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The Neighbor

It was a late summer day and my young dog and I had ventured well beyond our ten acres and onto a neighbor's land atop the long hill on which we live. Crickets hummed in the mild air and all around, the overgrown foliage shone the bright sun. We followed mowed paths through scrub of honeysuckle and hawthorn, clusters of carefully pruned conifers and maple saplings, lanky as adolescent boys.

I skirted the prickly patches of raspberry canes, abundant with ripe fruit, following the mowed paths and answering the inquiries of curious chick-a-dees in the pines. My dog, though, plowed through the brambles, disappearing in the thicket only to return a moment later with a fellow whom I presumed to be the owner of the land on which we trespassed.

Dressed in work boots, blue jeans, and a checked short-sleeved shirt, he carried a green cardboard carton of freshly picked raspberries and wore his cap high up on his forehead. His eyes were bright blue and surrounded by laugh lines, his skin tanned by wind and weather, his figure trim. He was bearing up cheerfully under the onslaught of my overly friendly Golden Retriever, patting the dog's wriggling behind and rubbing his ears.

He introduced himself and I did the same, saying that we'd moved into the grey house in the meadow several months before, that I was recently retired and trying to familiarize myself with the neighborhood. He told me he'd built the white house overlooking the valley to the east when he and his family had returned from living several years in Alaska, that his wife had died a few years before, and that he worked part time driving a dairy truck.

My neighbor was the Genuine Article, A Real Vermonter, whose parents, grandparents and others way back beyond them, had farmed and hunted the land for generations. What struck me most about my new acquaintance, was not his rugged good looks or friendly response to a stranger making free with his land. What thrilled me was his accent, one that has all but disappeared over the past four decades with the sustained influx of flatlanders to the state.

His phrasing and inflection, expressions and word choice, the laconic delivery and understatement were rooted as deeply in Vermont as the raspberry canes threatening to overrun his back forty. No bluster, no exclamatory statements, just a restrained matter-of-factness, slightly bantering and a little droll.

I listened enthralled as my neighbor described his native upbringing, his years logging the nearby woods, the majesty of Alaska's wilderness, and way the Green Mountains had finally called him home. I don't know how long we stood and talked that first day, but eventually we parted. He to bring the raspberries to his mother in St. Jay and I to satisfy the tugging young dog on the other end of the leash.

In the months that followed I was to learn much more of my neighbor. He plays the Rolling Stones at full volume when he's splitting and stacking wood near the shed he built. On Saturday nights he goes to the dances at the Legion where, I happen to know, he is a favorite with the ladies. In the winter, he cuts firewood down in the swampy lowlands of his acreage and hauls it home in a cart on the back of his snow machine. He manages his land with the aid of an imposing John Deere tractor and rides the roads in an immaculate white truck.

Beginning in early October, we are barred from walking on his land lest we scare the deer away during hunting season, but come winter we're free to snowshoe along his paths. When he cuts down a cedar, he scatters the tasty greenery for the deer to feed on in the lean winter months and he hates coyotes with an almost fanatical zeal.

Coyotes kill deer. My neighbor also kills deer. When the coyotes kill deer it is a brutal act, a defenseless animal fallen on by a gang of snarling wild dogs. When my neighbor kills a deer, he is helping to manage the herd. I don't pretend to understand the distinction. Perhaps it is a question of methodology. Perhaps a gunshot is considered a more humane form of execution than the coyotes' rip and tear approach.

The issue of killing coyotes who kill deer is one my neighbor and I have not discussed. I have no doubt that he believes whole heartedly in the soundness of his reasoning. The coyotes by contrast are not operating on a moral imperative, they do not have finely wrought arguments to rationalize their behavior. They are motivated by instinct and hunger. They are also regrettably adaptable and determined to survive.

Someday my neighbor and I may have a chance to talk about this issue of who has a right to kill deer and who doesn't. I'll be interested to hear what he has to say.

And I'll be just as interested in the way he says it.

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