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Molnar: Wake Up Call

(Host) The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and a recent visit to the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park in Woodstock have together gotten writer and commentator Martha Molnar thinking about Vermont's vital role in the nation's environmental history - and future.

(Molnar) Only recently, I learned that Vermont was the birthplace of the environmental movement. I felt ignorant not knowing this, but then I asked some friends and they were equally surprised.

George Perkins Marsh, born in 1801 in Woodstock , was a leading intellectual and successful diplomat. But he's best known as America's first conservationist.

In an 1847 speech to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, he condemned the systematic destruction of America 's forests and the resulting erosion, silt, dead fish and infertile fields. Seventeen years later, having lived on the parched shores of the Mediterranean as U.S. ambassador to Italy , he sounded the global alarm with his landmark book, Man and Nature. In it, he developed the concept of ecology, the interdependence of humans and the environment, and detailed the ecological ruin that doomed civilizations that ignored ecology. Mostly, he was alarmed by seeing Vermont head in the same direction.

But Marsh understood that we're destined to disturb nature - especially in places like Vermont. Here, there's virtually no land is free from human influence, from the imprint of native Americans to the sheep farming that denuded our forests. Today, Vermont has about the same amount of forest as when the Europeans arrived - but a very different and rapidly evolving kind of forest.

Marsh was not like Thoreau, who believed that any action that altered the wilderness was evil. Marsh saw humans as a natural part of the landscape, living onit as good stewards thanks to the laws of a strong government. The national historic park in Woodstock that bears his name is a place where human and natural stories are effectively and beautifully intertwined in a landscape of forested hills and a working farm.

So it was that more than 150 years ago the environmental movement was born in our small state. And today, Vermont remains close to the movement's original ideals. The working landscape we cherish is a clear example of man living in harmony with nature while extracting his needs from it - in this case, through small-scale farming and tourism. Tourists are drawn to the mosaic of fields, forests, small towns and big sky, especially when they're uncluttered by garish billboards and large-scale industrial development.

And Vermont is still a wellspring of social and cultural innovation while respecting tradition. Bill McKibben, today's best-known Vermont environmentalist, continues Marsh's work by sounding the alarm on climate change and informing our national agenda.

The ferocity of Superstorm Sandy, which may be attributed to rising sea levels and changing hurricane patterns, is our latest environmental wakeup call. Our response last year to Irene shows that Vermonters can act swiftly and effectively. Perhaps Sandy will remind us that we are the stewards of George Perkins Marsh's legacy, and that sometimes the vision of a single individual has the power to change the world.

Martha L. Molnar is a public relations and freelance writer who moved to Vermont in 2008. She was formerly a New York Times reporter.
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