Vox Populi

Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry

Paul Christensen: The Vermont Book of the Dead

Up here in Vermont, we’re sort of tucked away from the rest of the nation’s storms and upheavals. We read about the cops killing unarmed black men, of floods sweeping houses and belongings into a muddy torrent, of states trying to bring back Jim Crow laws to stifle minority voting. It all seems a bit far away and unreal, even though it is hammered into our heads with mind-numbing repetition on NPR and network TV. There’s a merciful kind of detachment that sets in when the maples begin their slow, sedate explosions of fiery reds and oranges along the roads, and in the dark, shadowy forests beyond the pastures.

The apple festivals have begun in the towns, and artisans and local farmers bring in their wares to sell in the squares below the blazing white churches with their needle-sharp steeples. The women are soft-faced, ruddy, with motherly hips after raising three or four kids; the men are thin, with leathery faces, and mouths unused to talking idly. Everyone has worked hard to make a life and it has little to do with the frantic turmoil in the cities sprawling far below us. Where we are is like the prow of a ship steaming into the headwinds of ice-flaked weather. We don’t even hear the engines throbbing, just the hiss and the occasional lisping whispers of the sky turning overhead.

We’re under the radar of the vulture-eyed news services. Up here, where the land has a long memory of sleep and frozen dreams, we sense a kind of morbid obsession with death that passes for culture in daily life. The TV unfolds its stories like an American version of The Book of the Dead. Instead of visions of an afterlife, such as you find in the Tibetan Bardo Thodol, there is only the moment in which life and consciousness abruptly end and a corpse is all that remains. It ends up on a stainless steel dissecting cart, with a coroner and a detective peering down at the remains, looking for clues. This is the edge of awareness in America, the stark, gloomy cliff where the nation’s mind comes to a halt. Beyond is a gray sea of undefined ocean where nothing exists but the void. And no one wants to inquire what the void means or stands for. It’s just there.

We don’t try to answer such questions in our tiny green corner of the nation. We have the forests here to provide what you might call suggestions about the afterlife. Here’s what I have gleaned from living in Vermont for the past four years: life, in all its sturdy, looming brilliance of leaves and branches, eventually tires of the urgency to drink the sun and gulp the rain and begins to slow down, allowing the little bugs of the soil to enter into the bark, succumbing cell by cell to the hunger of death. There is no great drama, no tragic suddenness, only the infinite complexity of aging and disintegration. But what we also see everywhere around us is the paradox of death — that it comes just as the twigs begin to root in the decaying wood, and the transparent leaves take hold amidst the rot. It is difficult to find the boundary of death, since it dissolves so gradually into birth. There is no line between them; the one overlaps the other, and the gradations are so subtle no one could lay a ruler against either side and say here is life, here is death. They are intertwined, woven into a symbiotic embrace without definition.

Vermont is like some drawer in an old dresser, one that has been taken up to the attic to make room for another piece of furniture. In the drawer are the remains of a forgotten way of life, a diary of splintered knowledge that was once a whole vision of how to live. There are recipes, and stubs of tickets to the state fair in Rutland, the faded blue ribbon someone took home from the agricultural exposition in Brattleboro. There are pressed flowers, some without their petals; the tatters of a diploma the silverfish devoured during a prolonged siege of snow and ice. No one disturbs this drawer; it has withdrawn itself from memory, and resides in that middle zone between the living and the long dead. In this drawer it’s possible to touch the frayed edges separating what we do now from what was experienced long before our time. It has no more meaning than a breath of wind lifting a curtain or making a candle flutter. But it’s there, in a dark corner, under a silk veil of spider webs and the silence that falls to the plank floor like invisible dust.

But in the plains below us, the past is sheared away and the bulldozers gouge up the old bricks and foundations to make room for gleaming glass towers. The urge to rid the past of its nurture, its belonging in the present, is so vast and powerful, no one questions this instinct to purge the past that rules in each city, each suburb, even each small town. Only poverty is old and bound by rules that are feeble and anachronistic. Sooty bricks and broken windows are the ruins of the past; it’s where crime spawns its evil, and where cops prowl in patrol cars glittering with the armor of a war against time. The streets ahead are lit with a fury of halogen and neon, a blinding brilliance advertising what lay ahead of the passing moment, what awaits you if you keep moving step by step into the future, where something promises to help you escape from mortality. But mortality is that frail connection that is easily severed by a bullet, and bullets ring out like a kind of fractured atonal music from the shadows.

There is no loam built up of the years of undisturbed rot. There is nothing on the ground to fertilize the moment coming to birth. Birth is the sudden burst of a jackhammer tearing up the past of a street. The old cobbles are loaded into a truck bound for the landfill. The mind of the city is continuously forgetting what it was and longing for what it can become, even though the becoming is often a repetition of the ephemeral ideas of mediocre architecture, of utilitarian concepts of how to fill space with the least amount of thought. Thought lacks roots, and therefore what passes for thought in the frenzied life of the city is immediate, practical problem solving. The city is only prized for its power to rise and push away gravity, the earth below, as one tower edges out the others in the effort to escape contingency. The tallest tower will never be tall enough; there is always more sky to conquer.

But in Vermont, our antiquated wedge of primal nature, time swings from the stars like an old pendulum. The colonial roots of America are repainted, and the timbers shimmed and trussed by patient hands. The hippies who migrated this far north to attend the first Woodstock festival in 1969, stayed on and became carpenters. They found work repairing, shoring up, keeping old porches from falling to the ground. After a few tokes on a hash pipe, the house in need of repair became a metaphor of the need to embrace death in life. The houses survived, the vast wooden shapes that would have fallen to the wrecking ball were patched and resuscitated, kept standing like old men and women against the roar of a north wind, a hard rain. The landscape is dotted with a Tibetan vision of death in life, in the form of old barns, coal sheds, out buildings with tiny white cupolas, calving barns, rutted tractor paths, stone walls, the ubiquitous white churches. Why save such relics of a discarded past if they do not explain in some opaque language the meaning of death in a time when the past is meaningless, and the dead are nothing but cadavers in a criminal investigation?


Copyright 2016 Paul Christensen

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The American Dream (photograph by Paul Christensen)

3 comments on “Paul Christensen: The Vermont Book of the Dead

  1. jfrobb
    October 18, 2016

    Your second paragraph is a lovely, updated echo of Donald Hall’s ‘Ox-Cart Man,’ one of my all-time favorite picture books (for adults too). If you don’t happen to be familiar w/ it, take a look. I think you’ll like it, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      October 18, 2016

      Thanks! I used to read Donald Hall’s book to my children years ago. Lovely!

      Like

  2. Arlene Weiner
    October 11, 2016

    You would never know from this meditative essay that Bernie Sanders came out of Vermont. BTW the Woodstock festival was in New York State. I think some of the hippies who became carpenters were getting off the grid to avoid the draft.

    Liked by 1 person

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