Peter Forbes | Start with the Land

image credit: Fred Fokkelman

Original article posted in Vermont Commons July 31, 2006 and written by Peter Forbes of Center for Whole Communities.

Not all that long ago, our ancestors drew their identities from the land that they lived on, whether they were farmers or sharecroppers or laborers who came in seasonally to harvest wheat, corn, soybeans, or strawberries. Even those who lived in towns had a more direct relationship with the land than most of us do now; they held claim to their town, their region, their state. Since so many of us live in cities now, and are very transient in both our jobs and our homes, our identities are no longer about the land. Land is now a city park or a wildnerness preserve, something you visit and leave behind once you’re done with it. In this article, Peter Forbes draws our focus toward the land to discover what’s really important in our communities and how the land, which so many of us think of as “other,” is an extension of our relationships to one another, to the environment, to our children and grandchildren, and to our future. 

Are we really loyal to our own soil? Let me make a straightforward proposition: all talk of the future of nations and states that doesn’t start with the fundamentals of soil, and our relationship to it, is the domain of armchair revolutionaries.

Soil and land is the foundation of our cultural house. It isn’t the roof, or the walls, or the windows, or the plumbing, but land –and our relationship to it—supports and defines all the characteristics that we call humanity and community. And from this awareness comes a glimpse of another truth: our true wealth and security comes from that relationship to the land. If we want political independence then we must start in the right place: with how all Vermonters live on the land and in community. Those relationships to the land determine whether we subject ourselves to systems and economies beyond our control, or liberate ourselves to be fully human.

Vermont is quickly evolving from a land-based culture, one capable of producing what it needs to feed and shelter itself, to a consumer-based culture, one that is largely dependent on someone else’s land and labor. For example, although I live in a fertile valley dotted with farms, many folks in our community eat food transported from thousands of miles away and purchased in a chain store with little connection to any of us. In doing so, our relationships change from immediate, apparent, and intimately woven to distant, vague and loose. Another way to describe this is that we’re evolving from a whole community into a large collection of disconnected individuals. Writ large, we’re evolving from a nation of citizens into a nation of consumers. This is a true description of losing one’s independence.

In Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt writes, “I think I have told, but if I have not you must have understood, that a man who has a vision is not able to use the power of that vision until he has performed the vision on earth for people to see.” An important vision is beginning to take shape in the bone and muscle of this Vermont Commons community, but we have the burden of making that vision real not through words, but through performing it on the earth for people to see. What does true independence taste like? The best way we can demonstrate independence is to celebrate all the ways that Vermonters are living independently.

Positive stories are one powerful way of confronting the broken underbelly of our culture.

Our objective is quite simple: we want our country and our land to thrive. Our problem is also quite simple: we have not yet told a story that sticks. We have not yet told a story that speaks to everyone. We have not yet told a story that is about what we love, rather than what we fear. We have not yet performed that vision on earth for people to see.

Consider these questions that are being asked at this very moment in my own community. Will my children be able to afford to live here? Who will be in our schools when our population becomes largely comprised of second and third home owners? Who will serve on the ambulance squad when young people can’t afford these real estate prices? Will there be a home in Vermont for mountain lions before there’s affordable housing for Vermonters? Why do I no longer feel welcome here? How will our community build roads without gravel? How will we feed ourselves without active farmland? Why doesn’t anyone care?

So, as we talk about political secession, we’ve got to create the positive picture of people living in close relationship to the land and to one another. This can be a beautiful and inspiring picture, one that encourages, rather than demands, change. The United States
desperately needs the example of Vermont, not just as a museum of protected land that’s beautiful to look at, but as a vibrant community where many people still earn some or all of their livelihood and identity from the land.

Secession can be a cultural act as important as a political act. We can secede today from the values that disturb us such as hyper consumption and a society where corporations have more power than communities. We can challenge the laws and the culture that disturbs us by creating a different set of economic and ecological relationships in our own communities.

The very best aspects of the American spirit – our sense of community, generosity, dependability – came from the traditions involving how we lived on the land. The opposite is also true: our intolerance, our capacity for greed and inhumanity has been played out on the land. All of these possibilities are in us as Vermonters, and we write them on the land, where they form our memory and mark our morality.

The soul of Vermont is continually re-born through our living out of these epic choices around our relationship to land and to one another. And that relationship can be good, bad or plain ugly. It’s good when the relationship is about respect, joy and limitations. It’s bad when it shows us stealing from our children for ourselves, and it’s ugly when it alienates anyone from their rights as humans. What happens when people and communities lose that relationship with the land? Do the values stay? Do laws protect what’s already left the heart? I think not. Laws can not protect what’s already left the heart.

Struggling for a healthy relationship with the land through how we live, what we eat, and who we welcome at the table, is transformational because it ultimately is about love and healing. It’s about relationships. And most of us understand this, without having to know all the science, because we humans – at our core – are more tuned to relationship than to isolation.

Now, however, a great divide is emerging in Vermont.

Vermont is filling up with people living mostly urban lives in a largely rural place.

The history of Vermont’s relationship to the land is revealing and helpful. 140 years ago, Vermonters lived extremely close to the land and that relationship became overbearing. Over time, relationship between our land and our citizens collapsed under a bad marriage. The last mountain lion was shot in 1881. Around that same time, black bear, fisher cat, turkey and deer became virtually extinct due to over-grazing and the deforestation of our hills. The human population crashed in response, leaving telltale cellar holes in what is now forested land. Squirrel replaced venison in the dinner pot. By 1900, the Norway rat became the most pervasive creature in Vermont.

Fast-forward ahead one hundred and twenty-five years and Vermont’s human population has created a more mutually beneficial relationship to the land. There are more people living in our communities and biodiversity has increased as well. Turkey, deer, bear are thriving. Nearly 80% of our landscape has returned to forest. The rivers are much cleaner then they were 50 years ago. There aren’t as many farms, and dairy operations struggle more then ever, but other forms of agriculture are prospering at different scale. The most important evidence of Vermont’s success is that we have the highest percentage of people who earn some of their livelihood from the land. Vermonters are in the woods, in the fields, and on the land more than in almost any other state in America.

Back in the 1970’s, the people of Vermont, then one of the poorest states in the nation, asked themselves a critical question: what is a whole community and how do we get there? We defined a new, healthier relationship to the land and, frankly, we did that through a set of environmental laws that set limits on people. Vermont has prospered under those limits, but also because those laws encouraged our chosen ways of life, and defined our community-on-the-land.

And now Vermont is changing again. There are fewer and fewer of us who hunt in the fall, who sugar in the spring, and who earn some portion of our livelihood from the land. The average Vermont six-year-old, meanwhile, consumes thousands and thousands of advertisements before they enter first grade telling them what they should love – objects, mostly, stuff – and who they should want to be.

This story of what it means to be alive, and an American, is what we as Vermonters should want to secede from. Politics aside, we should abandon any story that diminishes our own relationship to the land, and therefore our intimate knowledge of what matters most for us and our children.

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