Every afternoon, I drive to pick up my younger daughter at school, and just as I leave the small town of Hardwick, right where the wetlands begin, I pass the construction site of a Dollar General store. Apparently, the presiding view is that the town needs more cheap stuff. I wouldn’t presume to criticize what people are or are not buying, but it’s worth noting that the outer landscape of Hardwick has appreciably changed.
In Vermont, landscape is a word often bandied about as if landscape is background for work or play — the landscape with Jersey cows mentality — but landscape is the point, as the cows, and the maples along the dirt roads, and the ridge lines, are actually inseparable from who we are.
This Dollar General feeds a real appetite in our society, this need to consume stuff, a great deal of it, and preferably as cheaply and abundantly as we can. It’s an ugly aspect of our society, disguised and ameliorated somewhat by its genericness. Richard Yates, in one of my most favorite novels, Revolutionary Road, wrote “this whole country’s rotten with sentimentality” — this notion of flatlining the culture under the Almighty General of the Dollar. Writing — art — by and large pursues the antithesis of what capitalism champions, which is perhaps why art and literature are so belittled and disparaged in our society. But to adhere to this generic status quo, to feed ourselves commercial products from boxes and cans rather than what grows in the farm down the road or in your own window boxes, to judge ourselves in terms of tax brackets, or nourish our inner lives with dullness, diminishes us. Revolutionary Road epitomizes the longing of Frank and April Wheeler to break out of the constraints of upwardly middle class American life — to follow their hearts’ desires in opposition to everyone around them — and depicts the Wheelers’ crushing failure to achieve this.
But, unlike the suburban Wheelers, I luckily live in Vermont. I drive up the narrow, shaded gulch, pass two slivers of lakes, and then I’m in the little village of my town. Architecturally, the elementary school is a far distance from the dollar store. Over a hundred years old, no public elementary school would be built like this today, all wood and windows, with two enormous brick chimneys, and pressed tin interior walls. The schoolhouse is dropdead gorgeous, built with craft and care.
All buildings, in their own ways, have resonance and depth, holding the stories of their people within them. But this lovely schoolhouse hums with beauty, too. Does this landscape of light and wood matter to my child? This setting in a literary world? Here’s how deeply this landscape presses into my child: when I see my girl at the end of her school day, I often touch my face to the top of her head and kiss her. All day we’ve been apart, she to fourth grade, and I at my work. My daughter’s hair has the colors of a wheatfield, myriad and rich, lighter with sun strands in these warming days. All afternoon and into the evening, her hair has one distinctive scent. My older daughter says, Crayons, mom, it’s crayons. All elementary schools smell like that. But it’s not crayons. In my kitchen I have a mason jar of good salt, pink-hued, and every night, cooking dinner, I unscrew that jar and add salt. Salt: the mineral Gandhi used to launch a revolution. The mineral vital to human life. When I kiss my daughter’s hair, breathing in her day, that’s what I smell: salt.