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Jack Zaleski, Published December 07 2013

Zaleski: The joy and wonder of a rural place

Chelsea, Vt. - One of the tragedies of the nation is loss of the rural lifestyle. Even in western North Dakota, where it was assumed until a few years ago the rangelands, buttes and prairies would be rural forever, the industrialization of the landscape wrought by oil development has changed everything, likely permanently.

It’s not happening everywhere. Here in the bucolic landscape of the Green Mountain State, people who really want to live the rural life – even if once city dwellers – can. It’s no idyll. It’s no back-to-the-land elitist showboating. To live it means work of the kind previous generations of country people did routinely. It means getting close to the regularly unpleasant side of nature, livestock and growing food.

My triplet granddaughters are country girls. With their mother, they are raising a few sheep. They’ll add more when the girls are older. Last summer they tended a garden that will get larger as they grow into the work.

The old house is heated with wood, so they know what it takes to bring in a winter’s supply of split and stacked firewood. I’ve spent good times with them in the woodlot. They work as hard as their little muscles will allow – all smiles and satisfaction as the cords add up.

The family buys beef pastured on land not far from the house. The girls understand the cycle of life as it applies to animals raised for food. (We did steaks on the grill and the girls knew the name of the source cow: Big Momma.)

They are beginning to grasp how a forest can be managed with selective logging, even as it thrives and provides habitat for all manner of woodland creatures. They feel seasonal changes as close-up participants in nature’s pageant.

And to my surprise, they are beginning to understand the role of hunting in wildlife management. A friend of their mother bagged a beautiful buck on the last day of the deer season. He field dressed it and dragged it over the snow into the yard. The girls were intrigued, not only by the lustrous black-brown coat on the antlered animal but also by its death. They listened attentively to the hunter’s account, which was laced with respect for the deer. The lesson will go a long way toward countering the popular Bambi-itis that distorts perceptions of hunting.

It might be the girls will have had it up to their muddy knees with rural life by the time they are in high school and college. Maybe the big city will beckon, as it has to generations of kids in rural America.

But unlike the overwhelming majority of young people, they will have had a marvelous childhood in a wondrous place. They will have learned from experience how food gets to the table; how death and renewal in the wild are integral to life. They will have seen, not in nature films but in the woodlands and meadows that is their backyard, the how and why and where of wild things. They will have marveled at a spring fiddlehead fern in the woods, and salamander egg jelly pods in a pond, or a trout in a rushing mountain book, or ruffed grouse drumming outside their window.

No matter what the future holds for them, they will have all that. Nothing can take it from them. For me, it’s all joy and pride as I watch them learn, their eyes wide with wonder.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.