Sunday, April 22, 2012

Elephant Canyon

I have been sleeping again in the cold, open air, body curled warm in my sleeping bag, face open to the sky, crisp air filling my lungs. My deepest sleep came in Elephant Canyon, with the hush of the desert settled over us, the moon rising over hoodoo rocks, all the world silent except for the wind and the sand and the stars. At Windwhistle, our tent nestled against red rock mesa, I woke to the soft brush of snow against the tent, the whoo-ing of an owl in a pinyon pine. Later, back in Fort Collins, I slept outside still, choosing the futon on a friend's back deck over the indoor couch, trading the muted desert soundscape for traffic passing and the distant call of the midnight train as it crossed the plains and began its ascent into the Rocky Mountains.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


"In these moments, I felt innocent and wild, privy to the secrets and gifts exchanged only in nature. I was the tree, split open by change. I was the flood, bursting through grief. I was the rainbow at night, dancing in darkness. Hands on the earth, I closed my eyes and remembered where the source of my power lay."
--Terry Tempest Williams

Friday, April 20, 2012

John Perkins Q&A

 With the new head of the World Bank to be voted on any day now and Dartmouth College president Jim Yong Kim poised to step into the role, here's my last Valley News story, an interview with author John Perkins.

   “Economic hit men” have been around since the 1950s, or so it's alleged, but the term didn’t enter the American lexicon until John Perkins’ 2004 book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Now, it’s widespread enough to warrant a definition in the Urban Dictionary: “Highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. They funnel money from the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other foreign aid organizations into the coffers of huge corporations,” often at the expense of the world’s poor.
     John Perkins is a former economic hit man who gained notoriety for his New York Times bestseller and equally popular follow-up, The Secret History of the American Empire. But before he became a global-conspirator-turned-whistleblower, Perkins grew up in the Upper Valley, driving through snowstorms to catch shows at the Hop, spending summers at his grandmother’s house in Lebanon and cheering for Dartmouth at soccer matches. Born in Hanover and raised in Tilton, N.H., the 67-year-old author and activist has a cabin on Mascoma Lake and maintains close ties to the region.
      He also has a close connection to the World Bank, though his memories of “consulting” for it in the 1970s are less rosy. Today, with burgeoning economies like China, India and Brazil gaining power, with democratic uprisings in Latin America, the Middle East and even, in the form of the Occupy movement, the U.S., and with current World Bank president Robert Zoellick making room for a new leader — possibly Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim — Perkins believes that the World Bank is in a unique position. Instead of furthering United States’ corporate and political interests as it has in the past, Perkins says, a new president can return the institution to its original goals of diminishing poverty and improving global welfare.
      John Perkins spoke with the Valley News from his home in Washington state last week. The following is an edited transcript.
      Valley News: So how did you go from a teenager hanging around Hanover to consulting for the World Bank?
      John Perkins: I graduated from Middlebury College, (got my master’s) from Boston University, and from there I went in Peace Corps (in South America) for three years. My last year in Peace Corps, I was contacted by the senior vice president from the Boston consulting firm Chas T. Main and took a job with them, where I eventually became chief economist.
      That was my official title, but really my job was to convince heads of states from countries that had the resources we wanted, like oil, to accept huge loans from the World Bank and use that money to hire U.S. corporations to build infrastructure, power plants and industrial parks. These projects benefited our companies and a few wealthy families in those countries, but not the majority of people. The countries would be left holding huge debt to the World Bank or its affiliates that they couldn’t possibly repay.
     At some point we’d go back and say hey, since you can’t repay your debt, sell your oil to us cheaply. Vote with us in the next critical United Nations vote. Allow us to build a military base on your soil. Things like that.
      In the few cases where we failed, where the heads of state did not agree to this, we’d either overthrow governments or assassinate their leaders.
      VN: How would you sum up your criticism of the World Bank?
      JP: The World Bank was created out of the Bretton Woods conferences at the end of World War II with a very good mission: to reconstruct a devastated Europe. I think it did a good job of that. But soon after, the World Bank shifted its mission, unannounced, to fighting communism. It really devoted itself to helping big U.S. corporations and our form of capitalism embed itself in the Third World as a way to stop communism.
      This became an obsession. By the time I was an economic hit man, our major concerns were to (outcompete) communism and give American businesses like General Electric a foothold in the developing world. The World Bank moved from an organization dedicated to reconstructing the developing parts of the world to one that really became a cheerleader, a henchman for big corporations and the U.S. model of capitalism — a model I call predatory capitalism, (which) says the only goal of business is to maximize profits, regardless of the social or environmental costs. The World Bank became this henchman for that form of capitalism and has really been playing that role ever since.
      VN: Decades have passed since you quit your job as an economic hit man in 1980, and some of the stories you tell in your books have come under fire for their veracity. Do you still feel qualified to comment on the inner workings of the World Bank?
      JP: I do. I’ve kept pretty close track, and I spend a great deal of time traveling to the developing world. I’m the founder and on the board of a couple of nonprofits (Dream Change and the Pachamama Alliance). I continue to see (the things I describe in my books) happening.
      But I have tremendous hope. I think the World Bank has a great mission, one that we need badly. I pose this criticism not as a way to try to destroy the bank or its credibility, but as a way to point out that it has deviated from its true course and it needs to get back on course.
      I truly hope that the next president of the World Bank will take the reins and make that happen. It could be a very effective institution in helping rid the world of poverty and disease and all the other problems that often result in terrorism and bloodshed and civil wars.
      VN: So how much power does the president of the World Bank actually have, and how much power do economic hit men have?
      JP: It’s a combination. It’s not one or the other. When I would walk into a president’s office (of a country), I’d say hey, we want to make this huge loan to your country. If you accept, you and your cronies will become very wealthy. We’ll see to it that your children get full scholarships to U.S. universities. On the other hand, we say, if you don’t go along with this, just look at the record. Look at what happened to (Salvador) Allende in Chile, (Manuel) Zelaya in Honduras and (Mohammed) Mossadegh in Iran. If you go up against the system, you’re asking for trouble.
      The World Bank itself isn’t saying that, but there’s this vicious cycle that perpetuates corruption and the World Bank plays a role in it. I think it’s time to break that system. I think it’s time for a new president of the World Bank to come along and say this is not the way things should be. This is not serving the interests of my grandchildren.
      VN: And do you think that a new president of the World Bank has the power to turn things around?
      JP: I don’t think any one individual has the power totally turn things around, but I think the president of the World Bank is in a very good position to express these things and push very hard for them, and recognize that part of it is reaching out to people. If (we’re able to) get the message out, I think the American people are going to raise a hue and cry over it. We’ve seen through the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring that people are beginning to speak up, and that really does change systems.
      VN: What do you make of the idea that the presidency will always go to an American? Is it time for someone from the developing world to step up?
      JP: With all due respect to Dartmouth’s president, I think it would be wonderful to see someone from the developing world assume the presidency, (Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala) from Nigeria perhaps. It’s going to be very interesting to watch what happens next. The tradition is to pick someone from the U.S., and because we supported (Christine Lagarde) to take over the International Monetary Fund, Europe seems to be supporting us. But I think it would be beautiful move symbolically and in many other ways to have the presidency be turned over to someone from another country.
      VN: Do you think Jim Yong Kim, who has a background in health and humanitarian aid rather than finance, is a good candidate for head of the World Bank?
      JP: I don’t know enough about him personally to really comment on his credentials, but I don’t think you need someone in that position with a financial background. There are plenty of people around the president with financial backgrounds. You don’t need to be a financial analyst to run an organization, and I think that a background in health and education is very suitable.
      VN: Given what do you do know about Kim, how does he compare to the current president, former Goldman Sachs director Robert Zoellick? Does it bode well for the World Bank to have someone from outside the finance sector?
       JP: Absolutely. I think Goldman Sachs has far too much power as it is, and getting someone not connected with one of the big Wall Street firms is a real plus. If someone from the United States were chosen with a strong financial background, I’d love to see it be out of the university system and not out of Wall Street.
      VN: Kim has been both criticized and lauded for condemning the kind of blind growth that the World Bank has supported. In the book Dying for Growth, he wrote that, “The quest for growth in GDP and corporate profits has in fact worsened the lives of millions of women and men.” What’s your take on this? Do you think someone can head the World Bank and stick to those views?
      JP: I think it’s a sound view. I agree with that statement, that the sole quest of maximizing profits has been very detrimental, but as to whether he can do anything about that at the World Bank if he becomes president I think remains to be seen.
       VN: Many former World Bank employees see the bank as a far less poisonous and dangerous institution than you portray it to be. Do you think the bank has had any real successes? What kind of success is it capable of?
      JP: I talk in my book about a project in Panama. We gave out small loans in order to help small farmers build irrigation ditches and storage facilities and transportation facilities. I’ve also seen this happen with the fishing industry, where small loans can help fishermen build up a better fleet and better nets. So the World Bank has absolutely done some very, very good work. There’s no question of that, but there’s also this other side of the bank used for political reasons, to exploit countries.
      VN: So it should do more on the scale of microloans? Is there any specific direction you’d like to see the bank take?
      JP: It’s very country specific. In a country like Afghanistan, they need a lot of help dealing with land mines and victims of land mines. A country like Haiti needs to be built up from the terrible devastation of the (earthquake). Every country’s needs are a little different, but in each case I think you can find and develop projects that really reach the people at the bottom of economic pyramid.
      From ’70s up until the current time, the emphasis of the bank has been on projects at the top of the pyramid, projects that help the very rich of those countries and our own. Projects that reach people at the bottom of the pyramid have been few and far between. I’d like to see projects that reach the poorer people become the World Bank’s emphasis.
     VN: What advice would you give to the new World Bank president, whomever he or she turns out to be?
      JP: I’d say look to the original idea behind the World Bank, which was to help devastated places and suffering people to improve their lives. Work on helping the poorest of the poor pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Develop projects that allow the very poor to feed and clothe themselves and have better education and better health care and money set aside for retirement.
      VN: In your new book, Hoodwinked, you talk about a new form of global economics. What do you envision?
      JP: We have to realize that the system we created is a failure. Less than 5 percent of us live in the United States and we consume nearly 30 percent of the world’s resources. That’s not a model. That’s a failed system. It can’t be repeated in China and India and Africa and Latin America. These places might want to replicate that model, but they can’t. The numbers don’t add up.
      We must come up with a true model, a system that will work. I think the United States can be a leader in that, and I think the World Bank can be a leader.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cleaning Dad's Apartment: On Staying, Going and Family

First, there are the ashtrays: several in every room, all overflowing with Parliament Lights, clouds of fine grey ash rising from them as if from tiny cancerous volcanos. Then there are beer cans: plastic grocery bags on every doorknob stuffed with aluminum Miller High Lifes, and dozens more in boxes stacked on the floor, not neatly, in one place, but scattered across the apartment. Just when I think I've corralled them all together, I find one more 12-pack in the pantry, or under the kitchen table, or behind the couch. There seem to me to be extraordinary quantities of these things. There are also hundreds of the orange plastic bags that the newspaper comes in, and an equal number of bags from Cumberland Farms, the convenience store where my dad buys nearly all of his groceries. He subsists on Cheez-Its and Hostess Doughnuts and pistachio nuts -- and Miller High Life and Parliament Lights.

The cat's litterbox is overflowing, and the cat hides under the bed, hissing at me when I get within five feet of it. I tell it that if it tries to attack my ankles I will kick it to kingdom come. I am in no mood today.

Outside, it's one of those days in early spring when the grass is still matted and brown but the temperature suddenly soars and the purple tips of crocus push through last year's leaves and people drive with the windows down for the first time in months. It's one of those days where I want nothing more than to lace up a pair of boots and make my way to the nearest mountaintop, but instead I'm cleaning my dad's apartment. He's 63. I'm 27. The first time I left home, six years ago, he was strong and healthy. When I came back a year later, he wasn't.

I cannot open the windows in his apartment – they're still covered with plastic – and if I leave the door open the cat will run out. So I plunge my hands into a sink full of dishes and set them one by one to dry in the broken dishwasher, watching through the yellowed blinds as the sun slants ever more sharply, signaling its final arc through the sky. Across town, at Cozy Oaks, my dad sits at his usual barstool nursing a draft, playing his numbers and rocking slightly back and forth to ease the constant pain in his back, the pain that cannot be cured but only numbed, slowly, each afternoon.

Last night after work I drove down here from my apartment in rural New Hampshire. As usual, my headlights were among the few pointing south. Most cars head north for the weekend, up to the woods and the lakes. I go south to Massachusetts, leaving behind the stars for the yellow glow of streetlights, abandoning the clear mountains for a broad valley lit so brightly it blots out the stars, turning the night sky a pinkish gray. This is where I grew up, but coming back leaves me unsettled.

In a few weeks I'm leaving again, this time for Alaska, and this time, I hope, for longer. I need to carve out my own space in the world, find a place that feels like home. Will it be here, or will it be there? There is a part of my soul that yearns for dark skies and open spaces, for the wild places where my heart soars. But every time I leave, it's harder. There is so much that wants to hold me here.

I'm certainly not alone. It seems more and more people build their lives far from home these days, far from the places where they grew up. It isn't always easy. Do we pursue our own happiness at the cost of the families we leave behind? What does this say about our values? We've created a culture in which we're no longer obligated to care for our aging parents, and yet we haven't built a system to take our place when we leave.

I assuage my guilt through cleaning. After the dishes there is dusting, sweeping, sorting through stacks of unopened mail, taking out the trash, vacuuming, scrubbing the counters. Who will do this when I'm gone? I hang his baseball caps on a row of hooks: U.S. Navy Veteran, Boston Red Sox, Titleist. Each hat bears the little gold pins that I bring back for him from the places I've lived.

I wash my hands, wipe them on my jeans and stand back to survey my work. Not immaculate, but an improvement. I vow that tomorrow I will call a cleaning service and arrange for them to come once a month. I rehearse my half of the conversation in my head, telling the woman on the other end of the line that my dad is disabled and just needs someone to keep the house up. He has no one else. I do not tell her the details.

I wonder, while I'm at it, if I should call and make some doctors' appointments for him too, but I know its futile. The doctors at the VA hospital are stretched too thin to provide the kind of care he needs, and the staff are inept, he says, using less tactful words. I used to cry at night thinking of him, once standing waist-deep in a stream, tanned in the evening sun as he fought a legendary rainbow on a hook – and now stumbling through his days in a fog of pain. Lately, he told me, he's been getting a pain in his kidney. Of course he tells me, not a doctor. I have no brothers or sisters, so I keep it to myself.

At the liquor store, I have to make three trips from my car to bring all the cans of Miller High Life from his apartment to the redemption counter. “Someone's sure been living the High Life,” I quip to the guy behind the counter, so he doesn't think the cans are all mine. Like most people who work in liquor stores, he looks like he's seen better days. The evening air is warm and smells like stale beer. Dust particles dance above cardboard boxes of wine. The guy proffers a dry laugh, and I tell him this is my payment for cleaning out my dad's apartment. He tells me he redeems his uncle's cans every few months too – “but they're mostly soda,” he says, and suddenly, I am embarrassed. Even among liquor store employees, the load I hauled in is a big one. As I'm handing the woman at the cash register the slips of paper that have my return totals tallied on them, the guy peers over her shoulder and whistles between his teeth. “Wow,” he says, glancing at the $30 the woman hands me back. “You made out even better than I thought. Congratulations.”

Congratulations, I think as I walk back to my car.

By the time I'm done, it's too late to go for a hike. I stand in the shower and let the water pour over me, washing away the cigarette smoke and the car hair, the layer of dust, the grime I feel in my pores. I tilt my head into the water and think of fresh, clean trout streams high in the mountains, ice-cold turquoise glacier water pooling between rocks, the fat salmon that my dad would have loved to catch. And then I get out, dry myself off and join my father at the bar. I do not tell him how frustrated I was. I do not nag him to take better care of himself. I give him a hug and tell him I love him, and then I order a beer and begin to tell him about my new job in Alaska.

Friday, April 13, 2012

in the news

And now for my semi-regular news roundup: stories that caught my eye and made me think this week. From Indonesian coral reefs to Amazonian rainforests to Alaskan villages and gas prices, here they are, with links to the original articles and my own two cents thoughtfully included for your reading pleasure:

1.  Winner of the least-reported, most-important award: Bolivian president Evo Morales rescinds on a contract to build a major road through the Amazon. Kudos, Mr. Morales: for listening to the people you serve, for allowing cooler heads to prevail and for preserving intact rainforest important to the ecological and cultural health of your country, and that of the world.

2. The 92-page report Energy 2020, written by the head of global commodity research at Citigroup, says that the tar sands and shale gas deposits newly available for energy development in North America have the potential to turn the continent into a "new Middle East."

"The only thing that could stop this is politics -- environmentalists getting the upper hand over supply in the U.S., for instance," writes Ed Morse in the report. A New York Times article on America's new energy supply goes on to say that when "resources are available, they end up being developed." OR we could develop something that doesn't cause earthquakes, use up precious water resources and emit CO2.

3. Meanwhile, as Americans tighten their wallets over record-high gas prices and turn their ire into a political weapon, a National Geographic article I just came across from last fall shows that a gallon of gas in Turkey costs about $10.02, in the U.K., $8.39, and in Toronto, $5.41. In some rural Alaskan villages, it's currently up to $9 a gallon. Astronomical by our standards, but perhaps a better representation of the true cost of oil and an impetus to use less.

4. In Alaska, village schools are closing at unprecedented rates: 27 rural schools in the past 13 years have shut down because of a government mandate that cuts funding at schools with less than 10 students. When a school disappears, the vitality of the community is sure to follow. Similar shutdowns, though to a lesser degree, have been taking place in Vermont: I remember one old timer from Corinth who prophesied that when the village school there was absorbed into a regional school, the general store would be the next thing to go, followed by the post office, eventually leaving the community a shell of its former self. He was spot on. The news of rural schools closing is also indicative of the general population shift to urban areas, something that I think represents a great loss for American values, skills and culture.

5. And lastly, some good news: it turns out the cost of helping to protect the marine environment can be as low as $24 per person a year. A study by the Nature Conservancy shows that educating local people in Indonesia of the value of protecting marine resources and practicing sustainable, low-impact fishing led to a substantial increase in positive attitudes toward conservationism and a decrease in illegal fishing over five years. In the U.S., I'd imagine that giving low-income kids living along the coasts a cheap mask and snorkel would lead to a similar surge in the desire to protect our oceans. No one cares about protecting a place until they've experienced its wonders firsthand.  

Can this:

Help prevent this?
(Marshall Islands photos by me)

In other news, I'm off to the desert for five days with my good friend Desirae! Photographs of red rocks, slot canyons and two very happy people to follow.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


What is there to say of this water,
of nights when the rain beats down hard,
falling straight and sideways
all at once? It is a drum
spurring you to battle,
its beat coursing through your veins:
April! stand ready with mop, or pen, or paddle.
Rivers rip trees from their roots,
maneuvering their sodden trunks through torrents
twisting and gushing,
tearing through a landscape of tattered browns and grays.
At home I sleep with the windows cracked open,
half-aware of the violence outside,
knowing, even as I sleep
that birth is a kind of violence; spring a kind of birth.
Slushy snow clings to the shadows,
tendrils of green nudge through the tamped down leaves;
the world is birthed in water, dripping, gushing, pooling under every rock.
One night we gathered,
drawn together from all directions,
each following lines on the map
that led to one street, one building.
We rushed through the downpour,
and leapt over puddles, laughing,
hugging in the doorway -- wet arms, wet hair.
We danced the rain off,
shook like wet dogs to drums that pounded
more loudly than the rain against the roof,
and later, when it was over, when the room
smelled like the inside of a tent,
warm with human bodies,
we stood under the awning on the sidewalk,
our ears still ringing,
marveling at the volume of water pouring from the black sky.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Bleak News for Vermont's Rivers

     It took months for Vermont fisheries biologist Rich Kirn to fully assess the impact of Tropical Storm Irene on the state’s rivers. But on March 5, six months after one of the worst natural disasters in Vermont's history, Kirn presented his findings. 
    The Fish and Wildlife report Impacts to Stream Habitat and Wild Trout Populations in Vermont Following Tropical Storm Irene quantifies and confirms what many environmental groups and landowners had already feared: while the flooding itself wasn’t without ecological consequence, the most substantial damage came from the army of excavators and bulldozers that descended on Vermont's rivers in the wake of the flood.
     Some of the heavy machinery was necessary to protect life and property and to rebuild infrastructure. But “a significant amount of instream activity was also conducted without proper consultation and oversight and for reasons beyond necessary flood recovery,” Kirn wrote, causing habitat destruction that might affect wildlife for decades.
    Or, as the Vermont Natural Resources Council’s Kim Greenwood put it: “We really screwed up.”
    “People got in the rivers that didn’t understand the impacts of what they were doing,” Greenwood said. “Now that the immediacy of Irene has worn off a little bit in terms of public safety, we’re having to face the repercussions of what we did.”
     In the four state streams surveyed for the report, trout populations were reduced by 40 to 70 percent. Significant losses, to be sure, but nothing fish can’t recover from. Previous data showed that localized flooding in places like Lilliesville Brook in Stockbridge caused precipitous drops in population — from 6,000 trout per mile of stream to less than five hundred. But within a few years, populations rebounded. 
    That is, they rebounded in the absence of channelization, riprapping, dredging or gravel mining. All four streams that Kirn surveyed were free from such human disturbances, suggesting that in streams where the work occurred, the population loss was likely far greater — and will last much longer, he said.
    Showing a series of photos of streams from Bethel and Rochester, Kirn’s report explains that the excessive and sometimes unnecessary streambed alteration destroyed trout habitat, creating “homogeneous, overwidened stream channels … lacking the diversity of habitats, flows and depths necessary to support robust aquatic populations.”
     “The habitat has to recover before the fish populations can recover,” Kirn said in an interview.
     The Vermont Natural Resources Council and other groups raised an outcry over such practices in the months following Irene, saying that the work not only degraded habitat but also changed the velocity and direction of waterflow in many of Vermont rivers and streams, exacerbating the potential for future flooding and further endangering homes and communities. But up until now, it was difficult to quantify the extent of damage done.
    Kirn’s report does just that. He and other biologists worked with officials from the Agency of Natural Resources to conduct roadside assessment of stream degradation throughout the central and southern Vermont, and their findings are illuminating: approximately 85 miles of rivers were affected in central and southern Vermont alone — and the estimates are said to be conservative.
     “It was like trying to hit a moving target,” said fisheries biologist Kenneth Cox, of trying to assess the damage while excavators were still roaming the streams. “I would view these numbers as minimal estimates.”
    Approximately 406,000 feet, or 77 miles, of stream were found to have suffered major habitat degradation because of post-flood stream channel alteration. Major degradation is defined as streams that are “largely devoid of habitat.”
     An additional 8.6 miles of stream were found to have suffered minor degradation: effects were either localized or were limited to channelization. The White River was the most affected of any river in the region, with 27 miles of degradation recorded. The Ottauquechee also saw significant damage, with about 9 miles.
     The long-term impact on trout populations is still uncertain. In the absence of post-flood channel alterations, wildlife usually rebounds from a flood within two to four years. But in places where aquatic habitat was severely disrupted through large-scale gravel and wood removal and channel widening and straightening, full recovery could take decades.
     The repercussions are broad. Flood-related threats to houses and communities are exacerbated, and Vermont’s $63 million sportfishing industry may be at risk, Kirn notes. The ecological impact also extends beyond just fish to include amphibians, insects and the mammals and birds that feed on fish.
    “All of this habitat has been grossly altered, and its ability to support populations has declined,” Cox said.
     The reason that so much streambank alteration occurred without review or oversight was due in part to the unexpected nature and widespread devastation caused by Tropical Storm Irene. Normally, streambank alteration is strictly regulated by one of Vermont’s four river management engineers. But in the wake of Irene, the engineers were stretched thin, unable to get to the hundreds of sites across the state where streambank alteration was necessary to rebuild infrastructure, so the state enacted a two-month period in which “verbal permitting” — a discussion over the phone not requiring paperwork — was deemed sufficient.
     Not all instream work performed during that time went beyond verbal authorization, and much of it was indeed essential to the recovery effort. But river scientists and fisheries biologists agree that the situation was chaotic and could have been better managed.
     In the future, biologists like Cox would like to be included in the process. Efforts are currently underway to streamline Vermont’s response to emergency management work in rivers and better educate town officials and the public about how rivers function and what they need to function properly.
     (Namely, they want to meander and flood over time, as well as dissipate their force around bends and in wetlands. Eliminating any of these factors may lead to unpredictable, erratic flooding.)
     Finally, a bill that’s currently before the Vermont House of Representatives might include mandatory river science training for all contractors that operate in streambeds, Greenwood said.
      “Towns’ highway departments and state transportation agencies know how to reconstruct roads, but what they lack is the knowledge and experience in how to do that in a manner that will allow the stream to recover as quickly as possible,” Cox said. He emphasized that he doesn’t want to prevent future recovery work — just allow it to happen in a more sustainable manner.
     As to concerns that the re-channeling and degradation of rivers could exacerbate future flooding, Greenwood said that the lack of snowpack and relatively low spring flood risk means that Vermonters may have lucked out for the time being.
     But, she added, “we’re going to be dealing with these changes for years, maybe decades. We may have lucked out this spring, but we’re not out of the woods yet.”

The Battenkill several years prior to Irene.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

love letter to Vermont

Dear Vermont,

I haven't forsaken you. I did move across the river to New Hampshire, but I swear it was only because I found a cheap place to rent over here. The two of you may be called the Twin States, and to anyone who isn't from this area, I'll admit you look alike at first glance. But dig a little deeper and the differences start to emerge, straight from the very bedrock on which your identities have been built. New Hampshire's jagged, tough granite encouraged settlers to carve out their own space and eke a living from the woods, isolated and fiercely independent. Not you. Though your people are stubbornly independent as well, they're bound by a sense of community that sprung from the softer, more forgiving geology in your broad valleys, which proved perfect for the communal pursuit of agriculture.

Never was that sense of community more abundant or more intimately felt than in the weeks following Tropical Storm Irene. I've never seen anything more inspiring than the teamwork, positivity and resiliency your people showed in the face of so much destruction. I'll never forget the day the waters receded and the sky shone bright blue, like nothing had happened except that the roads were buckled as if someone had crumpled them in a giant fist and picturesque homes had collapsed into the rivers they'd sat on for decades, front yards covered with a foot of murky silt and littered with pieces of half-salvaged furniture like a yard sale gone awry.

I roamed around with a notebook, a pen and a camera and tried my best to capture what was potentially one of the best and worst moments in your history. Worst, because 200 bridges and 500 miles of roads were washed out, because families and farms and businesses lost everything, because we realized that some of the things we'd been doing to your rivers for a long time were not in our best interest.

But best, too, because I don't think there was a single person in the entire state who didn't lend a hand. At every ruined house a brigade of volunteers covered head to toe in mud ripped out drywall and hauled buckets of mud from basements. Old women baked bread and made sandwiches. Farmers who weren't hit donated food. Young men collected supplies in four-wheelers and roared over the secluded mountains to check on villages that were cut off from roads or electricity. I heard the most heartwarming stories imaginable, stories that couldn't have been made up – stories couldn't have happened anywhere else.

Oh, Vermont, I'm sorry to say it, but it's true. I'm leaving you again, to go to Alaska. But you'll always be in my heart. No one does seasons like you do. Humid green summers amok with flowers, sweet hay fields glittering with fireflies, rolling mountains blanketed with ferns and dissected by leaping streams. Fall – the tangy smell of the air, frost on the pumpkins, wood being stacked and the first hints of smoke curling from chimneys, and the colors, oh, the colors. Who would ever dream up the brightness of reds and oranges that paint your trees? And then winter, quiet and contemplative, weathered gray barns against fresh white snow, the ski resorts buzzing, wood stoves crackling and rocking chairs rocking and big pots of soup on the stove. And at last, spring: muddy and raw, lambs on unsteady legs in the barnyards, translucent blue tubing strung between maple trees to catch the sap, the rivers running wild. The foods that go with each season. I'll miss it all.

And I'll miss your roads: free of traffic, long and winding with surprises and vistas around every turn. I'll miss your people, who don't care about the passing trends of fashion, knowing that wool jackets and rubber boots will never fail. I'll miss your music: the masses of hippies that come out whenever Phish plays its home state; the foot-tapping fiddles and mandolins seeping out of the steamy, glowing windows of sugar shacks on cold spring nights; the scratchy public radio jazz that broadcasts out of hundreds of radios every night. I'll miss your rambling, ramshackle old homes tucked into hollows; your indomitable farmers growing organic and selling at farmers' markets before either was popular; your progressive politics and the icy slopes where I learned to snowboard and even those washboarded, rutted, oozing excuses for roads you manage to produce every spring no matter how many hours the graders spend trying to smooth them out. You may have been gentrified here and yuppified there, but at your core you're still Vermont and I love you.

And don't worry. I'll be back.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Learning from the past

Last night, I was searching for something in the depths of my computer and came across a short piece I'd written when I worked for a company that digitized the pages of historic newspapers. I have absolutely no recollection of writing this, except I know that it was done as a personal project, likely when I was bored one day after writing marketing copy for our Texas historical newspapers product. Anyway, I thought it was worth posting here. Though it's important to look to the future and come up with modern, original solutions to our climate and environmental crises, we mustn't forget to look to the past as well. Progress isn't always forward-moving.


In the mid-19th century, it seemed to Americans that the world was changing at an unprecedented rate. The American West was opening up. All over the East Coast, people in overcrowded cities and over-farmed land were suddenly struck with Oregon Fever, Gold Fever, a sudden urge to pack their belongings into a wagon and populate this great country from sea to shining sea. 

Smallpox and other European diseases had considerably lessened Native populations in the West, and vast tracts of land were newly open for the taking. Best of all, in the 1870s, places once considered too arid for farming were being deluged with enough rain to grow shoulder-high wheat and basketball-sized melons. Thanks to countless massacres, buffalo populations were decreasing too, and would-be ranchers were tempted with enough space to graze record herds of cattle. Newspapers from the time chronicled a national obsession with progress, with looking ahead to the future and ignoring the past.

“The American people, sir, are a forward going people,” wrote Stuart Perry in an 1841 editorial urging settlers to come to Texas. “The wild geese [here] are very tame... and can be easily killed with your pistols. Oysters are in great abundance... deer and wild turkeys are very numerous... [and] sugar and cotton grow by rattoon. There are many who can testify to four thousand pounds of seed-cotton having been produced in one year from one acre of land.” It would take ten years, Perry added, to produce such bounty in the eastern states. 

What Perry does not mention, however, is that a century earlier, valley soil in the East had been just as fertile as that he describes in Texas. But farmers rarely practiced the crop rotation necessary to keep fields productive over time. Why did they need to? There was more than enough land in the Americas. 

Amidst the mad rush to move forward, a few men looked to history and strove to make their voices heard. Observing the declining productivity of eastern farms and hoping to avoid the same in the West, an unidentified author in the Texan Advocate prophesied in 1848 that “the production of one or two great staples for export, neglecting...a wise rotation of crops, is sure to exhaust the soil, impoverish the people, and depopulate large and once-fertile districts.” The author goes on to admonish the British colonial system, which derived goods “from distant countries” and advocate sustainable local food produced “without impairing the natural fertility of the earth.” 

But as usual, sensational ideas generated far more attention than sensible ones. In 1885, a writer identified as N.A.T. from the Dallas Morning News reported on a new scientific phenomenon known as “rain follows the plow,” which hypothesized that increased human populations led to increased rainfall. “The annual precipitation [in the Texas panhandle] is far greater now... than it was when settlers first came into the country” N.A.T. wrote. The crops planted by settlers “serve as so many pumps, which, by their millions and millions of tiny roots suck up from the subsoil the water which lies hidden there, out of reach, and then by means of their leaves set free the water into the atmosphere.” 

While the notion seems quaint today, it had serious implications in its time. People flocked to the Texas plains, lured by promises of fertile land, easy profits and the ability to conquer the weather. They replaced native grasses with rows of cotton and failed to plant ground cover in the winter. They overgrazed cattle and didn't rotate crops. Nonetheless, for the next century at least, the weather generally cooperated and many settlers prospered.

Here’s where 4th grade history comes in: in 1930s, a natural drought combined with eroded soil and a lack of native grasses began to cause massive dust storms. “Texas in Need of Heavy Rain!” proclaimed one contemporary headline. “Black Blizzard: Visibility Zero at Amarillo as Dust Blots Sun” declared another. While some Texans resorted to prayer—or exploding TNT into the skies in hopes of generating precipitation, a tactic also employed today by the Chinese government—Dallas Morning News agricultural editor Victor H. Schoffelmayer had a more practical solution. He urged farmers to plant vegetative land cover to decrease soil erosion and help curb the effects of the weather, if not the weather itself. But even as devastating dust storms killed livestock and humans and destroyed crops and livelihoods, Schoffelmayer recognized that “to expect farmers to think first of the soil and later of their own interest may be expecting too much.”
However, he wrote, “the time is here when they must think in those terms.” Those words could well be echoed today.

The sun bakes the ground at the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Much of the arid West was settled during a time of above-average rainfall; now, as droughts become the new normal, cities and farms are struggling not to go the way of the Anasazi, the ancient people who built civilizations among desert cliffs during a similarly wet era and disappeared when the rains dried up.
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