The Waterville House
Written onAugust 22 , 2014
Three summers ago, Jacob and I moved back to Vermont from the southeastern corner of Idaho. Tired of the long Teton Valley winter, we’d stared longingly at the March photo on our Vermont Life calendar: a tractor crawling along its farm beneath Mount Mansfield. In the picture, pastures were an electric new green and budding trees made the air look hazy. We had both grown up in Vermont, and we were craving mud season. Out the window in Tetonia, snow still fell, the ground asleep for weeks yet.
We came back, that summer, to live and work on a farm in Tunbridge. One muggy August afternoon, liberated from the fields, we snuck our biodegradable soap down to the White River. The tingle of peppermint and the shock of an icy-cold beer were euphoric.
“I bet we could do something on our own,” I bragged to Jacob. “Get a little piece of land and find a tractor. We could figure it out.”
At the time, there was a sense of ease associated with the title of ”farm hand.” Our pay was reliable, whether the tomatoes sold at market or not. At the end of the season we were free to go. And yet there was something missing: the challenge of ownership, the chance for real responsibility.
“I’m in.” Jacob grinned, sudsing up. “You want veggies? Cows? Olive trees?”
A month later, searching the classifieds for our own place, we saw an ad: Organic Farmland for Rent—Waterville. We didn’t know there was a Waterville in Vermont, but Jacob dialed the number immediately, pacing back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the Randolph library.
“It’s not a job interview,” I whispered when he finally came inside.
“No, but this is the one,” Jacob said.
We visited the Northeast Kingdom property on a balmy October day. The meadows smelled sweet and reminded me of painting watercolors with my mother. A pond sat still within a circle of white birch. Stone walls defined the curve of the property line. Old maple trees formed a hedge. Mount Mansfield loomed navy and crooked to the south. There was room for a big garden—the soil mostly clay but well cared for—and the barn was broken in, with space for hay and animals.
The house, however, was not as beautiful. The kitchen sink revealed a dead mouse. In place of a front door there was a thick blanket. The refrigerator was rusted and yellowing. The tenants showed us around reluctantly. They said the well water gave them giardia, and they said they’d burned four cords of wood the previous winter and still had to fill the oil furnace twice.
We did not arrive at a decision with grace or ease. We discussed, at length, the amount of work to be done. There were house chores: Paint the kitchen floor. Deep clean. Cut firewood. Buy furniture. Put up a front door. Cut more firewood. There were chores to prepare for animals: Repair fence. Mow. Fix barn stalls. Buy hay. Clean chicken coop. Buy salt blocks, heat lamps, buckets for water and grain. There were garden chores: Till. Add compost. Dig. Rake. Sow cover crop. Order seeds. We knew that some of this work would eventually be left behind, that we would spend endless hours on a property that we’d only be renting. Yet we wanted to make this a working farm again, and we wanted to make it our home.
The tenants moved out on the first of November, and when we saw the place empty, I was horrified. Now it looked like an abandoned hunting camp. We hadn’t signed a lease yet but we kept visiting, and we kept stopping at the hardware store on the way. We spent days clearing garbage from the front “yard,” scrap metal, bathtubs, and a rusted camper. Jacob cut firewood and I Windexed the windows. We painted the plywood kitchen floor the color of bricks.
On the last day of November, just before we signed that lease, I found myself pushing seed garlic into the cold soil. I forgot about the dead mouse (actually, the dead mice) and the cobwebs in the bathroom. I forgot about the drafty windows and the threatening sky. I remembered that I wanted a responsibility. I remembered that I like to eat, and eat well, and I hurried to help mulch our first planted bed, as the sun made that late-fall, pre-dusk announcement in brilliant orange before sliding behind the mountains.