Having written much about Vermonters, their stories and communities, I am invariably asked if I am a Vermonter, which leads into a discussion about just who is a Vermonter?
I’ve lived in Vermont for well over 60 years and yet by conventional definition, I’m not a Vermonter, never will be. I was born in NYC at Sloane Hospital and my birth certificate was signed by Fiorello Laguardia. (Yes, to both questions…the airport and the musical but also mayor of New York.)
My own definition of a Vermonter is someone who has moved to Vermont because they appreciate and want to be part of a community here. They are convinced that community will somehow change them for the better. One who is not a Vermonter, and probably never will be, is someone who has moved here for other purposes like the view or skiing. They settle in and try to transform the community for their own purposes often trying to recreate what they left that is familiar. Vermonters regularly pitch in to better their communities, but more often than not with the good of the community in mind.
Much of what divides us today in Vermont is this tension between what is good for me and mine, and what will enhance our shared community.
Growing up in Morrisville in the middle of the last century, one simply didn’t hear “not in my back yard.” Our own backyard alternated between a pasture and a hayfield when I was in kindergarten. The dump smoldered a few hundred yards away behind the Farr’s farm and was a source of endless fun and resources for us as kids. Both my parents worked hard in the sixties to support the construction of the Copley Hospital in the neighbor’s hayfield next door. They knew it might not be the ideal neighbor, but also knew the community badly needed a modern hospital. They are both long gone and recently Copley acquired and will raze the house they built …, again for the good of the community. My parents would have understood.
Vermont’s enduring value and allure has for centuries been its small and open communities. But like many life-forms, they are under threat now, socially, economically and environmentally. We are the molecular structure of our communities and the balance we choose between our own wants and desires and the needs of those around us determine the fate of the communities we cherish.
Next time a community project arises, whether it’s a new school roof, a renewable energy project or a business coming to town with jobs, we need to avoid the reflexive response to just say no to it. We must take into account our own needs and desires certainly, but we must also think about what our neighbors need as well. The strength of our communities lies in the personal decisions we make every day. We are ourselves the stewards of our communities and knowing that makes us Vermonters.