Where is Your Story in Vermont’s Landscape?

by Cheryl Luther Michaels

Community Journalist

EAST HARDWICK — Have you ever pondered how landscapes are shaped by social and cultural factors or how the landscape is an expression of human values?

The folks who filled the Grange Hall on September 29 met Cheryl Morse, a social geographer who has not only considered these questions, but researches the everyday human experience in rural areas and how human engagement affects the rural landscape. Dr. Morse is a member of the geography faculty at the University of Vermont and co-director of the Environmental Studies Program. Her initial case studies for this work were done for the Vermont Land Trust to explore how power, privilege and cultural values shaped the Vermont landscape.

The presentation in East Hardwick was sponsored by The Civic Standard and Caledonia Grange #9. Before Dr. Morse’s talk, participants enjoyed a soup dinner prepared by Hazen Union students.

John Laggis of East Hardwick introduced Dr. Morse and explained that “I wanted to bring this presentation to Hardwick because I found that, if I have a good understanding of history, then it’s easier for me to look forward with a better understanding of the issues at hand. It seems that we’ve been overloaded with a lot of hot button topics lately: politics, climate change, land use, food insecurities, religious and racial discrimination, and many more. These issues are not unique to any one area of the country or even the world, but they are all addressed very differently depending on where you live.”

Dr. Morse’s presentation used a series of slides focusing on selected periods in Vermont history. Each slide highlighted the social changes in that timeframe, what was happening in the physical environment, and the implications of the social and physical environments coming together. Participants were invited to share how their personal stories and family histories fit into the timeline.

Morse’s presentation moves through history, asking us to consider the impact of human settlement and ideologies. The first examples of this include the fur trade, then the colonial settlements and how the introduction of private property ownership displaced the Abenaki who lived in small hunting groups and moved through the space.

According to Morse “when you do that, draw a little square around yourself and say, this is mine, then you start getting displacement of human beings that have to move elsewhere.” In the early 19th century, 75% of the woods were cleared by settlers, waterways were disrupted, and there were forest fires and water pollution.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking and controversial part of her presentation for today’s Vermonter was about the 20th century, when the “Rural Ideal” of wholesome living, recreation and good food, was promoted by the state to attract both tourists and residents to Vermont.

Dr. Morse discussed the fear that newcomers would overwhelm the Yankee culture. She talked about the effect the 1931 Sterilization Act and Eugenics movement had on growth in certain areas and how the flood of 1927 contributed to political change.

As the population continued to diversify in the second half of the 20th century, the back-to-the-land movement, small scale organic farming, and the introduction of land and resource conservation contributed to the passage of Act 250 and the establishment of the Vermont Land Trusts to retain a rural landscape.Today, according to Morse, Vermonters are still challenged to balance land use and stewardship with the ability to make a decent living and to seek ways that all Vermonters can benefit from the land as we address ongoing demographic changes and economic challenges. 
Dr. Morse left her audience to ponder how our personal stories of when and how we got here may affect how we view the Vermont landscape and how we think the land should be used, as well as how we perceive change.