Sue Katz : May Day in Vermont

Poet Verandah Porche (left) and author Sue Katz. Photos from Sue Katz, Barry Hock, and Consenting Adult.

May Day in Vermont

By Sue Katz / The Rag Blog / May 10, 2011

I think you’ll get some enjoyment from reading this by Sue Katz, one of my friends from the “old days,” a contributor to the anthology Out of the Closets, and a woman with a lovely checkered past and present (and future!).

I was present at this gathering, too, on April 30, a day short of May Day.

What Sue doesn’t mention is that this is the Packers Corners commune, founded in 1968, one of the pioneering “back to the land” places in our region (about 30 miles from my house in Massachusetts). Many people present resided at the former LNS-MA (Liberation News Service) commune in Montague, Massachusetts, birthplace of the modern no-nukes movement.

The founders were mostly friends from Boston University, only a few years out of college. This is the place made somewhat famous by one of its former residents, Ray Mungo, who wrote about it in a book he titled Total Loss Farm. (His name for the farm, not the farm’s actual name.)

So many wonderful people, and a joyful atmosphere. Sad moments, too, remembering people who have died, including the most recent death (from brain cancer) of Tony Mathews, hippie carpenter extraordinaire of Gill, MA, [LNS founder] Marshall Bloom (I called out his name), Fritz Hewitt, Marty Jezer, and others.

Allen Young / The Rag Blog / May 10, 2011

May Day gathering at Packers Corners. Allen Young is third from the right.

PACKERS CORNERS, Vermont — Although I do not have the time for this, what with trying to get all my work done before my trip abroad, I am unable to deprive myself of my annual trip to Vermont for May Day. The event is held at The Farm, founded by my college posse in 1968, and overseen to this day by my poet darling Verandah Porche. (She’s in the red blouse and long skirt in the photos.)

I arrive on Friday afternoon in time to help unravel the silk streamers still wound tight around our May Pole since last year. We sit outside under the welcome sun hoping for a good day tomorrow, when people will come from all over the surrounding countryside and others, like us, from Boston.

Our main task completed, I take a temporary departure from Verandah to go just down the road to the 1840 home of my book binder friend Susan and my antiques expert friend Gilbert. They are putting me up and feeding and watering me.

“Feeding” is too pale a term for what goes on. We’re talking about delicious cheeses and dips to get the juices going and then a dinner of onion-stuffed roasted moist chicken, rich mashed potatoes, for which Gilbert is famous, asparagus that has been kept on ice until it is time to be cooked to an uncanny perfection, eggplant wraps smothered in tomato (from the garden) sauce, all followed by an exquisite apple pie (with ice cream), the top of which is swollen with crispy deliciousness.

Susan stands up to start to clear the table and freezes. “Everyone,” she says to us in a low voice, “stand up and be still.” We obey, looking out the windows overlooking the rear deck. They keep a bird feeder there, feeding to the tune of 10 pounds of black oil sunflower seeds per week, attracting an ornithologist’s wet dream’s array of birds.

But tonight that is not all the feeder is attracting. On its hind legs, a 300-pound black bear is sucking its dinner from one of the feeders. It sits on the deck on its fat butt, a luxurious fall of shimmery long fur cascading around its back, satiating a big case of the munchies. I am frozen. What do I know? I’m from Pittsburgh, for gawd’s sake. “Camera!” I yell, “someone get a camera.”

Gilbert meanwhile runs outside to have words with the bear, who does not seem to welcome confrontation. The bear returns to four well-padded feet and reluctantly, having been shoo’d loudly a few more times, ambles around the back to the side of the house and then up the lawn to cross the road. No one gets a photo in time.

Susan is unhappy that this beautiful creature has been chased away, while inside the house we follow our precious sighting of the bear by switching from window to window, circling the walls for the best view as the animal gracefully distances itself from us.

We sit outside on the deck around a fire pit on steel legs into which Gilbert feeds board after board to warm us up. Susan cannot get over the bulky beauty of the glorious animal and she and Gil reminisce about the time another black bear came right into their living room. Or was it this same one when it was younger? If so, she is so glad it has survived hunting season.

We turn in around 10 p.m. and sleep in the intense darkness that one only gets in deeply rural settings — and maybe dungeon cells. In the middle of the night there is a screaming crash of glass. I am startled awake and think that it must be a kerosene lamp and perhaps kerosene is all over the floor.

Within seconds the light comes on. It is Susan. I have figured out that some tossing and turning has shifted one of the four pillows sideways, knocking over what used to be a kerosene lamp and what is now an electric lamp, as I know so well, having turned it off when it was sleep-time. In bare feet, Susan tiptoes through the hunks of frosted glass, lifting what is left of the shade to a sideboard. She says that she and Gil were afraid that it was the bear, making its way back in.

We leave the glass with the intention of cleaning it up in the morning light.


I wake early and sweep up the glass with a hand brush and dust pan. Gilbert is already preparing a scrumptious breakfast of eggs, sausage, sautéed potatoes and challah. Susan is dressing for her morning climb up the mountain with Verandah and I am checking my email.

Just before one we make our way to The Farm bearing contributions to the pot luck that precedes the annual May Day ceremony. Happily I meet up with my dear niece, nephew, and grandniece Sadie (otherwise known as Verandah’s daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, respectively). Out of my little bag of treats, the beach ball is the biggest hit — once poor Matt depletes himself of oxygen blowing it up, and I actually get to play with Sadie, a rare treat for me.

The morning had started foggy but the sun clearly wants to participate in this day of joy and is now burning down on flesh made vulnerable by an endless winter. It is a glorious day — sunny but not scorching. As I explain to one new guest, a young guy, this particular May Day celebration combines three themes: the international day of worker solidarity; the pagan festival of Spring; and the celebration of the end of a harsh Vermont winter that can cause isolation as folks hunker down around their stoves.

I see old friends (like from the ’60s) and newish ones and once the many dozens of guests have cleaned their plates it is time to mount the mountain overlooking our once-and-future commune. One friend hoists the May Pole and many others grab one of the colorful streamers and up we go, followed by music makers and stragglers.

At the top, the May Pole is inserted into its usual hole and propped up until stable, so that the rest of us can wind around and around, weaving in and out, both clockwise and counter, to the tunes of Peter Gould’s hand accordion.

Once done, we stand and sit in a circle while the singing commences. The scope of talents and the range of union, worker, and sentimental tunes is startling, and the support of the amateurs by the professionals — like Patty Carpenter and Melissa Shetler — and Verandah Porche — is emblematic of the kind of supportive, collaborative community these folks have constructed.

As always, Verandah asks us to invite in those who have died — and people around the circle call out names of mutual friends and then individual loved ones. One guy calls out, “My parents!” — and dozens of echoes of “and mine!” reverberate from around the circle. We are orphaned, but we have each other and the generations behind us.

[Sue Katz is an author, blogger, journalist, unionist, and rebel whose rants and reviews are posted on her blog, Consenting Adult.]

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