They burned our house in Vermont. Burned it to the ground, every joist and timber, new floors, new roof, newly painted walls, a house that had cost a fortune to build and maintain and had stood, boarded and isolated in the long winters but bursting with life in the short lovely summers, for the best part of a century. The house was the paradise of our childhood, the place my father and mother had dreamt of, that they worked for and escaped to, that healed their exiles’ grief and welcomed their friends for almost as long as I can remember. Burnt to the ground, only the fireplace left standing.
It was what we had always dreaded, especially after the break-ins started (in our early years, there were hardly ever break-ins in rural Vermont). It was why my parents refused to consider posting their land, even after our beloved beavers were trapped and their lodge destroyed. Annoy the local hunters and poachers, annoy the thieves who find not enough to take because after the third burglary everything worth taking was stored elsewhere in winter, annoy them and they might burn your house. A thin-walled all-wooden house at the end of a lonely dirt road, more than a mile from the nearest neighbour – it would go up like a tinderbox, and who would ever know?
And if people did suspect the culprits, who would tell? Not only were we city people, outsiders, but the ones with strange accents and strange habits, the foreigners. We did not do the things the former city people had done. We did not hunt, we did not fish, we did not even really drink (our first caretaker told us with great nostalgia of his drinking bouts with the New York stockbroker who built the place as a sort of glorified hunting lodge not long before the crash that wiped him out). We attended one square dance in 40 summers. A friend we shared the house with once asked a local woman to leave the berry patch in our land where we’d started to pick. “I planted these berries,” said the woman with a dignity I shall never forget. Embarrassed to tears, I begged her to stay, and we all picked together in nervous peace.
We were outsiders and remained so. Refugees from Nazi-occupied Vienna, my parents turned their bit of Vermont into an oasis of pre-war Europe. Over the summers, the cast of characters saw little change and the accents, the old country customs, remained the same – the main meal at noon, the sacrosanct afternoon nap followed by espresso, the evening stroll followed by chamber music, live or on records, the single cognac before bedtime. Nice customs but surely puzzling to the deer-hunters or fern-pickers who sometimes wandered by. We did nothing in the community except buy our groceries. The community was anyhow a good eight miles away and ignored us, I suppose, as easily as we did them. My parents did not come to be sociable, except with their nearest and dearest companions; they came to Vermont to get away.
But it was not thieves or poachers, nor resentful local poor, like the cottage-burners of Wales, who burned down our house. It was burnt, with local township permission, by the new city people who own it now. With my mother dead and my father a bedridden, paralysed stroke victim, needing money for constant skilled care, the house had to be sold at once and the house, with its flimsy walls and rambling extensions, built only for summer, was too hard to winterize. The house, we always knew, was something of a white elephant; that was why my parents and their friends had been able to buy it for a song. But to burn it? Not even dismantle it, use the timbers for building, at least the boards for firewood? I forget that anyone who can afford a large isolated property would probably only want birch logs in the fireplaces and would not think of using second-hand beams. Recycling, reclamation, costs too much. Burning is quicker, burning is cheaper. Until we count the the true cost of things – the cost of waste, pollution, loss – destruction will often be the choice way out.
To me, who loved the house, it is still an act of vandalism. There are many vandalisms, the vandalism of envy and ignorance and rage, and also that of improvers and developers, the legitimised vandalism of the rich. My family too were vandals, small-scale, unknowing vandals, but vandals just the same. They had dozens of trees chopped down simply to improve the view, they sold timber to cowboy cutters, without a thought for their forest’s health. They never learned anything but a bit of local legend about their tangled mountain slopes and abandoned, crudely stonewalled fields. And the most exciting and rewarding pastime of my Vermont summers, creating foot paths and bridle paths, reopening overgrown wagon roads and joining them with new-cut trails, was what gave later access to motorbike races and the murderous snowmobiles that wake hibernating animals and doom them to die of cold. Not to mention the poachers. It was because we loved the poetic quality of the wilderness around us that the damage we did was moderate. No one, in my childhood, thought much about ecology. It was central European romanticism that preserved 300 wild acres in an empty township that had once contained 50 families of farmers and charcoal burners, who early in the last century moved down to easier lives in the valleys below. A few old cellar holes, stone walls, the rusty remnant of a wheel or a stove, the apple trees and berry bushes gone wild, are all that attest to their long hard years.
And these early settlers were vandals too in their way. The once great Eastern Forest, with trees the pilgrims described as so huge and canopied you could ride a horse through them freely without a road, that forest went forever, in their lumber mills and charcoal kilns.
So, what matters about this particular act, this burning, is what it represents. We are now at a minute to midnight and beginning to pay for our waste and poison and clearings and burnings, for our ravaged lands. The earth does not belong to us as houses do. We belong to the earth, and the earth will not forgive us our greed. And how, when we have made a society in which it pays to burn intact houses and build again from scratch, can we ask the world’s poor to keep their forests to protect our climate, our health?
Once in a while my sister and I go when no one is in residence – which is nearly all the time – to see what the place has become. The new owners have done some good, posted the land, planted more trees – sadly, however, regular, plantation conifers. A second house has been built, a stone’s throw from the ugly new big one that now stands on our old foundation. It was built for the caretakers; only someone that near can give adequate protection to the mostly empty property. The perfect Olympic-size swimming pool has been scrapped for one of those kidney-shaped jobs beloved of resort hotels, and given a ‘pool house’ in Florida style; a baffling extravagance, since the pool is hardly three seconds downhill from the back door. The old beaver pond has been landscaped and is to be used for skating, with yet another building to shelter from the cold. Wilderness, all over America, is becoming the manicured parkland of the rich.
So why, years later do I want to tell this story now? It is 20 years since another, a great and tragic conflagration, the terrorist Twin Towers destruction of 9/11. The executive who bought, burned (I must repeat, with local government permission) and rebuilt our beloved Vermont house had an office in the Twin Towers but escaped the conflagration that day. One in that office who did not was the security guard, Rick Rescorla, a man from Cornwall where I live now. He got everyone he could to safety and died in the flames. He will be long remembered there and here. I need not repeat the truism that life makes strange connections – which now, having said I won’t repeat it, I have.