Best Person Rural: Essays of a Sometime Farmer, by Noel Perrin; selected, with an introduction by Terry Osborne, David R. Godine, $24.95
In the last piece in this posthumous collection of essays about rural life, Noel Perrin says goodbye to the farm that had been both where he lived and what he wrote about for more than 40 years. Characteristically, Perrin calls the essay “Farewell to a Thetford Farm,” as though the reader might not know which farm he meant. He would never have referred to it as “my” farm, given his sense of the long history of its fields, its stone walls, its house built of local brick. Given, too, his determination, as his growing understanding of the land led him into an urgent environmentalism, to protect the farm from development in perpetuity, whatever that means in practical terms. But considering the four collections of essays about New England farm life that preceded this one, beginning with First Person Rural in 1978, he might have assumed it was safe to use the definite article in describing the farm this one last time for his readers.
Why the last time? Because the farm was being sold. Perrin was suffering from what he called “a remarkably unpleasant version of Parkinson’s disease,” and the progress of the illness had left him sufficiently debilitated to need assisted living. He died at age 77 two years ago.
I began to know that Thetford farm as a reader soon after the first collection came out, but when I came to know Ned (as his friends called him), I had the chance to visit the farm in person as well. Here was the famous covered bridge just before you reached Ned’s 85 acres, then the red sugarhouse he had built himself out of recycled barn boards, the old, Federal-style residence perhaps too close to the road, the sloped private field behind the house. Across the lane and beyond the stone walls, which Ned spent decades repairing and adding to, was Bill Hill, where, after an easy climb, panoramic views of the Vermont countryside await. The farm was as beautiful as the essays claim, the house less so, especially inside, where despite its warm brick façade it was as cold and cramped as you’d expect a New England farmhouse to be. When I saw Ned elsewhere, he was the clean-of-fingernails Dartmouth College professor; at home he was grimier, a man who worked with his hands and tramped across his cow fields without much concern about what he was stepping in.
The directness of Ned’s prose drew me to him first as a reader, then as an editor, but once I got to know Ned himself I realized that his puckishness in person was also part of his charm as a writer. He wrote dozens of book reviews for me here and there, a number of essays about forgotten books, and even an essay or two in his rural mode. We also exchanged scores of letters and notes in a time before e-mail. His notes to me had two themes: When was I going to buy a piece of land in the country, as I’d told him I wanted to? (Never, as it turned out.) And why wasn’t I writing more? At his urging, I wrote a novel that only he and perhaps five other people ever read, but for most of the last two decades I knew him, he spoke to me of the novel’s main character as if she were a real person. A generous friend.
Late in life, Ned met and married the love of his life, the writer Anne Spencer Lindbergh. One of his best essays, “A House, a Hill, a Horse, and a Husband,” reprinted in Best Person Rural, tells the story of their relationship. Anne had a farm about 50 miles north of Ned’s, a farm she was as reluctant to leave as Ned was his. They compromised by buying a third place in between, which they called Middle Farm. There they built a small cabin that became not only a meeting place, but also a sort of objective correlative of their love. It’s a romantic story, even including its premature ending with Anne’s death from cancer five years after they met. I always wanted Ned to turn the story of Middle Farm into a book, but he didn’t have the heart for it.
Now I hardly have the heart to try to sum up Ned as a writer. He worked on a small canvas, but he brought so much passion, intelligence, and good humor to his subject that his scope doesn’t matter. I’m struck on rereading the pieces in Best Person Rural by how often he found his quiet country life to be filled with ethical challenges and dilemmas. Long before the age of the hybrid, he was perhaps the only sometime farmer in Vermont to drive an electric car to work. Before that, he spent $2,000 (and he spent his money as carefully as any full-time farmer) on an electric winch for his truck, mainly so he could pull his neighbors out of ditches in winter. In big moments and small, we see Ned pondering what the right thing to do is. He almost never tells us what we should do. He was a lovely writer and a lovely man, and thanks to this collection and the earlier ones, Ned and a certain farm in Thetford can, after all, be together in perpetuity.