• A question of values
    July 22,2014

    A Vermonter was flying on a plane to Chicago when a woman in the seat next to him asked him where he was from. He said he lived in Vermont. She said with curiosity, “What do people do there?”

    All those little towns and hardly an international corporation among them. Her husband worked for a big company in Chicago, and it seemed as if everyone she knew worked for a big company.

    The Vermonter said, “Well, we do what people do. There are farmers and lawyers and teachers and shopkeepers and insurance salesmen and auto mechanics and factory workers. There are carpenters and plumbers and computer technicians and doctors and nurses.”

    It was an unfamiliar social environment for the woman from Chicago, who was used to a world where the high forest canopy of large corporations towered above the forest floor, and everyone moved about among those tall trees.

    “We have IBM,” the Vermonter said. “And GE.”

    On the forest floor where tall trees predominate, diverse wildflowers and other flora often do not flourish, blocked from the sun by the spreading branches overhead. But in Vermont where the tall trees of the big companies are fewer, there is a rich environment of many human activities.

    This idea came to mind after reading an essay in the Sunday Times Argus by Vermont poet laureate Sydney Lea about his life as a writer in what he calls the “minor” genres — poetry, essays. Only one of his books was picked up by a major publisher, and it did well for him, but it did not provide the kind of returns the big publisher demanded. Later, his editor was fired.

    Instead, like many writers, Lea has carried on with what is important to him, producing volumes of fine poetry and engaging essays such as the ones he writes for the paper. He has remained an active spokesman for integrity in the arts, and he occupies that ecological niche that is especially favorable for writers, artists and craftsmen for whom quality and a higher purpose are the primary concern. The marketplace, where the work must be sold, has other imperatives.

    Dedicated craftsmen sometimes remain indifferent to the marketplace, figuring that the quality of their product will dictate its commercial potential. If it sells to a small coterie of passionate customers, that is good enough. This may be the case for craft brewers as for poets. On the other hand, people who wish to remain in business for the long haul probably find they have to cultivate their market, even if it’s a niche market, for the longevity of their enterprise.

    Lea, living in the Northeast Kingdom, has formed close ties with the people native to the place as well as with the woods and the life of the woods. The way of life and the place are experiencing the changes associated with what we call modern life. He knows that elsewhere in Vermont the broader economy has had its effect, allowing wealthy people who have made their money among the towering trees of corporate America to come here, buy up the land, remodel the houses, turn the place into a gentrified and pretty country environment.

    It’s a process that causes a sense of loss, whether Google employees are buying out working-class homes on the hills of San Francisco or veterans of Wall Street are buying up the hill farms of the Northeast Kingdom. It’s hard to argue with prosperity. Except that when prosperity is the only guideline, the publishers are not so likely to pick up that volume of interesting poetry or the quirky essays. And the Vermonter who has been eking out a living in the north woods, living in the small house on the old family farm, may have to give it up as the tide of new houses approaches.

    Values are different from value. Values underlie the things we cherish because they are important — a piercingly crisp line of poetry, a cold, clear morning in the woods. Value is the dollar figure we put on something. As Lea understands, some things are beyond value.

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