I have been fortunate to spend a few seasons of quiet observation (usually on the other end of a dog leash) in the open meadow and trails of Gardner Farm on Nantucket. Seeing the edges of the property change with time, and tuning into patterns of growth in the native vegetation has sharpened my awareness of the ecological processes at work in the meadow, and elsewhere.

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I can imagine that something of the same rudimentary observation informed the awareness of place in some of my literary heroes. One of the most transformational threads in the work of Robert Frost, who favored long jaunts as opportunities for “botanizing“, is the awareness of the intrinsic nature of dynamic change to processes both human and natural.

In his poem “Something for Hope” Frost employs the concept of Ecological Succession as a parallel for the hopeful possibility of change and evolution in the realms of human affairs.

Something for Hope

At the present rate it must come to pass
And that right soon, that the meadowsweet
And steeple bush, not good to eat,
Will have crowded out the edible grass.
Then all there is to do is wait
For maple, birch, and spruce to push
Through meadowsweet and steeple bush
And crowd them out at a similar rate.
No plow among these rocks would pay.
So busy yourself with other things
While the trees put on their wooden rings
And with long-sleeved branches hold their sway.
Then cut down the trees when limber grown,
And there’s your pristine earth all freed
From lovely blooming but wasteful weed
And ready again for the grass to own.
A cycle we’ll say of a hundred years.
Thus foresight does it and laissez-faire,
A virtue in which we all may share
Unless a government interferes.
Patience and looking away ahead,
And leaving some things to take their course.
Hope may not nourish a cow or horse,
But spes alit agricolam ‘tis said.
— Robert Frost, Steeple Bush, 1947

In our clearing, the hopeful upstart is not steeple bush, but low bush blueberry. I noticed a patch tucked away at the corner of a trail the other day, and since have sharpened my awareness of it elsewhere; indeed, it is a funny trick of consciousness that helps to isolate the noticed signal from what previously was “noise” in one’s field of vision. Could it have been everywhere all along?

In this patch of conservation land we have everything from meadow to moorland; all spots are quickly (though perhaps not in human time scales) transitioning to another type of habitat. The farm could not weather the land and building boom as a working landscape, but the fortunate work of forward looking conservationists has yielded some of the larger swaths of intact scrub pine “forests” that one can find anywhere on Nantucket.

Funny how the hope of the farmer has sustained a harvest for those curious and careful enough to seek it out. On today’s walk, I saw a father and daughter kneeling in a patch of low-bush, filling a bucket with blueberries. This wisdom, like the blueberries, is native to the place, or in Frost’s parlance, “a virtue in which all may share.”

About one week ago, as a part of our school’s observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I had the pleasure of leading a workshop that considered the intersection points of diversity and sustainability.  These ideas traditionally have received very little shared bandwidth, though that is changing, thanks to the work of folks like Majora Carter, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins and Green For All, as well as Will Allen’s Milwaukee-based Growing Power.  Perhaps most crucially, if we are ever to realize the vision of recovery that Americans so desperately seek in these hard times, we must address some very fundamental deficiencies, and inefficiencies, that blight the cores of our great cities.  The idea that we might use sustainable growth strategies and responsible development to remediate these problems is not so much radical, as it is radically simple.

Perhaps more relevantly to the students who filled the room, our school, as a diverse residential community, provides a fertile environment within which to build meaningful reforms for the outside world.

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As Vermonters and New Yorkers wind down the Celebrate Champlain quadricentennial calendar, Lake Champlain appears unwilling to yield the spotlight.   The iconic watershed, long a thoroughfare for transport and commerce, became an impassible gulf just over two weeks ago with the closure of the Crown Point Bridge.  Already reeling from the effects of the Great Recession, and the free fall of the dairy industry, businesses on both sides of the bridge have been stung by the sudden disappearance of this unlikely economic engine.

Were the fallout from this sudden crisis not so tragically pervasive, one could see it as a fascinating litmus test for the resilience of local economies.  While folks on both sides of the lake scramble to concoct stopgap fixes, it would behoove the rest of us to tune in and pay attention.

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A passage that firms up quite nicely the advantages of an agrarian ethos:

“An agrarian economy rises up from the fields, woods, and streams–from the complex of soils, slopes, weathers, connections, influences, and exchanges that we mean when we speak, for example, of the local community or the local watershed.  The agrarian mind is therefore not regional or national, let alone global, but local.  It must know on intimate terms the local plants and animals and local soils; it must know local possibilities and impossibilities,  opportunities and hazards. It depends and insists on knowing very particular local histories and biographies.” — From “The Whole Horse” 1996 in Citizenship Papers

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