I GREW UP IN VERMONT, where the highways have no billboards. The state law limiting the encroachment of advertising has probably helped the concept of "Vermont" become a tool in widespread marketing campaigns suggesting the intrinsic value of the green growing world. I grew up in Vermont, but in light of what the word Vermont has come to mean, you could also say with some accuracy that I actually grew up in the verdant cow-speckled meadows of a carton of ice cream manufactured by Ben & Jerry's Homemade Holdings, Inc., a division of the British-Dutch Unilever conglomerate.
Actually, I was born in New Jersey. My longhaired mom and her longhaired boyfriend, Tom, took my brother and me to Vermont in the early 1970s. They wanted to escape lives of dour professionalism and the leveling haze of corporate conglomerates. They wanted to reconnect with that part of themselves that was daring and wide-open and curious and hungry for ecstasy and light. My brother and I featured prominently in their visions of a return to the garden, two boys with curly golden hair bounding through wild green fields. As it happens, my brother and I ended up gravitating instead toward limits, uniforms, numbers, well-mown grass bounded by fences and foul lines: baseball. We loved the clear measures of the game.
Some months ago, in the minutes that followed my reading of Chad Harbach's novel The Art of Fielding, I was convinced I would next read Moby-Dick. I had recently become a father for the first time and so read Harbach's novel slowly, in dozens of brief, rapt sessions after I'd been able to wrestle and cajole my newborn son to sleep. I finished reading The Art of Fielding in one of these interludes, and as the nap stretched beyond the reading of the final pages I had time to dart into another room to get my copy of Moby-Dick and read chapter 23, the chapter cited as the favorite of Guert Affenlight, the college president at the heart of Harbach's novel.
I didn't read this brief, dense excerpt very carefully, but I gleaned that it had something to do with living a daring life, beyond safe harbors. Yes, I vowed, I will venture once more out into the wild. I'd read Moby-Dick once before, but Harbach's novel made me vow to read it again. Even as I made this vow, I had already failed to read even the excerpt with any more deliberation or care than I read frozen pizza instructions. And yes, I vowed, I will reconnect with that part of myself that is daring and wide-open and curious and hungry for ecstasy and light.
Mom and Tom didn't have to join any battle over highway billboards in Vermont, but they did get into a dispute with a neighboring farmer. He'd made a financial arrangement with a nearby farm machinery dealership to store overstock on the land that bordered ours. The view from one side of our house remained unchanged — green grass surrounding the figurative and literal basis of our intended self-sufficient life in the country, the garden — but the other view, previously that of a rolling green pasture giving way to forested mountains, suddenly clogged up with gleaming insensate machinery-engines and wheels and blades.
The dispute served only to sour our family's relationship with the neighbor. The tractors and threshers and bailers and li...read more