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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mountain Home, With John Elder

Air Date: Week of

In the Green Mountains just above Bristol, Vermont, the notion of home and the wild meet. Once celebrated in the poetry of Robert Frost, the re-forested hills of Vermont have found a new voice in writer John Elder and his book "Reading the Mountains of Home."


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. For many of us, home is where we return after forays into wild places. But in the woods that have grown back in much of New England, it's not so easy anymore to tell where the wild places end, and our homes begin. One place where the two worlds mesh is in the Green Mountains, just above Bristol, Vermont. A resurgence of trees, bear, and moose there is obscuring traces of root cellars, apple orchards, and old family homesteads. Once celebrated in the poetry of Robert Frost, the reforested hills of Vermont have found a new voice in writer John Elder in his new work, "Reading the Mountains of Home." The book is based on Mr. Elder's hikes along the ridge of Bristol Cliffs, using Frost's poem directive as a guide.

ELDER: "Back out of all this now, too much for us, back in a time made simple by the loss of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off, like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather, there is a house that is no more a house, upon a farm that is no more a farm, and in a town that is no more a town. The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you who only has at heart your getting lost, may seem as if it should have been a quarry. Great monolithic knees the former town long since gave up pretense of keeping covered (and there's a story in a book about it), besides the wear of iron wagon wheels, the ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest, the chisel-work of an enormous glacier that braced his feet against the Arctic Pole. You must not mind a certain coolness from him, still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain, nor need you mind the serial ordeal of being watched from 40 cellar holes as if by eye pairs out of 40 firkins. As for the wood's excitement over you, that sends light rustle [name?] rushes to their leaves, charge that to upstart inexperience. Where were they all, not 20 years ago?"

CURWOOD: What a powerful poem. And this is Robert Frost, of course, describing these hills, once greatly settled, once greatly farmed; hills that you hiked--


CURWOOD: --in the course of putting this book together. And I, too, have hiked some in the hills of Vermont. I'm wondering, Is this a good thing? Should our woods be filled with all this human history? Scored with, not just the motion of the glaciers, but also of the iron wheels of modern commerce?

ELDER: I found that the inextricability of human history and natural history in Vermont has felt increasingly rich to me. My sense is that, much of our thinking in this century about conservation has been focused on a sense of wilderness as absolutely separate from human works and human habitation, and I revere the wilderness movement, and I'm glad for its achievements. But I think it's also important to appreciate the ways in which culture and nature are interwoven, and that's the story of Vermont.

CURWOOD: Wild places are so exciting, though! I mean, you grew up in California.

ELDER: That's right.

CURWOOD: You've been out there, in the woods. Maybe you've been up to Montana, to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and there's just no people, there's no machines--it's, it's--untrammeled wilderness. I mean, here in New England, where we're talking now, I think, in your book, what did you say? "It's like hiking in a teacup."

ELDER: Yes. That was when I first moved to New England from California, someone said living in New England was like living in a teacup, and that felt right to me. Things felt smaller, closer together. There wasn't that sense of sublime expansiveness, and certainly the western wilderness is magnificent. I love it. In Vermont, I can walk out of my back door, and never get into wilderness that majestic or separate, but I can see bear tracks, moose sign, within a walk of my house. In some ways, there's a possibility for balance in New England that I also value--not to the exclusion of Western values, but also in no way secondary to it.

CURWOOD: So there are some who would argue that people, humanity as apart from nature, although many people today say we're now a part of nature. You'd put them kind of in the same camp as people who say that people who say that humans are somehow apart from wilderness, that you really can't make a dichotomy between the two; that we shouldn't treat the wilderness as some exotic place that's sort of "out there," but needs to be more a part of us?

ELDER: Yes, I would. It's complicated, because this is a controversial area, with a lot of heat on both sides.

CURWOOD: Of course.

ELDER: Many wilderness advocates resent what seem to them, environmental historians' reduction of everything to a social construct, and I do understand that. At the same time, my sense is, finally, that the more hopeful course for us at this point is to understand that people are part of nature, and that what one group, for instance, more recent settlers, might call wilderness, another indigenous group that's been there longer might find a book filled with the stories of their people. And I think that one of the projects of Americans today, when we've been so mobile, since World War II especially, is to recover the stories that will tie us to our place and make us care about it, make us steady and faithful on behalf of the balance of our place on Earth.

CURWOOD: One of the most powerful elements of your book, John Elder, is your own personal healing process. You use these hikes through the hills around Middlebury to deal with loss. Can you talk about this sense of loss that you're expressing here? And the connections to environmentalism? Because that's often cast in terms of loss.

ELDER: Yes. It's interesting. When I began to write this book in the year that I especially set aside for hiking the Ridge and thinking about the poem, my father died at the beginning of the year and my mother became gravely ill, and actually died in the year after I finished, and there were other things, too, that made it a shattering year. And the idea, I guess, Steve, that connects this with wilderness is that of grieving. I think that the same people who might worry that celebrating the Northeastern Woods would give license to those who would like to develop the rest of the world, I might think of that as a kind of passive acceptance of whatever comes. And the same thing could be thought of grieving, that it's a passive lamentation. But my sense, from everything I've read, and the people I've talked with, and my own experience, is that grieving is work. That it's the work through which we respond to what's been lost and try to open up the possibility for a future. This is a time of tremendous environmental loss, not only in our recent past, but I'm afraid in our immediate future. And the challenge is not to deny that, not to seek to find a way to transfer blame onto someone else, but to own it as ourselves in our world, and to try to work with it.

CURWOOD: In the course of all this loss, you decided to build yourself--a canoe. Didn't you?

ELDER: I did!

CURWOOD: This was a--with your own hands! I mean, a wooden canoe. You didn't go out and get a preform and a little fiberglass, or something, you--

ELDER: Right. I built a canoe, and it comes out of a dream, actually, I had, in which I saw a canoe dedicated to my father. This dream came when my father was dying, and so I built the canoe. It's a cedar strip canoe. I got a book that told me how to do it. And my thought was, at the end of the hike, all the way up this long ridge, between Frost's cabin and our house, I would take it into the pond there, Bristol Pond, and achieve some closure in my reading and in my hiking and in my grief. It turned out a little differently. I ended up going down a wild river ride with one of my sons. But building the canoe and hiking the ridge became part of one larger project for me.

CURWOOD: Tell me more about what happened on this trip with your son, and what that ended up meaning to you.

ELDER: One of my sons, Matthew, just as I was finishing the book, asked me if I would take the Tribute, which is the name of my boat, both because it's dedicated to my father and it's from a favorite Frost line, down through the Otter [name?] Creek Gorge with him. This is a very wild gorge near our home, and it was after strong rains. So I did that.

CURWOOD: And this is, now, a cedar boat. You're risking everything. It's not like an aluminum canoe, that's gonna make a loud noise when it hits a rock. This is gonna--

ELDER: Yeah. It was a very shiny, beautiful, cedar strip canoe. So we went through the Gorge, and swamped it, of course, in ways that I tell about in the final chapter of my book.

CURWOOD: Any lessons learned?

ELDER: Yes. I think that going back again, I would relate this to perhaps the wilderness dichotomies that we're rethinking today. Sometimes I think environmentalists have taken, because of our desire to stand up for natural integrity, we've taken a fatalistic and essentially a pessimistic view. But sometimes, in the face of loss and accidents, wonderful possibilities may emerge. I believe that and I've experienced it. Again, not in a kind of passive, acquiescent way, but in a way that is open to the possibility of adventure.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much.

ELDER: You're welcome.

CURWOOD: John Elder's book is called, Reading the Mountains of Home.

ELDER: (Reading) "The present forest of mixed northern hardwoods has developed largely since the 1920's, while spruce, fir, and birch dominate above 2500 feet in the Green Mountains. These mountains are also now stocked with beech, oak, hickory, butternut, white pine, red pine, hemlock, and most notably each fall, with multitudes of maples. Durable kernels from the deciduous trees bided their time for years, in a buried seed pool, ready to burst upward from the ground exposed and torn by logging. The autumnal vividness that saturates the sky above me, now, is thus the offspring of 2 eradicated forests. A sharp withdrawal of nitrogen scratches the match that annually ignites these mountains. Summer flares up in a vivid combustion before drifting down in embers through the branches' bare gray mesh. The circle of the year turns, and is illuminated, in the transient glow of leaves. Over the coming weeks, as the Canada geese and snow geese pass southward, morning and evening through our lives, their calls will float down with those changing leaves. Familiar cycles of departure offer those of us who stay, a way to feel at home."



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