The Most Important Answer of All
I first wrote about Jimmy and Sara Ackermann for an article in Yankee Magazine called “The Hardest Working Couple in Vermont.” I wrote the piece over the summer 2013, but owing to the strange time-warp delay of magazine publishing, it did not run until the spring of 2014. I’ve written many stories since, and I wrote many before, but this remains one of my favorites.
I knew Jimmy and Sara pretty well by the time I wrote about them; over the intervening years, I’ve come to know them even better, and now consider them good friends. Like so many rural Vermonters whose life and work are essentially inseparable, we don’t see each other for planned social occasions, yet we socialize frequently. This generally occurs in the barnyard of their dairy farm, with Jimmy and me leaning against opposite sides of a pickup truck bed, either his or mine. Or it happens in the small dining area of their house, when I’ve stopped to drop off a dozen eggs, or pick up a gallon of syrup. Or in the sugarhouse itself, during those handful of weeks in March and April when the sap is running hard. We don’t tend to talk the big picture stuff —no politics, for instance, or at least not much—but rather the day-in, day-out minutia of our respective lives and the surrounding community, which is, in fact, pretty big to us: Who’s got hay down, how the maple sugaring season’s shaping up, the vagaries of tractors and the other equipment we each rely on.
I have a lot of respect for the Ackermann’s, in part because I have a close view of what their work entails and therefore understand how challenging it is, in part because they conduct this work with integrity and few, if any, complaints, and in part because they seem entirely content with anonymity. There is no sense of self-promotion or aggrandizement in their work; they do a good job at a fair price—dairy farming, firewood, excavation, maple syrup, equipment hauling, and so on—and that is enough to keep them busy in this small, tight knit community.
I think often (some might say too often) about the seemingly intractable woes of this complicated world, and how they might be remedied. And I don’t mean to suggest that a young, hard-working couple in Vermont holds all the answers. That would be ridiculous. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that in the Ackermanns, as well as in the ever-dwindling population of men and women who eke a marginal living from the place they love, I see some of the answers. A close relationship to community and the land that sustains them. The aforementioned integrity. A sense of contentment with modest circumstances, and a certain acceptance of the simple fact that life is sometimes plain-and-simple hard. Maybe even an understanding that it’s not necessarily supposed to be easy, and in fact is often more rewarding when it’s not.
And in this smoothed over, comfort-and-convenience-at-all-costs-world that might be the most important answer of all.