Saturday, October 15, 2011

What a long week. I worked all last weekend, and then went straight to New York City to write about some young women from Vermont who have been part of the Occupy Wall Street movement since September. New York was everything it should be -- exhilarating and exhausting, inconceivable in its size, injected with equal measures of inspiration and disillusionment. On Monday I walked halfway up the island of Manhattan, from Battery Park at the southern tip to the Port Authority bus station in Times Square, and saw more of the city in one day than I had in all of my previous trips combined. I found myself drawn into the vibrancy, diversity and energy of each of the interlocking neighborhoods and parks. Though the city as a whole is rife with chain stores and multinational corporations, the individual neighborhoods still hold onto their local character: independently owned markets and hardware stores and hole-in-the-wall eateries abound. I recently read a story in Orion magazine about the exodus of counterculture and artistic expression in a city that was once a magnet for bohemian artists and struggling writers. The writer argues that political apathy and a kind of Urban Outfitters-esque commercialization of art -- along with the reign of the 1 percenters and the rising cost of living in the city -- has caused New York to lose its place at the forefront of cultural and artistic expression. It has become a city built on finance and capitalism.

To an extent, I believe this take is spot-on. But the city still draws creative people, and creativity still thrives there to a certain degree. Though the Occupy Wall Street movement takes up just one city block out of tens of thousands of blocks in Manhattan alone -- and though the protesters make up but a fraction of New York residents -- it is nonetheless inspiring to see people who simply care enough to make a statement. Spending time at the protest and sleeping in Zuccotti Park was completely draining, but being in New York made me want to escape the pretentious, largely-white Upper Valley and live in a place as rich and culturally diverse as the city. I have always sought to escape urban sprawl; to seek out remote places, feel the soft dirt under my feet and wake up to crisp, fresh air. My dream has long been a cabin, a garden, a desk to write at and woods to ramble in. But before I get there, I also need the antithesis of the solitude and natural landscape I so crave. I want to spend some time in the city. 

When I returned from New York, my editor called and asked me to attend a protest in Tunbridge, Vermont. I was dead beat. It was the last thing I wanted to do -- all I wanted was a hot meal and a warm bed. But I went, and was glad I did. In many ways, Occupy Tunbridge was more inspiring than Occupy Wall Street. In New York, I felt a lack of cohesion, a frustration with the lack of action, a distrust of the people who had come for the wrong reasons. There were people moving in who undermined the protest -- 'serial activists,' people who had come only for the free services or the media circus. I value what's happening in New York, because it's the wake-up call the rest of the country needs, but I fear it's growing too big for its own good.

In Tunbridge, though, the group seemed honest, sincere, hardworking, authentic. The scene was beautiful, and reminded me that the Vermont I love still exists beyond the dislike I feel for the core towns of the Upper Valley. I love the hills, the villages, the farms, the hollows, the winding roads. The people. Driving along Route 110 to Tunbridge, following a leaping stream and passing open fields and sagging, working farms, my spirits lifted. At the Tunbridge Town Hall, I stood back to see a group of more than 50 people in a half-circle against a darkening, cloudy sky, standing up for a town and a state they believe in, working to find real solutions to the things they don't like. Wind tugged at the bare branches and bright yellow leaves, a tractor chugged down the road, and the sky slowly faded into the dark of an autumn night. Later, at home, I stood outside with a mug of apple cider and plate of roasted root vegetables and breathed in the fall air, as tangy as a fresh apple, as sharp as a handful of rotting dirt.

Here's my Valley News story about the protest in Tunbridge. 

Tunbridge – As a cloudy day faded into a cool autumn night, more than 50 people gathered outside the Tunbridge Town Hall yesterday, many dressed in work clothes: jeans and Carhartts, muck boots and clogs, flannel shirts.
At first, the group seemed a far cry from the young hipster-and-hippie protesters who have taken over Zuccotti Park in Manhattan's financial district for the past several weeks under the Occupy Wall Street banner. But the working class people of Tunbridge and the surrounding rural towns are every bit as impassioned as those encamped near Wall Street. Echoing the rallying cry heard across across America, Upper Valley residents last night announced that they, too, “are the 99 percent!”
In a display of solidarity, the group voiced their support for the Occupy Wall Street movement but also called attention to the importance of local activism and local solutions. Not that they find much fault with either Tunbridge or the state of Vermont.
“Why Tunbridge? Why does it matter that Tunbridge or Vermont is protesting Wall Street?” asked democratic State Rep. Sarah Buxton, addressing the crowd. “The answer is that we've done a lot right in this state.”
“When people need help, we're here to help each other,” said organizer Theo Fetter, a Vermont Law School student who grew up in New York City and built a cabin in Tunbridge several years ago. “We have balance, sanity and fairness. … But that's gone by the wayside lately (on Wall Street).”
Fetter said there was “no doubt about it” that if he still lived in New York, he'd be at the protest there. But, he added, “it's important to keep it local. I want to see what my neighbors have to say.”
His neighbors had a lot to say. Dozens took their turn standing on the Town Hall steps to speak of their disgust with the greed and corruption of the financial sector and its influence on American politics.
“I've been de-vesting money from Wall Street,” said Barre resident Dottye Ricks. “I don't have a lot, but … I'm not allowing them to take my money and gamble with it.”
Though many at the protest took the evening as an opportunity to rant, there were also concrete suggestions about what Vermonters can do to support the anti-Wall Street movement, including paying with cash instead of credit at local stores and asking legislators to support job-creation bills. Several in the group said they planned to go to an occupation in Montpelier over the weekend.
“We can stand here and push air for hours, or we can go to Montpelier and camp out!” called Tunbridge resident Scott Guth.
“We came here because there are fighters here, and we want to join the fight!” added Bethel resident Jim Minnich, who moved to Vermont from Montana earlier this year because of the environmental and political apathy he'd encountered in his home state.
While the crowd in front of Town Hall, from toddlers to the elderly, cheered and clapped, Tunbridge resident Chris Farina stood alone across the street, holding a large cardboard sign with “OWS” (Occupy Wall Street) in a circle with a slash through it.
“We're all Americans,” Farina said. “That's why I'm against this. It's ridiculous. What do they want? Nobody knows. We have a lot of common bonds as Americans and we should focus on those. We should be helping each other, not pointing fingers or looking to the government.”
Farina, who identified himself as a “staunch independent” opposed to any sort of collective action, said he didn't mind being the lone voice of opposition on the other side of the street. “They're my neighbors,” he said of the protesters. “I hope they don't kill me.”
“I don't think they will,” he added with a smile. 

Photos from Andover, Vermont.

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