Being the daughter of a historian who spent his life researching, writing, and teaching about the early days of this country, I’m naturally thinking back today as I look out over the fields I call home…to the rich history of Vermont and its role in the country’s story, its public figures from Ethan Allen to Patrick Leahy, its deep land ethic, its commitment to social justice, its hardscrabble farmers then and now. I’m thinking about the Champlain Valley where I live, celebrating this month the quadricentennenial of Samuel de Champlain’s voyage and our connection to New France and Quebec.
This little nirvana, as friends call our home, could make it easy to be willfully ignorant of the pains shaking the human world, even locally. And there are days when I have little contact with that world. But even my relationship with the land keeps American history and its legacies from wandering too far from view. The early-Vermont-settler remnants in our house: the beams and floorboards from abandoned and torn-down houses and barns, the stones around our walls pulled from the piles generations of farmers heaved into the copses; and out in the woods, the signs of old foundations and pasture walls, the march of succession in the treescape, all serve as reminders that Vermont, now 80% forest and 20% cleared, was, in the nineteenth century, 80% cleared and 20% forested. And there is the very real drama playing out just beyond my windows: field birds struggling to survive in spite of the heavy haying schedule farmers adhere to if they want to survive as farmers; songbirds trying to bring their broods to maturity in spite of (what seem to be the increasingly) large numbers of hungry squirrels, crows, jays, ravens and hawks scouring the place for nestlings; the bats vanishing this year–not a single one has graced our skies this summer–due to a bacterial infection that has wiped out most of Vermont’s bat population; the smaller numbers of honey bees in the garden; the swelling numbers of wild turkeys. So much shifting in such a short time. The past few evenings as I turn away from the fields and gardens, I’ve headed intoAmy Seidl’s Early Spring, an alarming (and beautifully written) book that corroborates page by page what I am witnessing play out in my own surroundings.
The garden, too, is behaving a bit strangely– all this rain, this relentless cloud cover to blame for greens (and slugs) outgrowing beans. Honestly, though, I’ve been more concerned about post-dog incursions by rabbits, deer and turkeys as my raised beds counter most weather vagaries. The rain has bothered my cycling far more than my gardening; I have worried, though, for my neighbors, farmers unable to get their corn in much less have it knee-high by today. I know all this, I see it, I feel it.
But the local paper has shaken some deep part of me, pulling me full circle back to this day and my family’s journey to this country. Ordinarily, reading the paper is about connecting with my town, not being surprised by what I read, for I usually hear most of the important news on the street or in the natural foods cooperative before the paper comes out on Mondays and Thursdays. I love the fact that my old student, Katie Flagg, now writes for the paper and has started their multimedia site. I am always eager to read her reporting on the goings-on in our county. The editor/publisher is one of my husband’s good friends, a wonderful writer and incisive editorialist.
But yesterday, Katie’s front-page article threw me back from the immediate changes and into my own family’s past. The same Late Blight as sent my people from their homes is apparently creeping to Vermont because “tomato plants sold at some large garden centers in neighboring states may have been infected with the late blight.” (Is this the garden world’s version of the salmonella outbreaks?) I grow both potatoes and tomatoes, almost all my own plants from organic seed, and the rest I buy from friends who have been in the small organic-garden business for thirty years. But as happened in Ireland 160 years ago, the winds blow the spores field to field, and so it might not matter a bit how careful I’ve been with my own gardening practices. Even if all the tomatoes and potatoes are wiped out in Vermont, my life will not be gravely affected. I do not earn my living growing vegetables; my family’s table does not depend on what we grow. I can drive or cycle down to our natural foods cooperative for vegetables or whatever else I need. I worry for friends and neighbors who do rely on vegetable sales. And I remember the famine that sent my own people unwillingly from their doors, and the famines, displacement and destruction we continue to cause through our poor Earth practices (pollution, war, over-population, greed and consumerism, etc. etc.) l think, too, about the recent Orion Magazine article, “Forget Shorter Showers” by Derrick Jensen, which scolds us for thinking that individual efforts will make a difference in the climate change crisis. We have to do more than find pleasure and worth in scaling back, in digging into the earth, and connecting with one another. We have to work for change at every level of society.
And so with one foot in my garden’s lush world–where I will pick early potatoes and delight in their tenderness–and the other out in rural communities exploring the balance between the fast and the slow, and online, learning about how others are engaging with the pressing problems of our times, I’m spending this July 4 celebrating the Earth’s wonders, my family’s history, and I’m contemplating the future, how to tread lightly in spirit with the ecosystem I share with countless species, and also working for sweeping change as though all life depends on it. I’m celebrating the razor edge between taking time to dig potatoes and pinch back tomato suckers and getting out there in the human fray to learn, to participate, to embrace mindful connectivity. And finding joy in the struggle.