Dispatch from Vermont: On Hubert Butler, Local Histories, and Places of Identity Formation

Last week, I took a five-day trip with my family to Vermont. This was my first time in the state and my first extended “travel” since moving to New York City in January.

Vermont was a refreshing detour for me. After seven months in Manhattan, it was good to retreat to a state with lots of green mountains but not a single billboard, and whose largest city has fewer than 50,000 residents.

What I enjoyed most in Vermont was experiencing the many hints of local pride, which were rooted in a very specific but deep history. From listening to a long-winded but impassioned brewery tour guide to coming across an intricate alleyway mural chronicling the centuries-long story of Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace, I got an impression that Vermonters truly had a sense of ownership of their home state.

During one of our evenings off, I skimmed through an essay anthology I found on a bookshelf in our rental home and stumbled across a piece by the late Hubert Butler, an Irish essayist. He writes in the essay “Beside the Nore”:

I have always believed that local history is more important than national history… Where life is fully and consciously lived in our own neighborhood, we are cushioned a little from the impact of great far-off events which should be only of marginal concern to us.

Many people — myself included — move to places such as New York or Los Angeles to, at least in part, “find ourselves.” And while these journeys of identity creation may be rewarding, my brief time in Vermont has reminded me to appreciate the other neighborhoods that have formed me and my family — a blue-collar suburb in New Jersey, a mountain village in central Taiwan, a coastal town in Southern China — places with richer stories than their seemingly unassuming natures might suggest.

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