In December 1961 my teaching contract was not renewed, which meant that in six months I would be without a job and salary, and since I had a family to support, I began looking for another job. The possibilities were uninteresting, and my heart really wasn't in it. I liked teaching, but I was increasingly irked by the academic milieu, and the prospect of a lowly job (I would never be more than an instructor) in a second-rate college was not alluring. We had a friend in northern Vermont, now a farmer but once a colleague at another college, who, having often urged me to quit teaching and move north, was full of schemes for us to make a go of it there. We had been impressed, on our visits, by the pastoralism still predominant there in the neat small villages in the narrow valleys. Willie's farmhouse was on a gravel road back in the hills bordered by stone walls and shadowed by majestic elms. Broad fields rose gradually beyond the orchard to a wooded ridge. A team of horses, a small herd of Jersey cows, a flock of hens, and two pigs filled in the bucolic picture. His sister Ann Woodwright, married to a local farmer, had a farm a couple of miles along the road, an esthetic blockbuster. The small house, snugly built long ago of squared timbers, wainscoted and plastered within, blended country plainness with restrained sophistication. The white walls were stenciled with a few pale red and blue flower designs; the polished black cast iron range gleamed darkly (there was a sleek modern kitchen around the corner); in the big bedroom upstairs Bible verses celebrating marriage were stenciled in a continuous dark blue line along the wall above the baseboard, around and over the door and windows; there were small touches of color and decoration here and there (but never too many) that charmed the eye. The milk from their small herd of Jerseys was sold to the creamery in the village; they employed a hired man; Bob Woodwright tapped a sugarbush and sold excellent syrup; much of the work was done with horses; they were building a handsome new barn. Furthermore, all these people read books and magazines, listened to (and made) music, were informed about public matters, and could spend time to sit over a cup of tea and talk to a visitor. In short, everything said, "This is a Beautiful Life."
As winter gave way to spring and the job offers didn't improve, Willie's urgings were more and more tempting, so I wrote and asked him to look into places to rent. One weekend in May we went north to see what he had found. This was long before the Vermont boom, so there were plenty of country places - house, barn, fields, woods - standing empty, renting for twenty to thirty dollars a month, livable places where a few animals could be kept, just what we were looking for. Of the several houses we looked at that day, nearly all were possible, but the last one had the near-perfection of the Woodwright place.
On a remote narrow road that clung to the edge of a steep hillside, it was an old storey and a half farmhouse vertically sheathed in silvery-gray barn boards. The bank of windows across the front looked out across the hillside and valley below to a range of hills. The owner, Ralph Corbin, had left suddenly the fall before to take a job overseas, and everything had been left as if he had just stepped out. We peered through the windows into a book-lined study and then into the main room: barn boards covered two walls and a third was papered with topographical maps of the region. The furniture was sturdy, simple, good-looking. A tiny kitchen area with woodstove, sink, shelves, and counter occupied a corner with a pantry next to it. One door led into a bedroom, another to a study and to bedrooms upstairs. The former kitchen wing was now the mudroom and storage area, and beyond it a large room had been added to house a print shop with a foot treadle press, stacks of paper, fonts of type, and other implements of the printing trade. A mudroom is a large vestibule where outdoor gear, like boots, are kept.
The barn was perfect for us: a small stable set up for one cow and some hens with ample room beyond it for a horse or pig. The stone foundation walls of a much larger barn were visible, sheltering the garden area and plantings of rhubarb, red currants, perennial herbs, and old-fashioned tall hollyhocks. There was a small fenced pasture on the hill behind the house, a large hayfield, a nearby brook and a wood beside and above the house. Water flowed by gravity from a spring a half mile away in woods beyond the hayfield, piped directly to the kitchen sink with secondary lines to the stable and to a small brick box built on the edge of a hollowed-out ledge, a tiny pond beside the house. The box served as a refrigerator, a miniature spring house, there being no electricity. There was a privy (regular seat, two windows, cement catchment areas with clean out door) attached to the barn, and finally, pretty flower gardens along the front of the house. I will have some hard things to say about Corbin before I'm done, but I must say that he and his wife had an eye for beautiful simplicity that made living there, despite our trials, an enduring pleasure. It was already rented for the summer, so we leased it, beginning September first, for two years for $270.
The most important thing, what became a key to another world, was revealed in the print shop when Willie picked up a thin booklet and handed it to me. "Corbin wrote this; you might find it useful." It was called "Towards Simple Living." The name will probably alert most of my readers, but it meant nothing to us; we were complete innocents. We were attracted to Corbin's place, and we wanted to get away from academic life, and that was all that was in our heads. We weren't accustomed to looking ahead, we weren't careerists, we weren't even prudent. To say that we were unworldly is the understatement of the year; we were better described as anti-worldly. We had no idea what we were doing or where we were going. You would think that a booklet describing a way of life based on this house would be a powerful influence on our lives, and it was and it wasn't, as I shall explain in a moment. First let me describe the booklet.
It introduced us to a concept, a way of thinking and acting, an informal movement and a collection of individuals - all wholly bogus - that would shadow our lives as a sort of parallel universe hovering over us, a veil obscuring to onlookers our real lives, even today. Corbin made all the claims I would later recognize as hallmarks of the genre: that by living the Simple Life he avoided the harassing complications and rampant materialism of modern life; freed from the drudgery of earning money he had time to cultivate the higher aspects of life; by foregoing what the world was pleased to call riches, he acquired spiritual riches, and so on. For example, when his wife scrubbed sheets in the tiny pond beside the house, Ralph sat under an apple tree and read poetry to her, surely a much more edifying, more spiritual act than driving to a laundromat in town. The tone was smug, condescending, even contemptuous. In time, in a couple of years, I would realize that Corbin was a bush league Scott Nearing, but then I knew nothing.
You would think, given our ignorance, that we would be easily duped, but we were saved by an education that trained us to think critically about the printed word, and we found the tone off-putting, and all the simpering about the virtues of his life made us uneasy. We came away as agnostics, neither believing nor disbelieving, but we were interested and curious, wondering if our move might have more meaning that we thought.
I have said that we were innocent and imprudent; that, too, is another understatement, but its full meaning will come out in our story. It is enough now to tell you that I was about to turn twenty-nine, Jo Ann was twenty-seven, and we had four children, Seth, Jesse, Nell, and Curdie, aged from seven to two. Our assets were a cow, a dozen hens, the produce from our summer's garden, and $300.
On Saturday evening of the Labor Day weekend in 1962, we drove north in a truck, three or four cars accompanying us, from Massachusetts to Corbin's place. Our companions were former students and friends come to help us get started, and the trip was regarded as a gay lark. One of the group slipped ahead and lit the lamps, so when we arrived and walked into the house, into the warm yellow light cast by the oil lamps, it was as if we were being welcomed to a new life already prepared for us.
Breakfast was barely over next morning when the cow, brought from the Woodwrights, arrived in a truck, and I, sensing that my friends expected me to demonstrate my farmerhood, casually led the cow up to the pasture behind the house. Standing there for a moment, looking down on the farm, watching smoke rise from the chimney, I did feel like Farmer Jigs surveying his domain. As I started back, an old green pickup drove into the yard.
When I got down to the house, the driver, a dirty, strongly-built man who looked forty-five or so, but was in his late thirties, with tiny almost slanted eyes and closely cropped hair, was grinning at some joke evidently not shared by the others, who were watching him with unsmiling faces.
"I was just asking whether they thought you'd last the winter, heh heh."
I was to know Phil Otis for nine years, and I doubt if I heard him make more than half a dozen straight statements; everything was couched in mocking negatives pointed by the "heh heh" that was more a dying wheeze than a chuckle. I became so used to his manner that I hardly noticed it, but he certainly did his best that morning to deflate our spirits.
"I spilled a quart of milk on the running board last Christmas and it stayed frozen there till May, heh heh."
He delivered these happy gems like a morbid standup comic, one line after another, until I managed to interrupt the gloomy flow to find out that he lived in the dark house we could see on the other side of the steep gorge that split the hill, directly opposite us but somewhat lower, across half a mile of space. I asked him, thinking of his dire predictions, if he had painted it black to absorb this sun's heat.
"There's damned little heat for it to absorb. That's tarpaper sheathing; it isn't finished yet, heh heh," he said shortly, as if he were put out by the question. As he got back in his truck he said, "Corbin never stayed the winter, you know, heh heh."
I dismissed that as more of his dismalness, because I was sure Corbin said he lived there year 'round.
We were unloading our household goods when another pickup appeared bearing a ruddy-faced farmer, Elias Turgeon, a school board member there to discuss the enrollement of our two boys in the first and second grades of the village school. They would have to walk eastward down the hill a mile and a half to the highway to meet the bus; the other way, up and over the hill westward to the village, was two and a half miles and a bus couldn't drive up the hill in winter because of wind and ice. Before he left, he told us some of the history of the Corbin place where his family, the last people to really farm it, lived in the 1930s.
We finished unloading the truck just as another visitor came, a woman driving an old jeep with a heap of baskets in the back. She was small, with graying hair pulled back into an untidy bun, wearing khaki pants and a faded flannel shirt. Where were we from? What were we doing? What were our plans? There was no finesse in her approach; she just cornered me on the porch and interrogated me in a strong Brooklyn accent. Her attention was distracted, however, by the sight through a window of the table set for lunch. When the food began to be laid out, her questions became so perfunctory and she paid so little attention to my answers that I invited her in for lunch.
I must have known her full name once, but all I can recall is "Mrs. B.," the name by which everyone knew her. She said she had a summer place down on the highway where she stayed from May to November, when her husband came to fetch her home. It was hard to pry that much out of her; she was as secretive as she was nosey. She ate a lot but made it seem much less by the way she picked at her food, asking questions all the time. Was the food organic? Munch munch. Did we read Organic Gardening? Munch munch. Did we know about the happy Hunzas? It was impossible to kid her. She was humorless, pursuing her whacky queries in a loud, edgy voice, ignoring our little jokes.
At the end of the meal, still reaching for any tidbits in sight, she announced that she had come to harvest the garden planted there by the woman who had lived here in the summer, implying by a muttered jumble of words that Mrs. Allen had promised it to her. This was delivered as she was going out the door, and she moved so fast that she was gathering her baskets at the jeep before I could catch up with her.
"Mrs. Allen left this note for me," I said holding it out.
"I don't have my glasses," she said over her shoulder.
I went ahead, blocking her way. "It says she's coming by next Saturday to pick the garden, and she asks me to keep an eye on it."
Mrs. B. peered to either side, estimating her chances, but finally she turned, said something about a "misunderstanding," climbed back into her jeep, and drove off. I was amused. As I finally learned nearly two years later (and it was Jo Ann who had to teach me) it was a mistake to treat her as a joke; miserly greed is heartless.
The task of milking the cow loomed at the end of the day. Although I had worked on farms for years, and I knew the theory, I had never done it. Nor did I have the muscle. My forearms would get so tired that I could use only one hand at a time, frequently changing, and it was a couple of months before I could milk with both hands simultaneously. That evening I took more than an hour. Luckily, Aster (all the Woodwright's cows had picturesque names - it was part of the scene) was an old, in fact very old cow who didn't take offence at my manhandling of her teats as a younger cow would. Done, I thought at last, turning her back into the pasture. But I had doubts, so I went after her and milked her right there in the pasture. Eventually satisfied, I started for the house, but again assailed by doubts, I turned back. Even Aster had her limits, and when she saw me coming she fled right out of the pasture - not difficult since the fence was a ruin. Our friends caught her and held her on the front lawn for the third milking. I'll spare you the details of two more assaults on the poor cow, once back in the stable and once tied to the pasture fence, but I secured all her milk.
When we tried the milk the next morning we were disappointed: it had a slightly dirty taste, not sour, but just not the wholesome flavor of fresh milk. Well, we said, that's our luck - some cows taste better than others. When Willie came by that morning to see how we were doing and learned about the milk, he reached for a cup off the shelf, took my arm, and headed for the pasture.
"There's nothing wrong with Aster's milk. I'll show you."
He held her collar and told me to milk a little into the cup. Fortunately he was on the other side, so he couldn't see me straining. My performance in the stable that morning was an improvement, but it was still an alarming sight.
"What in hell are you doing?" he asked impatiently.
"All done," I said, struggling to my feet.
"Why's your face so red?"
He took a sip and handed the cup back. "Nothing wrong with that."
I tried it and it tasted fine.
"Let's see your milk pail."
The dented old galvanized bucket was clean enough; I had scrubbed it meticulously before I used it, but as Willie pointed out, it had seams and there would always be dirt in seams no matter how hard I scrubbed - we needed a seamless bucket. Which is how our porcelainized diaper pail, cover and all, became our primary milk bucket, remaining so for over thirty years. We had no trouble with the milk after that.
Next installment: the "Simple Life" continued. *