The other week I went on vacation to Lake Champlain and Vermont. Not the first time I’ve been to the area, but happily I found myself back there for a visit, and I will probably in the future go back again. I’m a little infatuated with Vermont, I admit. It’s just… so not like home. I’ve even sometimes wondered if it might be worth buying land there. But would I like to move there? Retire there? I don’t know about that.
Of course, the obvious reason why I don’t want to live in Vermont is because the locals really don’t want any more people to move there. It’s not that they are unfriendly, but they seem content to keep things as they are. This comes across perfectly well in Vermont’s quiet, out-of-the-way, non-touristy far west (Addison, Bridport, etc) where, as I mentioned earlier, there is a shocking lack of McMansions despite seemingly ample open space upon which to build. Either there are strict local laws in place about development, or outsiders are just not interested in building there… which is hard to believe, given the spectacular views of the Adirondacks and Green Mountains on all sides.
Occasionally I have compared upstate New York to Vermont in terms of its economic rise and fall (Vermont having been through a similar population drain in the 19th century), but having just visited Vermont again, I also think it’s interesting to look at the differences.
In a world (and especially a nation) where every place is growing more and more similar, assessing the character of a place is kind of an irrelevant lost art. Vermont is one of the few regions in the country where its distinct identity is more or less still acknowledged — even as a sub-region of New England. Vermonters are fiercely independent, contrarian (not necessarily super-liberal, as that is a late innovation brought in by outsiders), and kind of quirky. Vermont also has its own founding myths and folk heroes (Ethan Allen, the Green Mountain Boys, and a whole constellation of minor local legends). Culturally it is still a very rich place, compared to the depressingly homogenous character of other regions of the country that are increasingly losing their individual character. Historically, of course, Vermont (like Texas) had proclaimed itself an independent republic, which still adds to its mythical appeal.
However, while it is tempting to see Vermont as a sort of timeless Shangri-La that will never change (except by being invaded or taken over by the dominant, blah American culture of the 21st century), it’s also true that places, like people, exist in a sort of internal (and eternal) tension. In other words, like individual people, they are not so much a settled statement, but rather a question that is still asking itself. All you need to know about Vermont is what was printed on their money during their brief years of self-proclaimed independence during the American Revolution: Vermontensium Respublica / Stella Quarta Decima. Or, “The Republic of Vermont,” proclaiming their autonomy, and on the reverse, “The Fourteenth Star,” the expression of their wish to be admitted into the United States (for protection against their more powerful enemies, the manor holders of New York who claimed their farms). 200 years later, not a whole lot has changed. Over the Fourth of July holiday you would be hard pressed to find more American flags proudly on display than in small-town Vermont. Yet there is always the option that Vermonters hold dear, that they reserve the right to assert their autonomy by picking up their toys and going home. (The notion that their state constitution “permits” them to do this is still part of the myth, although legally, it is only a myth.) And Vermonters are still deeply concerned with the practicalities of keeping their land and way of life safe from powerful forces much bigger than them. (That Vermonters are, on the whole, friendly and welcoming to tourists despite this is a real credit to their collective character as a people.)
On the ride home from Vermont this time I felt like I understood the place a little bit better and why I don’t want to live there, despite its considerable character and charm. I like where I’m from, although I don’t know if that’s because I’ve never lived anywhere else, or because I personally like to ponder the question being endlessly asked here (because I belong here?). And it is a very different question, a different tension, than over in Vermont.
In Vermont, the question is essentially one of personal security and safety, and self-protection. The methods of how safety is to be guaranteed, are the two sides of the question (autonomy or union?) But Vermonters are by and large very content with what they have. (It’s unfair to characterize it as “keeping the status quo,” though, because what they have is so very pleasant.) How to protect it best, is the big question. If only Central New Yorkers, or upstate New Yorkers, could be as happy with what they have and simply concern themselves with the question of defending it. But that’s not the question being asked here. When have people in this part of the country ever been content with what is?
As an outsider to Vermont I find it relatively easy to look at Vermonters’ past history and current concerns and see a pattern emerge. But the funny thing is that here in our own region, we tend not to see patterns that extend into the past and project into the future, and tend not to consider the possibility that we, too, may be living inside an old and enduring question. It’s a little harder for people living here to do this, I think, partly because the borders here are rather open. We are not surrounded by mountains and this region has historically been a very well-traveled corridor and crossroads. As a result we are sort of half cosmopolitan and half not. By “we” I take the perhaps radical step of grouping Native and non-Native residents together — not culturally the same people, but all clearly occupying the same place, sometimes the only thing we have in common. A mix of people who are newcomers and people who have “been here since the dawn of time.” (Or maybe, for some of us, it just feels like it…) What have these people been up to here, and what (if any) question have they been greatly concerned with here?
Before attempting to guess at this question (indulge me!) by using regional historical facts, maybe we should consider current observable realities. A lot of the anguish that local people are feeling today might have to do with the natural tension inherent in what this place might be all about. First, there is the very understandable distress at the loss of industry, of creative invention, of the region’s place in worldly prosperity that has gone on without us. The region has fallen far, from a high place. It hurts to have your family move away looking for work, but it also hurts when you take a wide view of it. It’s not just about jobs and goods and standards of living — only the most thoughtless and unimaginative locals (ie, politicians!) care exclusively about that — but it’s about how we’re not inventing anything any more. Shoe devices, air conditioners, mighty canals. And yet, as the new “upstate czar” Dan Gundersen says, “smokestack-chasing” is not the answer — not here, not now.
Second, there is the more subtle distress that is felt locally as people fight off the persistent, nagging feeling that the answers that the rest of the world are offering today — all kinds of clever schemes about attracting young cosmopolitan people, ideas about this or that eco-friendly power source, even generic talk about the need for “the arts” — are… just not “it.” The nagging feeling that these schemes don’t even scratch the surface, that they’re not what people here are really looking for, that there is no real future in them in and of themselves, that what works for more apparently prosperous areas of the country, just doesn’t fit our question. There needs to be something truly original in the works, and we know not what it is, only that nobody is selling it anywhere and so we can’t buy it. Surely, the answer must be here already — some natural passageway we haven’t recognized yet, or some buried golden plates.
This is hardly a dilemma unique to our region. The difference, I think, is in how historically, our people have accepted the dilemma and diligently worked on finding answers to a great question: How do you connect heaven and earth — so to speak?
The Haudenosaunee did not fail to accept and address this question when they adopted their Great Law, which is not just a spiritual guidance system but an entire practical system of government (in a combination that, I think, really escapes modern-day religious rightists). This answer came out of what we are told was a very dark and painful time in their history. And their bold attempt to answer this huge question had some possible repercussions on the world outside their homeland, if you find any credence in the intriguing similarities between their government and this nation’s. For the Haudenosaunee, the status quo was not enough. Something entirely new had to be found, something to reconcile worldly realities (peace, order, survival) with non-worldly ones.
In the 19th century, all kinds of answers to this question were being proposed by many different people in this region, in religious and especially in social terms. A lot of this questioning and discontent was brought on by a changing economic system which introduced new forms of suffering and insecurity into local lives (the arrival of immigrants, financial panics of the era, etc) Some groups’ answers were more “out there” than others, as they looked forward to an actual millennium arriving, but the ones that really took hold of significant segments of the population — abolition, women’s rights — were social movements that maybe didn’t anticipate an actual arrival of God’s kingdom on earth, but firmly sought to move earth forever closer to what they conceived of as heaven. (These conceptions of course change over time.) There were also some very high roads proposed by these reformers which never quite took hold in our country (certainly, some of the radical abolitionists’ ideas about racial identity and racial harmony went far, far beyond anything explored even by the 1960’s). These movements weren’t confined to our region, but most certainly they had some of their most important activity here. They took hold of local society (though not total hold) in an unprecedented way. And they were, in short, a response to a question fully embraced: How do you reconcile worldly concerns with otherworldly ones?
Now, if the character of these historical activities was primarily about aspiring to find Nirvana, we would be much more granola than we are today; but that isn’t what they were about. Upstate New York is not and has never been California or Portland or anything resembling a hippie colony. There was a distinct practicality to the ideas — and some of the organizations or communities espousing those continued for much, much longer than one would expect; and some of course still endure. Clearly, the doers are just as important as the dreamers. In other words, if it is true that we are living in a question, it is just as important for us to deal with practical matters — to build stupendous public works and solve energy crises, to invent gadgets and computer systems and government systems, to be industrious — as it is to link those matters to what (if anything) lies beyond.
It is an audacious question, but I didn’t make it up. I only have submitted the above observations about a certain pattern that may or may not be present. Just a wild theory. To me, this is a theory that explains quite a bit about where CNY is today. Your mileage may vary.
But this is why I would rather live here and not in Vermont: I like this question we are in here. I like the twist to the usual question of survival. I like the openness and sense of possibility. If you understand what the question is, the frustration of not being onto an answer just now, is not so bad. I could stand to live in a bit of heaven on earth like Vermont, and carefully defend it, certainly, and debate the question of how best to defend it. I don’t think I could stand to live in a place where the only question that ever gets asked is “How does one grab more, more, more” or “How does one stay in power.” It might be that here, people historically have tended to try to find an answer to an unanswerable riddle. So maybe some of the anguish we seem to be collectively experiencing here (as communities) is only to be expected. However, it’s pretty clear to me that the attempts to find an answer have produced many enduring results in far away places. So did all these glorious projects devised here, these ideas, these systems last?
Who wouldn’t want to live in such a place?