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View from the Kingdom

Granite & Cedar: The People and the Land of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom couples the black-and-white photography of John M. Miller with short fiction by Howard Frank Mosher. The collaboration is a natural pairing of two artists who have focused much of their work on the region of Vermont the venerable Senator George Aiken dubbed the “Northeast Kingdom” in 1949. ¶ Miller is the author of Deer Camp: Last Light in the Northeast Kingdom, and Mosher has written six novels set in the region. In addition to an artistic vision, Mosher and Miller share ties to the state’s university. Mosher earned his master’s in English at UVM in 1967, and has donated his papers to the university library’s Special Collections. Miller, a member of the Class of 1971, teaches documentary photography at UVM. ¶ The publication of Granite & Cedar is a combined effort of Thistle Hill Publications and the Vermont Folklife Center, which has produced a companion exhibit of Miller’s photographs that is touring Vermont in 2002. Vermont Quarterly is grateful to these organizations and the artists for permission to reprint their text and images.
Granite & Cedar by John M. Miller, Copyright © 2001, Vermont Folklife Center (Middlebury, Vermont) and Thistle Hill Publications (North Pomfret, Vermont), Distributed by University Press of New England (www.upne.com)

The Highroad
excerpted from “Second Sight” copyright © 2001, Howard Frank Mosher

My Great-Aunt Jane Hubbell was born in 1887, and lived all her life on Kingdom Mountain. Throughout the remote border country of northeastern Vermont, she had the reputation of being relentlessly old-fashioned. Jane wore long back dresses made from the homespun wool of her own sheep. She farmed with oxen. She baked her own bread and churned her own butter. Even Jane’s way of expressing herself was old-fashioned. Though she was well-educated by the standards of the time and place, she delighted in using the antique phrases of her Scottish ancestors. For “certain” she often said “determined.” As in, “I’m not entirely determined what to do with you, Rob Hubbell. But I will not abide slothfulness in any nephew of mine.” “Abide,” in the sense of “to tolerate,” was another of Jane’s favorite expressions. And she often used the term “vexed” to denote a frame of mind just shy of anger. “Rob, you’re late for chores again. Sometimes you vex me beyond endurance.” In those days, it seemed to me that my Great-Aunt Jane was vexed with me far more often than not.

The summer I turned fifteen, I was secretly relieved when a new interstate highway from Boston to Montreal was slated to pass through Kingdom County. For all of its drawbacks, chief among them that it would connect us residents of the Kingdom to a larger world we had little trust and less use for, I-91 would at least give my great-aunt something besides me to be vexed with. Characteristically enough, Jane refused to refer to the superhighway as anything other than the “Highroad.” Maybe this was one more of her beloved anachronisms. Or maybe she thought of the interstate as the Highroad because it would run mainly through elevated terrain, avoiding the river valleys where the villages and larger farms lay. Then again, Jane may have wished to distinguish I-91 from the tangled network of country lanes, logging traces, and narrow blacktop roads that linked our small farms and upland hamlets one to another in the roundabout way of those years. There would be nothing circuitous about the interstate, however. It would pass straight through Jane’s farm. Worse yet, it would cut off, from the rest of the Kingdom Mountain cemetery, the plot where Jane’s parents were buried. And there was no doubt in my mind, or in anyone else’s, that this was a vexation that Jane Hubbell would not abide.We supposed that, given her legendary stubbornness, not to mention her fierce loyalty to her family, both living and dead, Jane would sue the state and represent herself; or camp in the graveyard and refuse to budge, even in the path of the state’s behemoth yellow earth-movers; then, when the state exercised its ultimate right of eminent domain and had her removed by the law, assuming they could Índ a local lawman to do it, she would no doubt refuse, on principle, to accept a penny of compensation.

What we had forgotten was that Miss Jane Hubbell of Kingdom Mountain was as unpredictable as she was stubborn. At the public hearing for I-91 at the Kingdom Common town hall early in November, she listened to other farmers whose land would be confiscated inveigh against change in general and the new highway in particular. She listened to the chief highway engineer for the State of Vermont present his plans and maps and assure landowners that every effort had been made to route the interstate through the higher, less valuable terrain. When my father stood up and pointed out, reasonably enough, that we hill farmers valued our high mowings and lofty mountain meadows as much as the valley farmers valued their land, she merely pursed her lips. Jane knew, of course, that protesting would do us no good at all. Even as we sat assembled in our little hall, the interstate was unspooling north from Boston and south from Montreal with something of the inexorableness of the glacier that had carved out our hills and valleys ten thousand years ago — and with inÍnitely greater speed. Do what me might, it would arrive in the spring. Our best hope now, our last hope, really, was that my regal great-aunt, who for more than half a century had held sway over Kingdom Mountain like a Russian empress, and whose words at our annual town meeting still caused grown men who had gone to school to her as boys to quail in their boots, would speak for us. Wasn’t Jane widely believed to have second sight, like our Hubbell ancestors from the Hebrides? Perhaps she would prophesy some magnificent catastrophe if the state went ahead with the Highroad!

At last Jane rose. She stepped into the sloping wooden aisle of the hall where, sixty years ago, she had delivered her high school valedictory — a scathing denunciation of small-town complacency and provincialism that reportedly shocked the entire room into a prolonged stunned silence. But instead of the expected prophecy or jeremiad against progress, she said only, in her usual harsh, not unhumorous manner, “I can plainly see that in this instance we shall have to render unto Caesar what’s his.”

Well. This was not what we had hoped for. And while the slight and bespectacled young highway engineer probably did not much relish being compared to a Roman dictator, he, too, had undoubtedly heard in advance about the formidable Jane Hubbell. So it was with palpable relief that he said, “We appreciate your willingness to understand our situation, Miss Hubbell. Particularly in your case, where this is such a personal matter. Of course we, I mean we the state, will take care of the — transfer.”

“You the state will take care of no such thing,” Jane said, her voice as harsh as a blue jay’s call, and no longer humorous at all. “The Hubbells have always taken care of their own. We shall take care of our own now.”

“Miss Hubbell, we’ll gladly —”

“Hear me well, Caesar,” my great-aunt said. “If I spy you or any of your legions near that burying place before I move those graves myself, I’ll defend what’s mine by whatever means are necessary.”

“Please! There’s no need to threaten anyone.”

“I’ve never threatened anyone in my life and I’m not threatening anyone now. If a distempered animal ventures onto my place, I don’t threaten it. I destroy it with no more thought than brewing a cup of tea. If I discover you or your minions near those gravesites before I have a chance to move them, I’ll put you down like a rabid fox.”

I do not know how such an unambiguous declaration might have been greeted elsewhere. Maybe with applause. Or maybe with silence, like the silence after Jane’s long-ago graduation speech. In Kingdom County in 1965, Jane’s announcement was met by solemn nods of satisfaction. This was something like what we had hoped to hear her say; and now that she had spoken, we all felt somehow better about the interstate. The chief engineer, for his part, said nothing more.

But I was wondering. How, at seventy-eight, did my great-aunt propose to exhume and move those two graves high on Kingdom Mountain? As I walked out of the town hall into the freezing November night at her side, the answer came to me.

Never, in all of my fifteen years, had I dreaded anything half so much.

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