By: Elly Well
Every so often, a letter to the editor appears in our local paper, puzzling over the number of “Flatlanders” who are moving into my home state of Vermont. “Flatlander” is a Vermont term for people who come from other, presumably flatter states, excepting New Hampshire. The word isn’t necessarily derogatory although it does connote clueless-ness as to local culture and coping skills.
The most famous migration of Flatlanders into Vermont was the “Back to the Land” movement of the 60’s and 70’s. Among other Vermonter reactions was the coining of the phrase “hippy killer” to refer to the cheap woodstoves they bought, often ignorant of the need for careful venting. This was the founding period in the development of the Vermont social progressives – you know, the preternaturally nice people who wear Birkenstock sandals, spearheaded the state’s foodie renaissance and recently elected socialist Bernie Sanders to the U.S. Senate. They make great neighbors, and they have assimilated well into the local culture although, according to one single friend, “the really earnest ones aren’t fun to date.”
My husband and I belong to a more recent tribe. We are post-urban professionals, 90’s and 00’s Flatlanders who arrived in the state with no clear ideology. Yes, we newbies share the Back to the Landers’ value for small community life and environmental conservation, but we’re more cynical and rarely waver in our preference of capitalism over barter systems. Many of us couldn’t live here without the Internet and the remote work opportunities it provides.
There’s another critical difference between us post-urbans and the earlier Vermont migration, one I think that applies to people in their 20’s and 30’s generally. We didn’t choose to be outsiders. We were doomed to be outsiders, no matter where we eventually ended up. We are “Flatlanders” not just of Vermont, but of the world.
In the past fifteen years, my husband and I have had between us eight jobs. We have lived in nine different cities and towns. Given our frequent dislocation, we never had much time to get to know our neighbors well or build deep relationships with community institutions. Heck, I never even got around to unpacking all the boxes I taped up when I moved out of my senior college dorm room. As I write this, some of them are lurking, still unopened, in my home office behind a file cabinet.
As a practical consequence of all this movement, when my husband and I got sick of change and started to crave roots, there wasn’t a place for us to return to. The cities where we lived previously held no advantage, for most of the friends we knew from those places had dispersed. Likewise, the towns where we grew up no longer were familiar to us; in my case, most of my immediate family had moved away. Wherever we decided “home” would become, we would have to begin, yet again, as total outsiders.
So we chose “home.” We thought long and hard about what made us happy, and what different regions provided. We did a lot of research and talked to many people. We asked our dogs for their opinions. Finally, we closed our eyes and jumped.
That is why we are here, committed in a long-term way to a tiny Vermont town that we are only still getting to know and living on an old farm in a magnificent old wreck of house. There are squirrels in the walls who have so far triumphed over all eradication efforts. Deep in the house’s plumbing, there’s a non-benign presence that my husband dubbed, “Glurk Glurk” for the sound it makes immediately before the kitchen sink floods.
Are there times when we think we have made a mistake? When I look at those boxes behind the file cabinets and think I’ll just stow them away somewhere for the next move?
No. For all its challenges, I finally know I am home. I planted apple trees this summer. I have real friendships with neighbors and in true Vermont fashion, my husband and I have started a maple sugaring operation out of an old chicken shack that we retrofitted for the purpose. We made 45 gallons this past spring. In ’08, we expect to quadruple that figure.
I expect that many have had this experience – OK, hopefully not one ending with Glurk Glurk and the squirrels – but the more general pattern of lacking deep connections to any place, and finding “home” not as a historical given or a circumstance we fall into, but a constructive, conscious act.