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A society grows great
when old men plant trees
whose shade they know
they shall never sit in.
– Greek proverb
The Resurrection of Cimarron–An Easter Story
by Stephen Morris
Easter is the spring holiday, a time of resurrection and redemption. But Easter in Vermont is often a time of despair and suicidal thoughts. The rest of the world is awash in daffodils, forsythia, and cherry blossoms. We are awash in ruts and mud. The local road crew has never been so important. Their loads of gravel sink into the ooze, turning it into lumpy, barely passable porridge that provides a lifeline to the civilized world.
It’s not pretty in Vermont at Easter.
According to the English Book of Common Prayer, "Easter Day is the first Sunday after the full moon which happens upon, or next after the 21st day of March (the vernal equinox); and if the full moon happens upon a Sunday, Easter Day is the Sunday after." Translated, Easter can fall on dates between March 22 and April 25
While the rest of the world celebrates Easter with parades, new clothes, bonnets, and colorfully-dyed eggs, these seem inappropriate in a state where the only thing pushing up through the snow are the winter’s accumulation of frozen dog turds.
But it came to pass this one Easter, and a particularly early one, that fortune smiled on the state of Vermont. Even though it was still March, a warm sun poured down on a budless state, swamped in mud, with maple sap coursing through its veins.
In our hamlet of West Brookfield, populated by a potpourri of flatlanders and natives, we celebrated with a community brunch. It was an odd sight to see people clad in Easter finery still wearing Sorels, arriving with their covered dishes.. The menu was cholesterol laden– cheesy quiches, bacon, popovers, and omelets made to order–but indulgence was permissible, at least this one day a year.
The conversation was predictable. The first subject is always the weather. The same people who are the sour complainers (“Can you believe this is Spring?”) become the state’s biggest boosters when the weather gods smile (“Can you believe this is Spring?”). After brunch, we resolved to don our boots and do the unthinkable, take an Easter stroll in the warm sunlight.
Counting kids and dogs, we were at least twenty strong. The dirt road was flaccid, but not unwalkable. It had a springy feel, like a water balloon. An intrepid few shed their boots and walked barefoot.
It was that warm.
The town had never witnessed such a spectacle. We walked past the church and one-room schoolhouse where Stella, who still lives in town, taught and where Lynn, who runs the all-encompassing dairy farm, learned. We walked up to the cow barn, but when the cow plops became unavoidable we retraced our steps to the village green which abuts the small mill pond, now pregnant with the melting snow from the hillsides, and brimming to the top of its dam.
The pond and dam date from the settlement’s earliest days, when water power was used for a variety of purposes, but primarily for sawing lumber. According to the town history West Brookfield and Thereabouts by Alice Wakefield (self-published, 1985) “Two separate sets of mills were built to provide lumber, shingles, flour, cider, and other necessities for the entire region.” Although the mills have long since disappeared, the dam that created the pond was maintained by a Wakefield family member for fire safety purposes and simply as a monument to the past. (To some, the town of West Brookfield is itself a monument to the past.)
The crowd gravitated to the adjoining green. Someone found a Frisbee, someone else a tennis ball, someone else a stick. Before long the village green was alive by flying objects, running children, and ecstatic dogs chasing sticks thrown into the pond, newly liberated from its icy surface by the surging spring snowmelt. One of those dogs was Cimarron, a Golden Retriever with a disposition so relentlessly friendly that she was often referred to as the community dog.
To describe Cimarron as beloved would not be an exaggeration. To say that her face bore a constant smile of beatific grace would be accurate. To say that she had an aura of the divine ... well, sure, in a doggy kind of way.
The way a simple dam works is that there is an underwater opening (that may or may not be closable) that permits a flow though of water that is slightly less than the normal flow of the stream. The underwater opening of the dam in West Brookfield is fixed and cannot be opened or closed. The surplus water backs up to fill the cavity upstream of the dam, creating a pond. If an excess of water enters the pond, such as on warm spring days when the snow melt in the surrounding hills is prodigious, the pond level rises until the excess spills over the top.
On this Easter Day, the pond in West Brookfield was at its brim. The underwater opening was gushing a noisy torrent. The surface of the pond was placid, serene, giving no clue as to the monster beneath.
As the adults surveyed the scene, their bellies full and basking in sunlight, tragedy unfolded. Someone threw a stick a little too close to the dam. Cimarron, obliging as ever, splashed after it (she’s a retriever, remember?) but as she turned to swim back, she was caught in the under current from the opening in the bottom of the dam.
In Hollywood a drama unfolds over two hours. The progression is: “things are good, things get bad, things get worse, things get better.” But this wasn’t Hollywood. This was bedrock Vermont, on an unusually warm Easter Sunday. The progression from good to worse took only a few seconds. Cimarron swam harder, still obediently holding the stick in her mouth. For a moment she held her own, then she started to be pulled under. She swam harder, but moved in the opposite direction. She disappeared.
We watched silently and helplessly. A child spoke “Will she come out the other side?” The menfolk studied the tops of their shoes. The dam had been rebuilt only the previous summer, a community project where we had cheerfully pushed wheelbarrows of dirt and concrete. We put into place the heavy iron grate designed to prevent the lower opening from being jammed with logs. Or golden retrievers. Now, as a community, we shared the vision of a motionless dog, pinned against this same grate by the unrelenting force of the melting snow.
The children began to wail.
But this is an Easter story, remember? And Hollywood has nothing on Vermont. Our anguish was disturbed by movement to the right. We turned in unison. It was a creature. It was coming our way. It moved unsteadily. It was a Golden Retriever. ... a very wet, very bedraggled Cimarron wobbling towards us from downstream.
The cries of the children are replaced by hugs of a still quivering dog. The Easter clothes are getting wet and doggy, but there is no parental admonishment. Clothes, after all, can be washed and even hung out to dry on this lovely, wonderful, warm, sunny Easter day.
Things get better. The spectrum of human drama takes place in less than a minute in a small community on a warm Easter day in a tiny hamlet on a dirt crossroads in Vermont. With order restored, it is left to the menfolk to create the narrative to explain the myth. How did Cimarron get through the dam? Perhaps the force of the water was so great that it created a passage under the dam. Perhaps the bones of a dog are flexible enough to be compressed enough to fit between the bars of the grate.
Perhaps there is no explanation, other than that it was Easter.