• Editor's Note Winter 2017

    Editor's Note Winter 2017

    “If you’re going to Québec City, you have to visit a cabane à sucre,” said Claire. And her good advice was confirmed as soon as my partner and I walked into Cabane à Sucre Leclerc in Neuville on a chilly, snowy evening.

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  • Set the Table with Poutine

    Set the Table with Poutine

    I grew up in California, in a world of dayboat salmon, tofu, and spinach salad. I only became vaguely aware of the odd sounding “poutine” when I moved to Vermont. French fries with gravy and cheese curds? I mean, that all sounds weird enough without including the word “curds” at the end.

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  • Along the Route des Vins

    Along the Route des Vins

    In the first unpredictable weeks of spring, workers at Québec’s Léon Courville vineyard lay the bones of 1,200 tiny bonfires between the vines.

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  • So Close And Yet So Far

    So Close And Yet So Far

    Ask people in agriculture about the challenges of selling Vermont food in Québec, and folks tend to have the same first reaction.

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  • Au Marché

    Au Marché

    On a sunny, crisp day in early September, a friend and I meandered over the border to visit three Québec farmers’ markets.

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  • Neighbors to the North—Of Loaves and Land

    Neighbors to the North—Of Loaves and Land

    Every week at Red Hen Baking Company in Middlesex, six tons of flour is mixed, kneaded, and transformed into 18,000 loaves of bread.

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  • Neighbors to the North—Seeding Relationships

    Neighbors to the North—Seeding Relationships

    Some 20 years ago, when Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds was living in Holland, Vermont, just on the border with Québec, he met Laurier Chabot at a biodynamic agriculture conference.

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  • Neighbors to the North—A Vintner Mentor

    Neighbors to the North—A Vintner Mentor

    When David and Linda Boyden started Boyden Valley Winery in Cambridge in 1996, they had zero experience in viticulture or oenology, save for a class that David had taken at Cornell University.

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  • Neighbors to the North—A Plethora of Produce

    Neighbors to the North—A Plethora of Produce

    Imagine two Caesar salads: Both are tossed in that classic salty dressing and topped with croutons, tomatoes, and parmesan cheese. And both salads have, as their base, crisp and crunchy romaine lettuce.

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  • Neighbors to the North—Fields  of  Gold

    Neighbors to the North—Fields of Gold

    Jack Lazor called me at 8:00 p.m. the other night, which surprised me. I’m used to dairy farmer hours, and 8:00 p.m is past bedtime for most dairymen and women I’ve known.

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  • Neighbors to the North—A Porcine Quest

    Neighbors to the North—A Porcine Quest

    Vermont Salumi, a small company making fresh sausages and hand-tied salami in the Italian tradition, is based just outside Plainfield.

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  • To Market, to Bank

    To Market, to Bank

    Québecois grower Jean-Martin Fortier draws a distinction between a good living and a good life.  “’A good living’ mostly refers to how much money you make,” he tells me during a phone call. A good life, in contrast, takes into account “how your time is spent, and to what purpose.”

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  • My Family’s French Canadian Kitchen

    My Family’s French Canadian Kitchen

    Whenever I catch a whiff of cinnamon or cloves, my mind drifts to my mother’s kitchen and the French Canadian food traditions that shaped how I learned to cook.

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Last Morsel—When Worlds Collide

How does a liberal arts education affect life on the farm?

Sheep Illustration by Alexandru Petre

Written on

May 15 , 2017

I butchered three sheep today. What does this mean to me as a man educated in liberal arts at Middlebury?

I had a .32-caliber pistol. I straddled the shoulders of the first sheep, kept its head steady by holding the ears, and then shot it through the skull. What was I thinking?

Strangely, I remembered sitting in Howard Munford’s winter term class on Robert Frost. I remembered feeling sorry for Frost that he couldn’t split a pile of cordwood without waxing metaphysical or cosmic. I wondered how he carried that burden every day.

As I rolled the sheep over, I flashed to the iconic picture from the Associated Press of the South Vietnamese colonel, his arm leveled across the frame of the photo, as he executed a Vietcong suspect. He, too, had a small pistol in his hand.

I actually thought of Joseph Campbell’s premises that the basic question of being human is not, “Who am I?” but rather, “Why does something have to die, in order that something else might live?”

Middlebury has a part in the last two of these reflections. The first takes me back to the national trauma of the Vietnam War and the three-day student strike at the College during the Cambodian bombings. And then to the December night that all the 19-year-olds gathered in Proctor to watch the first draft lottery on television.

The second reflection places me in the folklore class of Horace Beck, and then in his office as he reviewed my senior thesis, which was based on interviews with people who had grown up on isolated farms way back in the hills surrounding Ripton and Bread Loaf.

As I open the belly of the sheep with my knife, I imagine a Vermont hill farmer predicting the coming winter based on the size of the spleen. Or a Greek shepherd bringing a lamb to the oracle at Delphi, seeking a vision of the world beyond as the organs sputter and smoke on the altar.

I cut around the genitals, and the scene from Light in August when the posse castrates the body of Joe Christmas, is suddenly visceral and tactile. Then I imagine myself bent over another slaughtered carcass in the stockyards of The Jungle. My hands are covered in blood.

I wash out the empty cavity with a hose (I am reminded of The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell). I wonder if the hillside where I live once saw flocks of sheep in the decades of the late 1800s, when sheep were the principal animal roaming the pastures of the Northeast Kingdom (Vermont history with Professor Jacobs).

Has a liberal arts education prepared me for such complex acts of life…and death? My liberal arts education suspends me between the abstract world and the real world—not unlike the Greek shepherd. As an educated man, do I carry out this act at a deeper level? Maybe. Do I say a prayer over the sheep, as did the Hebrew Abraham, or as lshi, the Yahi Indian? No.

As I begin to peel back the fleece, the white muscle sheath crackles, I am inclined to think that I, like Macbeth, like all of us, “am, in blood stepped in so far…that returning were as tedious as go o’er” (Professor Cubeta’s Shakespeare class).

The act of sacrifice is an essential act of living. And yet, does my education connect me to this common human experience, or does it reveal the detachment I have achieved as an educated man?

Gary Johnson, Middlebury class of 1973, lives in Irasburg, Vermont.

This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Middlebury Magazine.

Reprinted with permission.

Illustration by Alexandru Petre

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