Middlebury professors’ book explores Vermont’s changing landscape

MIDDLEBURY — Eighteen years ago, Middlebury College biology and environmental studies professor Stephen Trombulak bemoaned the fact that there wasn’t a book that aptly described the ecological history of Vermont and how humans have affected it.
Across campus, political science and environmental studies professor Christopher McGrory Klyza fretted that he didn’t have a Vermont-relevant text to assign the students in his first-year seminar.
“There wasn’t anything that told the history of Vermont from the perspective of the environment; how cultural and ecological history united to shape this landscape,” Trombulak said in an interview last Thursday. “I wanted a text for my students so they could place natural history within the context of human history.”
So, the two scholars decided to write their own, and followed that effort up this year with the second edition of “The Story of Vermont; A Natural and Cultural History.”
In an interview on campus, the pair said it was time to write a sequel because Vermont is far from the place it was in 1999, when the first edition was published.
McGrory Klyza said he and Trombulak wanted to document the significant cultural, environmental and economic changes that have transformed Vermont since they first tackled the subject. The 230-page work discusses the story of Vermont from prehistory through the present, and notes significant developments in the last two decades, including the rise of the local food movement, the diversification of energy sources and the spread of exotic plants and animals.
“So much has changed in the last 15 years,” Trombulak said. “In the early-to-mid ’90s, the narrative of climate change was just getting started; the concept of the local food movement was barely on the screen.”
By employing a historical perspective, the authors said they’re able to compare and contrast how Vermont adapted to changing technology, gleaning lessons for the future. For example, antebellum Vermont was much more sustainable than the state today, even as policymakers have made sustainability a priority.
“If you look at the pre-Civil War era, we were a very sustainable state because we were localizing all of our resource use,” Trombulak explained. “It was all biomass; firewood.”
He also noted that the concepts of sustainability and environmentalism, while often used interchangeably, are not the same thing. For example, when railroads came to New England, he said, Vermont stopped burning as much wood and thus many forests grew back. But the tradeoff was that Vermont now sources much of its energy from out of state, in the form of fossil fuels.
“One of my biggest take home messages is you don’t get to be environmentally sound just by saying we’re going to export our problems somewhere else,” he said. “It requires forethought, and making tradeoffs.”
On the topic of the localization of energy, Trombulak noted that the battles over wind, solar and nuclear power have taught Vermonters that they must weigh the consequences of their decisions on energy.
“Do we get oil from Nigeria in order to not have wind turbines on our ridges?” Trombulak asked.
The scholars don’t use the book to propose specific policies or legislation to shape Vermont’s future. Instead, they hope it will spur an informed discussion of what is at stake.
“I think what we’re trying to do is raise the questions to have these conversations,” McGrory Klyza said. “We have a shared vision of what we’d like it to look like, but we’re not saying, ‘This is what should happen.’”
McGrory Klyza added that there are many things that tiny Vermont cannot control, like climate change on a global scale. But he said that Vermont can do things like decrease its own carbon footprint and continue to source its energy and food locally.
The pair wrote the book not as a dense, academic text with the goal of impressing their PhD-holding colleagues, but for a general audience with an interest in Vermont’s natural history.
The professors, who between them have published a half-century’s worth of academic papers, admitted the switch to writing for a general audience wasn’t easy, but it was the right one.
“I don’t think my wife would describe it as a breezy writing style, but it’s breezier than my academic prose,” McGrory Klyza said.
They each occasionally use “The Story of Vermont” in their own classes, and said it is also used in college courses around the state.
McGrory Klyza and Trombulak said they expect the next 15 years to be another period of rapid change for Vermont, and policymakers will have to surmount significant challenges to shape the state’s future. Principal among them, Trombulak said, is climate change.
“Climate change is going to happen,” he said, noting that recent peer-reviewed studies forecast increased precipitation and higher temperatures for New England, which will place additional stresses on transportation and energy infrastructure. He said Vermonters will have to decide how much to invest in improving this infrastructure.
In lighter news, Trombulak said that as climate change makes other parts of the U.S. less desirable, greater Burlington could be poised to become a metropolis spurred by the state’s burgeoning tech industry.
“It wouldn’t take much to be where Seattle was in the mid-1980s,” he said. “The Pacific Northwest exploded as a result of inexpensive land, availability of water and the relocation of the tech industry, and Microsoft.”
The book is out now and is available on campus and in bookstores around the state. Readers can also catch the authors in person. On March 16 at 7 p.m., the Vermont Book Shop will host a forum at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Middlebury where environmentalist Bill McKibben will interview McGrory Klyza and Trombulak.

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