Congrats to Hattie Brown, 30 years at the Lincoln desk

As this year winds down, I realize I missed a big story: Not health care. Not the government shutdown. Not even the fact that Rome was besieged with poop from migrating birds – birds which, according to a city council spokeswoman, had been eating olives before flying over the Eternal City, “so their mess becomes oily and more dangerous for mopeds.” (That quote is either the definition of “too much information” or the single best thing I have ever written about bird poop.)

I missed this: Back on September 5, Lincoln’s Hattie Brown retired as the Lincoln, Vermont correspondent for the “Addison Independent.” Hattie had been filing her weekly column for thirty years. How impressive is that? I have been writing this column, “Idyll Banter,” for a mere 21 years and 10 months, and already I have been reduced to writing about the gastrointestinal ramifications of olives on birds. Thirty years of columns? Positively staggering.

But Hattie has always impressed me. She is 94 now, which meant that she started writing her column when a lot of people have retired. When my wife and I moved to Lincoln, among the first books I bought was a small history of the village by Richard Reed. In the back was a black and white photograph from perhaps the late 1950s of Hattie and Peg Rood sawing a log with a bow saw the width of a Mini Cooper. The two women are serious Lincoln royalty. Whoever captioned the photo noted that the only man in the image is contentedly smoking a pipe while the two women work.

Hattie has lived in the town since 1927 and taught school as either a full-time or substitute teacher for three and a half decades, many of those years in a one-room schoolhouse in South Lincoln – which, despite having the word “south” in its name, is considerably higher than the village center or the banana belt of Bristol. The growing season in South Lincoln is the Fourth of July weekend. She helped her late husband, Fletcher, run their dairy farm, and the two of them raised their daughter.

And she wrote some absolutely beautiful poetry: Poems that celebrated her faith, her community, and the natural beauty of Vermont.

But when I first think of Hattie, I think of two things: Dowsing. And her wonderful, wry smile – and the humor that lurked there.

Hattie was a tag team dowser with Fletcher. They would move with their L-shaped rods across a field, starting at perpendicular sides of a square, finding the underground veins of water. When I was writing my novel, “Water Witches,” they were invaluable. And while I personally couldn’t find the Pacific Ocean from the Santa Monica Pier with a divining rod, I certainly felt the sticks move in my hands when Hattie placed her hands over mine.

And then there is that grin. After the church here in Lincoln burned to the ground on the night of Good Friday, 1981, she was interviewed by the “Valley Voice.” Always the journalist, she reported on the Sunday school classes and the choir rehearsal and the Maundy Thursday service that had taken place in the building in the week before the fire. Then she added with what I imagine was a gentle nod, her tone unflappable and dry, “Well, at least it went down working.”

As David Wood, the pastor of the church here in Lincoln – the church where Hattie sits every Sunday in the balcony – told me, “She’s learned to enjoy every day – to see every moment as special. Hattie knows how to live.” She is one of those seriously old-time, old-school Vermonters: A sound moral compass and an unfailing sense of irony.

So, congrats to a columnist and Vermonter who is inspirational. Thanks for all your words – even though, I have a feeling, you never, ever paired “bird” with “poop.”

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on December 8, 2013. Chris’s most recent novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was published in July.”)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.