Swans Commentary » swans.com June 4, 2012  



Returning Home To An Altered Vermont
Climate Change Assaults the Spiritual Connections to Place


by Glenn Reed





(Swans - June 4, 2012)   Today, I'm walking outdoors and the first daffodils glow in the warmth of sun and an 80 degree day. Stray mosquitoes prompt swats at the air and the chorus of peepers in a nearby swamp begs for a conductor to keep them on the same measure. People pass by clad in shorts and T-shirts. It's March 19 -- the last day of winter by the calendar. This is my first time back in Vermont at this time of year since 1994 and I'm feeling disoriented and anxious. This is not a familiar place, even as I recognize the rounded hills of the Taconic Range to the east, the brush-like tops of white pine groves, the placid villages crowding around meandering streams in the valleys. In my gut, it feels as if everything's out of sync.

T.S. Elliot once described April as the cruel month. During my 30-plus years living in New England, I used to think it more true about March. By then, even the pleasures of winter such as gliding through snowy woods on x-c skis had worn thin. March would tease with stray 50 or even 60 degree days and the sun, noticeably higher in the sky, had usually the reduced the often several feet of snow to manageable proportions while coaxing snow drops from the bare ground along the edges of homes. You'd dare to hope for spring and for the first crocuses and daffodils by early to mid-April. Then, invariably, a cold front would sweep in, dump another foot of snow, and numb with Arctic-borne winds.

When I'd found myself back in Vermont in mid-May of 2011, one thing that I most looked forward to was experiencing the distinct progression of seasons with which I'd grown up. However, being familiar with the issue of climate change, I was nervous about its potential effects on a place that had been so ingrained in my soul.

That spring I was enthralled by the soft pastels of budding trees, their light green, red, and golden catkins presaging the coming lush foliage. Patchwork, hillside fields were rich green with grass and speckled with the brilliant yellow of countless dandelions. Trillium poked through the decaying leaf litter on mountain trails, ferns unfurled at the edge of streams swollen and chill with snowmelt, robins hopped through yards in search of fat worms, cardinals flashed their bright red in clusters of staghorn sumac.

At the same time, the snowmelt from a brutal winter, reinforced by heavy April rains, had caused Lake Champlain to rise to record levels. Hundreds of homes and businesses were flooded along its contorted shores. And this was just the start.

Soon, the state experienced more extreme weather: flash flooding from heavy rains in northern Vermont, while the south and central parts remained dry -- as if a curtain had been drawn across the state; a tornado that tore across western Massachusetts leveling entire hillsides of trees, as though a giant scythe had cut through them. The tornado had just missed, by a hundred yards, the house where I lived for three years as a small child. Then there was the devastating main act of Tropical Storm Irene deluging Vermont with 5-10 inches of rain in half a day, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses, sweeping away historic covered bridges, crumbling main roads, and entirely isolating a dozen towns for a week, filling basements with water and wiping out summer nurtured crops. It was, perhaps, the worst flood in the state's history.

I stop at a local, general store later in the day. The young woman at the cash register comments that "...it's such a beautiful day. I love it! I hope it lasts." There are loads of students milling around the next-door restaurant in this small, college town. They're all dressed for summer. Who could complain about this weather? Part of me wants to shake them and say, "this is not right!"

Some people are much more attuned to the natural world than others. They are sensitive to coming changes in the weather. They can smell the snowmelt and exposing earth on that one day when the land seems to relax out of its winter huddle. They go silent at those times when the slant of light, the cacophony of bird song, the scent of soil and old, decaying leaves feels in total harmony. In these fleeting moments they are content to just sense and connect.

Many others seem completely oblivious to nature or even downright hostile to it. They scathingly refer to "the environment" as if it's something totally separate from the human existence. They may view nature as something to be kept at bay, controlled, a resource to be endlessly exploited, an impediment to "progress" or profit. They demand strict order in home and yard, spray chemicals to wipe out weeds and insects, expecting uniform, evenly-cropped lawn grass. They chop down hundred-year-old oaks because they're tired of raking up leaves in the fall or demand picture postcard views out their living rooms. They'd rather spend a summer day screaming at the gridlock in transit from a cul-de-sac to a shopping mall. They're uncomfortable with the silence on a quiet forest trail and are compelled to fill their ears with stimulation from cell phones or iPods. They seem frightened of their own thoughts or the prospect of that connection with something mysterious and greater than them.

It's another sunny day and in the low 70s, so I decide to go for a brief hike in the White Rocks Recreation Area, just south of Rutland. The trail meanders through woods, ending up near a huge talus slope below a mountain. Not only is there not a speck of snow or ice left in the woods, but the path is dry. Bone dry in spots. As is the leaf litter. In the jumbled piles of boulders, the only remaining ice is in deep, dark crevasses. Normally it wouldn't be this snow-free until early May. Or this dry until July, if ever. It's March 18. I later hear about a burn ban in the state and from a friend who says she went walking in her yard, came indoors, and discovered several ticks clinging to her clothes.

After all the drama of Irene and the other extreme weather of last spring and summer, what alarmed me most was something more subtle in the seasonal changes.

The peak foliage period of autumn has always been my favorite time of year in Vermont. Deciduous trees explode in a riot of yellows, oranges, reds, and various shades, vividly painting the landscape and adding dramatic contrasts with fields, streams, church steeples, and weathered barns. There's a deep, rich smell of refinement and peace to the first fallen leaves, the soil, the brooks trickling past moss-covered granite boulders.

The progression of color from higher elevations and north to south had always been fairly regular. Even in those years when people commented "some trees seem to be changing early," or "that maple's usually turned half-orange by now," the land seemed to adapt and conform to its usual rhythms. It would always balance out and stay on schedule. Where my parents live, the peak would always come in the second week of October and be passed by the third week. This year the tint of the trees seemed wrong in September. By the end of the month, temperatures remained summer-like and the haze that blankets the mountains during that season stubbornly clung to the landscape. The leaves on entire swaths of trees were turning brown along the edges, with many never turning bright colors, but just dropping to the ground. I read somewhere that much of this was due to the proliferation of a fungus -- the result of a very dry period in mid-summer before the deluge of Irene. The peak foliage then appeared 1-2 weeks later than I had ever experienced it before.

To me, the whole season seemed unfamiliar, out of balance. It left me feeling a vague anxiety as though the place so deeply ingrained in me was rapidly disappearing.

While attending a late September rally in Montpelier, I heard this sense validated by Vermont's own Governor Peter Shumlin.

....has anyone noticed other abnormalities in Vermont's weather in the last few weeks?..... This is not the Vermont we knew. This is not the planet that we knew and the great thing about the Green Mountain State...about the wisdom and courage of Vermonters is that we know it too....collectively. And we will not join the others in the denial, in the pretend, in the let business happen as usual because our kids and our grandkids mean more to us than our own greed...

I wonder about the massive disconnect of those who still deny climate change, and the contribution of human activity to it, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. There are those in power who say we can't afford to take action even as climate change is already costing us billions or trillions of dollars. They play politics as if nature has any regard for election strategies or economic theories or bottom lines.

An inconvenient truth indeed.

And there are those that, most cynically, may acknowledge climate change as just a further "opportunity" to exploit natural resources and pad their wealth. Those nations and companies that smack their lips at the opening of the Arctic Ocean to oil drilling are one of the best examples of this addict-type behavior. The addiction to fossil fuels is drastically altering our climate, devastating ecosystems, polluting the air and water, wiping out entire species, and they only see the increased chances to continue engaging in this destructive behavior. It's just as though someone handed an alcoholic the key to a liquor warehouse and then turned a blind eye.

I recently heard Bill McKibben of 350.org talk about the long-term effects of climate change in Vermont. It brought tears to my eyes.

I try to think of this special place without its iconic sugar maples and maple syrup production, of alpine zones on Mt. Mansfield grown over with trees, of birches dying off, of bird species disappearing or never flying south in V-formations in October, of more covered bridges being washed away in floods.

I think of the genocide experienced by Native American tribes that included the complete altering of the landscapes with which they had the deepest of spiritual connections.

I feel the utter desolation of the soul would result from this experience. I wish that those in power who are shoving us inexorably on this course could feel it too.


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About the Author

Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 4, 2012