Guest Column


barking soliloquies

Annabelle is the low-key English Setter that I spend time with while in Vermont. She seems to become more gentle and more laid back as the years creep forward, or maybe I've just gotten to know her better.

Regardless, there are exceptions.

Mornings after breakfast, and in the evenings after supper, she waits at the front door with anxious anticipation, impatience brimming until I open the door and she is free to dart out to begin her rounds.

Part of her routine is to bark. She barks a lot.

To the unrefined ear, Annabelle’s earnest pronouncements are noise. I too felt that her barking was excessive when getting to know her. But that was before I took the time to watch her nightly laps, before understanding and love took over and brought me eyes that could see.

In her younger days, her tail at full-mast, a feathery flag that she held up behind her, she trotted the perimeter of her home’s landscape, sounding like the town crier, announcing to her world that morning had come or evening was nigh.

As she has matured, the vigor of youth has slowed, and she no longer feels it necessary to do circles of the property while shouting her emphatic message. Rather, she sits at the top of her hill; tail fanned out on the green grass behind her, ears perked forward at attention, her face moving from side to side in an impassioned rhythm, using the oratorical skills of a prized speaker who understands the value of the dramatic pause.

I’ve wondered what prompts these barking soliloquies to a faceless world.

What is it that compels Annabelle every morning and every night, to speak? And why speak out to no one in particular?

This week, I watched a bird behaving similarly, its lengthy speech sans audience. Not only was there no other bird nearby (that I could see), there were also no pauses in this bird’s song which would suggest a reciprocal call in the distance (that I could not hear). Dubious research methods to be sure, but it did lead me to ask a more profound question,“Was this bird, like Annabelle, vocalizing only for himself?

Which then led to the question, “Do we need to speak, is it something essential for all living creatures to express themselves, even if there is no one there to listen?”

It makes me think differently about those who insist on talking on and on and ON when it is clear that everyone in the room has checked out and are no longer listening.

Maybe there is just a part of us that is hardwired to express ourselves whether the world is paying attention or not. Maybe the primary purpose of speaking is to connect with others, to the outside world, but maybe it is also a way to connect with ourselves. Could it be a way to help us organize our thoughts? A way to integrate another piece of who we are that can only be done if we take what is inside and bring it outside so that we can bring it in again? I don’t know.

A bird doing this is a stretch, but maybe...

Covered Bridge Cathedral

When I am in Vermont, there is a bridge that I must cross to get to the recycling depot. I don’t know what it is about the West Dummerston covered bridge that calls on my reverence. I don’t know why it makes known, without question, that it is deserving of my highest regard and deepest respect.

All I know is that it does.

Whenever I reach its threshold, as I wait for the vehicle from the other side to pass through, I feel compelled to quiet myself and my car before entering into its sacred space. Instinctively, I reach for the volume dial on the dashboard’s console and turn it down to zero. The hum of the heat or AC is also silenced, as my hand reaches for the handle on the driver’s door panel, to roll the window down—all the way.

Whether in blazing heat or sub-arctic cold, something in me hungers to taste the palpable echo of silence. To get as close as I possibly can to the outside world, to listen to all time as it merges for a moment, conducting itself into silent stories within these hallowed walls.

This bridge seems to be a portal of sorts, where past and present meet, stand side by side, opening to one another for a moment before carrying on along their own trajectories to their separate ends.

I’ve entered an old country church, suspended above a lazy springtime river, or a frozen block of winter's snow. My imagination’s ears can hear the lonely sound of a horse’s clopping hooves, led by a solitary rider, as both bring sound and movement to the air of a still, dark night. I hear the footfalls of a courting couple, walking aimlessly and slow, in joyful innocence, willing the night to last forever, full up and overflowing in each other’s company. A time gone by, and yet their new love making a solemn vow, which attaches itself resolutely and forever into the thick wooden beams of this sacred place.

The bridge feels like a keeper of stories—stories of the past, those being lived out now and stories that have yet to come into being.

I feel like a small child in its presence, begging it to reveal all that it knows, but the bridge only seems to smile at my inquisitive longings, holding its wisdom softly, its resolve still firm, keeping its own counsel as I pass through once more.

The West Dummerston Bridge in Windham County is not the only covered bridge that conjures up these feelings of awe and wonder.

The design, the workmanship, the history of these Vermont bridges provide living, functional artifacts that speak of the cultural and historical spirit of the green mountain state. They hold the values of Vermont in their trusses: natural beauty, craftsmanship, and longevity.

The next time you drive through a Vermont covered bridge know you are experiencing some of the best of Vermont!

The Man on Newfane Hill

The echo of bullets firing in the distance has always been a part of the Green Mountains I know.

They never seem to come in rapid succession, instead, a lazy intermediate warp that weaves through Nature's woof, blending with birdsong and gurgling stream, to form the tapestry of sound that moves through the landscape. The Man on the Hill has taught me that this is called, ‘slow fire,’ and is standard when you are shooting from 50 yards. These unhurried balls of lead have been paired since the beginning of my life in Vermont with the soft rolling hills in the distance that my eyes drink in each day.

It started with the sound.

Even before I met The Man on the Hill, the shooting in the distance had enchanted me; the crack in the silence belonged here in this wild and alive Eden.

What had started out as an unsettling jolt in the quiet, had become a sound of comfort. I was unaware that it had captivated my heart, that the firing of a gun had charmed me, had no idea that it had planted a seed.

I spend half my year on Newfane Hill housesitting and writing.

My hermit tendencies have been allowed to flourish here: I’m shy in a way, selfish too, protective of my precious time in Solitude’s arms, fiercely on guard like a momma bear with her cub, wary about who I let into my garden oasis.

So my contact with those on Newfane Hill has been limited; a few brief conversations, exchanging pleasantries, commenting on the weather or the beauty of this special mountain, a hesitant wave as I move back into my world of one.

Other than a polite ‘hello,' I haven’t known the man who fills up the still air with lonely gunshots. And yet, when word got back to this grizzled gentleman that I was a writer who wrote in the morning, the gunshots stopped until 1 o’clock each afternoon.

This would have been the extent of our meetings if my front door lock hadn’t decided to dissolve as I left the house for a day’s outing.  A kindly neighbor dispatched an SOS call on my behalf, and The Man on the Hill was the one to respond.

Arriving in his vintage jeep, which looked more like a dune buggy to my unrefined eyes, was a man in his late sixties. Still strapping, although a little rumpled from wear.

I knew that he was the man who shot guns, a man who had changed his shooting schedule for me, a stranger, so that the mountains could be still as I wrote.

I think his prickly demeanor was meant to be off-putting, but strangely I was not. Instead of retiring to another room while he changed the lock I stayed with him to hand him his tools and to talk.  

He was surprised to learn that the lock was actually broken and I wasn’t just a whiner from the city who was crying wolf. When he realized I knew the difference between a Phillips and a Robertson screwdriver, his apparent litmus test for a credible stranger, his facial features softened and he relaxed into easy conversation.

Raised in the back-country of Springfield, Vermont, he had made the hike of four miles each way to school; a mile of that from his house to the main road. No electricity or phone, not a police officer or fireman to depend on in an emergency, wild animals both a threat and a potential meal.

The Man on the Hill spoke of his youth. He would hunt on his way to school, change his clothes once he arrived, put his gun and hunting clothes in his locker and then change again at the end of each school day to hunt all the way home.

He could shoot a coyote dead, right through the head, cool and emotionless.

Always an outsider, living on the edges, misunderstood and readily left out.

He handled ballistics for the local police department which was why he often filled up the alpine silence with gunfire. But he also spoke of history, politics, and nature, making it clear that his gruff exterior hid depth and heart.

As this kind, smart, old-timer shared his tales, I found my courage.

And so I asked.

Would he teach me to shoot?

I had never shot a gun in my life; I hadn’t even held a gun. My grey hair and laugh lines illustrate that this is a remarkable period of time and it was shocking to me when this desire had bubbled up to my surface.

He said he would.

He was a gunslinger in the truest sense of the word.  

When he held a revolver, his surroundings seemed to disappear; all receded into a background of grey, becoming shapeless and silent. It left only The Man on the Hill and his gun, both looking at their target.

When my shooting lessons began, he picked up his gun to demonstrate how to shoot safely. Though standing beside him, I felt myself to be in a different part of Time, his moving much, much slower than my own.

It was only at the end of our first lesson, made up entirely of theory and safety practices that I held my first gun and shot my first bullet. I could feel both fear and excitement well up as the Smith & Wesson K-22 Revolver was placed into my hands. I was holding death’s underling; the cold steel giving me the power to kill; the weight of this fact heavier than the gun itself.

Lining up my mark, focused, my front sight in line with the notch at the rear site and holding it at 6 o’clock on the target, allowing the gun to wobble around the bullseye 50 yards away. It was like patting my head with one hand while making circular motions over my torso with the other; total concentration made my brain hurt.

My most successful shot was my first. One circle away from the bullseye on the target page. After catching my breath and discovering my good fortune, rather than chalking it up to luck, I immediately wondered if I was a savant. The following week’s target practice crushed this delusion quickly when shooting oranges turned out to be shooting the dirt that surrounded them.

And so ended my shooting career. The desire to shoot was fleeting, like a summer infatuation or a passing flirtation.

After that, our weekly shooting lessons were just an excuse to get together and gab. Instead of lining up targets and shooting guns, we sat on the back porch and circled life’s eternal questions with our words.

My world in Vermont is textured. It is filled with the sights and sounds of some of Mother Nature’s best works, some of humanity’s most profound and yet strikingly simple kindnesses, which, in their combination bring together a world that is unique to these Green Mountains.


Guest Column


Susan Cruickshank

Susan Cruickshank is a dual citizen who spends half her time living in Vermont, while making her home base in Ontario, Canada.

She is growing her freelance writing —Vermont Magazine, The Sunlight Press — while chipping away at her first book, a memoir.

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Susan Cruickshank @LivingANewFutur