Peter Gould has a strong sense of place. And time. For more than 40 years now, Gould, a well-known writer, teacher, activist and theater director, has called Vermont home. While his previous writing has been fiction — “Burnt Toast,” “Write Naked” and “Marley” — his latest project is a beautiful step into nonfiction. Gould is a consummate observer, and what he has gleaned over decades is now a delightful walk in another man’s hard-worked shoes through the back-to-the-land movement that came to define a certain path across Vermont.
“Horse-Drawn Yogurt: Stories from Total Loss Farm” is not only a journey into the inner workings of a Vermont farm in Brattleboro, but also to a time of instability: Vietnam. The book, published by Green Writers Press, traces the steps taken by a then-younger Gould, who worked to balance the peace of communal farm life with the struggles that were tearing apart American politics and morale: war.
According to his own website, Gould’s publisher writes, ”You’ll learn how locals and newcomers helped each other out in a pivotal moment of history. You’ll find out how young people, new to the land, learned how to tend gardens, animals, and fields, while belonging to a national movement against the Vietnam war and for peace and justice around the world.” The book is 18 stories, told in chronological order. They interconnect in creative and thoughtful ways, often introducing the landscape itself as a character. There is humor and whimsy, but the stories also can be gritty and highly critical of that time. The juxtaposition between peace and war is expertly given life through actions of work and play. All but one of the stories are true, according to Gould.
In an interview last week, Gould described the impetus. For years, his wife encouraged him to put down on paper the myriad stories he has spent years telling. A few of them have been told and retold many times, and Gould as raconteur has performed them at various events around Vermont. More than a few of them didn’t make the cut for this particular telling. And a few, like repairing patches in a quilt, were written in the last year to maintain the thread of Gould’s chronology.
What is obvious upon reading is that Gould is an optimist. He does not dog pile either what happened during the Vietnam War years nor today’s indelicate times. The focus always comes back to working, observing, understanding, learning and adapting. Some of those lessons are told through moments of mechanical challenges, loss, and more than a few scares. But Gould emerges head high, a quip at the ready.
The struggles of today are not lost on Gould. In fact, they are front of brain.
In his introduction, titled “A Sunny Day,” he writes, “I’m thinking about how to lead us into this book of stories, finished and assembled during a frightening time. There is so much intolerance abroad in our land; the stockade within which we live is growing tighter, more secured by confusion, technology, demagoguery, and fear of the other.” Gould points to the touchstones of our state as signs of the “good that stands against this tendency,” including: successful co-ops, organic agriculture, CSAs, farm-totable food, farmers markets, craft brews, artisan cheeses, and more.
“Back in the 1970s, when we took a moment to look up from where we were working, we often did something called ‘striving to understand.’ ... I’m doing that today; and also seizing hold of a memory, trying to get it right,” Gould writes.
And if a heartfelt personal journey is not enough to inspire you as a reader, there are even a few poems, author-penned illustrations and a pie recipe.
Gould was also the 2016 recipient of the Vermont Arts Council and Governor’s Award in Arts Education. He can be seen each year leading the Strolling of the Heifers (usually donning a red clown nose), or conducting theater camps, notably a Shakespeare camp at Highgate Apartments in Barre each summer.
On June 14, from 7 to 9 p.m., Gould will be doing a reading and book signing at Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro.
Steven M. Pappas is the editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald.