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Thoughts about our working landscape


The experience and evolution of Vermont’s working landscape has been in my thinking recently, particularly as our communities work on issues of solar arrays, wind towers, and zoning regulations with respect to views and landscaping.

In my personal life, I struggle with my own 12 acres. How do I shape this land in a way that authentically fits my values and aesthetic sense, as well as my time and energy?

I am aware that what my property looks like tells a lot about me and that it communicates who I am, and my values, to my clients (affecting my sales as a violin maker), friends, and anyone else who chances onto this property on which I live.

“Imagining Vermont: Values and Vision for the Future”, written by the Council on the Future of Vermont and published by the Vermont Council on Rural Development in 2009, does a good job describing the history, value, and possible future of our landscape. It is worth being familiar with this report, and my thoughts and observations here build on the thinking in that document.

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The essence of a working landscape is that it is an active shaping of the habitat to use effectively the resources at hand (sunlight; soils; weather; plant, animal, and other technology) to meet our legitimate human needs. If there is a beauty to the landscape it derives from our affinity with the values represented in its shaping and the skill with which a healthy balance is achieved.

Our working landscape has required barns. Other landscapes have had different needs: in Holland, windmills; in England, hedgerows.

So what is the process by which working landscapes evolve, and what will Vermont’s 21st-century working landscape look like?

What are the factors that differentiate our landscape from a New Jersey oil refinery, or an anywhere-U.S.A. strip development?

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I have come to see three key factors in the evolution of Vermont’s working landscape as we know and value it, all of which might be key to a healthy and vibrant landscape.

1. The Vermont working landscape we prize was the result of management by farmers, foresters, and towns-folk who lived on or near the property they were working and shaping, land they were seeing and walking over every day.

2. These Vermonters depended on that land to pay its way and give them some return on their investment in the property and its care.

3. These landowners also had relationships with their neighbors, who also had to live with their decisions about their land as part of a community.

This yeoman-farmer aspect of Vermont’s history underscores the role of democracy in building the landscape we value and hope for. Historically, there was a limit to the amount of property one family could manage, and a natural community involvement that made for their good decision-making. Our democratic governance practices were both a product of, and shaper of, these conditions.

So how could these elements of working landscapes influence our communities as we move into times of new economic limits and opportunities, new technologies, and evolving social values on sustainability and quality of life?

Can wind towers, solar arrays, and new building technologies fit and shape a working landscape for Vermont today with the same rightness and power as the landscape we inherited from our farming and mill-building forebears?

While we have Currier and Ives and Norman Rockwell to capture and tell the story of a bygone working landscape and its social environment, what will an authentic working landscape for our place and community look like, now and in the future?

I would suggest that the power of a working landscape is precisely that it is not planned or designed, but that it evolves from a set of conditions and principles, much the way in which our bodies evolve as our unique genetic code is shaped by the food, environment, and cultural systems with which we grow.

As much as we try to shape our bodies and our lives with our intelligence and wills, we cannot escape the organic process and be truly healthy and balanced.

As helpful as zoning or regional planning might be, the essence of what we recognize and value in our landscape is more organic and natural, and perhaps more surprising and beautiful than any planned landscape could be.

Required is a strong set of core values, and the right economic and social environment conditions.

So how do we move to ensure that the key values of an authentic working landscape are in place?

How do we have an economic and taxation system that allows our lands and homes to be managed as producers of wealth, however modest, rather than as speculative investments or as playthings?

How do we put decisions of land use into the hands of those who live on and have daily connection with the land?

How do we build neighborhoods and communities where there is a shared appreciation of one another’s values and struggles?

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It is heartening that all of these issues are alive in our community conversations and that we have the interest, energy, and experience for those conversations to be real and dynamic.

It is heartening that we have many examples and experiments in Vermont addressing these issues, CSAs, land trusts, current-use legislation, and neighborhood associations among them.

The experiment of small-scale democratic control of our environment and landscape is likely to be as messy as all democratic processes seem to be. I am sure that it will have its failures as well as its successes and that we can learn from both.

We in Vermont have wonderful traditions of democracy, community, and naturally limited scale that can provide a rich environment for this experiment to go forward.

Our struggles with these issues will be for our benefit and might serve as models for others. Our rewards will be neighborhoods and landscapes that are beautiful expressions of our place, our realities, and our values.