Between the Lines: Fallen bridge connects climate dots

Of all the destruction wrought in Vermont by Tropical Storm Irene, the most widely seen was the collapse of the covered bridge in Bartonsville.
The bridge’s destruction by the rain-swollen Williams River made The New York Times. A handheld video, shot as the bridge sank into the river, was shown on “The Today Show.” New Yorker writer John Seabrook chimed in with “Requiem for a Covered Bridge.”
Seabrook’s tribute to the bridge, which was built in 1870 and was one of the state’s longest wooden spans, mused about the allure of the poignant video:
“Perhaps it’s the simple, humble way that the Bartonsville Covered Bridge seems to say goodbye, bowing first at its far end, then slipping behind the trees while keeping its structure, and its dignity, intact until its peaked roof slips into the Williams River.”
After the bridge was swept away by the surging river, it briefly held together as it zoomed down the roaring Williams — until it hit the smaller Worall Covered Bridge a mile downstream. The Worall survived, but the Bartonsville bridge broke up.
Days later, people were searching for the bridge’s bronze plaques, which warned horse riders to walk their animals across.
The nationally historic bridge will be rebuilt. But its recent passing — after having withstood more than 140 years of Vermont storms — stands as a symbol of how much more violent our weather has become.
That’s not just a coincidence. We are in a period of dangerous, human-induced climate change.
Mark Twain once observed that “climate is what we expect; weather is what we get.”
Were Twain alive today, he might add that the connection between climate change and our increasingly bizarre and destructive weather is increasingly clear. Indeed, a new national survey found that most Americans now believe the weird weather is connected to climate change.
When Ripton-based climate leader Bill McKibben was looking recently for a way to highlight how climate change is affecting Vermont, he settled upon the Bartonsville bridge as a potent symbol.
Let’s take a picture at the bridge site, he told his colleagues with 350.org. It will be a great way to help people visibly connect the dots between weather and global warming.
A couple weeks back, I joined a conference call with other Vermonters concerned about climate change. We were beginning the process of organizing a major event in Waitsfield on May 5.
The Waitsfield event, featuring McKibben, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Sen. Bernie Sanders, will be one of thousands around the planet to “connect the dots” between climate change and the kind of weather that has brought droughts to the American Southwest and Australia, along with catastrophic flooding to millions in Asia.
“Hopefully this will help amp up that connection, reminding people that these events are part of a pattern, not one-off tragedies,” McKibben said in an email to me, typed as he was being driven to a speaking event in California.  
I asked him if it was time for people to get angry about climate change.
“I think people, in, say, Pakistan — who have watched record floods drive millions from their homes along the Indus River each of the last few years — may be feeling a little more frustrated all the time. Especially since your average Pakistani peasant has done next to nothing to cause climate change,” he replied.
But he also added this about 350.org, the leading international organization on climate change, launched by McKibben and Middlebury College students:
“We’re not really that good at angry. I was talking with our climbing team today, who are putting a huge banner on the Dana Glacier in California, which is thawing fast. We decided the best slogan was simply a quote from the Wicked Witch of the West: ‘I’m melting.’”
Using the astounding power of the Internet to bring people together around a cause, 350.org expects a couple thousand “Connect the Dots” events all over the planet on May 5.
But how to best get out the word?
That’s where the Bartonsville bridge comes in.
Inspired by McKibben — whose humble commitment to the cause is so inspiring that he’s not someone to whom you want to say “no” — a group of us will gather this Saturday, April 28, at noon in Bartonsville, in southeastern Vermont. We’ll take a photo with a colorful “Connect the Dots” banner, at the metal bridge that has temporarily replaced the grand wooden structure destroyed by Irene.
Bartonsville is a way to talk about what we have lost and all that we stand to lose — unless we insist upon a lasting transition  away from fossil fuels.
At some point in that original organizing conference call, I found myself volunteering to get involved in the bridge photo shoot.
Apparently that was taken to mean I would make this thing happen.
So far I’ve managed to get a big 9-by-12-foot canvas banner spray-painted for use in the photo. To achieve that, I drew upon the help of the staff at Aubuchon and my teenage friends Sophie and Anna.
The girls proved to be frighteningly adept with a can of spray paint. I hope that in the future, they use those talents only for good.
Several of us have sent out e-mails and punched the phones, recruiting people to come to the photo shoot. You do what you can, and hope for the best.
And even if it’s just Bill and me and a couple others who make it there this Saturday for the photo, we’ll have something to show the world on the 350.org website. We’ll be one step closer to May 5 and connecting the dots between climate change and destructive weather.
Maybe we’ll have a picnic Saturday on the banks of the now placid Williams River.
We’ll marvel at how the river was once enough of a torrent to tear apart a piece of Vermont’s history — and hope we will live to see the day when Vermont’s rivers no longer rise with freakish hurricanes, but only with cool April rains.
To learn more about May 5 events, see www.climatedots.org and get info on the major Vermont event in Waitsfield at www.350Vt.org. There’s video of the bridge collapse at http://on.wcsh6.com/I8ibh5.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday. E-mail him at [email protected].

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