough to put a vase of flowers on (or a laptop), but not much else. It can’t fit both a laptop and a mug of tea. The mug has to tip slightly, resting on the lip of the table and against the side of the laptop. My chair is a rocking chair, permanently leaning forward. Today it is 65 degrees and cloudy. I am wearing a thick sweater found amongst the hodge-podge of clothes from various members and eras of this family. But mild weather is charming in summer, because my skin is tanned, suggesting health, and the cold cannot sap me of my apparent vitality because it is only temporary.

Out the window to my left the in-laws hit a tennis ball against the garage door with their two grandsons. When my father-in-law comes back inside through the front door of the house, the dogs, all herding dogs of some type, bark, thinking it’s an intruder, and continue to bark once he gets in the door. He says, “Oh, for god’s sake,” and they stop.

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image – Colin Clark