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.

Champlain itself looms as the iconic symbol of the region.  Inscribed upon the landscape as the glaciers retreated, the Lake unites geologic, anthropological, and economic history into a living document.  With a diverse watershed composed of tributaries that cascade from the Adirondack and Green Mountains, and even across the political border with Quebec, Lake Champlain is the pulse of the region.  Its fertile valleys support a robust agricultural tapestry that has pioneered a viable, “buy local” movement– a great hope for food reformers worldwide.

As integrated as the Lake’s ecosystems are, the closure of Crown point brings into stark focus the intimate interconnection of the economies on both shores.  Now that the stream of bridge commuters has dried up, the Bridge Restaurant’s business has cratered.  One local farm now must negotiate a 100 mile detour to manage cattle herds in two states.  Middlebury College and Porter Hospital are struggling to accommodate New York-based employees who once relied on Crown Point as an easy conduit to work across the border in Vermont.

While the Departments of Transportation and various other Powers That Be in both states scramble to devise an alternative solution, residents reopen their ledgers and hope, calculating the sacrifices necessary to survive until the conduit returns. If any of those in charge fear that the outage will become indefinite, they are fretting privately; the common understanding is that life will return to normal eventually … or whatever passes for normal these days.

Those of us residing elsewhere in the country would to well to take note of the precarious nature of this petroleum enabled codependency.  In a very strange–but very fitting– way, the Crown Point Bridge looms as a symbol of peak oil transition, of a sudden, disruptive monkey wrench jammed into the gears of cheap convenience.

At some point in the future, we will all face a hiccup along this order of magnitude.  While it may not mean a longer commute — as it currently does for the folks who must now cross Champlain by boat, or drive by way of the lake’s southern terminus– it could be that an already costly commute becomes prohibitive.  These will be harsh realities.  Without a resilient, local economy to fall back upon, the failings inherent in this age of convenience will quickly become apparent to even its staunchest apologists.

So while we might work assiduously in the short term to reinforce the pilings of our rotting structures, concrete and otherwise, let us not forget the essential work of fortifying community.   In many ways the dialogue percolating in the local forums of Essex and Addison counties is no different than that emanating from the rest of the country.  I join these citizens in hoping for a swift return to stability; they have endured their share of uncertainty already.   May we all realize, however, that a return to normalcy is simply a quick fix.  Only by redefining “normal” will we find true redemption.

Finally, a bridge worth crossing, whenever we can get to it.

Advertisements