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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Slayton: Cultural Landscape

Now that the leaves have fallen and the trees are bare, we can see the contours of the physical landscape more clearly. And if we look carefully enough, we can see the cultural contours of the land as well.

That’s because the Vermont landscape, which we think of as a work of nature, is also the work of human beings. In fact, the Vermont countryside is deeply layered with history. No matter where you look, it has stories to tell.

Consider, for example, Vermont’s one national park, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock. Mount Tom and the land surrounding the village are a deeply layered historical landscape that tells a tale of environmental catastrophe and recovery, and at the same time unfolds the story of Vermont environmentalism.

It begins in the early 1800s, when George Perkins Marsh, later to be a US Congressman and diplomat, grew up in the shadow of Mount Tom, saw erosion devastate the little mountain’s treeless slopes and learned fundamental environmental lessons there that later inspired his 1864 classic, “Man and Nature,” the first work of environmental science.

The story continued when Frederick Billings, a Woodstock native who became rich as a western railroad lawyer, returned to his hometown, bought the Marsh homestead and planted trees on and around Mount Tom. Billings hoped to inspire Vermonters to adopt the then-new science of forestry to save the ravaged hillsides of their state and revitalize their economy.

Billings’ wife and daughters continued his work, and one of those daughters added an astounding chapter to the history of the land when she – Elizabeth Billings – undertook a major botanical project with her friend and mentor, the professional botanist Elsie Kittredge.

That project, carried on for more than 30 years by the two women, is as stunning in scope today as it was a century ago. It was to catalogue and classify all the wild plants within a six-mile radius of downtown Woodstock.

Ultimately, Billings and Kittredge collected and preserved 1,128 plant specimens, including 50 never before found in Vermont and several completely new to the world of science. Their collection, regarded as a priceless snapshot-in-time of the flora of the Woodstock area, was recently acquired by the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Park, where it will reside for the future, as a resource for botanists and other scientists.

With the guidance of the park staff and publications, visitors to the park today can see traces of Elizabeth Billings’ work in her various gardens and the unusual trees and flowers she planted. They can also see some of the tree plantations put in place by her father, Frederick Billings, and by those who came after him. And they can, if they wish, purchase a copy of the history making book "Man and Nature" by George Perkins Marsh.

Each of which, in its own way, expresses something of Mount Tom and the rolling hills that surround it – a cultural landscape that tells a deeply important story that is vital to our understanding of Vermont.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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