An environmentally conscious upstate New Yorker with solar panels in his back yard accepts an invitation to Vermont to answer one burning question: are those "greenest state in the U.S." claims for real?
As the early spring sun beat intensely on the rapidly greening field at my house in New York's Hudson River Valley, I tossed my duffel bag into the car and grabbed a notebook. I checked one last time on my three nameless "children": pole–mounted solar panels standing obediently at attention, collecting energy from the sun and converting it into electricity. New York and I were doing our part to help the environment. But neighboring Vermont had thrown down the gauntlet, claiming that they were the original "greens" and were leading the sustainability movement. Well, we would see about that…
Sure, Vermont has the Green Mountains, aptly named for the lush vegetation cover that cloaks the north–south geologic spine visible even from parts of New York. I steered my car toward their direction as I left the Albany area, driving past the massive, flashing electronic billboards that were sprouting alongside interstates faster than claims of being green were tossed about these days. Soon I crossed the state border to witness Vermont's "first foliage season" with the trees' opening buds displaying the same reds, oranges and greens that draw autumnal leaf–peepers to the mountains.
The springtime effect, however, was lacier and often punctuated with the white blossoms of dogwood and apple trees. Except for small, standardized directional signs, there was a lack of any roadside advertising whatsoever. In 1968 the state had enacted the nation's first law banning highway billboards. OK, Vermont, beginner's luck.
Start Your Day With Fiddleheads
Settled into a slate–roofed Victorian–era inn in trendy Woodstock, the next morning I had a fiddlehead fern omelet made with Vermont cheddar at the local diner. Sure, Vermont…stuff the writer with tasty, local in–season food, then send him to stroll around the quintessentially New England village green, complete with fuel–efficient Toyota Priuses parked in the driveways of stone cottages and colonial revival homes.
And, please, let's play fair. If you must invite the journalist to investigate the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS), a center for the recovery and rehabilitation of injured birds, does the morning's program have to involve irresistibly cute children and stately owls?
"What are the characteristics of a raptor?" our perky guide, Noella asked the wide–eyed audience.
Immediately dozens of hands shot up and I suspected the kids had been briefed before their visit. With one of her own hands protected by thick leather gloves, Noella pointed to a quiet girl wearing glasses.
"They catch meat with their feet," the girl proudly recited.
Then, on cue, a beautiful red–tailed hawk flew across the stage and landed on Noella's hand, to the sound of squeals and applause from the children. The rest of the program introduced a varied cast of hawks, falcons, owls and eagles while discussing the unique characteristics of each species. Approximately four hundred birds admitted to the center each year clearly earned their keep by serving as environmental educators for the visiting humans.
Cream of the Crop
Well done, Vermont. You got me on that one. But surely my next stop at the Billings Farm and Museum would not find any credence in your claim that it was the birthplace of the environmental movement and a living museum of rural life in America. After all, I grew up in central New York where dairy farms thrived and milk with thick cream floating at the top was delivered in glass bottles to our doorstep every day. Farmers leading cows across the two–lane highway at milking time routinely blocked what little traffic there was. Seeing another dairy farm today would have to be something really special to impress me.
Our guide Megan led us into the nineteenth–century Queen Anne farmhouse where rhubarb was cooking on the wood–burning stove. As we wandered throughout the house—which was considered technologically advanced for the time with running water, sink drains, gas lights and even its own butter creamery—Megan told us about the history of the farm.
After the American Revolution, Vermont's abundant trees and water power attracted settlers who built lumber mills. Sheep farming also became highly profitable and landowners carved huge pastures out of the landscape. By the mid–1800s, most of the forests had been leveled. After driving through miles of uninterrupted trees to get here, I found this incredible. You had my full attention now, Vermont.
Growing up on the family farm where I now stood, George Perkins Marsh became a nature lover. After serving four terms as a Vermont Representative in the United States Congress, he traveled abroad as an American diplomat and witnessed even more profound devastation of natural landscapes. His observations and analysis of the human impact on nature formed the basis for his influential book, Man and Nature.
Now the story got interesting, and to continue it, we crossed the street.
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