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The Way I See It: Who Says Nothing in Life is Free?

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I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we appear to have adopted our eastern neighbor’s motto, “Live Free or Die.” With a twist.

Vermont has become the “Live Free, not Buy” state.

That’s the only conclusion that makes sense, given that “free” signs, on cardboard and plywood or even flimsy paper, seem to sprout these days along our roadsides — sort of like burdocks, except intentionally planned.

This proliferation of signs advertising “free” stuff at the end of the driveway, and along the fence on dirt roads or paved lanes, is now at the level of an extraordinary phenomena. Our pandemic-inspired house sprucing up, attic emptying, and basement cleaning seem to have turned this offering of the unwanted, the unused, the obsolete and antique into a veritable frenzy of hopeful dispersion. And delusion.

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As in, hoping someone will take the stuff I don’t want and I won’t then have to deal with and pay to dispose of it at the waste transfer station.

This aspiration for some miraculous Junkyard JuJu manifests itself in remarkable ways. Most amusing and baffling are the many fabric-covered couches, left outside along dusty major thoroughfares for months, as if some furniture fairy — a demented cousin to the tooth fairy — is going to come along and pluck it away, leaving a happy empty space (sort of a tooth fairy in reverse).

Now I admit, sometimes there’s a tarp over the couch, but after a week or two, usually the tarping ends. But the couch always remains, perhaps with a rug to keep it from getting lonely. Then the couches sit there, mouldering away, a test of product and material chemistry offering visual evidence of what is biodegradable and what is not.

Then there are the disintegrating cardboard boxes whose picked-over remains, exposed to the elements for months, now hold old CDs; water-soaked puzzles and books; a motley assortment of plates, cups and utensils; and even electronic devices — the performance of which is likely not enhanced by clouds of dust or clouds that unleash downpours. Basically the stuff no one wants, the dregs and detritus of inevitable obsolescence, provide a happy gathering spot for mold spores.

Some folks are “pilers,” their preferred showcase methodology (using the term loosely), offering a pile of stuff spread out over 10 feet along the road, hoping something will catch a motorist’s eye at 40 mph. A lone tire, say, a couple of rusty bikes, stuff that looks like clothing, or blankets, or a few old window sashes and a screen door, a 50-year-old set of skis, a few tools, and the ubiquitous plastic plant buckets.

Like taxes and monthly bills, many of these are recurring events, with additions every few weeks to lure new eyes and past visitors. I admit this works. I confess that on one of my routine mountain bike routes, there are two driveway piles I’ve stopped at more than once. (And then hidden stuff I’ve wanted in the bushes, so I can come back after my ride to pick them up in the car.)

Who says nothing in life is “free?”

Now, you could argue that this is Vermontism at its best. It is true, Vermonters have been known as a thrifty sort, adhering to Silent Cal’s admonition to “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

Or today, just pass it along, freely.

Of course Calvin Coolidge, native Vermonter and 30th president of the U.S., died in 1933, and never experienced the digital cornucopias of Amazon or aisles of a Walmart or Costco. The resulting excess of stuff we all collect has to go somewhere.

Back in the day, as they say, it went in the Back 40. When I bought my old farmhouse in Calais, it had a classic collection of rusted old cars in the woods, plus requisite tire piles, pipes and plumbing equipment, old machinery parts, piles of old bricks, galvanized roofing, and concrete blocks. I also know of at least three “dumps” in the woods where I’ve scavenged great old glass bottles, back when that was a thing.

In the hippie heyday of the ‘70s, every self-respecting farmhouse had its old car (or tractor and implements) collection, either in the front yard, by the garage or out behind the house or barn somewhere. No one would ever think of giving away a vehicle or tractor whose parts might be needed some day. Or in the rapture.

But times have changed, as have our environmental understandings. Silent Cal would probably not be so silent upon hearing that a 50-gallon trash can will set you back $5–10 bucks and a car tire $5.

Don’t even ask about what a sofa might cost.

We’re a state of free thinkers now. 

Longtime writer and journalist Andrew Nemethy plans to hold an epic yard sale someday. The free pile will be awesome.