During the week Noel Perrin is an English professor at Dartmouth, who wears a coat and tie. On the weekends clad in overalls, he is a Vermont farmer, apt to be found in his wood lot cutting branches with a chain saw or in a back field shoveling manure. In between he manages to be a superb writer of essays.
Work on the farm, this collection reveals, yields an ample supply of firewood , apple cider, maple syrup, and satisfaction. More important -- to his readers, at least -- it also yields some astute and amusing observations about rural life , especially as it affects and is affected by nonrural people.
In his previous book of essays, "First Person Rural," Perrin had some stern advice for those urban and suburban dwellers wishing to trade their condominiums and trips to the shopping mall for the presumably simple and pastoral pleasures of country life. He told them to stay home. There is, he wrote, an easier and more tranquil life style in the midst of Manhattan than in any of the old- fashioned farms portrayed on calendars and in bread commercials.
"Second Person Rural" casts an unromantic eye on the realities of country life; there is little about wildflowers and trout streams and a good deal about chain saws, stone removal, and butchering lambs. There is also a lot about behavior -- both the animal and the human kind.
In two essays, "Country Codes" and "Vermont Silences," Perrin, himself a transplanted urbanite, proves an able sociologist and interpreter, as he deciphers just what accounts for the legendary characteristics of those who inhabit his region. Shortly after moving to Vermont, Perrin encountered what he calls the "Stoic's Code," a modern-day extension of the Puritan work ethic, which values endurance above most other considerations.
While helping two neighbors lift bales of hay one hot summer day, he committed the colossal faux paux of suggesting that they take a break and go swimming. One no longer speaks to him, and the other "made allowances for my background and forgave me. . . . I think he thinks I have made real progress in learning to shut my mouth and keep working."
The work ethic, he also believes, is responsible for the taciturn nature of many rural New Englanders. If you want your Vermont neighbors to open up, he advises, don't "plan some occasion when you do nothing but talk . . ., plan to share a job with someone."
In "The Rural Immigration Law" Perrin addresses what happens when a typical couple leaves suburbia to take up permanent residence in the country. Instead of leaving their suburban life style behind, the "immigrants" often take it with them. Soon there are golf courses and French restaurants where there were once forests and farms. There ought to be a law, Perrin says, that requires new residents to go before a board "composed entirely of native farmers, loggers, and road-crew men" to show evidence that they have adopted rural values.
But some of his wittiest and most pertinent observations are reserved for the animals that share his rural life style. In "Pig Tales" he strings together four amusing vignettes, each putting up a fine defense of the much- maligned creatures. Their image is not the fault of the pigs themselves, he maintains, but of a "bad press" and humanly imposed breeding practices. And his "Cock Went A- Courting" is as fine an account of overcivilized chickens as his other essays are of overcivilized humans.
For those of us who have no particular desire to pick up and move to the country, these essays are an excellent way to get a taste of what it's all about. It doesn't even matter if we follow his "Maple Recipes for Simpletons" or take his advice on running a cider press with child labor; reading about them is delight enough. Like the maul with which he splits his winter wood supply, his prose is finely sharpened and wielded with great precision, and it strikes in just the proper place.