Visiting Montreal is always enjoyable, even if the many overlapping conferences that are part of every year’s so-called Learneds kept me busier than I wanted to be. But there’s something about the trip back down to Vermont that has grown on me over the last seven years since I moved here. It’s not the border — I hate borders, and don’t much like customs officials. The one last night was as unlikable as they get (though I generally just get waved through after a moment’s perusal of my passport and green card). There was, however, the time when I first arrived at that border after finally receiving my green card (years after I should have, my application having gotten lost for far too long in some administrative black hole). The customs official looked at the fresh document, smiled at me — actually smiled, as much as a border official can (or did I imagine that?) — and said, understatedly, “Welcome home.”
Home. (???!) I thanked him and drove off, keeping my Canadian discomfort under wraps, not sure what that exchange had meant. But something in me shifted, and softened, that day.
Home, however, is not marked and enclosed by a border. I had grown up identified with the Trudeauian project (not really his, I know, but he wasn’t a bad symbol of it) of a welcoming, cosmopolitan Canada, a place of safe and lively cities, an embracing social safety net, endless wilderness, and a diversity both biotic and cultural, full of spliced/hyphenated ethnics like myself, uprooted from war-torn pasts and thrown into a dizzying but comfortable modernity. So I had obvious doubts that I could ever identify with “America” or even some small piece of it. But Vermont is different. Despite its overwhelming whiteness (at least outside the Burlington area and a smattering of other towns), Vermont grows on you ineluctably. Sure, the landscape impresses from the outset, and the liberal politics are deservedly well known. But there’s more to it, and the drive from Montreal has come to symbolize that for me.
Crossing the Champlain Bridge across the St. Lawrence can be maddening in rush-hour traffic. The roads out of Montreal are just your typical 4-6 lane highways, but they soon turn into a two-lane road that meanders through the agricultural flatness of southern Quebecois sweet-corn country, punctuated with one-‘gaz’-station towns and the occasional exurban strip club. The Quebecois seem to have little interest in making this road attractive for foreigners. And I can’t help thinking: if this were Europe, Montreal and Burlington would have a 45-minute high-speed train connection. The only rail line that runs in a straight line up the Lake Champlain coast is the one they converted into a bike path several years ago. Um, choose one: your left hand or your right hand.
But as you finally come close to the border, you realize something has changed: the farms have been replaced by a hilly green woodsiness. When you cross, you are in mountains. Big agriculture has, over a transitional few miles, disappeared into a barely legible landscape of relatively unformatted green.
That green can sometimes get a little overwhelming (and not just because there isn’t a billboard in sight; they’re not allowed). It is, after all, second-growth forest, grown on former sheep farms after the late nineteenth-century northern New England economy collapsed and forced its inhabitants to abandon their homes and go west, young man, in search of employment and better options. Vermont, gradually, became a Vermont of the tourist, for the tourist, and by the (transplanted) tourist.
But some of the farmers stayed on all the while, and others joined them (notably at the end of 1960s), resulting in the weird blend of backwoods redneck-hippiedom one now finds in places like Hardwick (epicenter of the artisanal/organic rural sustainabity movement), Craftsbury, Walden, Woodbury, Jericho, and so many others.
Even if there’s still a lingering resistance to the liberals in Burlington and Montpelier (the smallest state capital in the nation), which gets expressed in movements like “Take Back Vermont” after the same-sex unions law passed ten years ago (first state in the nation to do that), there’s much more of a live-and-let-live ethic that, while not slobbering over newcomers with warm and passionate embraces, lets them come in and settle. Like the 300 ethnic Nepali refugees from Bhutan, who are less than happy about Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness commissioner visiting for this week’s conference on the GNH Project; or the Somalis, Sudanese, Ugandans, Tibetans, Bosnians, Iraqis, and others who’ve made Burlington their home in the last twenty years or so. Or those same hippies…
Or the funky bistro my partner and I chanced upon last weekend where the manager enthusiastically announced that a celebrity — “you might not have heard of her” — was going to be there for dinner in a short while. That celebrity was Rachel Maddow (!), visiting on a Memorial Day weekend fishing vacation. (Where else would the most politically astute lesbian media celebrity go to fish? We had to tell the restaurateurs that Rachel loves Angostura bitters, which they promptly ordered from the well supplied local liquor store.)
Thinking about John Perkins’ line that “we cannot have homeland security unless we understand that the whole planet is our homeland,” I’m also wanting to add that the relationship one develops with a place, even when the “one” starts out as a nomadic academic following a job offer, must also be part of that sense of homeland, the one mirroring the other and vice versa. In a world where borders mainly serve to stratify, the very idea of “homeland” can easily exacerbate that stratification. Our task is to smoothen it by making the place where we live, and the whole planet, a secure and accommodating homeland, for us and the others we share them with.