Thursday, August 11, 2011

Forests, Once and Future

"Between 1850 and 1900, 85% of Vermont's land was deforested."
-- Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP Park Ranger

As July turned to August, I began a new writing project – spending time in, ruminating on, and writing about our National Parks. I’m taking advantage of the travel required for my No Word for Welcome book tour to explore our national parks and our relationships to them. Like many American childhoods, mine included a string of visits to national park service sites, from Sequoia to the Lincoln Memorial. Growing up in a military family and moving every few years, the National Parks were one of the few constants for my itinerant family.

I’m spending two months as Writer in Residence at Vermont’s only national park, a hilly woodland that is only slightly larger than two urban parks close to my heart: Seattle’s Discovery Park and Boston’s Franklin Park. At the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park (NHP), I’m beginning to seek answers to a question that has been knocking around my head and heart all my life: What does it mean to come from a place? As a military kid (a Navy Junior, to be precise) the idea of having a hometown has always been enormously foreign--and enormously attractive. Related to that question are two others:

What does it mean to be native to a place?  What does it mean to care for a place?

This historic bungalow where I work  at the Marsh-
Billings-Rockefeller NHP was built as the woodland
retreat of another woman writer in 1917.  
I spent much of the last dozen years exploring those questions in southern Mexico. The result of that exploration is No Word for Welcome. As I’ve settled into life here in Woodstock, Vermont, I’ve learned (to my surprise) that this area has quite a bit in common with Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Both regions are primarily rural; both regions were deeply changed by the construction of railroads and highways in the 1800s; both regions have suffered terrible deforestation. (You can read more about nineteenth-century isthmus history in this essay I wrote for the early American history journal Common-Place.) Vermont has passed through many economic eras: timber-cutting to clear land for farming, sheep-ranching to feed the textile industry of the Industrial Revolution, then skiing to feed the tourist economy. Through it all, Vermonters have struggled to maintain their homeplace’s rural character and restore its ecological health--after saws, sheep, and ski-lifts have destroyed it. 
It is somehow both inspiring and disheartening to find the same cycles everywhere: We arrive; we wreak havoc; we realize our mistakes; we endeavor to repair. Between 1850 and 1900, eighty-five percent of Vermont’s land was deforested. Now, the once-again green hills of Vermont give me hope for the increasingly bare hills of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

(And speaking of hope, I must give deep thanks to the K2 Family Foundation in Maine and 4Culture in King County, Washington, for making my new writing adventure possible.)