Leith Tonino has written a love letter to Vermont, and since I am Vermont-centric, nature-focused, and data obsessed, I loved "The Animal One Thousand Miles Long" ( University Press, 2018). The book takes its title from Aristotle's Poetics — the full quote is, "We lose the sense of its unity and wholeness/as we look it over; imagine, for instance, an animal a thousand miles long."
Tonino, a twenty-something writer, was born and raised in the Champlain Valley. He spent a decade hiking, working, and writing in the West and then drove 48 hours non-stop to return to and write about his beloved Green Mountain State. In 20 chapters, he explores the breadth and depth of Vermont. In one typical data-driven paragraph, he describes Vermont's "surface area replete with 54 species of mammal, 254 species of birds, 21 amphibians, 19 reptiles and 20,000 or so insect species." In another, he highlights the ecology, pioneer history, and literary traditions by quoting Middlebury's John Elder and Shaftsbury's Robert Frost.
Tonino takes us from Glastenbury, a ghost town in the southeast corner of the state, to Jay Peak at the Canadian end of the Long Trail and dozens of points in between, and along the way, we meet many of Vermont's citizens. The 251 Club, comprising members whose goal is to visit every one of Vermont's 251 towns, gets a nod, and the Frostbiters, a group of Ferrisburgh kayakers who don neoprene suits and kayak Lake Champlain in below zero weather, get an entire chapter.
The central character for Tonino, however, is Vermont's natural history. Chapters on snow geese, cormorants, and the Christmas Bird Count highlight the avian world around us. The woods, palisades, open fields, ponds, and mountains play important supporting roles.
Physical activity, often of the extreme kind, is another primary focus as Tonino shares his adventures in hiking, rock climbing, and bike riding in rather extreme forms. He adds his experiences with more esoteric sports such as biathlon where he intersperses lung crushing Nordic skiing with the stillness required for extraordinary rifle target shooting. There's even a chapter on Jack Jumping, a unique Vermont sport in which one hurtles down ski trails while sitting on a board mounted on a single ski — fun, but not for the faint-hearted!
Tonino writes with verve and style, occasionally getting carried away with an overly flowery sentence or an overwrought metaphor, but mostly crafting fine phrases and beautiful images. He describes approaching the pre-dawn gathering of birders for the Christmas Bird Count in a caf which "stands out from a row of closed shops and sleepy apartments, as if the whole town were a single dark house, the lights left on in this one room." He is guided through his first Bird Count report by Mike with a "fatherly tone of a T-ball coach." He walks across empty fields bounded by "barbed wire fences sifting the wind." This is fine writing, present on nearly every page, engaging the reader and delighting the nature lover.
While I enjoyed the entire book, my favorite chapters were the final two. In a chapter entitled "Return to Silver Fields," Tonino introduces us to Rowland Evans Robinson, who was born in Ferrisburgh in 1833 and died in the same house in 1900, a house bought in 1793 by his grandparents and named Rokeby. Robinson "knew rural life and wrote about it" in numerous magazine articles in The Atlantic and Scribners and in 14 books, one of which was entitled "Silver Fields." Growing up within a walk of Rokeby, Tonino experienced the same land, water, sky, and a special tree that Robinson knew and loved, and he developed a "sense of place enriched with a thousand noticed details." It is this noticing that allows the reader to enter Tonino's world in which "everything comes rushing back: the smell of spruce and wood smoke, the faint jingle of sleigh bells, the stillness within which all else is cupped." He goes on to write that "the act of reading and the act of walking have twined themselves together to form for me a life."
The final chapter, entitled "Seven Lengths of Vermont," is a testimony to the author's physical conditioning and his brilliance as a conceptual artist as he shares seven methods he conceived for exploring the state from end to end and side to side. He walks the Long Trail's 273 miles in 22 days; he hitchhikes across Vermont from its borders with Canada, Massachusetts, New York, and New Hampshire with 51 strangers and 36 rides over five days; he spends three weeks skiing the 300-mile Catamount Trail from Massachusetts to Canada; he spends a week biking more than 500 miles wending his way from south to north and west to east; he paddles 260 miles of the Connecticut River with his father from Canaan to Vernon; in perhaps the strangest of his self-imposed challenges, he swims/floats 120 miles of Lake Champlain from Benson Landing to Alburgh's causeway; and finally, he spends four hours in a two-seat airplane surveying the Green Mountain State from above.
As someone who has completed 90 miles of the Long Trail, logged 82 miles in walking the length of every street in Cambridge, Mass., and hiked the 3.5-mile loop trail on Rowe Hill behind our home in Brownsville 366 times, once on every date of the calendar, I was totally enthralled with Tonino's concept and execution of "Seven Lengths of Vermont" and his "belief in the unbounded potential for exploration close to home."
So in case you have missed it, I loved this book. It may not be the ideal book for everyone, but if you are an outdoors person, a naturalist, an athlete, a lover of Vermont, or someone who enjoys a good story, well told, I think you'll enjoy curling up with this book on a cold winter night.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Cambridge, Mass. and Brownsville, Vt. His website, www.EpsteinReads.com has over 1,000 ideas for what to read next, and he can be reached there.