For Coeditor Dave Mance III, the 'Vermont Almanac' Is a 'Love Letter' to the State | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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For Coeditor Dave Mance III, the 'Vermont Almanac' Is a 'Love Letter' to the State

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Vermont Almanac coeditor Dave Mance III at his Shaftsbury sugar bush - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Vermont Almanac coeditor Dave Mance III at his Shaftsbury sugar bush

At 12 or 13, equipped with his rifle, a hunting license and the audacity of youth, Dave Mance III told his mother he would be the one to bring home the game for Thanksgiving dinner.

But the wild turkeys and deer failed to show themselves, so Mance returned from the woods with the only quarry he could bag: squirrels.

"My parents, God bless 'em, went along with it," Mance recalled with a chuckle. The roasted rodents ended up on a platter on the dining room table.

Mance's skills as an outdoorsman and naturalist have advanced considerably since then. When the 46-year-old isn't sugaring commercially — Mance and his father have about 3,500 taps in their Shaftsbury sugar bush — he's writing and coediting the next volume of Vermont Almanac: Stories From & for the Land. In his words, the planned series is a "handbook for rural living in the 21st century."

Mance conceived of the almanac during his 11 years as editor of Northern Woodlands magazine. In 2019, shortly after the quarterly relocated to Lyme, N.H., Mance joined magazine cofounder Virginia Barlow and fellow staffers Amy Peberdy and Patrick White in leaving to launch For the Land Publishing. The following year, the nonprofit released Vermont Almanac: Stories From & for the Land, Volume I.

Volume II, released in December 2021, includes prose, poetry, photography and illustrations from more than 70 contributors. While Vermont Almanac follows traditional farmers' almanacs in providing a month-by-month chronicle of the weather and practical advice on such topics as judging dairy cows, foraging for wild ginseng and staying safe on frozen ponds, that's not all it offers. The 288-page book is a colorful tapestry of short but meaty stories that blend local history, lore and rural wisdom with 21st-century science and technology.

One piece explores how rodenticides accumulate in the livers of fisher-cats. Another examines how a collective of small sugar makers finds strength in numbers against "big maple." Yet another discusses the science of cyanobacteria blooms.

Volume II also highlights the changing face of Vermont, with stories by and about Vermonters of color and their relationships with the land. Contributors include Somali American poet Sahra Ali; farmer, writer and photographer Aaron Lawrence Carroll; and Middlebury College professor emeritus of history William Hart. The latter wrote a short history of Alexander Twilight (1795-1857), the Middlebury graduate who became the first Black man in the U.S. to earn a college degree.

This volume doesn't skimp on local humor. In "'Current' Events," an essay on building fences, Bill Torrey writes, "If a fence is going to be electrified, make sure to give it enough juice to give a cow a realistic preview of what barbecuing is all about."

Vermont Almanac: Stories From & for the Land, Volume II, edited by Dave Mance III, Patrick White and Virginia Barlow, For The Land Publishing, 288 pages. $30. - COURTESY OF FOR THE LAND PUBLISHING
  • Courtesy Of For The Land Publishing
  • Vermont Almanac: Stories From & for the Land, Volume II, edited by Dave Mance III, Patrick White and Virginia Barlow, For The Land Publishing, 288 pages. $30.

In his essay "Winter Hibernation," Mark Bushnell delves into a tall tale he found in a May 1939 Rutland Herald article: The writer claimed to have found Vermonters who were sedating their old and infirm relatives into bearlike hibernation to get them through the winter.

Vermont Almanac has been a popular item at local bookstores. Volumes I and II were on the 2021 Vermont best-seller list at Phoenix Books Burlington, and Bear Pond Books in Montpelier reported that Volume II was its best-selling title in January.

Seven Days caught up with Mance last week when he was taking a much-needed break from boiling sap.

SEVEN DAYS: When you first conceived of the Vermont Almanac, who was your target audience?

DAVE MANCE: I tell people that we're part yearbook, part handbook and part love letter to the state. We never thought of our readers as a type. I think most people who live in Vermont appreciate nature and working lands. Most people appreciate good writing and lovely images. The idea is that if we deliver something that's educational and entertaining, the readership will take care of itself.

SD: Why did you found a nonprofit to publish it?

DM: Agriculture is in this period of reinvention, where people are trying to figure out a 21st-century model of how to keep their farms going. The publishing world is doing the same thing. The traditional models don't work anymore, so we incorporated as a nonprofit. People who believe in what we're doing are donating. And we're learning as we go. We're writers and editors, not businesspeople, but we're making our way.

SD: How did you select your contributors?

DM: It started very grassroots. The idea had been percolating for some time, and we had the opportunity to put it into play during a pandemic. Then it was really just going through our Rolodex of people we knew and [asking], "Do you want to be involved in this?" A lot of people in [Volume II] found us through the first book. Others [came to us] from talking to earlier contributors. Some are die-hard naturalists; others come from different walks of life. Hopefully, it's representative of a lot of different voices.

SD: Volume II has more diversity than the first one. Was that deliberate?

DM: In Volume II, we definitely didn't want to just do the same thing. Part of the way this project is going to stay fresh, year in and year out, is to reflect the year that was, and you couldn't escape the racial reckoning that happened last year. And when we talk about living a life in tune with the land, these are traditions that transcend race.

One thing that bothers me is that old trope of the seventh-generation Vermonter versus the person who just moved here. I don't have any time for that. We're all Vermonters, and most of us live here because we love this place. Whether you live in Victory or in Burlington, there's certainly enough room for all of us.

SD: Seven Days often covers the clash between so-called traditional Vermont values and those of newer arrivals. Many of the latter don't appreciate hunting and trapping traditions. Did you try to accommodate those shifting attitudes?

Art by Amy Hook-Therrien in Vermont Almanac, Vol. II - COURTESY OF FOR THE LAND PUBLISHING
  • Courtesy Of For The Land Publishing
  • Art by Amy Hook-Therrien in Vermont Almanac, Vol. II

DM: We recognize that the world is changing. But we come from this world and this way of life that has a certain value system that we're espousing: raising your own crops, hunting and fishing and trapping, and taking a certain sacramental amount of food from nature.

What's disappeared in Vermont in a big way is the traditional family farm [based on] the 20th-century agriculture model. But ag itself hasn't disappeared. If you throw a rock in the air, you'll hit somebody who's a nurse/farmer or editor/sugar maker. [We wanted] to capture that and put a frame around that as useful and instructive. And it's hopeful, too. Ag is vibrant. It's just being practiced in different ways.

SD: Many aspects of this book don't seem traditionally Vermonty, such as the piece on inoculating logs with shiitake mushroom spores.

DM: We didn't necessarily set out to do this, but I've been pleased to see that, on balance, you come away thinking about how agriculture is thriving in Vermont. Whether it's inoculating shiitake or seeing the scale of Champlain Valley Hops, by focusing on all these little niche crops, in the aggregate you get this great sense of the energy of agriculture.

SD: Both Volumes I and II were produced during the pandemic. How did that affect the process?

DM: In some ways, obviously, it was challenging. It was hard for us, as editors and writers, to get out, whether because people weren't meeting face-to-face or whether you were home with your 4-year-old trying to get work done. The plus side is that there's been this great back-to-the-land rediscovery of simple things. So in some ways, we were brilliantly timed.

SD: Do you plan to release subsequent volumes?

DM: Yes. Our vision is that we're going to do one of these every year, and it's going to become a thing where people buy them and put them on their bookshelf. The writing is timeless enough that it stands alone. There are parts that people can use practically and other parts where people ask, "What year was that crazy 41-inch snowstorm?" And then they can go look it up.

SD: I was struck by the contrast of timeless pieces and cutting-edge science.

DM: We're grateful to old Vermonters for the way that they stewarded this land. We're inheritors of their wisdom, but we're also not living in the past. We're rediscovering and reinventing this stuff for the 21st century, and that's really exciting. So let's read about it.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Collective Wisdom"