Many people think skiing defines the character of Vermont. They would be wrong, at least in the eyes of University of Vermont Professor Frank Bryan. Bryan suggests that Vermont's fundamental nature, what he calls its genetic code, was shaped by cows and small towns.
Bryan, a political scientist, spoke to the state's ski industry figures at a Ski Vermont-sponsored gathering at Mount Snow in Dover, Vt.
"You're lucky to be here," Bryan said the other day. "I'm going to tell you everything you need to know about Vermont in 30 minutes."
He described hitchhiking through the state late one night in the summer of 1974, thinking about the book he had just sent to his publisher, wishing he could redo the first chapter, in which he told the history of Vermont in 15 pages.
"I didn't have the overarching structural unity in that first chapter that would explain Vermont to someone in San Diego," he said. "A thousand pages would be easy, but 15 pages is really hard."
He heard a roaring from the mountains nearby, and realized it was the Bear Ridge Speedway in South Bradford, a dirt track where farm boys drove small cars with great big engines.
"Say there's 50 cars going around the track. There's always one car that's so backward, so technologically retarded, so far behind everybody else, that it's been lapped. When it comes around in front of the grandstand, it's ahead. That's all you need to know about Vermont. We're so far behind, and have been for 200 years, that we're ahead," Bryan said.
"The worst thing that Vermont can do is try to catch up with America," he said. "We're ahead of America. Vermont skipped the Industrial Revolution and went right into the Electronic Age."
The talk was a mix of anecdote, statistics, analysis, and wry conclusion. Bryan's basic message was that Vermont's small-town, dairy farm culture promoted a social civility that defines the state.
"This is a miserable state to live in," he said. "It's cold, harsh, depressing. For years we led the civilized world along with Sweden with the highest suicide rate."
He explained the rhythm of a year in the Green Mountain State: Vermonters noticed last week the days were longer, and began to think they could make it to Groundhog Day, and three weeks later it would be too warm to sugar, then the black flies would come out and nobody could go outside naked, then planting, and then June 21.
"June 21 is a Vermonter's worst day, because you say, ‘Damn, tomorrow winter begins'."
Bryan spoke of Vermont's Dark Age, from 1840 to 1950, when the population was stable below a million.
"For a century Vermont led America in people who didn't want to live here," he said.
People who did live here were in small towns and milked cows, or worked to support those who did.
The cows led to a gentleness of character required to induce milk production, since cows would not let down their milk under stress.
The small towns led to an enlightened neighborliness, where you stopped to help a stranded motorist since he no doubt recognized your car and would remember if you didn't help.
Other factors came into play to shape Vermont's genetic code, but those two were predominant.
Bryan said the culture is changing, that political power has shifted from small towns to large communities, that dairy farming is less important in Vermont.
"That genetic code is still with us, but we're destroying it," he said.
The ski industry and the genetic code?
"It's peripheral. It brings money in, ski in Vermont, thank God for that, but very few Vermonters skied in the old days. It took equipment that farm boys didn't have the money to buy," Bryan said. "Now, Vermont can make a lot of money out of something like this. Tax the hell out of you guys who are getting rich."
Bryan closed his talk with an observation on national politics: "The American political system was designed not to work, and is working perfectly as designed."