I have seen that lonely tree in all four seasons. During summer, it looks brilliantly green, its leaves crisp, as sunlight rests briefly on the leaves, throwing the blinding light on me as I sit in the rocking chair, taking in the view of the rolling farmland below. Diagonally across, almost at the edge, is a shimmering lake.
In solitude: Patrick’s farm is close to where Alexander Solzhenitsyn lived. Photo: Udayan Tripathi
In autumn, the leaves turn yellow, then orange, later red and russet, and finally brown, before wind sweeps by, stealing and scattering them, leaving the branches barren. In its autumnal glow, the landscape shines: Trees on the other side of the lake sit on their reflection, revealing a symmetry that you never want to see disturbed.
Then it is winter, when the landscape turns sharply white, clean as laundered sheets, as an improbable amount of snow rests on those branches. Wind comes in unannounced, unsettling the branches, sending snow flurrying across. The sky remains bright and blue, but it gets dark by 3pm.
And when you feel the nights won’t end, and that the winter would obliterate the sun, the first bud sprouts, the leaves struggle and emerge from the same branches, reassuring us of sunlight, of life, its birth and its loves.
I have seen this cycle at one particular farm in Vermont over the past quarter-century. The farm belongs to my friend Patrick and, over the years, his warm family has made me part of their lives.
That farm resonates with memories: fishing in the lake one morning; swimming one balmy afternoon; looking for traces of sky while walking through a canopy of bright yellow leaves, shading us from all sides, as our eyes try to look beyond the translucent leaves in the hope of glimpsing the milder autumnal sun; taking the tractor to the town; buying maple syrup from the farmer next door; taking the family dogs for a long walk one afternoon; and cooking a real curry, a first for the farm in New England, as the fireplace crackles.
The bonds I have formed there, the feeling of being with loved ones, and with nature, and with the sky, so full of stars, the air utterly unpolluted, have all come together to soothe me, calm me. With inadequate cellphone coverage and BlackBerrys unable to work, you get the space to explore the self within, savour happiness, process agony, and give shape to ideas that simply cannot emerge out of the tedium of the quotidian.
Henry David Thoreau went to one such location around 240km south-east of here — at a pond, in Walden — and gathered his thoughts, publishing a book in 1854, which inspired a young Indian in South Africa called Mohandas Gandhi. It was in the woods in these parts of the world that Robert Frost came across two roads that diverged, and he took the path less travelled by, and that made all the difference.
This explains why for two decades one of Patrick’s neighbours was a reclusive Russian called Alexander Solzhenitsyn. From the time the Soviets turned him into an exile, to his eventual return to post-Soviet Russia, Solzhenitsyn made his home near here. Solzhenitsyn craved privacy; the town offered him that privacy. Solzhenitsyn did not interfere in the lives of the town, with its lively local democracy; the town left its famous resident alone.
It is easy to see why Solzhenitsyn lived here. Northern New England is cold and harsh, and its landscape is laden with snow for nearly six months of the year. In winter the sun sets early, and the weather is bone-chillingly cold. Living there, while not exactly a struggle with nature, requires you to respect forces larger than yourself.
But those who choose to lead such a life do so willingly. The fruits of their labour — maple syrup, furniture, farm products — are theirs to keep. Neighbours leave you alone, respect your rugged individualism. Nobody watches over you, nobody pries into your affairs.
But for over a decade, Solzhenitsyn’s life was not his own. He had criticized the moustache of the Soviet dictator Stalin, whose cruelties Martin Amis recently reminded us of, in his book Koba the Dread. But to understand what the Soviets did, you could read Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History. Or, go to the master, Solzhenitsyn himself, to The Gulag Archipelago. The climate there was harsh, and the lack of heating was only the most obvious inadequacy for human life. The Soviets sent thousands there because they believed in something the apparatchiks did not like. Ivan Denisovich, the protagonist of Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, had a good day if there was no punishment, and nothing bad happened to anyone.
To assert his spirit, to discover himself, Solzhenitsyn picked this remote part of America. He did not embrace his neighbours; he lived a Russian life. But the view from his window was no longer bleak. It had vibrancy and colour; it had the smell of fresh wood, the music of the birds, the divine colours nature splashed on its trees every autumn.
That place, the area around Ludlow and Proctorsville and Cavendish in Vermont, breathed love — for life, people and humanity. After a life-altering tragedy, my sons and I began our recovery in that farm in the summer of 2007, in the warm company of Pat and Kristen. We had learned to walk again, in our contemplative exile. The day I heard of Solzhenitsyn’s passing away last month, I understood why he made that anonymous patch of New England such an important part of his healing. Like Frost, he had miles to go before he went to sleep, as do we all.
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