Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Human Ecology

When my daughter was born, I used to think about creating an environment that would be beneficial for her. I had limited control over that, but her first five years seem to have been good. Then I was divorced and she lived with her mother until age ten. I retired in 2007 and spent a lot of time deciding where to live, and the thinking process was similar. You have to look at what will be a good environment in terms which may not correspond with what other people think. After living in the Midwest for about forty years I was sick of it. I didn't want to live anywhere near a city. I wanted to live in a rural area that wasn't populated by conservative Republicans and didn't have much commercial development. The location had to have cultural amenities and it had to be physically attractive. Believe it or not, these criteria rule out almost the entire United States. They more or less limit you to a rural college town in a blue state. If you eliminate the Midwest, your choices are confined pretty much to Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Maine and Western Massachusetts. I favored the East Coast because I grew up there and it has cultural attributes that I prefer to those on the West Coast.

In piecing this together, I had to take into consideration the needs of my partner. She is from Yorkshire and studied at King's College, Cambridge, where she befriended a fellow member of the working class, Tony Judt, and met her American husband-to-be. In 1979 she moved to Chicago and married, and they remained in the Chicago area, raising two children in Lake Forest. Like me, she dislikes cities and is introverted, but she is more social than I am. Her lifestyle prior to meeting me can be described as "suburban housewife." Her husband was a lawyer who worked nonstop, and they lived in a ranch-style house. She devoted all of her time and energy to her children, who are now turning out to be successful adults. I would probably be fine with a cabin in the woods, but that wouldn't suit her at all. She likes gardening and knitting and belonging to groups. I'm fine with gardening - vegetables mostly - but don't care about knitting or groups. I prefer cutting down trees with a chainsaw and hiking in the mountains. I used to be interested in Internet discussion but am finding stargazing and astronomy to be a more constructive and satisfying use of time. For all its vaunted openness, in truth the Internet is controlled by ruthless oligarchs who will delete you out of existence if they perceive you to be disturbing their agendas.

In 2011 we decided on the Middlebury area, took a road trip, found a house that we liked and bought it. Middlebury is in Addison County, which is the most agricultural county in Vermont. Once it had the highest wool production of any county in the United States, and now it has lots of cattle. There are no interstates here, which makes a difference for the better. We are far enough out in the country that it really is rural, but downtown is only a short drive away. There is a good food co-op. The college has surprisingly good musical performances for a small college and an art museum that isn't bad either. There are several good restaurants in the area that are operated by French immigrants. I recently met the owner of one that just opened in downtown Middlebury and overlooks Otter Creek, and he said that he likes it here because of the variety of people he can talk to. I also find that to be one of the best features of the area. You have local farmers who have lived here for generations, retirees like us, people from all over the world who moved here by choice, college students and professors, and no one is inaccessible or ghettoized the way they are nearly everywhere else. There are no McMansions or gated subdivisions.  Our neighbors include a farmer, a forester, a former governor and an economics professor. This is about as egalitarian as you can get in the United States. My partner belongs to a garden club, takes a tai chi class and volunteers as an usher at the Town Hall Theater.

I like it so much here that I am not inclined to travel. I haven't been on a plane in over three years. We know a couple who retired to a property near Lake Champlain because they like boating. They used to do their boating to get away from things, but since they no longer feel a need to get away, they sold their boat.

These comments are not intended as a plug for Vermont. Actually, I don't want more people moving here. The point is that it is possible to find living conditions that are nearly optimal for yourself. You may need resources that you don't have, but I think the harder part is knowing yourself.


  1. Okay, but I've never heard Vermonters call them cattle.

  2. I thought it sounded funny too, but was only trying to be economical with words. Our neighbors raise beef cattle, and they don't have a dairy. I think all of their cattle are bulls. Technically, I could have said "other quadrupeds," because we have a beef farm, a dairy, a horse farm and a deer farm nearby. There is also an alpaca farm on Route 125. And there are still a few sheep around too. We went to the tractor pull at the Addison County Fairgrounds last year.

  3. Oh, cattle is surely the right word. It's just that on seeing it in your post I was immediately struck by how rarely, if ever, I hear it used in Vermont. That said, out Weybridge Road, near my parents' house, is a farm with Belted Galloways. I'm pretty sure they're cattle.


  4. I know. When I see "cattle" I envision a dusty ranch in Texas with cowboys: the antithesis of Vermont. Another word choice might be "bovines," but that sounds pedantic and affected. It doesn't really matter what we say, because the farmers probably have us pegged as clueless city slickers.


Comments are moderated in order to remove spam.