In Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom, two acres of mystery
The author didn’t know who owned the patch of woods that abuts his Vermont farm. But when he finally followed his curiosity, a chain of surprises ensued. Good stories make good neighbors.
On a far corner of my farm in northeastern Vermont, there’s a 2-acre patch of mystery land.
The timbered lot is abutted on three sides by my property and on the fourth by a serene body of water called May Pond. With a sharp eye and time to kill, you can locate rusted iron survey “pins.’’ Otherwise spruce, birch, and dense puckerbrush seamlessly conceal the deeded boundaries.
It’s more picturesque than dramatic — except for several glacial boulders thrusting from the dark water a few feet from shore.
Once, a girl named Svetlana perched on the largest and imagined herself a water sprite, a winged pixie of ripples and depths.
Once, a man named Wassily — an exile from Bolshevik Russia, spinner of economic theories, lover of ballet, ardent trout angler — dreamed of building a rustic dacha on the land.
He never did. But he did win the Nobel Prize.
Not that I knew any of this.
For 37 years, I’ve had hayfield, forest, and a house on the ridge above the 116-acre pond, actually a small lake. I hardly ever thought of my never-seen neighbor. Perhaps the elusive owner came by only to watch birds or spread a sleeping bag beneath the moon. It didn’t seem so strange that our paths never crossed. I was away often and long: a quarter-century as a foreign correspondent.
Then I was back living in Orleans County, Vermont. And the 2 acres remained unvisited, untouched. No clearing for a tent, no ring of charred campfire rocks. As I brush-hogged a former pasture, just across a finger of water from the lot, I’d look at the boulders and wonder.
Finally wondered enough to ask around.
“Russians,’’ was all a retired town officer could offer. Another old-timer said: “They picked wild mushrooms. Read poetry.’’
A poke through property records; an Internet search; some phone calls.
Turns out, the history of the waterside parcel stretches — through two generations of loving if largely absent owners — to places far removed from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. To St. Petersburg in the throes of the last czar. To the bloody Bolshevik revolution. To Harvard Yard. To Stockholm and the world’s most prestigious prize. To Berkeley, Calif. To Paris and l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
A lot of back story for such a backwater.
Svetlana Alpers laughs to be called out of the blue by someone she doesn’t know about a place she’s known for most of her 81 years. She was talking by phone from her apartment near Manhattan’s Union Square.
“It’s in my mind — so many rich memories,’’ says Alpers, who inherited the lot from her late father, Wassily W. Leontief, the Nobel laureate. She suggests her ashes might one day be scattered on the land.
Alpers, a renowned art historian, is professor emerita at UC Berkeley and the author of books on Rembrandt, Rubens, and Bruegel, among others. She also recently published an “anti-memoire’’ — her description — entitled “Roof Life.’’ The autobiography sold better in France than the United States. She lives in New York but is at home in Paris, Berlin, the Netherlands, and her 1936 birthplace, Cambridge, Mass. She’s been inducted into the French Order of Arts and Letters. Her PhD comes from Harvard.
And many of her happiest childhood memories were forged in Vermont.
“As a girl, I would climb onto the boulders and pose as the White Rock nymph,’’ says Alpers, referring to the once-famous 125-year-old logo for a brand of mineral water.
Her father — the exile and economist — bought the 2-acre May Pond parcel in 1946, according to town records. Alpers was 10 years old.
Leontief, born in 1906, spent his childhood and youth in czarist St. Petersburg, son of a Russian academic and a Jewish heiress from Odessa. He was present in 1917 when communists shot their way to power and Imperial Russia transmogrified into the Soviet Union.
In an autobiographical sketch submitted to the Nobel Committee before receiving the 1973 prize for economics, Leontief described “stray bullets whistling by during the first days of the February Revolution; Lenin addressing a mass meeting . . . in front of the Winter Palace.’’
Leontief, arrested by Cheka security police for nailing up anticommunist posters, eventually escaped the motherland by way of China. He fetched up at Harvard in 1932 as an economics researcher. In 1946, he won promotion to full professor.
That same year, he purchased the 2 acres of scruffy semiwilderness by the pond. It was an odd acquisition, since Leontief and his wife, poet Estelle Marks, already owned a summer house on nearby Lake Willoughby, a far more spectacular and prestigious Vermont haven.
By his daughter’s account, Leontief wanted the remote lot to build a crude log dacha — no electricity, perhaps a hand pump for icy water, surely a hot-rock sauna — similar to folksy retreats built by his forebears in the forests of Finland, not far from his native St. Petersburg.
“His Russian soul longed for something closer to the earth’’ than a comfy countryside cottage, Alpers says. “Something primitive.”
It’s unclear why the dacha never came to be. The family used the site for picnics and splashing in the pristine water. It could only be reached by fording a stream or teetering across an old block-granite dam.
There passed a succession of magical Vermont summers. Hunting for wild mushrooms. Angling for brook trout. Long hikes to lofty peaks. They bought raw milk from a farmer named Mr. Pickel and “made yogurt in the Russian manner,’’ Alpers recalls.
“At night we took blankets and lay, and with flashlights picked up stars and constellations,’’ she says.
In 1973, her father won the Nobel in economics science for his analysis of America’s production machinery, “showing how changes in one sector of the economy can exact changes all along the line . . . from the price of oil to the price of peanut butter,’’ according to The New York Times.
In 1975, Leontief left Harvard for New York University. Soon afterward, he sold the summer house by Lake Willoughby. But he refused to relinquish the humble property on the smaller water, a few miles to the west.
“He just wanted to keep our ‘little Finland’ in Vermont,‘’ Alpers says. “In his mind, it was the more special.’’
Meanwhile, Alpers was staking her own claim to academic fame with provocative ideas about Dutch Golden Age art. In a 1988 monograph, “Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market,’’ she focused not only on Rembrandt’s exquisite artistry but on his calculated marketing of his studio’s output to consumers. That and several other books by Alpers are still in print and still heatedly discussed among art scholars.
Leontief died in 1999. The name on the property deed switched to Alpers. I was by then her “next-door’’ neighbor. We never met; never heard of each other. Her life was full. Her visits to May Pond irregular.
Alpers says: “One time I went hunting mushrooms there with my friend Adrienne Rich’’ — the late feminist poet — “We found a boletus [by a trail near the property] and ate it for dinner.’’
Last year, she and her two sons were returning to New York from Montreal and decided to make a side trip. They stopped on the snowbound ridge and gazed at the family’s thick wooded property, a quarter-mile below.
They were gazing across my northeast field. And perhaps I briefly noticed the idling car, since few people brave the twisting gravel road in cold season. But probably I did not.
May Pond is barely changed since the girlhood of the dreamy water nymph. This region is only now escaping winter. The pond’s thick ice cover disappeared in mid-April. A few days ago, the first loon returned from migratory marshes on Chesapeake Bay. Soon, the water will echo to the throaty barks of pied-billed grebes, smack of beaver tails, and bellow of bullfrogs. A melancholy female moose, whose life seems to consist of slow circumambulations of the pond, browses knee-deep by the northern edge.
“I love that land and am glad it is still beautiful,’’ says Svetlana Leontief Alpers. “My will suggests that my sons toss my ashes on it. But I hope to return before my ashes do.’’