More Alice Munro than Rosamond Bernier

Delightful as the Bernier was, it’s an unrealistic lesson in being a person upon whom nothing is lost. If you’re on your way to see Picasso and Joan Miró invites you over, you would be churlish to doze or miss your sense that something was happening. And sometimes, my New York life does seem to approach the glamour of Bernier’s. But sometimes, reading Bernier, it’s hard not to feel a bit frumpy.

Up here on the St. Lawrence River where I spend my July, I’m not likely to run into a Picasso or a Miró. Instead, I try to pay Henry James levels of attention to the characters of this Northern New York landscape.  We are, after all, just across the River from Ontario and it feels like Munro country up here, with teens zooming around on Gators, overly tanned boaters sitting on barstools, overweight mothers sitting in pink plastic Adirondack chairs in front yards that don’t look onto the water.

Chaumont Barrents from

Last weekend, after my husband headed back down to the city for work, my daughters, my mother-in-law and I headed to the Chaumont Barrens, a Nature Conservancy spot. It was glorious and strange, just a 1.75 mile flat loop through a rare alvar grassland—thin soil, prairie plants (some rare, though I don’t know plants well enough to tell this; all rare in upstate New York). Many of the trees had exposed roots. Some of the forested areas were lush with brilliant, thin, chartreuse grass on the floor. We found some fossils.

Being Sunday, the Amish farmstand my mother-in-law sometimes goes to was closed, but near it was another. I could see zinnia and sunflowers as we whizzed past, so I determined to stop on the way home. Not only flowers, but Amish-made soap, jams, baskets, eggs, summer squash, and other treats. There was some pretty blowsy dill in a jar with a sign: “come to the house if you want us to cut you fresh dill.” And another sign saying everything at the stand was grown at the farm or by local Amish craftspeople. We were choosing flowers when the farmer came up, a plump man in jeans, a work shirt, and a worn baseball cap. “There’ll be a lot more coming. We had our first glads this morning, but they were gone right away. There’ll be more. And peppers. Hot peppers.”

“Corn?” asked my mother-in-law.

“Well, I should have corn, but the raccoons thought it was ready before I did,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind if they’d eat a whole ear. But they take a bite of one, then eat one side of another. I don’t hunt and we don’t have a dog. What can I do?" He paused.  "I can’t kill anything.”

I murmured my assent, amazed and so touched, in this land of hunters and signs saying “Quickest way to Heaven: Trespassing on my Property,” to find such a kind soul.

When he said, “I can’t kill anything,” he meant it. Supremely. He said it was important to grow enough for everyone, but that this was the first year he’d ever had trouble with raccoons. He wondered aloud what to do next. I thought about the obese raccoon who used to waddle around my college campus, gorging on pizza he found in the dumpster, but I worried that if I talked about college, I’d make a wedge between us rather than a connection.

We took our sunflowers, our zinnias. He wished us well and we were on our way.