Robin Vincent, of Sutton, a senior at St. Johnsbury Academy, was a runner-up in the "The Calvin," a writing award sponsored by Vermont's Calvin Coolidge Foundation. Robin attended the awards banquet in New York City on Nov. 12 where the winning submission was announced. The following is her submission to the writing contest:
"Industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because they create wealth, but because they create character." -- Calvin Coolidge
A small homestead overlooks the rural hillside of Sheffield, Vt. Four friends huddle together, cooking beet soup, steaming barley, and eating fresh goat cheese, laughing over a mishap on the farm that brought them together as workers. One of the friends built the house with his own two hands: every plank, every daub of clay, every insulating blade of straw. I sit here on a rough-hewn bench next to the roaring woodstove, listening to the conversation. I've worked in the garden all afternoon, as I have all summer long, and my mind wanders. It skims the mason jars resting on the counter, the homemade sourdough bread rising on the battered tin plate, the farm butter with its musty, honeyed scent. As my eyes travel the room, I think: why would someone live here? What on earth does that weathered contraption in the corner do? Why does my friend choose to live such an existence? There is something independent, even liberating, about a cabin in the woods.
I learned early in life that the culture in America mandates that you acquire all you can before it's too late. Invest early! Plan for the worst! Make money fast! Buy this or that before the SALE ends. We have become the antithesis of this little gathering of friends in the woods of Sheffield. We live in a free country, but its guiding spirit of Liberty has fallen prey to irresponsible and unsustainable habits. In their wake, our conviction has been swept away. No longer are we able to fend for ourselves, no longer are we as self-sufficient as we once were. But here, in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, is a reminder, a link to our nobler past.
This link can be found in our conversation thread, which has tied itself in a knot over food. The potatoes are not roasting very fast, and our host swears and stuffs them back into the oven. The powdery smell of toasted rosemary mixes with the smoke from the woodstove and fills the room where we sit. We trade stories over buttered sourdough: this is the right way to dry beans; this is how you whitewash a wall; this is the proper way to crack butternuts. Actually, that's not true, our host declares: you ruin the nutmeat and your hammer if you do it that way. No, I've done it like that before and it works, counters my neighbor to the left. Well, I disagree, chimes in another friend, stirring pepper into the barley.
Our difference in opinion means less than the sound a water droplet makes when it falls to the surface of Lake Champlain. Across the stove, we look at one another and shrug. Friendship welcomes contrasting perspectives. Discourse only becomes discord when participants horde ideas like material objects. It is difficult to live detached from modern conveniences, and still more difficult to disagree amicably, but this is the Vermont way. The differences in conviction under the roof of this cabin may carry less weight than formal controversy under the dome of the Capitol Building, but I have learned that intelligent debate enlarges our minds and improves our ideas. These four walls enclose the keys to happiness as Vermonters have defined them for generations: self-sufficiency, goodwill, and hard work.
Outside of this cabin, I fear we have lost sight of what is important. We go to war over oil rights, we shut down the government in a petty clash of egos, and we waste time debating those aspects of life that are not only private, but irrelevant to everyone but individuals making choices. We are afraid of failure, of default, of any act of individuality that jeopardizes the status quo. A bitter nervousness haunts the hearts of those in the rat race: someone will make more money; someone will outrank or outthink or outdo me. Single-minded ambition has replaced levelheaded focus. The values this country was founded on-- diligence and hard work and personal sacrifice--have been consigned to the backcountry.
The beet soup is ladled into wooden bowls, tinting the tawny maple a faint red. I look at the work represented in this food, this house, these gardens surrounded by the meandering brook and the fence to deter deer, and long for the value of a country to be measured in sweat and happiness instead of monetary triumphs. The contraption in the corner--I know now that it grinds grain--whirrs rhythmically, cranked by my friend's hand. The beans on the stove boil over, sending up clouds of steam that send us running for rags and potholders. The effort to live this way is unrivaled. Cutting and stacking wood, hauling water for washing and food preparation, planting, harvesting, and saving every seed -- it does not end. Each season follows the last. I finally leave at twilight, running through the rustling leaves to my car, clutching three homemade oatmeal cookies. Admittedly, I will return to a house with electricity, running water, and modern conveniences. As I grow older, I will not always pursue the solitary life of a homesteader. Its values, though, are my own. Wherever I eventually live, in a small town like the one I have grown up in, or in a much larger area, these principles will enable me to hold on to my individual ideals while contributing to the greater community.
In this small corner of a small state, there is nothing more important than this grit, this special brand of determination conceived in the satisfaction of a hard day's work, and this achingly beautiful stubbornness shut up in a one-room house with a roaring fire and four friends laughing.