Forest Home Companion

Well it’s been a quiet month in my home town, out there in the valley of Vermont. Weather-wise, we’ve seen just about everything but a good soaking rain. There were a few days when it didn’t get out of the 50s — cool enough to start a wood-scrap fire in the stove to take the chill off the house. But there were other days when it was above 90; in fact, we’d already equaled our entire yearly average of above-90-degree days for the year before July even arrived.

Last weekend the people in my little village went down to the lake to watch the fireworks display. Someone called it “homegrown” — a nod to the fact that the pyrotechnics were hunted and gathered by a guy in his pickup truck over in New Hampshire; this in contrast to a fancy-pants municipal event run by a professional company. We appreciated the do-it-yourself spirit. And the deftness of the operator, who seemed to let the fireworks linger in the sky. I guess that’s what happens when you buy the fireworks yourself with a wad full of cash in your pocket — you savor each blossom, every crackle. The sky filled with centaurean blues and helianthan reds and weeping golden tendrils that left willow-like silhouettes. There were these new fireworks — new to me, anyway — that looked like lightning bugs, or I guess maybe like glowing bees in a swarm. When the show ended, Mars hung like a fireball on the southern horizon, causing the kids next to us to argue about whether it was Mars or a firework. “Dude, it’s moving.” Eventually the debate shifted to whether it was Mars or burning space junk.

Over the course of this particular evening, and one a few nights later, we sat on blankets and talked with friends who we don’t see much anymore because everyone’s life is so busy. Talk started with the stuff outside, like it usually does. Someone commented that the mushroom hunting has been terrible because of the dry weather but that they had recently found a nice chicken of the woods. A fisherman lamented the low water in the streams, saying that June water levels felt more like what you’d find in September. Someone said that tick numbers seemed to be down and wondered if it was because of the dry weather. A beekeeper was thrilled with their honey yield and reported a banner year for clover. Someone had talked to a farmer who’d said the dry, warm days and cool nights were great for his strawberry crop. People who were spending time up in the Green Mountains were seeing moose calves, which everyone agreed was a good sign for sure on the heels of a warm winter with a probably-high parasite load.

Recently G and I went up to camp, and just by coincidence caught the last Prairie Home Companion broadcast — it’s a weekly radio show that’s been a public radio staple for decades if you’ve never heard of it. It was a show that could be beautiful (it usually featured phenomenal musicians) subversively funny (in a pretty punk rock move the last show featured a high-brow call from the President of the United States, followed shortly thereafter by a low-brow riff on the limerick “There Once Was a Man From Nantucket”) and cringingly geeky — picture a room full of adults stomping their feet and singing along to a song about rhubarb pie like they were at a Rolling Stones concert, or maybe a Raffi concert. I guess that juxtaposition is why it’s uncomfortable.

The show was created by and starred Garrison Keillor, and the climax of every program was a story he’d tell about life in a fictional rural town. He explained his process in a National Geographic story, writing: “All I do is say the words: cornfield and Mother and algebra and Chevy pickup and cold beer and Sunday morning and rhubarb and loneliness, and other people put pictures to them.”

He did this not-as-simple-as-it-sounds thing very, very well. Part of his gift was in knowing how to deftly wield the mirror for his audience. Part was his wise decision to write fiction — wearing the mask helped him tell the truth. Part was his irreverence; so much small-town writing is so sanitized and politically correct that it becomes banal — Keillor wasn’t afraid of the edge. But probably the biggest thing he did right was connect his stories to nature, which can’t be easy for a performer who spends his life on the road. Every story started with the line “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,” and then proceeded into some comment about the weather, some happening in the natural world, some happening in someone’s garden. He got criticized for this — one critic suggested “being a responsible adult doesn’t necessarily mean speaking slowly about tomatoes” — but as those of us who live in rural places know, an opening nod to nature and seasonal rhythm is no simpleminded thing. Sitting on blankets in my little town on the Fourth, watching the fireworks, we’d get to the serious stuff, the life stuff I’m not at liberty to share, the stuff that’s as inorganic as painted asphalt. But first, the strawberries, the mushrooms, the honey crop, the seasonal groundings we all tether ourselves to because if we didn’t who knows where we’d end up. There’s something real and rich there that we can all put pictures to — Keillor had such a fine nose for it.

 
Discussion
  1. Laird Christensen → in Poultney, Vermont
    Jul 08, 2016

    Thanks for this column, Dave. I started listening to PHC in the early 1980s, and loved it, but I have to admit I grew tired of it over the decades and stopped making a point to listen. If it happened to be on the truck radio when I was heading someplace, I would usually give it a listen—and the News from Lake Wobegon was always what I was most interested in. You’ve done a great job of pointing out the importance of grounding our often complicated human dramas in the natural patterns of the places we call home. Thanks for that!

  2. Judith Samonte → in Ann Arbor, MI
    Jul 08, 2016

    I loved this…in fact I love your site.  As a “yooper” (person born and raised “above the bridge” in the UP…Michigan’s Upper Peninsula…) l can relate to both a Prarie Home Companion and to your articles.  BTW, we Yoopers refer to folks in lower Michigan as “Trolls” since they live “under the bridge.”

  3. Carolyn → in East Wallingford, VT
    Jul 09, 2016

    Nice tribute. You are a likely inheritor of the Keillor tradition, as are other writers for the magazine.

  4. Bob Z → in VT
    Jul 09, 2016

    Right on, Dave!

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