When you travel outside of Vermont, it doesn't take long to
sense a difference in the landscape. Drive the interstates of
the nation - between occasionally spectacular scenic vistas, a
numbing sameness sets in. Despite its geographical variety, our
nation begins to look and feel the same. Pre-packaged, it
even seems to smell the same.
When I come home to Vermont, I look around and breathe deeply -
and smile. Here, the countryside is different and the people
seem different too. Cookie-cutter roadside culture is less
prevalent. People seem more inclined to live where they work, and
the fruits of their labor are often visible. Like generations
before them, the livelihoods of our working neighbors intertwine
with the verdant, scrabbly valleys and hills of Vermont -
especially for those who live and work on the farm or in the
For 250 years, Vermonters have interacted with the land. Over
generations, they shaped their landscape - in turn, the harsh
beauty of the narrow valleys, flinty hills, and abruptly changing
seasons, shaped their culture. Vermonters and their landscapes have
shaped and reshaped each other, always at the hands of farmers and
foresters, trying to wrest a living from a land that is both
reluctant and beautiful.
Vermonters guard their freedoms jealously, even while
celebrating the unity of their communities. How we do our work and
shape our lands and towns reflects this tension, which is enshrined
in our motto: Freedom & Unity. It's also reflected in our
distinctive countryside of farms, forests, villages, and small
cities, just as it is in our distinctive culture - at once
contrarian and cooperative, traditional and progressive, it is
quaint, homey, and surprisingly sophisticated.
Today, most Vermonters no longer earn their livelihoods directly
from the land. But the quality of their lives is shaped by the
working lands around them. Their neighbors, who work these lands,
enrich the fabric of their communities, keeping culture in touch
with the countryside in which it thrives. These are the elements
that bind Vermonters to their distinctive place in the world. This
is what makes Vermont the place where we want to live, as well as
the place that others want to visit. For Vermonters and visitors
alike, our working lands are essential to "the profound sense of
well being" that defines our home.
Last year, in the face of the enormous setbacks wrought by
Tropical Storm Irene and its ensuing flood, the Legislature passed
the Working Lands Enterprise Investment Bill, which the Governor
signed into law. In these fiscally challenged times, it was
remarkable how Vermonters from all political persuasions saw value
in investing in the economic wellbeing of their working lands, by
stimulating entrepreneurship among Vermont's agriculturists and
foresters. Vermonters found consensus around the idea that in order
for their cherished countryside to thrive, its stewards needed
pathways to economic sustainability.
It seems to me that this is a particularly Vermont-like way of
doing business - fostering a commonly held value, while encouraging
individual enterprise. "Freedom & Unity" at work.
But it was only a beginning. It is time to build on last year's
Legislative initiative with additional capital in this year's
governor's budget, ensuring that the seeds of stimulus we are now
planting will thrive in the coming year, and years to come.
Then, when we gaze at the forested hills and verdant valleys of
our state, peppered by tidy farms and compact villages, we can take
deep breaths of satisfaction. Our children and our grandchildren
will thank us too.
David A. Donath is President of the Woodstock
Foundation, a public non-profit institution that promotes
conservation, sustainable land use, and heritage as values that are
essential to culture, community, and the human spirit. The
Foundation operates the Billings Farm & Museum an operating
dairy farm dedicated to telling the story of Vermont's rural
heritage. He is co-editor of a forthcoming book of essays by
well-known Vermonters entitled The Vermont Difference.