Monday, November 3, 2014

Vermont's Urbanization

I had the great good fortune to spend several days with my medical school classmate, Martha Stitelman. She has lived and practiced in Southern Vermont since the early 1990s. She has a deep interest in the mountains of Vermont, and is not only active in hiking, but also in trail maintenance and other tasks related to keeping the forests welcoming to all. I was delighted to be able to tour with her, given her deep knowledge of the area. She was always pointing out a nature preserve or forest where there were fine trails, cabins, or sights to see. We started our travels with a visit to Angela Miller, who was the agent for my book, Root Shock. In addition to being an active literary agent, Angela, with her husband, bought a farm and developed a cheesemaking business. Her farm, Consider Bardwell, makes a number of different kinds of goat and cow cheeses and has won numerous prizes. She wrote a book, Hay Fever, about her adventures in getting the business going. Behind the serenity of the farm and the great tastes of the wonderful cheeses are the details of getting a business going, learning a new craft, finding the people who can make the business work, and connecting the world to one's products. Angela sells at many NYC Farmers Markets, including Union Square. I think my favorite is the RUPERT, but I brought plenty of cheese home so I can continue to investigate the matter! Among her new projects is the organization of the West Pawlet Community Farmers' Market, held on Friday evenings in the Fish and Game Club building. Angela's urbanism -- which constantly reaches out to neighbors to partner, support, include and share -- is an urbanism I admire. She has invested along many dimensions. While the concept of "urbanism" is not usually associated with Vermont, Angela's work made me think about the state's urbanization in a new way.
After visiting at Consider Bardwell Farm, Martha and I went to Manchester VT to visit the Northshire Bookstore and go to EMS for gloves for me. The bookstore was large and "appetizing," meaning I wanted to buy a lot of books. I restrained myself -- getting only a copy of Danielle Allen's Our Declaration for Martha. There was a whimsical statue of Thomas Jefferson outside, so of course I said to the cashier that the store should feature Dr. Allen's book. She shrugged cynically, promising to pass my message on. "They don't listen to me," she said. She seemed wise, so I think they should listen to her. But then we pushed on for gloves as I found it wretchedly cold. Manchester has 4,180 people in 42.3 square miles, according to the "towns in Vermont" listing in Wikipedia. But the sense of sparse population distracts from the tight organization of the state. People are connected at various levels of scale, beginning with the nearest hamlet, then nearest town, the nearest city and the encompassing region. The heart of the settlement is the post office. Where the post office is linked to a general story, things really start to happen. Martha proposed lunch in Jamaica, which had been badly hit by Tropical Storm Irene. There wasn't any place to eat so we drove on. In West Townshend, we came to the West Townshend Country Store, which boasted a cafe, WiFi, a thrift store, and a post office. We had hit the jackpot!
We had a wonderful lunch of chili and cornbread and learned that the Country Store is run by the West Townshend Community Center. The Community Center raises money to support the store and its community building activities. We heard a story about a lost dog, dropped off at the store by the couple that found it, and then reconnected with its owners who were at the store for coffee and were overheard grieving for their lost dog. This is the same sense as the West Pawlet Community Farmers' Market -- creating a center for life in a very diffuse place. From West Townshend we went to the town of Newfane. It had a massive village square, with a huge Congregational Church and a separate town meeting, equally distinguished. There was a Civil War monument with a 140 names - indeed, Vermont sent 34,000 men to the Civil War out of a total population of 340,000, about half of the population now. Imagine 10% of the population, leaving for war, many killed or maimed, yet the state continued on.
We were able to visit Brattleboro, Williamsville and Bennington the next day, taking in the ways in which the hamlets, villages, towns and cities were interwoven into people's daily lives. Martha told me a story about Home Depot opening a store in Brattleboro. People were angry that Home Depot was trying to put Brown and Roberts, the hardware store on Main Street, out of business. They boycotted Home Depot and eventually it closed and went away. Brown and Roberts is still there. This makes social sense, as a strong Main Street is an important line of defense against the vagaries of weather and farm markets.
Martha constantly drew my eyes to the damage that Tropical Storm Irene had caused as the water stormed down the many rivers pushing stones and trees and dirt and houses in its path. We also saw and crossed many of the bridges that had been rebuilt. The hamlets, villages, towns and cities are hunkered down by the rivers and streams, of which there are many. I am vey skeptical of the current fad of "urban farming." Vermont really has a lesson to teach us in that regard. It is, in its way, a very urban state, and the hundreds of small family farms are tightly connecting to the urban centers. It gives new meaning to "urban farming." I was looking in the Northshire Bookstore for a book on the urbanization of Vermont -- it might not have been written yet but I hope someone will!