As she walked out of the house onto the solid porch and surveyed Henry’s property, Meredith could visualize how dwellings and workspaces had proliferated on the hillside since they were children, in the way that haphazard development often takes place on a piece of rural land. Henry had built a pole barn for goats and a shed for his shop. Teenaged Garth had hauled a trailer onto a piece of level land, then built a cabin onto it.
Meredith backed her car out of Henry’s driveway to head back down the hill between the rock outcroppings that had been blasted through to build the road forty years ago. She pictured the sediments eroding, crumbling, falling to the roadside since then, weathering the cliffs.
She and Garth got into the changes over a bottle of California red that night. Garth had commuted south to Connecticut for years before he moved to the West Coast. He complained that southern Vermont now looked like Connecticut—walls of trees along the roads. Where were the fields, the views, the old pastures that they used to walk in, hunt in, ride their horses through? Wasn’t there supposed to be something about a mosaic of clearings and woods that was beneficial? Meredith should know about this from her forestry stint.
“It’s true,” Meredith sighed. “Newcomb’s pasture is all grown in. It’s a beech-clone forest now, under some big old pines.” They had watched this pattern throughout their lives of walking, riding horses, driving through the old pastures turning to woodlands. It was the dynamic of their generation on the land—that certain window, fifty years after the abandonment of agriculture across the Northeast.
In the same way that their fathers had taken on the charge to buy up land and keep large tracts undeveloped, Garth and a couple of other town sons, now town fathers, were clearing fields with chainsaws and keeping them mown or grazed, appreciating the landscape that this created. The forests were all very well—they needed the forests for firewood, for wildlife, for the carbon they absorbed and held from the atmosphere—but the openings had their role to play too, as Meredith and Nora well knew from the decline of birds like meadowlarks, bobolinks, and whip-poor-wills.
“Why is it that people get so crazy about trees?” Garth asked.
Meredith wasn’t sure how she wanted to answer this. She too had reactions to the newcomers who had moved up from away and wanted to protect every tree. But should she give Garth a lesson on carbon sinks and the contribution of regrowth in the Northeast to the air chemistry budget? Or was she going to join him in bemoaning the newcomers, suburb- and city-raised, who’d moved to Vermont in the last thirty years, how misguided they were, and what they were doing to the landscape by sprinkling their houses through the forested hills?
“Well, it sure is complicated,” she answered. “I’m glad for the new generation of field-clearers, like you. And we all have to live here together, whatever our perspective.”
The story isn’t finished yet, Meredith thought. Of course, it never would be. Their town was a patchwork—new small farms, clear-cuts here and there, ridgelines that had been sheep farms left now to revert, old dead wood slumping to the forest floor. And she was just beginning to see the new patterns.