The waters are subsiding. We are slowly hearing from friends around the state (Vermont). Most are fine. Those who were flooded during the spring largely avoided high water during this last storm. That was not true for many Vermonters.
Here in Vermont, we are experiencing, with ever greater frequency and intensity, the effects of climate change. The trends will only continue.
Last Saturday evening, before Irene, we went shopping for some last minute supplies. The store was bustling, which is unusual for a Saturday evening. An acquaintance, who had moved here from Florida stopped us and decried what she considered over collective over-concern with the storm. It was likely, after all, to be only a tropical storm by the time it got here. “What was the big deal?” she wondered. We tried to explain Vermont, unlike Florida, has mountains that funnel water into streams at high velocities and volumes. We would, we surmised, lose many bridges as a result of the storm. As things turned out, the devastation was beyond our wildest fantasies. (It now appears the damage exceeds that of the Hurricane 0f 1938 or the Flood 0f 1927, the benchmarks for natural disasters in Vermont.)
Our experience in the store underscores a fundamental rule of land stewardship: usually locals know best. When people have lived in one place for hundreds of years, they develop a body of lore and knowledge about the workings of local ecosystems. That lore represents the collective experience of thousands of people over many generations, and contains much knowledge about the behavior of local climate and organisms in extreme conditions. Very often newcomers ignore that collective wisdom, setting the conditions for disaster.
In the case of Irene, it appears the event was outside the realm of past experience. Even the best zoning and other land use practices failed to mitigate the severity of the storm. Moving forward, we must acknowledge the increasing frequency of One Hundred and Five Hundred year storms. The climate is changing rapidly, and our views of what may happen must also change.
The natural world is in transition. Things are out of balance. We humans have lost our collective wisdom in regard to the natural world. Pachamama will find a new point of balance, a position that is likely to be much less pleasant for us. Yet, in the larger scheme of things, this, too, is Nature being her resilient self. It remains to be seen whether we can adapt and find a new balance point.
There is a glowing underbelly of the storms of recent years. Vermonters again and again have risen to the occasion and aided one another in times of distress. Communities are working together to meet the challenges of immediate crises and plan for the future. The basic values of Vermont culture (mutual aid, strong communities, and compassionate generosity) have proven power tools for addressing disaster.
We have also learned the importance of strong support from both other states in our region and the Federal government. Without aid and additional funds, we could not cope with, nor soon recover from, the growing incidence of natural disasters. We are a small state, both in size and population. The financial burdens of disaster relief and rebuilding would overwhelm our collective capacity to pay. Unfortunately, some in Washington have not yet learned we are mutually dependent.
Vermonters have come to know, perhaps better than most, how interwoven human beings are on this small planet. From that knowledge comes both appreciation for the generosity of others, and a growing activism concerning many issues, especially climate change. Please remember, as you watch Vermonters herded off to jail in our nation’s capital, that protests over energy policy arise from our collective experience over the past few years. What happens in the Tar Sands of Canada directly effects us here in Vermont. It also effects, as First nations people are attempting to tell the world, people everywhere. The rivers are literally rising.