I’m surprised at how much water there is. This is my strongest impression of Vermont. It’s so filled with water, not like the ocean but like a nervous system. At every turn, there is a creek and a cascade, a paint-chipped farmhouse with a steep gabled roof. The sun dots hills so green they make me choked up. I’m not sure why. The untenability of small farm life? The resilience despite that? The view of a quiet life after a series of cities that feel declaratively self-important? I see the dream notion of hunkering down and shutting out the world. A family in an array of colorful hoodies (hot pink, kelly green, black and white, navy) embrace in the chilly air in front of a pile of junk machinery and plastic toys. A reunion? Or clinging onto one another?
It’s cold and cloudy when we roll up to the farm theater. We greet a cluster of people in overalls, cleaning out buckets, who introduce themselves without handshakes or stopping their work. A young guy in a fraying Carhartt jacket offers us a brief tour to show us where we can camp. It’s going to be cold. We’re welcomed, but we’re not befriended. We’re shown a wide field where, in a few weeks, there will be people making circus shows for thousands to see, but right now it’s empty, save for a tractor and a flatbed trailer.
A shock of pine trees in a cluster standing on the lip of a bowl of earth now serves as a maze of memorial structures, little houses where the spirits of puppeteers can live on – some high in trees, some low to the ground. This manmade grove, which was planted long before the puppets, asserts itself against the horizon as a reminder. A reminder of what I’m not sure. Perhaps for the puppeteers it is a reminder of what can be made, or fostered, in cooperation with nature. The little village of houses for the dead seems reminiscent of something much older, giving the ghosts that live there a heft I would not have felt otherwise. We’re told that magic happens here (lanterns rise soundlessly in the pines as somewhere on a backroad, a truck blares country music and the dead are remembered) but right now, it’s all pragmatism.
We want to know about the ins and outs, we want to be met as equals, but we are shepherded as prospects, youths. Our questions are answered like the FAQ page on a website, attempting to quell perceived nervousness, not engage with the intricacies of a company’s persistence. But they are tired, just back from tour, and our enthusiasm, our curiosity is not unique. We are just another in the long line of those young, white, liberal, maybe political, growing makers. We flip on our blinders and make this experience feel unique.
Left to our own devices, we roam dirt floors, looking up at figures older than ourselves. This is a cathedral. This is a museum. This is a theater. This is a barn. This is a history. This is someone’s dream. From palm-sized to Olmec-sized, these glue and paste gods are dormant now. To stand in awe gazing up at a barn lined wall to wall with puppets. To see the work a group of people have made over the course of 70 years physicalized in one place. I want this. Not this this. But this. I want us to make, and I want us to see the things we’ve made, and I want us to carve a place, and I want us to have a sanctuary, and I want I want I want. I don’t know what it is that I want, or we want. And is it the idea of a connection to land, and community, and place, and history? Or are those the things we actually want – land, community, place, history. All I know is I am filled with want.
We enter our own torpor, seeing the sun begin to set just as it finally commits to shining. Bathed in gold briefly, finishing dinner prep on the bed of the trailer and trekking up the hill to watch, we stuff ourselves with rice, cupped around warm bowls, talking about our own holy space, one that doesn’t exist yet. It is so still and clear, we can almost see it. And then it’s night.
In our sleep, we get spattered with rain through the open fly of our tent. Our fingers are numb, making coffee and packing up in the morning drizzle. Breakfast under the hatchback door is quick and quiet; there is no time for us to access magic here.
The rest of Vermont is our thaw. “Cute!” “Cute!” “Cute!” We say as we whirr past, the impression of sloped roofs, maroon paint, little lakes, something old, or Canadian, or French, or European, or something. All we know is “cute”. In Middlebury, we find coffee and stop for students to cross the road, dodging baby turtles ambling jerkily, like puppets, just trying to make it from the waters that have touched New York, like us.