Democracy and a Folding Chair

To the editor:

Anyone looking for Democracy on Monday night could have found her at Woodbury Town Hall, sitting on a folding chair among a group of residents meeting with the select board to discuss the proposed Woodbury Mountain Wilderness Preserve.

She sat attentively through the presentation, learning about “belt and suspender” conservation easements, forever-wild preservation, saw-whet owls and fingernail clams; use value appraisal program, red spruce-cinnamon fern, carbon, fishers, American beech; transfer tax, linkage, Worcester to Kingdom and Eagle Ledge, watershed divide—Lamoille, Winooski—meeting again in Lake Champlain; black cherry, perpetuity, blue warbler, yellow- bellied flycatcher, pink lady slipper, Hugo Meyer and E.B. Hyde, one mountain, four towns, and a family that cared for its land…

As the agenda proceeded to comments and questions, she edged forward in her chair. The public body raised its hands representing voices ready to speak; in turn the moderator signaled and they spoke: proponents citing water, wildlife, habitat, views—protecting the roots; opponents citing hunting, logging, traverse, tradition— protecting the roots. Strong pleadings, disputes, assertions, rebuttals; yet civil, forbearing, keeping the ground fertile for seeds of concession and fruits of consensus.

Democracy herself said nothing, but nodded in agreement at points well-made on both sides. She noted the solemn and eager, with hands raised awaiting to speak—such restraint effecting the orderliness required by Open Meeting Law, and the neighborliness needed to build a community.

Discussion ended, residents folded and returned their chairs to the corners, then milled about mingling and chatting. The chair of the board carefully not too soon, at last reminded his garrulous neighbors that, although discussion on the agenda item had ended, the meeting had not— therefore please remain, seated, or say goodnight. Then the board on its bedrock of creaking wood floor and folding metal chairs resumed the essential works of democracy.

She stayed through passage of the motion to adjourn, then donned her frayed coat and walked out the door. She passed the firehouse, post office, then crossed the bridge at the stream, and hiked the hill toward the library and school. On this cold, clear, starry night Democracy took heart—for though now she feels in some parts unwelcome, she finds enduring an unlocked door, an open floor, and a folding chair at town hall in Woodbury.

Stephen Murphy