Editor’s note: David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.
The trail leads up from a road in Salisbury through private land to a meadow overlooking a pond and, in the distance, a grand view of the Adirondacks. Above the meadow, the trail heads into woods where, in springtime, a small stream rushes down the mountainside. Further on, a waterfall cascades down a rocky slope; in spring the moist forest floor at the foot of the falls yields an abundance of trillium.
This is where we went a few days ago. Because of the recent thaw, the stream was high, and the waterfall plunged among icicles still clinging to mossy boulders on the cliffside. We were standing at the foot of the waterfall when we noticed a series of rock piles stacked neatly at the edge of the stream. Someone had taken the time to build these fanciful constructions, each of them about 2 feet high, rock balanced on rock in a precarious momentary natural sculpture.
It was poignant — like all human endeavor. The water will rise, and the wind will blow; the snow will fall and melt, and the rock piles will be gone. Who knows how long they’ve been there — a couple of days, a month? Not many people pass by this spot; over the years we’ve encountered only one other hiker.
I’ve seen these whimsical stone piles here and there at stream bank locations in Vermont, and elsewhere. At Hakalau, Hawaii, on the rocky bank of a river where it nears the ocean, high structures of rounded stones stood, carefully balanced and taller than the ones in Vermont, and it was obvious they would be gone as soon as the water rose. And sure enough, the next time I was there they had vanished.
Time and its transience are often in our thoughts at New Year’s, and these streamside rock piles seem to be, among other things, modest monuments to the passage of time. Over the centuries humanity has done a lot with stone — think of the great cathedrals of Europe, which have lasted centuries, and think of the worldwide horror when fire destroyed part of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. It turns out even the great cathedrals are temporary — like those gestures in stone we encountered by the stream in Salisbury.
Our experience of time has been particularly fraught this year — fraught with horror, impatience, dread, grief. For months it seemed time was frozen, though we knew it wasn’t. It felt as if history had been stopped by a terrible ice jam, and a particular electoral outcome was all that could break it. Then during the week after the election, the ice jam, maddeningly, seemed to be holding in place until, finally, the thaw began.
Likewise, the pandemic has held us in its grip for 10 long months — sickening millions around the world, killing hundreds of thousands in the U.S., and forcing us to hide from the invisible killer. It has ruined businesses, separated families, and caused poverty, loneliness and fear to spread across the globe. Responsible leadership might have created hope during those months, but we were left on our own to outlast the frozen moment.
Time is likely to experience only the slowest of thaws during the coming year. And meanwhile, people continue to erect their versions of those small riverside rock piles, reaching out to neighbors, reminding friends and family members that, even at a distance, friendship and love persist. Against the battering of the elements — of the natural world and the human world — we act against the elemental forces that wear us down and wreck what we build.
Vermonters have taken a certain pride in the way the state has responded to the pandemic, handing Gov. Phil Scott a resounding reelection win as a reward for his steadfast leadership. He and Health Commissioner Mark Levine have been reliable voices of reason and calm against the gale of misinformation and fear that has been blowing all around. Even at that, the toll continues in Vermont, infections and deaths at levels that are all too high. It turns out Vermont is not an island; we are in it with everyone else.
It’s possible to glimpse a happier future, where political leadership, combined with a newly kindled sense of civic responsibility at the local level, fosters a new level of social cohesion that honors human compassion and creativity.
Whoever built those stone structures beside the river knew they would be swept away before long. And yet they took the time and they did it. We know the fights we fight today in the social and political sphere may lead to victories that will be undone eventually by countervailing forces. But as the New Year unlocks this frozen moment and opens up new possibilities for positive change, we can embrace the opportunity to build, connect and fulfill our potential as individuals and as a community. Monuments by the river don’t stand forever, but then nothing does. It is up to us to take the stones handed to us by the indifferent earth and to build.