Monday, August 22, 2011

thoughts on returning east.

Sundays are good for daydreaming. I came to Lowell Lake on my way through Londonderry today, picked the dirt road turnoff from the cobwebs of my memory and flew down it with the windows open. I came to a picnic table on the piney lake shore with a bag of cherries, a cup of coffee, the Sunday paper, a notebook and a pen. It's an undeveloped lake shore, and in my memory it's a quiet, wild place, with beaver dens and pine snags looming in the mist. But as I write this, a loud family just pulled into the parking area, and from somewhere through the woods comes the unmistakable whine of ATVs. Sunday morning motorsports. They have as much a right to use this land as I do, but I feel a perturbed, sanctimonious displeasure bubble up. I dislike almost anything big, loud and intrusive. I prefer my wilderness without other people.

I haven't found much of that in the Northeast. Funny – it feels so over-crowded, so tame around here at times, but early yesterday morning from atop Mount Cardigan, I had the the expansive vista nearly to myself, green rolling hills giving way to hazy blue mountaintops. Just one little town with a white steeple stood out in a 360-degree panorama of forest and sky. I wondered how it is that I can possibly feel hemmed in, claustrophobic here, when I'm surrounded by all this undeveloped forest, more land than I can conceive knowing, all of it crawling with streams, freckled with lakes, crammed with bear dens and snake holes and bird nests. Why do I feel like solitude is such a commodity?

Solitude was easy to come by in Idaho. Here, it seems like every piece of land is governed in some way, either by private landowners or well-intentioned public officials trying to preserve it from the ravages of overuse. Vermont ranks 30th in population density, with just shy of 68 inhabitants per square mile, below the national average of 87.4. Idaho ranks 42nd, with 19 inhabitants per square mile.

Still, the difference lies not in population density but rather in distribution of land. In Vermont, land is fragmented: 85 percent of it is privately owned, divided into parcels. In Idaho, only 40 percent of land is private; the remaining 60 percent is held in broad swaths by the Forest Service or BLM, much of it wide open and theoretically accessible to the public. In the middle of all those steep rocky gulches and sinuous mountain roads, it took no great doing to find yourself alone. You could pull over anywhere and pitch a tent, wander into the big, wild spaces; find a quiet place to sleep or walk or cast a fishing line without interruption. I felt uninhibited by regulations or restrictions, pregnant with possibilities.

This opens a can of worms, because fewer regulations and restrictions leads to greater abuse by unscrupulous or ignorant individuals or companies. Idaho is so vast it can handle such abuses more readily than tiny Vermont. The two are vastly different politically and demographically, and it seems that Vermonters care more about protecting their land and about making environmentally friendly choices – an attitude that is necessary, around here, and one which I welcome. Nonetheless, this extreme sense of stewardship leads to a feeling that Adam once described as “the eviction of the American public from their lands.” Park here, pay here. Walk here. Don't go there, don't do that. It feels so restrictive at times.

Today, 80 percent of Vermont is forested, up from 20 percent only a century ago. Eighty percent forest cover is an encouraging number for somebody like me, someone not much concerned with Gross Domestic Product and more in love with ideas of wilderness and beauty. But though that's a lot of forested land, it's by no means pristine: much of it is recovering from various states and methods of disruption. Between agriculture, development and logging, there's only one tiny, tiny chunk of Vermont up in the Northeast Kingdom that has never been developed, according to a map I saw at Dartmouth College's library. Looking at a series of such maps that show human settlement of the state over a period of several hundred years is startling. European settlers began in the town of Windsor in 1761 and quickly seeped across the mountains like an ink stain on a piece of clean cotton. The land was largely razed, and now it's partially recovering – a delicate balance to strike when keeping people employed is also a major concern.

I'm always amazed when I look at photographs of the Vermont landscape and countryside from the early 1900s and compare them with the way a place looks today. The hillsides from those times look stark and bare, pocked with stumps and muddy ruts. While there's nothing surprising about the earth's ability to regenerate, to cover its scars with fresh growth – nor about humans' capability for destruction – many places from turn-of-the century photographs are nearly unrecognizable today. The landscape changed dramatically between 1700 and 1900, and again from the turn of the century to today, and it continues to be in a constant state of flux. The composition of the forest is changing – sometimes subtly and sometimes swiftly, as can attest anyone who remembers what a mature American chestnut looks like.

But the forest here has always been changing. Changing climates cut the land, drew some species north, sent others south. Even the primordial northern hardwood forest wasn't untouched before Europeans arrived: though larger and healthier than today's scraggly woods, it was altered significantly by native people practicing controlled burns. If our forests are changing faster than usual at this point in history, it's hardly surprising – everything goes faster these days.

It's chilly here on the lakeshore, and for a few blissful moments, it's quiet as well. The sky is overcast, a heavy leaden gray. The wind blows ripples on the lake and sends chills down my bare arms. I relax, then, out of nowhere, a guy with a weedwacker and one on a riding mower appear out of nowhere and pirouette viciously around my picnic table, paying no attention to my lazy Sunday afternoon. I get up and go to my car, irritated, but as I'm bumping back along the dirt road, I pause. A woman is bending over in her garden against the backdrop of a shaggy, dark green mountain, its rounded top shrouded in clouds. It's a simple scene, but it's beautiful and it stops me in my tracks. This is where I've chosen to live, and these are the problems I choose to face. 

Three favorites from the Green Mountain State:

And three from the Gem State:

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