Cabot, Vermont | Where the Heart Rubs Against the Place
My great-aunt Hope, who visited all 50 states after she and Uncle Bill had retired, once told me that she’d rather read a map than a novel any day. She would have loved DeLorme’s Vermont Atlas & Gazetteer. Take page 47, for example: On it she could have found some of Cabot’s main characters–Menard Road, Urban Road, Churchill Road–all named for families here. Then there’s a theme: Houston Hill Road, Danville Hill Road, Bothfeld Hill Road, West Hill Pond Road. And then, of course, there’s the beginning of the map: If you’re reading left to right, the story starts in Elmore, Calais, Woodbury, and Marshfield; proceeds through Lower Cabot, Cabot proper, Cabot Plains, and East Cabot; and ends in Hardwick and Walden. But of course there are hundreds of ways to read a map, and therein lay my great-aunt’s joy: the territory, the joy of investigating the mystery of a place.
As a writer for the Cabot Chronicle, a small monthly newspaper serving a town known more for its cheddar than for the 1,400 folks who call it home, I’ve begun to investigate the mystery of place, joyfully reading routes as if they were chapters, poring over dozens of hand-drawn maps. In “Our Town,” the “sense of place” column I curated for the paper in 2010-11, we published homemade maps of distinctive and personally significant places in Cabot. Created by students, artists, farmers, mothers, historians, and others, these maps documented an understanding of what, specifically, they loved about the roughly 36 square miles of fields, woods, hills, ponds, and roads that Cabot comprises.
Although the Atlas & Gazetteer is handy when you’re driving around–it’s got the proper names of town roads, the elevations of hills, demarcations of county lines–it is, in some ways, a fairly sterile document. Hand-drawn maps, though, can express something deeper: the personal connections Cabotians have with their physical landscape, the myriad details that go unknown or overlooked by outsiders yet form the essence of Cabot.
In Cabot’s charter, dating back to 1781, there’s a lengthy paragraph describing the entire 6-by-6-mile parcel. It reads, in part: “Beginning at a stake & Stones near a Maple Tree Marked No. 21, Standing on the north side of a Hill; Thence running south 54 D° East, six Miles to a beach [sic] Tree Marked Cabot Corner …” Basically, the entire surveyed tract of Cabot was defined by four corner trees: a maple, a beech, a hemlock, and a birch. And now, all that’s left of those trees are their names.
Luckily we have a map. Sometime between 1790 and 1810 by historians’ guess, Samuel Chandler Crafts (future Vermont governor and senator) dabbed his pen in black ink and drew up the settlement plots of the Cabot land grant. Then he used emerald-green ink for the ponds, creeks, and river. To simulate the dirt roads and main footpaths, he made tiny dotted lines. “Wow, it looks like an Excel spreadsheet,” one observer said of the identical 1-mile-by-half-mile boxes covering the map. Crafts’ lines are flawless and precise, as each of the 72 rectangles has a number and a man’s name inside. This 200-year-old map lives in a calfskin book of other town maps in a vault at the Vermont History Center’s Leahy Library in Barre. I felt like an archaeologist brushing off a dusty find when I deduced that the Chronicle‘s long table rests squarely on a parcel first assigned to one Ezekiel Tiffany. When I shared this tidbit at our editorial meeting, no one looked amazed. Their faces said, So what?
Maybe Ezekiel just didn’t seem real to them, lost as he was under the centuries. And so I began to wonder: What happens to landscapes whose history is lost or unknown? And what happens to landscapes whose histories are known and celebrated? What happens when you realize that you’re a part of the epic story of a place’s continuum?
Ethan and Jonah Socks, brothers ages 4 and 6, respectively, are two recent additions to Cabot’s continuum. When they drew their home near Danville Hill, they included particulars such as “the place where we found a giant spider”; the pond with ice that “looks like it has wrinkled green house plastic” on it; that “weird gate” in the woods; the big rock and the little rock by the pond; the car and the trailer; and, finally, the X support beams stabilizing the house’s front door. Ethan’s map is faithful to the specific elements of the house (side-door steps, chimney, windows), while Jonah’s map encompasses more; he adds the woods, the neighbor’s land, a friend’s house, a few roads, even the library, in the same building as the town offices. When they presented their charted terrains, Ethan and Jonah realized some things they hadn’t included. “I forgot the sandbox,” Jonah admitted. Also omitted were the treehouse, the garden, the apple trees–and yet they captured what was most important to each of them about their place at that moment: a home with chickens, a pond with new islands of ice, some great trees, and a Really Big Spider.
“The fun part is putting in the details,” said 9-year-old Gage Hale, who lives on a big hill in Cabot. Indeed, Gage’s map is riddled with details: his best climbing tree, a cedar by his house; the field that in spring and summer is filled with cows; the strands of barbed fence that keep the cows from ravishing his mother’s rosebushes; an X to mark his bedroom in the house; and a tiny oval over the garage: the sign from his grandfather’s former Westwinds Bookshop in Duxbury, Massachusetts, depicting clouds and sea. As our project progressed, map by map, I saw how these nearly trivial particulars revealed where the heart rubs against the place. As Gage and I stared for many quiet minutes at his map, I had a hope that it, or at least the making of it, would serve him in the future when, as a grownup, he’ll begin to decide the fate of landscapes, of places.
Instead of denoting each Main Street business, 12-year-old Maya Morse’s map, full of dots and bold thoroughfares, shows us exactly where to buy Starbursts and chocolate bars–and then the best place to consume them. Hers is a map of happiness. And 13-year-old Donavan Bigelow’s map also shows where his joy lies: Along the town’s utilitarian roads and privately owned yards, his map charts a kingdom of play, with the best places to kick a soccer ball, ride a bike, and drive a snowmobile all vividly inscribed.