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Molnar: Neither Pure Nor Simple

As dusk comes earlier and dawn later, the lights of the town and college in the valley fill our kitchen window after the first cup of morning coffee and before I start on dinner.

I used to resent those lights. They were reminders that we live in a man-made environment, eliminating all pretense of living in unspoiled nature. We planted spruce trees that in some future decade will block the lights.

But now I wonder if those trees were a mistake. Over the years, the lights have become familiar neighbors. Sometimes, feeling alone during severe weather, they twinkle in friendly fashion, assuring us that all’s well in the valley and we’re not really alone.

I now accept that there’s no wilderness around me, nothing untouched by man. Our fields were once forest, turned into pasture, then into orchard, and on our watch, back to meadow.

All these transformations resulted from human intervention - and yet all are beautiful and appreciated by wildlife. The meadow is a haven to the threatened bobolinks, to hawks that dine on field mice, to deer that use our road to reach the apple trees, and the remnant Monarch butterflies that come for the proliferating milkweed. Sugar maples have begun to spread into the fields. We transplant and raise them with care.

Our impact on nature is evident through much of the state. Even the tops of our glacier-eroded mountains show human activity, from simple stone cairns to massive ski lift installations.

And that’s all fine with me.

Because whether looking out house or car windows or biking Vermont’s roads or hiking its trails, what I see is beautiful… a patchwork of valleys, small towns, corn fields, pastures, forests, lakes and ponds, all contained within mountain ranges. Unlike other parts of the country, where most family farms have been turned into industrial-sized monocultures and many small towns are dead or dying, our farms are human scaled and our towns vibrant with community.

In fact, we’re having less impact on our landscape today than in the past, when 80 percent of the forests were cut down for sheep farming. Today, the reverse is true. Everywhere I see good stewardship, a rare realization of man and nature in harmony.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” noted Oscar Wilde. In Vermont, the truth is that while almost everything bears our human imprint, it’s our human community that has – through sacrifice, commitment and sometimes bitter political battles - maintained our justly famous landscape.

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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