Vermont: The Matter of an Old Barn
What about hiring out the repairs? Here’s the obvious solution, one I’ve investigated. I’m told that for $100,000 my barn could be transformed from a standing reproach into a very plausible ruin. To me that seems like a good deal of money. It’s true, however, that others take a different view. Visitors shake their heads at the disgraceful state of the barn and deplore my neglect of it. When I explain the economics of the situation, however, and ask for their contributions, they change the subject.
A third solution to my dilemma has been suggested to me, one that reverses the terms of the last in my favor. I don’t pay the barn’s rescuers; they pay me. Very old, hand-hewn framing timbers, and the weathered pine siding boards that go with them, have value. High-priced builders, renovators, and interior designers prize them as décor for rich clients in other parts of the country. Why not advertise my barn for sale? The buyer breaks the barn down and takes it off my hands. I cash his check.
Here, plainly, is where the smart money is. But I don’t like the idea. My barn has stood (or slouched) on this spot, in use and disuse, for two centuries. It doesn’t seem right to ship it off to the Hamptons or someplace like an old horse to the glue factory, in exchange for a few pieces of silver. Sentiment forbids.
A last remedy has occurred to me, one that requires no real effort on my part and costs only the price of a half-gallon of kerosene and a kitchen match. I wouldn’t even have to buy the kerosene. Volunteer fire departments in these parts are willing to stage controlled burns of derelict structures for the benefit of their members. They call it training. I call it an elegant and utterly final way out of my predicament–but it’s a way I’m not ready to take. Not yet.
For the present, I persist in neglect. My barn, I’m sure, might suffer worse fates. After all, rural New England, as a setting, and in particular Vermont, haven’t done at all badly from neglect. Much of the atmosphere, much of the spirit, of our region derives from the fact that it’s been a backwater, out of the main current of the American future as it has unfolded, out of the range of the population as it has increased and migrated. Vermont proves that neglect can be not only survivable but a blessing.
Neglect also has the advantage of suspending an awkward question that lurks behind the matter of the barn’s disposition: not only What is to become of this barn? but also What ought to become of it? The issue goes beyond cost and convenience. It promptly moves into deeper waters. Murky, turbulent waters. Philosophical waters. A well-considered conservatism would seem to uphold two principles that aren’t always compatible: preservation and practice.
Preserving the barn would be, for me, primarily a gesture of respect for the past. Now, respect for the past is part of the mindset of every thoughtful person, and it implies a measure of susceptibility to the claims of whatever is old, tried, well-used. That susceptibility I admit to–indeed, I wouldn’t be without it. But you can take it too far. At the end of the day, I’m not a farmer. I haven’t much use for a barn. Having to rank preservation and practice in a real case, in a matter of your own, shows you what’s important to you. Nobody says you have to like what you see.
What is to become of this barn? What ought to become of it? To the latter question I don’t have an answer, but to the first the answer is clear. In the end, time runs the show, because in a manner of speaking, it is the show. For all its long endurance, my barn won’t stand forever. In fact, as I look at it today, I’m with my late advisor: I don’t see how the thing can make it through the coming winter. I wouldn’t bet against it, though.