Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Formation of an idea
Another winter solstice has passed and during this season of relative darkness, I think about the economic challenges that have always maintained an adversarial grip on even the most industrious people in the Northeast Kingdom. Particularly, over the last couple of generations, the working agricultural landscape has changed with so many small farms slowly giving way to larger scale farming complexes with bottom land, corn fed livestock. As I remember many small farms selling off their herds with the Federal Buyout programs in the 1980's, and twenty years prior in the early 1960's, the State revamped many of the roads around Vermont which often involved bypassing small villages and then the development of the thruway system.
In Coventry, Route 5 always snaked its way through my village and with the 1960's rerouting of the highway, the village was left far more quiet yet also without the travelers who frequented the two garages and general store. Within a few years the general store closed permanently, the garages no longer sold gas, due in part I believe to the rerouting of Route 5 but also due to increased mobility and presence of retail stores and particularly markets in neighboring towns.
In the 1950's and 1960's, many people had small gardens which produced fresh vegetables
for their families. Those on the farms usually tended gardens of much greater proportions and with their livestock (chickens and beef, eggs and raw milk), were always able to maintain a constant source of quality food both during the summer and also during the winter months with canned, dried and frozen food; thus, providing one important sense of security - quality food and a relatively healthy diet.
As the tradition or perceived need of maintaining a summer garden declined, larger commercial food markets have enjoyed a growing clientele thanks to not only a winter clientele who wishes for fresh produce from anywhere, but the periodic food needs of tourists and Canadians from Eastern Townships. Newport, for instance, the largest town in Orleans County, now has one private food market, a Shaws market and a large Price Chopper, all of which tend to buy from distant wholesale markets, the one private market periodically selling fall squashes and perch caught locally by ice fisherman in the winter. There are a number of small farm markets during the summer whose stock ranges from a good selection of local produce or such specialties as the full season of berries - strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. Again, most prefer to purchase instead of grow their own.
Along side this more traditional and pervasive manner of food procurement has been a burgeoning food economy far more resourceful and hopeful in terms of extended season fresh local food and networks providing other kinds of produce year around. This interest and responsibility for producing one's food was more recently practiced by many younger, often sophisticated college-educated people moving into the State during the late 1960's and 1970's, probably guided northward by then Vermonter Scott Nearing's seminal book, "Living the Good Life," and due in part to the convenience of a new thruway system allowing far faster access to Vermont from eastern cities in southern New England and New York. Some of these "newcomers" found more immediate communities by establishing communes and co-purchased larger tracts of farmland. Gardens and quality food were often a priority as was creating a lifestyle of relative independence far removed from the suburban lifestyles with which they were raised.
As I have continued to read portions of the Art of Action CD provided us by Sarah Waring from the Council for the Future of Vermont, I have been struck by Vermonter's wishing for traditions as the working landscape yet also wishing for change and hoping for far more security in terms of resources, jobs, health, applied common-sense educational concepts from elementary through post-secondary and more technology driven preparation and development for the workplace.
I very much feel this desire for the "good life" of rural living and privacy (Scott Nearing advocated for far more individual responsibility re. food generation and community responsibility) but also admittedly enjoy being able to purchase an organic mesclun mix in the local food coop and high-speed internet. I have been amused by my ongoing and sometimes conflicting desires for what had been perceived as not coexistent without huge changes in the demographics and lifestyles of place. Traveling to a richly diverse agricultural region of rural Italy has helped to dispel some of my rather narrow attitude about how Medieval and contemporary technology and infrastructure can exist, to a point where I have been drawn more and more to how critical the working landscape is in terms of food, health, community, economy, identity and sustainability and how certain conveniences or modernity and technology can help make these earlier traditions not only sustainable but can assist in implementing and regenerating older, useful traditions along side future ones.
Over the last number of weeks, I have been honing in on how I might work with these ideas beyond, as Curtis Hale says, the intellectual. Field testing with image-making and talking with many people I am slowly forming a proposal for the Art of Action. I have enjoyed many of the candid and informative blogs by everyone. Thank you all for sharing your brainstorming and thoughts. Best wishes!