Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Sense of Place: Vermont Farms, Gregory Sharrow

Gregory Sharrow, photo courtesy of Williams College.
It will take a few weeks to catch up with the history-related events that took place in our region during the first week of August! So here are a few notes from the shortest and easiest to summarize: the talk given by Gregory Sharrow of the Vermont Folklife Center, at Old Home Day in Lunenburg, Vermont, on Sunday August 2 at the town's primary school.

Here is the summary from the Humanities Council, which co-sponsored the talk:
A Sense of Place: Vermont's Farm Legacy. The character of a place is shaped by its cultural heritage and folklife, the informal traditions of family and community that guide the ways in which a person plans a meal, treats a neighbor, or understands civic responsibility. In Vermont the cultural legacy of farming has strongly influenced the identity of Vermonters, and it is these distinctive traditions, which have persisted even with the decline in farm numbers, that help make the state unique. This lecture by Gregory Sharrow explores the fabric of farm culture in the past and probes its relationship to the world of Vermont today.
Sharrow collected oral history from about 500 Vermonters during the late 1980s and 1990s; in our region he interviewed dairy farmers Wayne and Edie Patenaude in East St. Johnsbury at Locust Grove Farm. He did not bring the Patenaude recordings, but played parts of several others to illustrate three concepts that he wanted to emphasize:

* Palimpsest. This is a term used for early manuscripts where writing was repeatedly erased in order to re-use the vellum or other flat substance -- but every use left some trace on the "page." Sharrow sees Vermont farms this way: with evidence of changing use.

* Sense of Place. For Sharrow, this is "the thing that anchors you in a web of experience and meaning." He illustrated it with farm choices and traditions that are particular to Vermont.

* Oral History. Sharrow and fellow oral historian Jane Beck use a form of listening to local residents that rarely involves questions or direction -- more, letting the person talk at length about his or her topic. He presented one farm woman's explanation of making butter, from milking to stamping.

Sharrow also described a question he had used to understand people's relationships with their neighbors: "Do you live in a neighborhood? Who else is in your neighborhood?" With this, he found the clusters of people who help each other on the seasonal tasks that could otherwise take too much cash and expense out of the farm cycle. He cited the book Changing Works by Douglas Harper as initiating this idea and giving examples, and the fifteen people in the audience provided some in exchange, as they recalled group efforts for haying, for instance, as well as kitchen tunks (aka kitchen junkets), musical gatherings in the neighborhood. Gary Fournier and others of the Lunenburg Historical Society added examples of this locally, especially for the region known as West Neighborhood -- proving Sharrow's point locally.

Who are your neighbors? Do you see them less often now than you did a decade ago? That's what many people in the audience talked about. It's an interesting way to look at the changes in our current history and heritage.

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