LINCOLN, VERMONT—Our town meeting was on March 2. Much of it, as always, was devoted to deploring the state of the roads. “I’ve lived here for more than seventy-five years,” growled one gentleman, “and I never seen it so bad on that stretch by the dump.” It’s true: the roads were worse than usual this winter. That stretch in particular was a frost-heaved, axle-bending rollercoaster ride.
When I think of that evening now—more than a hundred townspeople packed into one toasty room, shoulder to shoulder—it seems a very long time ago. Our lives here are paced by well-defined seasons. There’s ski season, cut short in mid-March by social-distancing guidelines. Maple sugaring season, following its natural course, has just ended. Now we are hip deep in mud season, when the snowmelt and showers churn the dirt roads into something just this side of liquid. All have flowed into an indistinct new one: lockdown season.
Vermonters are socially distanced at the best of times—which explains why local roads always seem to dominate town meeting deliberations. The roads let us live our spread-out lives, but when they’re rough or impassable, we suddenly register our isolation, our distance from what we need and those we miss.
My family lives on a very quiet road that peters out at the foot of a mountain and turns into an old logging track. It’s easy here to go days without seeing a soul. Lately, though, my neighbors have taken to the rutted roads en masse. It’s my quarantine coping strategy, too, on slow ambles with my almost-three-year-old daughter. Everyone seems relieved, reassured somehow, when we encounter one another (with the road’s width safely between us), our dogs straining at their leashes, trying to pull us together.
We are far from the pandemic’s front lines. But no one, of course, is immune. Last week, I walked down our driveway and found our recently retired mailman pulling taps out of the sugar maples. He collects sap from neighbors’ trees up and down our road.
“The season’s pretty much done,” he said, and as he worked, he talked about his daughter, a nurse in a local hospital, and his wife, a cancer survivor and so at high risk. He worries about their potential exposure. His daughter had had a fever last month, but tested negative. I asked if she was anxious about going back to work. “It’s the job,” he said with a shrug.
He carried the mail along these dirt roads for three decades. Especially for the elderly folks living alone in these hills, his daily arrival was a lifeline. Last summer, on his last day, people came out of their homes to send him off with cakes and cards. A couple of gruff old guys even asked permission to give him a hug
A few days after we spoke, I read that the president is rejecting calls to rescue the Postal Service—with its revenue stream evaporating, it could go bankrupt by this fall—and resisting efforts to ensure we can all vote by mail in November. I can’t say whom my former mailman voted for. He has a prominent NRA sticker on his truck; I know that he detests government regulations. But I read these reports and wonder what—after more than half a lifetime threading this muddy route, weaving people together on these lonely roads—he makes of it all.
Walking the sodden woods and roads with my daughter, I try but mostly fail to overcome the compulsion to keep checking my phone. Still, I’ve set myself the project of training my attention the way she does, downward and all around. On a walk to the mailbox, she loses herself for several blissful minutes, stepping in and out of a perfectly circular, coffee-colored puddle on our road. She notices spring’s reliable signs of life: a bright red partridgeberry popping out of the cold ground, buds poking out of birch saplings. She has become expert at spotting the rope-shaped droppings of coyotes and foxes.
Not long ago, in the woods above our house, we found a basketball-sized hole in the ground with a heap of fresh dirt piled nearby: a fox den. We set up a trail camera and waited. The grainy photos tell a tale of domesticity and danger: the male with a fresh catch, the female peering from atop the dirt mound. She has likely had her kits by now. They will emerge in a month. Until then, they will stay quarantined, and with good reason: most nights, two large coyotes come to prowl, sniffing around the den for a meal, or asserting their territorial rights.
I study the images, ponder the poor odds facing the hidden kits, and think of a passage from Robert Frost’s Notebooks: “Dark as it is that there are these sorrows and darker still that we can do so little to get rid of them… the darkest is that perhaps we ought not to want to get rid of them. What life… craves most is signs of life.”
Last week, the wood frogs woke up. I alerted my daughter to their song. The frogs spend the winter in suspended animation. Most of the water in their bodies freezes solid. Then, one night in April, they come back to life. They make their way to pools and ponds, calling out in search of mates. Their egg-laying window is brief.
The seasons march on, for frogs and foxes, even as our own period of suspended animation stretches out before us, indefinitely.
Jonathan Mingle is a former Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism. He is the author of Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World. (September 2019)