Memories of My Ancestors, Thoughts of the Land

July 4

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.

down to the lake

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.

marshhawk ballet

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.

Vermont portrait

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.

early potato harvest

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.

riding with style

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7 Responses

  1. Nice post, nice blog ;-)

    An interesting thought train– if I can condense to my understanding, what are the implications for people, society when we no longer have a survival need connected to our land? When we become disconnected with it? When we don’t even dip our hands in our own dirt or know what kinds of trees are natural to our neighborhood?

    My Dad was not an academic or very outspoken; he worked a government paperwork job full of integrity, struggled life long with after effects of a childhood concussion, and lived for cutting his grass, nursing the dogwood trees, and trimming the forsythia bushes. he did not say a whole lot, but one thing stuck with me when he told me to “never be afraid to get your hands dirty.”

    He did rub off on me, and I recall him letting me do a project of turning the end of our yard in a “natural” area by trying to grow there just the tings that blew in or I was able to transplant for nearby.

    And today I find daily joy in exploring my 1/3 of an acre, in landscaping it with just the materials that are here, in re-using every bit of fallen trees as compost, and small limbs for winter kindling, and channeling runoff to cascading planted areas… I snuck in some penstemon I found in the forest, and have a favorite wildflower patch where pretty much what grows is what blows in (I still have this dandelion aversion).

    My garden is not quite as organic (plants bought from a nursery); and its the time of year when life is just too strong to be bothered by the elements, that the eggplants I thought would not make it are not pushing out new leaves daily.

    So for myself, for Dad, I just dig getting my hands in the dirt.

    Another thought- I was i Hawaii recently and taking in all the lush foliage at a mountain top park (anywhere that green is a shock for someone from Arizona), and my friend Bert reminded me that most of what was there was introduced. Even the forests I enjoy here as “natural” are not the forests they were before settlement. And I thus feel a wee bit disconnected even when immersed in a forest walk.

    Oops, how did this comment grow so long? Lastly, I love the closing shot of Finn- sometimes in life you just have to let your head hang out the window and let your ears flop in the wind- for the sheer joy of the rush on our senses.

  2. Alan,

    What a lovely response and story about your own relationship to your garden and land and father. I love it.

    Your words remind me that it doesn’t matter why we sink our hands into the dirt, just that we do, whether in our own gardens if we are lucky enough to have them, or in our surroundings by noticing, seeing, considering the relationships within the larger, not just human, world.

    I’ve been thinking, too, these past days about privilege and gardening, about Barbara Ehrenreich’s recentish post on the poor and the Nouveau Poor. I have another post brewing now in longer response to you and to her article and to the changes at our farmers market. See? Your comment on my last post has helped unblock the blogging floodgates. I go from having absolutely nothing to say to having too much!

  3. Yesterday I was walking my favorite garden and aware of all the changes that this season of rain has wrought. One seeks to be still inside a moment, and one also seeks to understand how the world around us changes. This blog post puts us on the very edge of both, and reminds us of the essential intersections.

  4. Beth, you capture that edge I do love to walk and find impossible to capture in words or photos but am compelled to attempt again and again.

  5. I am quite fond of Derrick Jensen’s “tell it like it is” perspective, and his essay on personal vs. communal responsibility gets me to thinking more (as does the whole of your wonderful post) about the moments of interdependence – and particularly, my students’ recognition of those moments – that help me to find my own place in the dialogue between individual, community, and globe.

  6. I come late to this conversation, not an early adapter. Even so, I want to comment, having given a lot of thought to questions of place and land, of staying or going, of individual vs. community responsibility. My dad managed in minor league baseball, so we’d drop into random communities for a couple of summer months, then slide back out. Thinking back, it was like being a kid anthropologist doing serial field work sampling.

    Now and for nearly 30 years, I have played against type, living and working in southern, coastal Louisiana. This is a very rooted place, except for the contradictory forces that are quickly eroding the land away, so staying or going will eventually, in many places, not be a choice. And there remains the question of community and where people will go and how they will sustain their sense of who they are afterward. I just found a quote from Walter Benjamin, talking about the end of WW I, but which seems so appropriate to what is happening here and across the country and worldwide in this time of social and economic turmoil and change that seems to have thrown us all back to first principles. “A generation…now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.” My ardent hope is that we can work at a human scale to move into more positive territory.

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