A Season That Shrinks Sociability - but That's Not So Bad

I have neighbors up the hill. Good people, and I see a lot of them in the summertime, down by the lake. In the winter, I'm aware of them mostly by the lights gleaming out from their home, and they know I'm still around by the smoke from my chimney.

There's a pathway up that hill, and those lights are not very far, but somehow this season discourages contact. In the winter, a sort of semi-hibernation sets in, a clinging to the hearth.

It's not the isolation of withdrawal. We think nothing of driving 10 miles to a basketball game, or 20 to a movie, or even farther to those big stores that sell everything. And a brisk walk that brings the breath out in steamy plumes is fun and fittening. Fittening is a homemade word, the opposite of fattening. I heard an old Vermonter say splitting wood is fittening, and it is.

He is a thoughtful man, and I must inquire of him why the winter seems to shrink sociability. After all, the neighbors don't growl and snarl in the cold; we just don't see each other very much.

The New England poet Robert Frost was living in southern New Hampshire, in Derry, to be precise, when he gave us his famous farmer neighbor, who insisted, while mending his wall, that good fences make good neighbors. Said it twice, as a matter of fact. When Frost wrote that, before World War I, Derry was a lot less like Boston than it is now, and a lot more like northern Vermont. So I think I know that wall-mender. At least I know how he thinks.

Robert Frost specified

that he had that walk and talk with his good neighbor in the spring, after the heaves and the hunters had had their way with the stones on the wall. They most surely did not go out in January to improve their boundary line and their mutual respect.

Maybe it's January that makes good neighbors. Maybe the pulling in is a socially necessary mechanism. Maybe it's January as much as a well-mended wall that keeps us from trampling on each other's turf, from getting on each other's nerves, and defining each other's idiosyncrasies as idiocies, and so germinating dissension and division. Maybe it is January.

Vermonter-by-choice Maggie Wolf has suggested in her book "Seasoned in Vermont" that January seems longer than it really is, because all the holiday excitement is now well behind us, because it truly does get cold, and because the nights are far longer than the days, even though that begins to change noticeably by the end of the month.

Do you suppose that even the ski people get a bit weary of tree-cracking freezes, and the fourth snowfall of the week? Nah. And if they did, they'd never let on. The ski people worry that the opposite might happen, that one of our famous January thaws might set in. And then all those people from away would stay away, and not come here to buy neon clothes and high-tech sticks to increase their risk of falling down, all in the name of fun and fittening, and economic fattening for us.

We don't like to talk about this very much, but there are people here who don't like cold weather. And why doesn't anybody ever say that? Well, transplanted Vermonters are fixated on being hardier than anybody - more Irish than the Irish, my South Boston grandmother used to say - and they would never admit to freezing, no matter what.

As for the real Vermonters - I mean multigenerational natives weaned on maple syrup - very few of them complain about things that will not respond to chiding. Like the weather, or the stones that fall off that wall every winter. They may not like the annual mending of it, but they do not rail against gravity, or other forces of nature.

Some distant day when the sun rises more than 20 degrees above the horizon, when the tundra is softening and the hillsides run with meltwater, I will meet my neighbor along the line between us. I almost wish we had a wall to mend, but anyway I will say, "How was the winter?" And he'll answer, "Not too bad." He always does. Not too bad to bear, and not so severe as to bear mention. "Not too bad," he says. I think it means "Pretty good," but the Vermont in him keeps him from saying that.

* Steve Delaney, former host of Monitor Radio Early Edition, lives in Milton, Vt.

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