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Vermont’s Landscape Can Heal Itself

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We face massive environmental challenges today. Yet the very land we walk on witnesses to hope. Many don’t know it, but Vermont is an unlikely environmental success story. 

I didn’t. Growing up in central Vermont, I assumed our vast tracts of forest were untouched by humans. I believed that only small numbers of Americans settled here and that they didn’t have much of an impact. I assumed we smartened up before we covered the land with the urban sprawl that mars much of the rest of the country. 

I was wrong. If anything, the lateness of American settlement intensified the impact, focusing it into a shorter period of time. In about a century, settlers managed to deforest 80% of Vermont. Rivers are clogged with runoff, sewage, and industrial waste. Numerous species — wolves, mountain lions, moose, even deer — were wiped out. 

To the indigenous people who witnessed the transformation (and our contemporary eyes), Vermont in 1900 looked more like a post-apocalyptic landscape than the pastoral beauty we love to project on our past. Photos of Montpelier from the era show the impact: current-day Hubbard Park as a barren hill, victim to industrial-scale scalping. 

Many people thought the damage was irreversible. Less than a hundred years after the settling of central Vermont, hunters lamented their lost way of life in the “Vermont Watchman & State Journal” on March 15, 1876. “The moose, noblest of the deer kind, is gone from here forever. He belonged to the great woods, and with them he has passed away. And though we have range enough all about us to hold many head of deer, it is not likely that these ranges will be re-stocked in our day. The beaver and otter are gone, and we shall see them no more.” 

Yet something unexpected happened. In a couple generations, forests reclaimed abandoned fields and clear-cut hills. As the forests regrew, many species found their way back. Some of it happened intentionally in the form of game re-introduction and management, conservation laws, habitat restoration, and pollution control. But much of it was not. Unlike many other parts of the world, the land of Vermont consists of ecosystems that generally can restore themselves. 

In a century, the numbers flipped. Now forests cover 80% of Vermont. Like the tide coming back in, the Earth heals herself. No one can now grow up in Vermont and assume that much of what we see is primeval wilderness. 

But knowing the real story, I think, informs current environmental challenges in a more hopeful way. 

In his book “Reading the Mountains of Home,” Vermont author John Elder calls our history one of “recovered wilderness.” In contrast to his upbringing in California, where wilderness is a constantly shrinking resource that we must protect from people, Vermont “shows that wilderness can overtake civilization, rather than always working the other way around.”

Elder focuses his meditation on Bristol Cliffs. Though once deforested, the trees and animals reclaimed them and it became one of two tracts recognized by the Eastern Wilderness Act of 1974. Through places like Bristol Cliffs, Elder sees how “our towns are grounded, surrounded, and sustained by” wildness. Recovered wilderness even reaches out to us and over time, we begin to interpenetrate each other.

We see this in central Vermont at Hubbard Park. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted thousands of red pines and Norway spruce. Birches and other native species filled in the gaps and are taking over. Every day, we flow into and out of this patch of recovered wilderness. In the process, we slowly conform to its rhythms. 

Elder has the heart of a poet. Looking back at the destruction of the 19th century, Elder holds out hope that it can be a type of spiritual event, a transforming sacrifice that can birth a new way of being in the world. He posits that understanding the ruin and rebirth will foster a deep “inhabitory” relationship akin to, but not appropriated from, the ways in which indigenous peoples live in relationship with the land. 

That might be too much for some. But it’s worth sitting with for a while because Elder’s re-telling of Vermont’s environmental story reveals its most important character: the land itself. The land we call Vermont is not inert material that humans act upon, but rather an agent that engages us. And our biggest job is learning to get out of the way and act in relationship with it. 

We have a long way to go. When I checked in with Elder, he reminded me that although the forests recovered, “their future health is not assured. We must become both wiser and more modest in our interactions with the more-than-human world.” 

But thankfully, the land leads the way. Let’s follow her example. 

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