Sunday, August 10, 2008

Greetings from the Green Mountain State

This week I find myself in Burlington, Vermont. My wife is at a conference, so I sit alone in a motel room with a slow internet connection drinking cheap zin from a plastic cup.

This trip is bittersweet. The last time I was here was about 32 years ago. It was my first summer of research for my masters in forest soil science. I spent several weeks here digging soil pits and measuring trees along the Winooski River. I think back on those days and just shake my head. So much energy, work and enthusiasm; so little guidance and support. I know what it is to carry disappointment around.

While I on the subject of disappointment, when I first learned that we would be spending a few days at the University of Vermont, among the fist things that popped into my head were memories of the wonderful dairy bar at UVM. During that summer in 1976, I found every excuse possible to visit campus so I could get ice cream at the shop that, as I recall, was a mini-enterprise run by dairy science students. They milked the cows, made the ice cream and other wonderful dairy products, and ran the store. (At least in my idealized memory students did all those things, learning valuable skills along the way.) When I searched the web for direction to the shop, I learned instead that the shop was closed in 1995 when the building that housed it was torn down. It seems, the dairy bar was never reopened in a new location.

In my cynical, conspiracy-theory-prone brain, I saw local heroes Ben and Jerry giving a big donation to support the establishment of one of their shops in the new student center on the condition that the dairy bar not be reopened. More likely, no one on the staff wanted the hassle of running the store when it was easier to let a mega-corporation do it in return for some profits that could be exported to headquarters. Students don't want to learn that stuff any more anyway.

A little mild melancholy aside, we're having a great time. Burlington has a reputation of being a green, livable, walkable, bikeable city, and that seems true enough. The downtown is a fun mix of local color and national chain stores. Walkers and bikes are everywhere and a significant shopping street is for pedestrians only. From many places one can enjoy views of sea-like Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west.

But then, this is August. Biking probably isn't quite so much fun in January. I've also been reminded of another little problem that plagued me three decades ago: mosquitoes. With the lake, the river and it's wetlands and all kinds of ponds, puddles, swamps and bogs everywhere, this place has more mosquitoes than any place I've been - with the possible exception of Wisconsin. (I've never been to the arctic.) I recall how, when I was studying my floodplain soil pits so many years ago, one of the primary tasks of my assistant was to constantly swat my back with fern fronds to keep the bugs at bay.

So far, we've taken two wonderful bike rides. The first went in a big loop up north along Lake Champlain and a few of the big bays. We even crossed the river within sight of one of my old research areas. There are some great bike paths and a local cycling club (Local Motion) even runs a bicycle ferry service to shuttle cyclists across a cut in an old railroad causeway that now serves as a bike path. It looks like the old causeway was built on waste from marble quarries and a couple of artists have used the white rock as a stony medium; one painting a landscape and the other carving a huge jumping salmon.

Our other ride took us south to Shelburne Farms. This is a 1400-acre farm, historic site and environmental education center. For a few bucks, tourists can walk the grounds and imagine what the landscape used to look like. It's certainly beautiful, but obviously few working farms from the 19th century had the benefit of Frederick Law Olmsted doing the landscaping and Robert H. Robertson doing the building. This farm is more a museum than a working agricultural enterprise. I imagine more of its income comes from the exclusive inn on the property, tourist dollars and donations than comes from the delicious cheddar cheese they produce on site.

It's a good thing there are museums like this because the fabled Vermont landscape is fast disappearing under the blades of bulldozers. As we pedaled south of Burlington, we saw parcel after parcel of recently-farmed land being turned into subdivisions, condos and apartment complexes. I can't help but smirk and sneer as I see how often these developments are named after the things they have destroyed, with names like "Lakeview Farms." Of course now, the only farmer is the Orkin Man, and soon enough the only view will be of the three garage doors of the new mini-mansion across the street.

I can't help but think that the day will come when we wish that we could have those farms back and that a few more kids had worked at the dairy bar.

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