Bill McKibben spent three weeks backpacking from Vermont to New York, and along the way, discovered the people who lived on the land had very different ways of life, depending on which side of Lake Champlain they lived. Host Steve Curwood talks with McKibben about his new book, "Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape."
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Author Bill McKibben spent three weeks in the summer of 2003 backpacking from the hillsides of Vermont's Champlain Valley through the heights of New York's Adirondack Mountains.
And along the way, he met up with locals who helped him scrabble up hillsides and raft down rivers. They also taught him the meaning of living locally, and how they've come to inhabit the wilderness, without taming it. Their words of wisdom are chronicled in Bill McKibben's book, "Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape." Bill McKibben, thanks for joining us.
MCKIBBEN: Hello, Steve.
CURWOOD: Now, Bill, you love the wild, but you grew up in the suburbs, I think, around Boston. So what drew you into the wild? In fact, I’m thinking, that as a writer you’re kind of like Alistair Cooke. You come from one place and you go to another and you tell the story.
MCKIBBEN: Well, in a sense that’s true, you know. My roots, as a writer, are quite urban. When I left college, I went off to Manhattan and wrote the "Talk of the Town" column for the New Yorker for five years and my boast at one point was that I’d been out at every subway stop in New York City. But, for a variety of odd reasons, I ended up living in the late 1980s in the Adirondacks, in the great wilderness of the East and instantly knew that that’s the landscape of my heart in some way. And not only do I love this neck of the woods – I mean, this book really is in certain ways a love letter for me, and a break from my usual grim dispatches from the world of large-scale environmental problems – I also think that it’s, you know, there’s all kinds of beautiful and lovely places, but what makes this one so interesting to me is this cheek-by-jowl contrast on the Vermont side of the lake, of Lake Champlain, a kind of emphasis on husbandry, on cooperation, you know, is sort of evidenced by the town meeting tradition. And in the Adirondacks, the great recovered wilderness of the entire world--an emphasis on a kind of self-restraint on human beings knowing how to leave some land alone, which seems like a pretty grand thing to me as well.
CURWOOD: Bill, there’s a passage in your book that really sets up your journey. Could you read about your time on the peak of Mount Abe?
Tonight a scrim of rain clouds advanced toward me, a gauzy curtain of gray that only made the lake and mountains behind gleam the shinier. It was clearly about to rain, but the worst of it seemed set to pass just north and south. A slight gap in the line headed toward my perch on Mt. Abe. Hearing no thunder, I stayed put. Sure enough, the cloud washed up over me. For a few moments even as the world turned gray, I could still make out the reflecting mirror of the lake. Finally, it too vanished and all was gloom. But then, even more quickly than it had descended, the cloud swept through and behind it the world was created fresh. No scrim, now, just the fields, the lake, the peaks. When a double rainbow suddenly appeared, it was almost too much, a Disney overdose of glory. But then a rainbow pillar rose straight into the southern sky, and east of that a vaporous twin appeared, and then a kind of rainbow cloud to the north--soon, seven rainbows at once. Then the sun reached just the right angle so that the mist, whipping up the face of the peak flashed into clouds of color as it washed over me. A rose-cloud. A cloud of green. And always behind it, the same line of lake, the same jag of mountain. All at once it struck me, struck me hard, that this was one of those few scenes I would replay in my mind when I someday lay dying.
CURWOOD: Up on Mt. Abe here, this vision of seven rainbows, seems like a hard act to follow. How do you top that?
MCKIBBEN: Well, of course, one doesn’t, I mean there will never be a moment in my life again when I see seven rainbows at once I don’t think so that was the aesthetic highpoint perhaps.
CURWOOD: Bill, so much of your book compares the two different kinds of people on the different sides of Lake Champlain. You have different folks, one lake. What are the differences you observed?
MCKIBBEN: Well, I mean, the Adirondacks has been defined by its climate and its harshness. It’s higher up and colder and tougher to farm than Vermont and so it never successfully was. You can find plenty of stone walls deep back in the woods that show where people tried for one generation to farm that land but it didn’t work. And so, though they’re roughly the same size, Vermont and the Adirondacks, the population of Vermont is 600 and some thousand and the population of the Adirondacks is barely 150,000. And in many ways, you know, once you cross the lake, once you leave New England, you’re headed west, you’re in the sort of unrulier rest of America where – no more, you know, beautiful town greens with white churches, no more town meeting. The look and the feel is more Appalachian. That has a whole other take on how the world might be.
CURWOOD: Well, let’s talk about some of the characters you met along the way in your trek here. So let’s start with Chris Grandston. He’s the Vermonter who owns this winery near Middlebury College and he has a pretty practical outlook on farming, I guess. Tell me a bit about your time with him.
MCKIBBEN: Well, he’s a classic example of people who are trying to figure out how to make it farming. It’s almost impossible to make it farming growing commodity food. You’ve got to look for other things. What’s he’s hit on in recent times is wine grapes, hard to grow in Vermont, but he went on a web site called LittleFatWino.com….
CURWOOD: (laughter) Okay.
MCKIBBEN: …and found somebody who had these sort of northern varietals and he’s making a go of it and he’s not a romantic about it. You know, I remember talking with him one day and he was saying ‘look, you know, how am I going to control the weeds under these vines?’ Well, I just talked with one guy who’s trying to do it organically, the weeds got a little out of control and now he’s taking out pigweed with a chainsaw.
CURWOOD: Oh, my.
MCKIBBEN: So what I do is once a year with a backpack sprayer, I put a little bit of Roundup up and down the rows.
MCKIBBEN: Monsanto’s a big evil nasty company as he put it, but one of the things that’s emerging here is a whole cadre of growers who call themselves ecological or sustainable farmers who don’t promise never ever to use pesticides, but say that ‘we’re your neighbors. We will use these things incredibly sparingly if we have to.’ And that allows them to grow food on a scale and for a price that can begin to offer them some hope of survival.
CURWOOD: Now, toward the end of your journey you meet with Don Armstrong who’s lived in the Adirondacks all of his life. How different was his lifestyle compared with those on the Vermont side of the trail?
MCKIBBEN: Well, Don is an old friend of mine in the town where I’ve lived most of my adult life in the Adirondacks. And he’d grown up working in the woods in some of the old lumber camps and then working in the mines, which were the two great economic engines of the Adirondacks before tourism. And so his life was very different from the pastoral life of Vermont, so his set of skills and things was more western, but his sense of community was very, very strong in a New England way.
I remember once we were changing the storm windows on the church in town and he – though he was advanced in years – took me up through this sort of set of jerry-rigged ladders and things to see the steeple of the church. And he showed me the place where he had carved his name 60 years before, along with the initials of his then-girlfriend, now-wife Velda, and it really gave me the powerful sense of what it meant to be rooted in a particular place. I read a poll the other day that showed that three-quarters of Americans didn’t know their next-door neighbor. Well, there’s not anyone who lives in Indian Lake or Chomsburg or Tupper Lake or those places who don’t know their next-door neighbors because you wouldn’t get through the winter if you didn’t. There’s still some real dependency on each other and that’s an awfully good thing I think.
CURWOOD: Bill McKibben is author of "Wandering Home–A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape." Bill, thanks.
MCKIBBEN: Thank you Steve.
[MUSIC: Peter Lang "Emily’s Waltz" from ‘Guitar’ (Horus - 2004)]
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