Remembering Noel Perrin

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(HOST) Commentator Tom Slayton worked with the late writer Noel Perrin for over thirty years. Today he reflects on Perrin’s life and legacy.

(SLAYTON) By profession, Noel Perrin was an English professor, a scholar, and an essayist. But by choice, he was a farmer.

He loved farming – and specifically he loved his 85-acre farm in Thetford Center more than just about anything. He spent most of his time there and wrote about that farm, his neighbors and an ever-changing Vermont about as well as anyone ever has.

Ned Perrin died last week after an extended struggle with Parkinson’s disease. I’m going to miss him, and so will Vermont. He knew this state from the inside out. He learned about it by laboring with his hands, tending his animals, caring for the land and doing farm work alongside his neighbors.

Sometimes he worried that Vermont might wind up looking like “central New Jersey with hills” – that it would become more a play state than a real working state. But Ned was an optimist and believed that Vermont would stay solid and authentic – as long as there were solid, authentic people here to work the fields and forests.

He was best known for his rural essays and his book “Amateur Sugar Maker” in which he wrote about his farming experiences. But he was also an excellent scholar and wrote books about the classics, about censorship and a history of Japan’s 300-year renunciation of modern weaponry entitled “Giving Up the Gun”. That last was his personal favorite of all his books because it suggested that human beings can control the weaponry they invent, if they really want to.

Perrin was lean and energetic and witty, characteristics that lent a puckish, humorous quality to both his talk and his writing. Unlike many college professors, he had a capacity for long hours of hard, physical work – and he seemed to enjoy it. He was proud of the fact that he built his sugarhouse himself, using recycled lumber, proud that he once produced 57 gallons of maple syrup there and proudest of all that his farm actually produced some food and some fuel, every year.

When Parkinson’s disease had almost completely sapped his strength and he was headed for the hospital, he wrote a touching, heartfelt essay entitled “Farewell to a Thetford Farm” that was published in the Valley News. “I’ve been living on the farm for the last 41 years,” he wrote. “I love every acre.”

That was a few months ago, when he went into an assisted living facility. But when it became obvious that the end was near, Ned went back to his farm. He died there November 21.

In an earlier essay, he wrote about fencing in 18 acres of his property that included a perky little hill with a nice view, called “Bill Hill”. The fencing enabled Ned to pasture cattle there. The cattle ate the burgeoning weeds and shrubs and undergrowth and kept the hill open. And so, he later wrote, at least one hill in Thetford Center will stay grassy and green and open.

“There will be cows against the skyline, and there will be four new stone walls visible,” he noted. “It will be no bad legacy.”

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