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Clippings, Gaen Murphree: Some parting thoughts on news and community

Dear friends and colleagues, as some of you know this is my last week at the Independent. I am returning to freelance writing so that I can work on some long-form projects of my own that have been nipping at my heels for some time. Freelancing is always a risk, but I’ve also signed on to write a series of articles for the Middlebury College newsroom over the next year and am looking forward to telling those stories. And, clichéd as this sounds, this change will also provide more time with family — I’m a parent of two teenagers and am responsible for the in-home care of an elderly parent with dementia.
One of my most important takeaways from my time at the Independent is the richness, breadth and vitality of our community.
I’ve seen this while covering maple sugaring — in one day I drove from the county’s highest sugar shack on the spine of the Green Mountains, all the way to a sugar shack in the flats not too far from Lake Champlain. The views were breathtaking.
I’ve seen this covering continued upsurges in peregrine chicks and nesting pairs of eagles, and taken great delight in hearing back from readers about their own sightings of these inspiring birds. A little good news about nature goes a long way.
I’ve seen this while sitting in a school board or selectboard meeting, often the only other person present, while some mundane but essential bit of business gets hammered out. I’ve seen this when a hot button issue swells those same meetings to dozens of people and ordinary citizens speak out.
I’ve seen this while covering “Being Muslim in Middlebury,” and similar forums that help up get to know our neighbors better and build a stronger community.
I’ve seen this while standing in cornfields and schoolyards, learning about local businesses, attending speaker events at Middlebury College, listening to our state’s top experts on woodlands and wildlife, watching town meetings.
This is an important time for being informed and speaking out and reaching out and giving to one’s community.
It’s an important time for listening.
It’s an important time for respectful engagement across differences.
One of my favorite events this fall brought together Barney Frank and John Sununu for an across-the-aisles talk about economic policy. Instead of dwelling on policy, they spent most of the evening talking about how important it to disagree, to listen, to work together for change. And to engage in electoral politics. Their love of America and its institutions trumped party loyalty by a long shot.
I’ve gone on goat walks with goat farmers, stood on a road on a cold misty night while local scientists and activists counted the frogs that didn’t make it to their spring breeding grounds so they could better tally the success of a new wildlife underpass. I’ve spoken with artists and writers, watched two guys repair antique tractors at Field Days, and sat in a trailer with a migrant worker to hear his story.
Everyone has a story to tell, about what they love, why they’re here, what they’ve accomplished, what their struggles are.
I feel privileged to have had every conversation I’ve had with everyone I’ve interviewed. As I always try to say, thank you for your time and your expertise.
I feel humbled and grateful that some of this work has been recognized. The Vermont Press Association recently awarded my collection of stories on our local dairy industry’s migrant workers with a first place statewide story award. Last year at the New England Press Association gathering a Clippings column and a story on the ineffectiveness of the federal dairy insurance program also received awards.
One of the best things about Addison County is that we’re a place of small towns. It’s been a joy to cover youngsters getting their cows and sheep and other animals ready for Field Days or watch a classroom of school children take on a special project — releasing trout into a stream, grinding native corn.
Another of the best things about Addison County is that we’re a place where issues of national and international importance are taken seriously and where connections to national and international events are inextricable from daily life. I’ve attended and reported on a number of political gatherings at which locals have spoken out about national events. And whether it’s the pope speaking by telecast, a student writing from Paris in the aftermath of a terrorist attack or a local family possibly barred from coming home by our current president’s various immigration directives — the world is here every day.
As I mentioned at the opening of this missive, I have some writing projects I want to pursue, so I’m taking that leap of faith — which brings me to the last thing I want to emphasize.
All writing is a profound act of listening. And I feel especially blessed by the conversations I’ve had the past two years with folks I might not have met or spoken to or aligned myself with in my private life.
Covering a meeting the other day about Mount Abe renovation, I was struck yet again at the ordinary dignity with which people stood, gave their name, spoke their opinion, agreed and disagreed. One person spoke out in seeming frustration and left the room in a huff, but that was the exception, not the rule.
This love of community and agreement to engage respectfully in important conversations is what I feel Vermont might offer right now to the rest of the nation.
We all know Calvin Coolidge’s famous words: “If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.”
Vermont’s tradition of small-town decency and ability to respectfully disagree matters now more than ever.
At no other time in my life has it seemed more important for the citizenry to care about public affairs, to keep informed, to speak and listen to each other and to read the news.

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