Refuge

Wolf Kahn, Dark on the Right (detail), 2009, oil on canvas, 24″ x 26″. From the cover of The Farm in the Green Mountains.

When I first read Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s The Farm in the Green Mountains, a blustering butthole had just been elected president of the United States of America, and everyone was freaking out. Via any number of platforms on any number of screens, there was a cacophony of anxiety and grandstanding and myopia and rage and despair such as I have never seen, or maybe the sheer number of platforms and screens were the never-before-seen entity. Regardless, things seemed to be turning faster and faster in some widening gyre, to borrow a phrase from Yeats, who didn’t know the half of it. So it came to pass that I found great comfort in the voice of Auntie Al, as I came to think of the indomitable Herdan-Zuckmayer (I can’t imagine she’d mind).

It was, in other words, just the right book at just the right time. 

Exiled from Germany at the start of World War II, when the murderous fascist dictator of the hour didn’t take kindly to her famous playwright husband (“Zuck”)’s satirical critiques, left cold by stints in New York (“We saw everything, we went everywhere, but never found ourselves”) and Los Angeles (Zuck didn’t want to write tripe for the movies), Alice and Zuck find their way to the titular 193-acre farm in the “green mountains” of Vermont.

These were urbane sophisticates, mind you. These were celebrated artists with connections and good clothes. These were not people who know farming. They had no clue if or when they might ever return “home.” The very idea of home had become impossibly muddled, if not permanently eradicated. They were emigrants. They were immigrants. They had no choice. They had to find themselves a new home, and they had to get to work. They chose the farm in Vermont. They got to work.

“It was the usual course,” Alice says. “One had no right to be an exception.”

She refuses to be exceptional; this is one of the things that make her exceptional. There’s no grandstanding here, no hand wringing, no self-pity. These twenty vignettes started out as letters to her in-laws, back in Germany: updates, explanations, that’s all. She is practical, sensible, and “without illusion.” How utterly refreshing.

The Zuckmayers learn by necessity. They learn by doing. They acquire domestic animals (cats, dogs) and farm animals (chickens, geese, ducks, pigs, goats). They figure out feed and disease and shelter and care. They chop wood and they tend fire. They navigate dense woods and icy, snowy, muddy dirt roads. They obey the rules set forth by the seasons, the weather, the landscape, their rural community, the animals, and the land itself. They plant crops for sale and vegetables for their own sustenance. They harvest and slaughter and cook and clean. They bake and sew. They fight a harrowing infestation of rats. They take instruction from USDA pamphlets and from friendly neighbors. Farm life turns out to be a never-ending cascade of chores. Back breaking, spirit-bending labor. But “making the best of a difficult situation” is what New Englanders do, apparently, and so Auntie Al fits right in. She does the very best she can with what she has. She gets by on a sense of wonder and curiosity. These are old-fashioned ideals, by which I mean essential and revolutionary. She’s what my Yiddish grandmother would’ve called a “shtarker”: a hippie before there was any such thing. Open-minded and up for anything. DIY before DIY was a marketing ploy.

I fell hard for her spirit (hence the audacity of a nickname). She has a real lot to teach us. Such as, for starters: The hardest times in life are often tangled up with the happiest. What is most difficult can be most rewarding. “Progress” is never simple or wholly positive. Sometimes when we lose, we gain, and when we gain, we lose. Our fears and joys are bound up inextricably, pleasure in pain and pain in pleasure, and our efforts to detangle and isolate human experience can leave us confused and depressed. Happiness means choosing to be productive and optimistic, recognizing despair for the ancient parasite that it is, and outsmarting it.

Alice never mentions the name of that insane murderous fascist dictator back in Germany, by the way. She barely discusses the cultural framework that enabled said murderous fascist dictator and set in motion her own exile. “The situation,” she calls it. “Current circumstances.” In another context this might be irritating, to say the least: call it what it is, lady! Millions upon millions of people in Europe are concurrently being systematically murdered while you wax on about the pigs and the poultry and the party line and the road conditions in Vermont! But we have a lot of literature already, don’t we, about the millions upon millions, about the systematic murder. What we have less of, what we have never enough of, actually, is literature like this: literature about what to do instead. Literature about embodying an alternative, creating something from nothing, inhabiting one’s life fully, no matter how far circumstances deviate from expectation. Behold how, from blood and sweat and tears and toil, a livable, sustainable, eminently sane life can be forged.

“A change for the better can happen,” Auntie Al muses, “a change that won’t come from common sources, like the government, nor from indefinite sources, like historical developments, but can and will proceed from individuals.” If there is a comforting thought to be had in these dark times (and all times are dark, are they not? Some admittedly darker than others, but I’m not in the business of relativism), surely it’s this. Or, as the sages of Pirkei Avot put it: It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but neither are you free to desist from it. The wood always needs chopping. The furnace always needs tending. The animals always need feeding. The goats always need milking. The floor always needs washing. Things always, always need doing with hands, with bodies, in the physical realm. Always.

“This endlessly repetitive, primitive process of accomplishment was a greater protection against care, anxiety, and fear for one’s life than the application of all manner of understanding, reason, and religion,” she observes. An idea whose time has come yet again, as we slowly tire of staring at never-ending streams of ads and personal PR campaigns, liking, liking, loving, favoriting, liking, buying, not liking, liking, not liking, liking some more, and wondering half-heartedly why everything seems at once so trite and so dire.

Resistance can take many forms. Sometimes resistance means simply turning away and busying oneself elsewhere. Think of stressed insomniac social-media addicts “discovering” the Danish tradition of Hygge, wherein it’s reportedly nice to sit around the fire with loved ones, eat home-cooked meals, and talk to one another.

But as we squirm in our own dystopia, squint at dystopias past, and tremble in fear at the dystopias that lie in wait, let us not get carried away by romantic notions of the pastoral (adj: Having the simplicity, charm, serenity, or other characteristics generally attributed to rural areas).

“We took care of the pipes like babies, the animals like children, and the stoves like tempermental animals. Wood was sacred. We stood at the center of everything, and to survive we had to be watchman, caretaker, and protector, constantly blocking a return to chaos,” Alice recalls. Nature’s no warm blankie. So how was it that she managed to find in every hardship an opportunity, in every setback a gift, in every unforeseen problem an adventure, in every new obstacle a good story to tell later? Could nothing get this woman down?!

The intricacies of the Zuckmayers’ days, the ins and outs of life on the farm as it is learned and lived by these unlikely inhabitants: this is superficially what The Farm in the Green Mountains is about. On a deeper level, it’s a story of perseverance, protection, heroism, and joy. Refuge is the heart of this impossibly rich book. The farm is Alice’s refuge, and Alice’s recounting of it became my own. Never mind that she’s on the run from murderous fascist apes amidst a world war while I’m on the run from Facebook. And never mind the fact that behind the facade of the pastoral is the wild brutality of Nature. (Which we’ve worked so long and hard to dominate! So that we may now bemoan its decline! LOLZ.)

Meanwhile, Alice carries on a surprising love affair with the history of the early Middle Ages, undertaking grueling and giddy weekly journeys to and from the Dartmouth College library so she can sit and study for her own singular pleasure, a sweet reprieve from the endless farm chores. Just the way to the library, an ordeal unto itself, gets its very own chapter, immensely endearing for what it reveals about so many of us in this raggedy, time-traveling tribe of book lovers. “The meaning is in the books,” she writes, “stored up as a latent energy, and the important thing is to carry this energy over into life and make it useful to living people.” So lovingly does she speak about the library that I feel it as yet another refuge, having never set foot in it. (I’d love to hear from the librarians and students at Darmouth about how her rendering holds up. Also, respectfully, regarding the history and founding of the college itself, the “savage” Native Americans were never in need of “taming” or conversion to Christianity, but I suppose one’s refuge is inevitably another’s ruin.)

For a biblical seven years, the Zuckmayers live and work on the farm. Then the war is over and it’s time to go see what remains of the cities, friends, and relatives back “home.” They return to find unimaginable destruction, the aftermath like “tender skin that begins to grow over infected wounds.” Alice isn’t foolish enough to imagine that life will ever be the same again. The murderous fascist elements of society “are just waiting for a new era of insanity, when crimes will again be legally permitted and the mentally ill will again achieve power and honor.”

Still, the sun will rise and set. Winter will follow fall will follow summer will follow spring will follow winter. Death and decay will spare no living thing; creation and destruction will continue to exist in perpetual cycles. Folksy wisdom, you might say, but don’t tell me it isn’t resonant when the dystopias are scratching and slobbering at the door.

There is no such thing as a long time ago in America, Alice observes at one point, and it’s not hard to see why the Zuckmayers hold fast to living here. Immigrants, we’re told, often describe their acclimation as a kind of “second childhood.” Within what is projected as the “simplicity and independence” of their adopted homeland, the Zuckmayers seem to have had a particularly happy one: “We have suffered no real disappointments, for if you accept people and things as they are you cannot be disappointed.” Truth bomb, Auntie Al.

The farm is both a literal and metaphoric refuge, where the madness and brutality of a deranged world can’t touch us, because we are so removed, so utterly reliant upon ourselves, and so thoroughly beholden to our work, our responsibilities. Our toil is our treasure; the landscape is our home. The best can be made of literally anything, at any time.

And so the emergence of a new massive highway right alongside the farm in the 1950s—when America was on its postwar progress, progress, progress kick—feels like a knife in the heart. “The farm is now easy to reach,” Alice informs us sadly in her postscript.

Because it wasn’t supposed to be easy! It was supposed to be hard. Intensely, gloriously, redemptively, all-consumingly hard. Who came up with the idea that anything’s supposed to be easy? Refuge is a full time job, make no mistake. Whatever are we to do with ourselves now? Wherever shall we go?

This essay appears as the introduction to New York Review Books’ new edition of Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s The Farm in the Green Mountains.

Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and How This Night Is Different, and the editor of Freud’s Blind Spot.

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