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Kinsey Reports 

A family farm in the Northeast Kingdom produces sibling scribes

Published June 25, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

"All this is your heritage now," Leland Kinsey writes in a poem, "as it is preserved here, make of it what you will." The speaker is ostensibly referring to pickles. But he could just as well be stating the core theme of Kinsey's work and that of his sister, children's author Natalie Kinsey-Warnock. The writing of both siblings is grounded in their intimate knowledge, experience and love of the Northeast Kingdom farm that has sustained the Kinsey family for 200 years. Fiction and poetry have taken the place of a progression of crops --milk, maple syrup, potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, apples, chickens, pigs, corn and peas --grown in the shadow of Miles Hill before the family farm in Barton went under in 1969.

Leland has published three volumes of poetry and was Buckham Scholar at the University of Vermont in 1995. In the last 16 years, Natalie has published 19 books, many of which have garnered praise and awards. Earlier this year, Eunice and Louise Kinsey -- two Rowell sisters who married two Kinsey brothers -- wrote and illustrated a double biography, The Rowell Girls; Two Generations of a Vermont Farm Family.

Leland, who's seven years Natalie's senior, left Barton for college shortly after the farm went bust. He didn't plan to return, but did after receiving his MA at Syracuse University, to be closer to the location that inspires his work. Natalie grew up determined never to live elsewhere, and hasn't. Her brother has three children and writes for adults. She writes for children, but has none.

Leland and Natalie don't resemble one another temperamentally -- he's reserved with strangers, she's loquacious. Nor do they look alike, except for the blue-gray eyes. But both have put in countless hours at elementary and high schools working with students -- he in Vermont through the Vermont Arts Council Writers in Schools project, she nation-wide as a guest lecturer to get kids interested in writing. The siblings speak highly of each other's work and both produce works that couldn't have been written anywhere else.

Leland Kinsey, 53, lives on the outskirts of Barton, about seven miles from where he grew up. He seems staunch, somehow, his skin ruddy from time spent outdoors. When he speaks, his voice is evenly modulated and gentle, with occasional outbursts of broad, barking laughter. His once-dark hair is going gray, and a moustache neatly brackets his upper lip.

Leland showed his literary proclivities at an early age. In fifth grade, his desk bulged with the beginnings of a novel scrawled on loose sheets of arithmetic paper. He took an English class with Howard Frank Mosher during his senior year of high school, and then again as a student at UVM. The author of Stranger in the Kingdom and Where The Rivers Flow North remembers Kinsey as "far and away the best student I ever had."

Speaking by phone from Portland, Oregon, where he's promoting his new novel, Mosher calls Kinsey "the most authentic and original New England writer since Robert Frost." Calling him "Vermont's leading poet," Mosher ranks Kinsey among America's most talented narrative poets, describing him as a master of "fresh, startling and unusual images."

Since 1993, Kinsey has published three volumes of verse: Family Drives, Not One Man's Work and Sledding on Hospital Hill -- Mosher's favorite. "He writes about the Northeast Kingdom from the inside out rather than from the outside in," Mosher says. The collection glitters with images, stories and memories of rural Vermont life. Kinsey writes about feasts of weeds, ferrying tractors, his extraordinary family. Many of his poems offer a meditation on history. "One Life's Work" lifts excerpts verbatim from his grandmother's diary. In "An Old Man's Recipe For Tongue Pickles," Kinsey writes:

I am going to tell you

what one man would not,

who told me only when he knew

I was the one who would help

him through death.

Peel and slice 3 gal. ripe cucumbers,

Big cukes, almost gone to golden.

Cut them in half lengthwise and scoop out

the seeds with a spoon,

almost like gutting a trout,

then cut in big chunks.

Put in crock at noc.,

A kind of gardener's nocturne,

when outside work is done.

Old stoneware crocks are rare -

find one or have one made,

it will outlast you.

The poem continues its peculiar, particular and illuminating meditation on inheritance, culminating in an invitation to interpret one's heritage. Kinsey doesn't cram history lessons down your throat, and insists that he's "not writing biography." Rather, he sees himself as mining "life as experienced here" to make larger truths visible through the prism of the particular. "Poems are those moments of recognition," he says, "either a deepening, or a revelation."

Though Kinsey is thoroughly uncynical at the root, his writing is neither sentimental nor whitewashed. His poems tease insight from memories of incidents like pelting wasp nests with apples, and from layers of community history both comforting and uncomfortable. "He combines a profound understanding of family and community, which so many poets seem alienated from," says Mosher. "At the same time, he's very clear-eyed about both. He doesn't pull his punches."

Natalie Kinsey-Warnock is still living where she always intended to stay. Her timber-framed house is built on land where the family's cattle once grazed. Her parents live next door. Her husband, Tom Warnock, a physics lab coordinator at UVM, tools around on a tractor in a field below the house. Kinsey-Warnock has a broad smile, and short, dark-blonde hair. Her nose has been broken more than once. She is initially awkward with strangers, but as she hits her stride, she speaks with passion and confidence. Her strong hands embellish her speech, and her eyes widen expressively. She laughs brightly, and often.

When she was in high school, Kinsey-Warnock's first short story, about a small-town girl getting to know her father, the town's sexton, won a contest in Seventeen -- a magazine she adamantly swears she never read. At 30, she published her first book, The Canada Geese Quilt.

Now 46, Kinsey-Warnock still reacts to her career with some surprise, laughing about how little she knew of the publishing world when she started writing. "This chair knows more about getting a book published than I did," she says, slapping the peeling arm of her red Adirondack chair. She never planned to be a writer, and doesn't seem to think of herself in those terms, in spite of her success. "Leland's the writer in the family!" she insists, emphasizing the word "writer."

Natalie's fiction is informed by her family history. She undertook The Canada Geese Quilt -- based on her grandmother, a masterful quilter -- after her grandmother suffered a stroke. All of her books are peppered with events and characters from her ancestral history. Critics have praised her lyrical narrative style. "She shows a gentle touch in peeling back the small layers of life to reveal simple epiphanies," writes Publishers Weekly.

She has an ear for good stories, and a quick sympathy for history's underdogs. Though people tend to think of their ancestors as "old, boring, dead people," she says, "every family has these amazing stories. You may not know them now, but you can find them."

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kinsey-Warnock's role model, had similar beginnings. "She didn't start writing until she was 60," Kinsey-Warnock points out, "and then only because she realized the stories in her family were too good to be forgotten."

With the help of her sister Helen -- a microbiologist by day and genealogist in her spare time -- Kinsey-Warnock has discovered scores of stories in oral histories and historical archives. A Doctor Like Papa (2002) deals with physicians working in Vermont during the global influenza outbreak of 1918-1919. The story of her "great-great-great-great-great aunt" who, at age 3 was cared for by a bear for four days in 1783, found its way into The Bear That Heard Crying (1993).

Grace Greene, the Children's Services Consultant with the Vermont Department of Libraries, notes that Kinsey-Warnock's writing is "deeply rooted" in the rural Vermont experience. "Her books are very popular around here. Her writing resonates very strongly with many Vermonters." There are many children's authors in Vermont, Greene says, but most of them are not native, and not many of them write with the intimate understanding of growing up here.

When asked what she's working on now, she says without hesitation, "Fifty books." Many of them concern neglected subjects, such as auctions of the poor in Vermont. Despite the state's anti-slavery law, indigent people were once sold as property. She's also exploring the relationships between German POWS and their 'host' towns in New England during WWII and America's greatest ship disaster -- the explosion of the Sultana, a steamboat carrying 2300 Civil War POWS from the south to the north. Four hundred people survived, among them one of Kinsey-Warnock's ancestors.

Kinsey-Warnock's grandfather surfaces in many of her books, too, and one of her 50 works-in-progress is about his life. As an adult, he could lift a grown hog, hold a 300-lb barrel of syrup over his head, and carry 100-lb sacks of grain in his teeth. At 63, he was crushed by a tractor -- an accident that's described in one of Kinsey's poems.

Both Leland and Natalie write about the Northeast Kingdom in a language born from decades of inquisitive familiarity. Their parents encouraged them to learn the precise names of the plants, animals and constellations around them. For both writers, their accurate descriptions are a token of their regard for --and intimate knowledge of --the local landscape.

Leland's poems are thick with seasonal observations of "the pungent abundance at the edge of things:" yellow rattle, hawkweed, steeplebush, bedstraw, ragweed, horseradish coltsfoot and tansy, to name just a few. Mosher -- who fishes with Kinsey -- says, "It's a joy to go fishing with Leland, and not only because he's a good friend, but because he knows the name of every fish, every flower, every bird and every tree." Kinsey's verdant vocabulary springs from a lifetime of inquiry, rather than a casual quick walk through a botany book. "I set out to know what was before me so I could name it," says Kinsey.

Kinsey-Warnock also draws on a scientific vocabulary, to the occasional dismay of editors. Few kids today know aster, chokeberries, butternuts -- or what a catamount is -- but Natalie refuses to talk down to the reader. "What's wrong with them learning?" she asks. "This dumbing down -- I refuse to be a part of it. You have to paint a picture in somebody's mind, and 'flower' doesn't paint a picture. To me it seems a lie not to say what it is."

In As Long As There Are Mountains (1997), the most directly autobiographical of Kinsey-Warnock's young adult novels, 13-year old Iris Anderson muses about family farm finances:

Father tells a joke about a farmer who wins a million dollars. Folks ask him what he's going to do with it and the farmer says, "Well, I guess I'll just keep farming till it's all gone," and I'd say that just about sums up farming, economically speaking.

"It's hard, manual work," and rarely profitable, Kinsey-Warnock clarifies. Besides the difficulty in just doing the necessary work to keep things going, bad luck can ruin a farm. In As Long As There Are Mountains, the family's barn burns down with livestock still inside, the family is crushed by financial hardship, and a parent loses a limb: I'd seen him out in the woods, his gray face twisted in pain, the flash of white bone poking through the bloody meat of his leg, and it had been enough. Eventually the family is forced to sell the farm. "That was our life," says Kinsey-Warnock. The Kinsey family history includes numerous tragedies, including a cousin who fell into the corn chopper, and didn't come out again. And, of course, selling the herd.

Such hazards are plain in Leland's poem, "Small Wounds and Minor Ailments," which chronicles a broad and gruesome spectrum of injuries, including shoving the tines of a pitchfork through his own foot. The work was unrelenting. "My father didn't take a vacation until I was 16," Kinsey recalls. "I remember him stopping to throw up in the gutter."

Though Kinsey's own three children all help the extended family with sugaring, they are not aspiring farmers. The poet doesn't express any regrets in this department, but wonders at the differences in parent-child relationships on and off the farm. "Though it was difficult and dangerous, the chores and the work that was required was seen as necessary and even helpful to the family."

"The chores that kids do around the house, like taking out the trash, don't have the same gravitas as turning the hay because if it molds it isn't going to feed the cows through the winter. Quite often you see this disjunct between kids and their families. Quite often there's poor, or no understanding of what their parents do, there's not that immediate connection to their work and the work of the family."

Kinsey-Warnock comments that although the work was hard, it laid a sound foundation for her sense of self. No work "allowances" were made for her femininity -- and the way she says "allow-ances" makes it clear that she would consider such exceptions a disadvantage. She and her brothers were expected to do whatever needed doing -- and she still expects the same of herself. "Even if it seemed like a physical impossibility, we never said, 'We can't do that.' It was more like, 'How are we going to do that?'"

Although it's been years since he last injured himself on farm equipment, Kinsey's poetic route hasn't been pain-free, either. As Mosher says, somewhat ruefully, "I can't think of any other type of writing as difficult as writing poetry."

"Poets in America -- what a foolish thing to be!" laughs Kinsey. "It's difficult... but a lot of things are."

Kinsey's next volume of poetry will likely be African-inspired. He's been a regular visitor to Tanzania, where his cousin has been working for 25 years. But his travels in no way minimize his long-term commitment to Vermont.

Kinsey-Warnock maintains an almost fierce love of the land where she grew up. The character of Iris in As Long As There Are Mountains perhaps best articulates Kinsey-Warnock's sense of belonging. Contemplating a move to White River Junc-tion, she muses,

I was afraid of losing what meant the most to me: this land, my roots, my footing in this dark, stony soil. I doubted that anyone ever had felt deeper roots than I felt for my home, the farm, and the land... I was like one of those stars, held in place by invisible strings that when cut would send me spinning, out of control, through the sky until I hit unknown forces and burned up.

To a stranger passing through, the landscape, though beautiful, looks much like many other forested farming communities in New England. Could Kinsey-Warnock's affection for the landscape be transplanted to, say, New Hampshire?

She thinks this over a moment, then leans forward urgently. "I wouldn't have Miles Hill," she says, pointing to the rise of land facing her front porch. "There's a 12-acre field up there -- it's my favorite place in the world. I am here. This is where my ancestors came. They didn't come over to that place in New Hampshire. This is where my father has lived. This is where my family lives. There's something here that endures.

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About The Author

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