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Slayton: Old And New Vermont

Old Vermont, the Vermont many of us grew up in, was rural, isolated, and poor in many material aspects - but rich in tradition, humor, and dignity.

That Vermont is now almost completely gone. And as we see that mythic older Vermont slipping away, several books have recently been published that celebrate it.

Howard Frank Mosher’s last book, Points North, is a charming collection of ten interwoven short stories based in Mosher’s beloved Northeast Kingdom, still the most rural, most traditional part of Vermont.

In somewhat the same vein, but visual rather than narrative, is Richard Brown’s collection of photographs in “The Last of the Hill Farms,” which documents, through Brown’s poetic vision, several bygone farms and farm families in and around Peacham.

Peter Miller’s latest collection of portraits and landscapes is entitled Vanishing Vermonters, and as its subtitle Loss of a Rural Culture, implies, it laments, with some touches of anger, the disappearance of that older Vermont.

Ethan Hubbard’s photographs are more a celebration of rural life worldwide, including working Vermonters whom Hubbard photographed and obviously admired.

Each of these several books, in its own way, expresses the dignity, the inherent worth, and, yes, the beauty, of a Vermont now pretty much gone.

And much as I loved the older Vermont I knew as a boy, I’m quite sure that the past is never really past. Forms change, but some trace, some essence, remains.

And while the hill farms are mostly gone, Vermont remains the most-farmed state in New England, and new, young farmers are joining the older more traditional farmers, all making a living from Vermont’s stony soil.

Vermonters still value hard work and face-to-face dealings. We want to know personally the teacher who teaches our children, the sugar maker who produces our maple syrup, the plumber who fixes our drains, and the leaders who try - if sometimes unsuccessfully - to lead us.

Our response to Tropical Storm Irene was a perfect case in point - Vermonters recovered triumphantly from that disaster because of the values instilled in us by the ongoing lessons of a tough climate - and previous generations of Vermonters.

Our past has become woven into the myths we live by. And our myths are important because they help us understand who we were - and are.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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