Women need a place they can swim naked.
The yellowed pages have been pressed paper thin, shadowing near the binding. They make a faint sound like dry grass when turned. There is a black and white photograph of a man bending over, chopping wood; two young boys saw back and forth through a tree. Instructing: this is how you build a cabin; this is how you make a home.
This house, the barn, and the fifty acres surrounding it are collectively owned in a trust for women. One woman painted a yellow sun, either rising or setting, on the side of the house. Years later, another woman built a wooden gate around the trashcans in the barn. She painted it yellow, to match the sun.
Upstairs, in a room with a slanted orange ceiling and worn floral couch, there is a full bookshelf, overflow lining the top of a large wardrobe.
There are two small bedrooms empty except for some paint cans. Downstairs there are two square bedrooms, one for a resident, one a guest room. In the living room, there are white binders with hand drawn maps, plant guides, blueprints. Decorated notebooks filled with letters and musings of guests and residents.
"DECEMBER 1997 - IT’S GETTING VERY CLOSE TO WINTER SOLSTICE…" reads the first page of one of the books in buoyant red letters. "A GOOD TIME TO BEGIN A ‘GUEST BOOK.’ I HOPE ANY ♀ WHO VISITS THIS LAND WILL WRITE IN THIS BOOK… DRAW IN IT… PUT A PHOTO IN IT. ME… MY NAME IS GLO..."
I meet Glo at a cafe in Richmond, Vermont, before I make my first trip to HOWL. Glo walks in the same upbeat, not quite spacey, but halting and pensive way she writes. She wears a jacket and a fleece, billowy blue pants with dragonflies on them, Crocs and wool socks. She and another woman sit down across from me.
“This is Susan,” says Glo. Susan stirs a cup of coffee. Glo leans forward, tapping her fingers along the table’s edge. Glo is missing a part of three of her fingers on her right hand. Neither woman wears any rings. Both talk of their children, long grown. Glo mentions a former husband, long gone. Glo has short white hair and thick brown eyebrows. She is seventy-four, with fine hairs all over her face.
“Have you ever lived at the end of a dirt road?” she asks. She has. A founding mother of Huntington Open Women’s Land, HOWL, and a member of the Collective, she spent eighteen years living at the end of a dirt road. Now she lives with her lover -- she says the word with a flourish and a smile -- her lover, Susan, in Burlington, the city. It’s manageable, because they live by Lake Champlain and Glo gets a glimpse of the vastness she needs there.
“The sense of looking down at the world, across it.” That was Glo’s favorite part of living at HOWL. You can hike the property to Grandmother Tree, and look out over mountains and valleys. But it’s not for everyone. It’s isolated, but also “not a place for people who want to live alone.” Holly, the current resident, has been living there by herself, but she’s on her way out. The Collective is in the process of interviewing new candidates for residency.
“So you have questions,” Glo says. “Fire away.”
“What do you look for when you interview someone?” I ask.
“Someone friendly, who can handle the winters, who is open to community.”
“You seem pretty friendly,” Glo says.
I have broad shoulders and a firm handshake. Calloused hands and direct eye contact. And I realize Glo thinks I am trying to move in. That this is my interview. I have my Swiss Army knife in the pocket of my pink vest, zipped up over my men’s plaid flannel shirt. I am not wearing a bra. I push my glasses up my nose with my finger and I don’t correct her. Glo leans and peers over the rim of Susan’s coffee cup to see if she has finished, if it is time for them to show me the way to HOWL.
The winter was a long, cold one, and now it is mud season, which comes before spring. The drive up the hill to the house is slow to avoid branches and deep ruts where the road has been weathered. There was a wild windstorm that cracked branches off the tree right next to the house. The house was built in the 1800s, “not by rich folk.” It’s white with a new tin roof and a lopsided garage. There is an old wood stove and a new gas one, and running water, though it is not potable at the moment. There is an outhouse but also a working bathroom, though you have to put the toilet paper in a trashcan. Adjacent is the barn, which settled down crooked a few years back when the women hired a man to dig a ditch along it for drainage and he dug too close to the foundation.
“I’d live here again,” Glo says in almost every place she shows me. In the years she lived at HOWL, she slept in almost every room for some period of time. Holly seems startled when we open the red front door, dazed and in white long underwear. She goes into her bedroom and puts shorts on over her thermals. Glo is polite, but mutters under her breath that she’ll fill me in when we get outside.
“Holly has been complaining about critters since she moved in,” Glo says, “Termites? Ants? -- I lived there for eighteen years and only ever had one rat.” Which she caught and drove down to the Audubon Society.
I guess the mouse nest she cleaned out a few days ago and the garter snakes she used to find in her heated waterbed, and the ferret who came inside and ate the dog’s food and the swallows that fly through the upstairs of the barn don’t count as “critters.”
Glo has a lot of favorite things about HOWL: “Watching the moon rise over that place, being close to nature, picnics, cookouts.” She shows me the small pond. The path is blocked in a few places by tree limbs, cracked and trailing the ground. I duck under one big branch and then turn around to find Susan and Glo, short white hair zigzagging in the wind, leaning their weight against the wood, pulling it to the side. They give up, out of breath and skirt around the bough. There is a work day coming up, anyways. One of the privileges of being part of the Collective is the chance to clean, plant, paint, build. “Women need a place they can swim naked.”
“I built that,” Glo says, pointing to a half-caved-in sauna. Glo remembers something everywhere, and everywhere sees something to be done. A rusted fire pit, a tree hung with empty bird feeders, a stone Buddha. Upturned rabbit cages from the farmers, who say they are going to come back and clear them out, an outhouse with a rainbow flag fluttering over the door.
All these remnants from members of the Collective and the women who have lived and visited are scattered across the land. Then there is a small burial ground, the Memorial Garden, with six stone piles, marking women’s ashes. A crow perches on the one furthest from us. From a distance it looks real, but it is rusted metal. It does not fly away.
“That is my mother’s crow,” says Glo. We stand next to a bench that has blown over.
In the last days that her mother was breathing, losing lucidity and life, there were crows on the roof next door. They watched them out the window. We look at the crocuses that are pushing up around the stones, look at the green protecting dark purple. The flowers haven’t opened yet. The rest of the landscape is brown, a silverish shimmer of new wood where branches have split off trees.
* * *
I ask Crow how many women she thinks have fallen in love at HOWL. She laughs long and clear. “Many.” She breaks the word into two long syllables. Carol “Crow” Cohen is a petite seventy-two-year-old Jewish woman with a thick purple strip in her grey hair. She started going by Crow in the 80s to distance herself from the patriarchy. An act of naming, an intentional choosing of self. She has a big nose and a tan face that creases easily where she smiles. She wears large red glasses, speckled with color, and runs her right hand up and down the bare skin of her arm as we speak. The leukemia took a lot of energy out of her, but she has started work again on her memoir about HOWL. She is smiling as she shakes her head and exhales. “I would say a lot, a lot of women probably have fallen in love at HOWL."
“I admit,” she says, “I was one of them.”
In the early 70s, when Crow had just moved to Vermont with her husband and two children, she began to actively seek out communities of women. And a space away from everything, the confines and constructs of her heterosexual life. She and her husband owned a small cabin and she went there by herself. To smoke pot and get naked, write and contemplate life and woman. Woman as one, as an entity of her own.
“When I was a kid, Parents magazine put out a subsidiary journal for girls called Polly Pigtails, and Polly and her friends had a little club house for girls.” Crow sprays a minty gel into her mouth, to ease the effects of radiation. “G-I-R-L-Z only, and that just sparked my imagination”.
* * *
In September Holly put everything she could fit in her SUV and drove to Vermont from Huntsville, Alabama. Men in the South are different, she tells me. “If you need help with your car in the South,” she says, looking out the window at my car, which is parked in the gravel driveway. “Like the tire is flat, or it’s smoking or something.” She waits for me to nod. “You just stand outside and look scared and there will be three men in a pick-up truck there in three minutes to save you.” She sees my skeptical look. “Don’t try and pay them. They’ll be offended. They live for that.” I can’t tell if she thinks this is a good thing.
She took a recon road trip to Vermont, where she found a sign on the grave of Bill Wilson, founder of AA. And the sign was this: a six month token, a six year token, a blank stone space, and then a 26 year token. Holly was 16 years sober and the universe was leaving her a trail of breadcrumbs.
The living room is stacked with boxes, folded blankets, hangers. Holly has packed almost everything except her books and art supplies, which are organized neatly on a wall of shelves in her bedroom. There is a pile of purple pens on the windowsill and a framed quote: "I wish I could write as mysterious as a cat." Edgar Allan Poe on her desk. She collects first editions of John Irving books and she gently takes her favorite, A Widow for a Year, off the shelf, dusting the edges and running her fingers over the cover before she puts it back. The floor is covered in pencil shavings.
“Usually I’m very neat,” she says. I’m not sure if I believe her. She starts cleaning in the kitchen, running water in the sink over piled dishes, clearing half-eaten hummus and yogurt containers and subway wrappers and open cans of dog food off the counter. She chugs the last ounces of a liter of Mountain Dew before throwing the bright green bottle in one of the trash bags. She is pale and fleshy, wearing a faded navy blue jersey, logo and lettering scraped off. Enormous black basketball shorts bisect her belly. Her long brown hair is stringy and looks greasy, pulled back tightly with a scrunchie. You can see the pale skin of her scalp from between patches of hair. She didn’t have any winter clothes when she moved into HOWL. “Snow,” she says, “is like a hug from God.” The power went out during the winter, for seven days. One day, she remembers, she stepped outside, into the white, the snow, the complete and utter silence. It was magic. “I felt like an astronaut on the moon.” That, she says, is what she liked about living at HOWL. The rest is complicated. “I was the least religious of my friends,” she says. “All I did was drive 1,700 miles and now I am the most religious person any of my friends.” She had her new pastor and his wife over to HOWL for dinner once. They ate at the wooden table under a painting of a naked blue woman. When they left, Holly’s eyes widened as she realized what they had broken bread beneath.
Holly likes the town of Huntington, the library and the church, the foliage and the AA meetings she’d started. Her new pastor helped her find a room there. His sons are going to come up with a truck to help her move out.
“There is a reason I didn’t rush a sorority,” she says. She shakes her head and purses her lips. “I do not do well with female interpersonal drama.” She has a tattoo of a bull on her ankle, and a shooting star.
“I’m not gay.” She puts a lot of emphasis on the word “not” and rolls her eyes as if it is a thing she has to say a lot.
“The thing is,” she says, “HOWL, it’s not a lesbian space, it’s a women’s space.” I nod.
“Sometimes I feel like God double crossed me,” she jokes. She waits to see if I laugh. “I’m not gay, I’m just not. But I have bad luck with men.”
* * *
The founding mothers of HOWL may have had bad luck with men, but “luck” implies randomness, not the reoccurring narrative they call patriarchy. They went to the woods because in the cities and suburbs and towns they felt their lives drawn out in straight lines.
“HOWL developed from the energy of several of the women in the Burlington Women’s Community that were working on a radical feminist newspaper called The Commonwommon,” Crow says. There was a lot of momentum -- separatist energy, loud conversations, a rise in women’s lands throughout the United States. Crow visited some of these all-female communities. “A lot of it was just lesbian land, but the founding group wanted women’s land.” A resource for any woman who wandered by or sought it out. They purchased HOWL in 1986, as “space for women-only that feels safe and energetic,” with open doors except to men, where “we can do what we want on it and not be bothered by male energy.”
For Holly, HOWL was a roof. A place to blog and work on her novel and live with her dog. The sheep farmers that lived there before her, they got involved in the Collective, invested in the community. They studied the soil, reclaimed the pasturelands, fought often and loudly, and eventually bought their own farm in the Northeast Kingdom. There was a Cherokee feminist sun ritual every July for Native American women from all over the country; writers retreats, music festivals. Crow hosted Jewish lesbian gatherings and now runs a twelve-step retreat at HOWL every month.
Crow has written about HOWL before, is in the process of doing so again. She keeps the archive in the corner of a room in her Burlington apartment. A lopsided stack of cardboard boxes filled with manila folders, photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, handwritten notes. They document visitors, meetings, issues of race, gender, age. Open Women’s land: no gatekeepers, no individual owner, no hierarchy. “Now one of the things that HOWL has attracted over the years is women in crisis. Abused women, homeless women, mentally ill women,” women who needed more then HOWL can provide, many of whom were not collective or cooperative. But there are no gatekeepers, no individual owner, no hierarchy. When Crow sat down with the Collective and began rewriting the bylaws and examining the infrastructure of HOWL, there was a lot of resistance. “There were women up there who believed it should be anarchistic and not so many rules and not policies,” says Crow.
Deciding how to spell ♀ took a long time. And it doesn’t seem like they came to any definitive conclusion. The blog and the Facebook page and the official documents spell the name differently. That’s the thing about a Collective, about coming to a consensus. There is women, woman, and then there is womyn and wommin and wimmin. Many variations; just no man, no men.
* * *
Michelle speaks quietly, her grey hair pushed behind her ears. She shakes my hand tentatively and smiles. At fifty-seven she is the youngest member of the Collective. She wears a sun charm around her neck and a glass bead bracelet. Michelle says everyone is nervous about having the house empty. “You need boots on the ground” to keep a place secure. Especially the house at the end of a dirt road, “right here with nature coming in.”
The house is over 150 years standing, the basement like an old root cellar. Cool, packed dirt floor, the ceiling the underbelly of the floorboards. Heat leaks out and cold seeps in through the stone foundation. Michelle wants to see the house cut down energy use, thinks that they could spray some sort of foam between the stones to insulate. “The whole house is like an envelope,” she says, mapping with her hands the way it is all connected, from the basement to the small bedroom on the second floor she is helping repaint.
Michelle likes to come up to HOWL and do projects. She wants to carve out hiking trails and reroof the barn, farm the land and update social media. She wants to get chainsaw certified so she can clear dead trees. She hosted a retreat at the house a few weeks back, had everyone sit in a circle and use a talking stick. “I had to grow up before I could call myself a feminist,” she says, her foot tap tap tapping on the rug. She has been reading a lot about bisexuality. Married to a man, but at a place where she wants to learn about her herself as a woman, she talks slowly, thinking over her words, experiences, the road ahead.
* * *
“We have a pig,” Stephie says. She has a big smile and bright red glasses framed by wavy white hair. “Well, it’s the neighbor's actually, but it gets into the trash.” She goes inside the house and changes from a long flowy skirt into faded jeans, loose on her strong wiry frame, and a blue tank top, a silver necklace lying flat against her chest. Stephie is seventy-two and learned about HOWL six months ago from a group she belongs to, SOAL. Single Older Active Lesbians.
We drag a plastic bin from the barn and start picking up the flattened tin cans, plastic bottles, and wrappers that are scattered behind the house -- from the pig. “I was hoping to get this picked up before you got here,” Stephie says, creeping through an overgrown thicket to get a warped Mountain Dew bottle. She has a deep voice, trailing off here and there, the same way she moves. From conversation, to piece of trash, to silently scanning the ground before remembering, “I had things I wanted to say,” she fishes a piece of plastic from between branches and stands up.
She didn’t save for retirement. She rents out rooms in her house to women, modeling her living situation after Dykes to Watch Out For, a comic strip by an idol, Alison Bechdel.
“I could come to HOWL. I could pay the rent and buy food, and live and that is a relief.” She slices her hands horizontally through the air on the word “relief.” She says that of course what she really wants is what everyone really wants is to find a sweetie and move somewhere and live together and be in love. “I’m trying to get my life together."
There is a hip-high pile of rocks north of the house, set in a dent in the land.
“Just a big pile of rocks,” says Stephie. She hasn’t seen this pile before. She stands at the raised rim of earth around the stones, spreads her arms out, and breathes through her nose. Closes her eyes. The breeze has picked up, the air is warm, surrounds us with noise, a soft rustle of the grass. The sun streaks through the clouds. She turns to me and asks, “You know the thing about these rocks?” She answers herself. “Just a big pile of rocks, that was moved here by women.” She says the word “women” like a prayer. She tilts her head and walks around the pile, rearranging stones, bending down to move rocks that have rolled off back into the pile.
“Men are important,” Stephie says. “For having babies. And they can lift heavy things.” She pauses in her steps to think of other possible uses. “But I’m scared of them,” she says, because if you need them, you can’t leave. If you depend on them you are stuck.
“Have you ever been married?” I ask.
“Once,” she says, looking down at her feet stepping through the yellow grass. “Well, twice actually.” She makes eye contact and shrugs her pale shoulders. “I wanted babies.”
She has two grown children, a girl she doesn’t worry about, and a boy she does. She left her husband, got her nursing degree and started working in her forties. The power in this -- the act of leaving -- was the ground beneath her words. “I could say if you lift a hand against me, I’m leaving, and I could mean it.”
* * *
I spent a night at HOWL that was grey, but in a warm way. The breeze was a clue from summer, a hint from spring. The pond water was cold enough to make me arch my back, clear enough that my submerged skin seemed magnified. There are things you notice best about a place when you are barefoot in the dark: the uneven floorboards, their slight bending, shifting, creak under your footsteps.
Bare skin, bare trees, bare sky,
just the bare bones of what these women need to live
and thrive, and a voluptuous blue woman painted
and posed over the dining room table.