Ahoy, polloi. While I am a fan of the Reformation, I take a circumspect view of change. This old salt has a soft spot for tradition, yes, but he was taught from an early age that the vagaries of life are best met by suppressing doubt and feeling with industriousness and booze. Mostly booze. Mine not to reason why. Nevertheless, I persisted.
Things change, of course. For instance, I’ve taken up residence in Vermont for a few weeks with a gal pal I dated between wife number two and wife number three (who is also wife number one, but that’s a story for another time).
I’ve wintered here all my life and during that time Vermont has, like old Digby’s marital status, seen three permutations. In my boyhood, it was a poor but charming backwater, chockablock with flinty, taciturn Yankees. By bright college years, hippies were making goat-milk ice cream and the cities were run by sex maniacs and communists. Now, Vermont’s resorts are as gauche as Saddam’s bathrooms, half the tourists don’t ski and one of the sex-maniac communists aspires to lead the free world.
The permanent things endure, of course. The Green Mountains are still beautiful and I’m told they still work them like dogs at the Putney School. Still, I have my doubts. Vermont has never been much for schools and still isn’t; consistency, I suppose. But you can’t have a student kicked by a mule in the Y of Our L 2020. The damn lawyers won’t have it.
Even the skiing has changed. Last year we got the best snow in ages, but the season is indisputably shrinking. Whatever the causes, and I won’t pretend to know a damned thing about them, the climate is changing. As a devoted conservationist, I’ve done my part. The four-door I keep at my summer cottage carries a ‘Preserve the Sound’ plate.
Which brings me, naturally, to Greta Thunberg, the Swedish sailor-girl who crossed the Atlantic last year in a sporty carbon-fiber vessel. Poor Greta seems angry, frightened and utterly convinced of our ability to change the world on a dime. That’s an uncommon attitude for a sailor, accustomed as we are to bargaining with weather, wind and tide. Tack carelessly and you’ll find yourself in irons or, worse, all wet.
Say what you will, she appears to be a competent sailor, especially for her age. Some will attribute Greta’s certainty to Asperger’s, but I think not. Youth is a more likely explanation. When I strode through Phelps Gate and onto the Street in ’89, I was full of vim and vigor, with big, bold plans to bend the world of junk bonds to my will. Those went the way of my waistline and slackened over time. That’s why God invented pleated pants.
As the gal pal clears away lunch and I watch the sun set over the woods, I think about young Greta, about my marriages, my career and all the vaporous dreams of youth, these last evanescent as a retreating shoreline. The world will be fine long after we’re gone. Plot your course and keep it. Steer the bow into the wave and don’t leave any rigging loose. Beat on, with or against the current doesn’t really matter. Hand on the tiller, Digby, eyes ahead.
The people behind Greta have their hands on the tiller. Her family are actors and singers, and the crown of Monaco floated her boat. The Monegasque royals haven’t made it this far by being any more profligate than you have to be to keep up appearances. To wit, an old friend, after a solid run at chemin de fer, was greeted en suite by two ladies sent ‘compliments of the principality’. He had the good sense to ask what they thought ‘compliments’ meant — and it was indeed lost in translation. Tighter than a tick with a dime, those Grimaldis. My friend swears he sent them packing, but that’s not for me to say.
The snow has picked up outside and the après-ski is making me wax poetic. You know, they buried old Bob Frost in Vermont, even though he was a Granite Stater. He of two roads diverging and the path less traveled by sleeps beneath the stony soil of a state where he hardly wrote a stanza. And that strikes me as a decent metaphor for this whole business.
We’re not choosing two paths in the woods. We’re wandering half blind through the implacable passage of time under an obstinately silent sky that doesn’t change even as we do. Best to view the whole thing as a highly successful charade, a well-honed marketing endeavor with nothing of substance at its core. Like Dartmouth.
This article is in The Spectator’s February 2020 US edition.