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by Kimberly Moynahan
I spent last week in the white clapboard village of Craftsbury Common, Vermont attending the 2013 Wildbranch Nature Writing Workshop. One of my reasons for attending the workshop was to try to understand the relationship between nature writing and science writing. Are they one and the same? Are they mutually exclusive? Do they overlap?
I’ve only been home a day, so haven’t thought about this deeply, but my first impression after a week of immersion, is that the two types of writing occupy a Venn diagram with an extremely large common region. Many of us in the field of science communication drift back and forth in our writing between pure science reportage and descriptive place-based narrative — sometimes even within the same piece.
The place of nature writing in the context of science communication is worthy of much longer discussion and attention than I’ve given it here, but I think Wallace Stegner’s observation that “no place is a place until it has had a poet” is deserving of reflection, especially when considered from the perspective of wild places, particularly the ones we are trying to save.
With that in mind, I invite you to read the short piece I workshopped and read to the Wildbranch class and faculty on our last night in Vermont. By way of background, the workshop took place at Sterling College, a school of agriculture and environment, where students plant gardens, drive draft horses, and prepare meals and products made from animals they’ve raised.
Idealism takes many shapes. A stone wall is one of them.
The wall on which I sit is not a full wall, but an eight foot span, four feet high — or a “face cord” in Vermont speak. The charcoal grey slabs of shale are broad and flat and multi-layered, like the wall itself. The stacking is neat, and the stones’ sharp edges jag only slightly out of plumb. The top runs level even where the ground below does not. The wall-maker was skilled.
For 12,000 years this bit of Vermont high ground was part of the North American great eastern deciduous forest, an unbroken expanse of hardwood that filled half the continent, from the Atlantic to points beyond the Mississippi, from Labrador to Florida.
But today it is a meadow, long cleared of trees but burgeoning with grasses and wildflowers. Around me it spills away over hillsides to the north and west and climbs a small rise to the south. Only the unyielding forest stops its advance.
The forest also defied early European explorers. Men in flagged ships navigated the new continent via the waterways where each bend in a river promised untold riches, new trade routes, and the expansion of empires. In this age of acquisition their idealism took the form of names – New France, New Britain, Newfoundland, New England—new holdings and new beginnings.
In their wake came opportunists, not searching for gold, but for the quick profit to be turned on the valuable hardwoods that bordered the waterways. As the waters flowed north so did the logs; at times so many, it seemed the rivers and lakes would choke on the final remains of Vermont’s great forests.
Then came settlers with romantic ideals. In Vermont, a man could own property just by clearing it. And so men did, hauling the innermost trees out to the rivers and bringing their families in. With families came sheep, imported from Europe to graze the hilly pastures.
But even with the forests razed, there was still clearing to be done. Under her rich organic floor, Vermont’s subfloor is stone. Each winter the frost heaves, delivering to the surface boulders of granite and marble, slabs of shale. And so, with an idealism rooted in sheep futures, the new ranchers undertook the back-breaking work of carrying stone. Not far, of course. Just to edges of the pastures where they stacked it into walls that would now enclose lambs and opportunity.
Today most of Vermont’s great forest has been restored. But among the rewilded lands the crumbled remains of stone walls weave between trees and push across pastures and meadows.
This shale wall has been rebuilt to overlook the barns and fields of another kind of settler. These are the new idealists — the young men and women who grew up in a world made easy by the energy stored in shale like this. Does the wall remind them that humans have forgotten what it means to work a land with respect? What shape will their idealism take?