Bristol writer connects Irish, Vt. landscapes

BRISTOL — John Elder has lived a very purposeful life and a very lauded one. He’s earned Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships, was a Carnegie 2008 Vermont Professor of the Year, has written and/or edited multiple volumes, had a chair in Middlebury College’s Environmental Studies Department named in his honor, and has garnered awards from statewide environmental organizations.
But one of the first things he did upon retiring after 37 years of teaching at Middlebury was to simply act on a whim.
Elder picked up a wooden flute, an instrument he’d never played before, and together with his wife, Rita, began playing traditional Irish music, he on the flute and she on the concertina.
“The decision was not intentional … It was just kind of like a spontaneous fun thing to do, like ‘Let’s go to the beach,’ that kind of a thing,” said Elder, a Bristol resident.
“So we started playing, and we loved it. We played a lot. And it became a kind of context for our lives.”
Like choosing the flute, writing a new book of essays — just at the moment he exchanged, as he put it, the tweed coat for the flannel shirt, the briefcase for the backpack — was also not intentional.
Elder’s meditation on learning to play the flute, the joys and challenges of aging, and unforeseen connections between Ireland’s Connemara Coast and his beloved Hogback Ridge — rising smack dab above his front porch on Mountain Street — became his sixth book, “Picking Up the Flute: A Memoir Through Music.”
Since the book came out this past spring, the 69-year-old has been giving readings and talking about the “sequence of surprises” that led to its writing.
“The first surprise in the book is playing Irish music on the flute in the first place,” said Elder.
Other surprises followed: being invited to Ireland, making friends and being drawn into a like-minded community there of writers and naturalists; finding unexpected connections between Irish music and literary works he had taught and loved a lifetime; and, perhaps most surprising of all, finding connections between the rural communities and landscapes he was visiting in Ireland and his own corner of rural Vermont.
As he learned about Irish music, one of the things Elder came most to appreciate is the strength, the defiance built into even the most cheerful-sounding little tune. This backbone of resilience, this willingness to face tragedy and keep dancing, becomes a theme threaded throughout the book. Through this lens, Elder reflects on everything from the losses that come with aging to the looming devastation of global warming.
The son of a Southern Baptist preacher and seminary professor, someone who grew up steeped in the rhythms of the King James Bible, Elder reflects in one essay on the 23rd Psalm (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”) and how that speaks to past and present in Vermont and Ireland alike — both places where sheep and shepherds have a strong place in lore and history.
Living in Vermont and visiting Ireland repeatedly during the writing of the book, Elder was struck by the “surprising connection between Vermont and Ireland — and that relates to everything from the geology to the social history to the music.”
Both are largely rural. Both are on the margins, away from centers of power within their respective countries. Both share a related geology, going back eons to when their mountains and continental bodies were formed. Both share musical traditions, with Vermont being a rich melting pot of Celtic, Quebecois and Appalachian music.
“I’m an essayist really more than a scholar or anything else as a writer. And what I like to do is discover connections that surprise me and stimulate new thoughts,” Elder said.
“For me writing is associative and my books all tend to be associative,” he continued. “So if I was writing about George Perkins Marsh in ‘Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa,’ I was also writing about Rita and me traveling on foot across France and Italy. And when I wrote about the 23rd Psalm in ‘The Frog Run,’ I was also writing about sugaring with our family.
“What I like are connections that are unexpected but feel illuminating.”
The community that Elder found himself drawn into in Ireland, one that he describes as “writers and artists and musicians and naturalists and scientists and conservationists and people after my own heart,” was also not without controversy. A controversy, Elder realized, with direct parallels in Vermont: How to best address global warming.
“The same controversy was happening in Vermont — our part of Vermont — and in Connemara, which is a controversy within the environmental movement related to the placement of large renewable energy projects … The Vermont environmental community and the Irish environmental community have both been ripped in half by this one,” said Elder.
All agree, said Elder on the enormity of the problem we face.
“We’re at a crisis,” said Elder. “The biggest environmental and social challenge of the day is climate change. If you’re worried about birds — climate change. If you’re worried about the acidification of the ocean — climate change. This is the massive die off of our time. It’s related to our way of life.”
And in Vermont, the signs are all around us.
“We know some things that will happen and there are others things that we can imagine. Already — we moved here in 1973 — by many measures the winters are one month shorter than when we moved here. They’re less deep. They don’t last as long. The transition to spring is much more erratic. And the erratic nature of that transition endangers the regeneration of our sugar maples, say, which germinate at the lowest temperature of any Northeastern hardwood, 34 Fahrenheit. So they begin to germinate, and the increasingly erratic spring sweeps back and forth, and the shoots die out. That kind of thing.”
Weighing the enormity that we face, trying to hold all losses and gains in the balance, Elder himself feels that large-scale wind turbines represent “somebody here trying to do something. And unless we do something we’re lost.”
Not so all his friends, American or Irish.
In the chapter elegiacally entitled “Foregone Hillsides,” Elder tells the story of a walk with a Vermont friend on the site of the Lowell wind turbines. Diametrically opposed on the issue, the two nonetheless agreed to walk together and to listen to each other.
“We went up on the mountain together, and we had a loving, friendly conversation, and we looked at everything that had happened. We came back off the mountain, and we still did not agree with each other on the central issue, and we still have a loving friendship,” said Elder.
“What I’m trying to get at is there’s no way those of us who love Vermont are not going to be grieved by what’s coming to us in the coming years. We’ve bought our ticket for climate change. We’re not getting off this train.
“But the takeaway,” Elder continued, “is I want to find a way to talk with my neighbors. And I want us to talk about what we love about where we live and what we love about each other and then to bring our complementary insights together. Because we just have to find ways to move forward. We need to find a way to walk down the road together in a challenging time and an upsetting time without being cynical about each other.”
A longtime environmentalist, Elder has served on the boards of the Vermont Land Trust, Vermont Family Forests and the environmentally oriented Sterling College. At Middlebury College, he gravitated from the English Department to a shared appointment with Environmental Studies. Almost all of his books are centered on nature, including having edited the “Norton Anthology of Nature Writing” and a compendium on American nature writers. And just over the ridge, in Starksboro, he and his two sons operate a maple sugaring operation, the Maggie Brook Sugarworks. The very plants surrounding his front porch are carefully chosen natives. So this is no lightly told tale.
Elder and I pause at various times throughout our conversation to admire small bits of nature. The sound of a hawk screeching in the treetops. The plethora of bees buzzing around the garden. The smell of wild mint crushed between fingers. We are both drinking lemonade.
And apropos of his now six-year-long engagement with Irish music, Elder shifts key and shakes off the dark note brought by our discussion of global warming.
A final theme threaded throughout “Picking Up the Flute” is also that of someone who feels lucky and grateful. Long active in community affairs — he currently serves on the Bristol Planning Commission, among other civic commitments — Elder intends to let go of these commitments next spring when he turns 70.
“This is a really beautiful moment,” Elder said, looking at the world around him. “I’m a lucky old man.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].
Thursday, Aug. 25, at 7 p.m., Elder will be reading from “Picking Up the Flute: A Memoir Through Music” at Bristol’s Lawrence Memorial Library. The reading is co-sponsored by the Bristol Gateway Players and Vermont Family Forests.

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