Clippings by Emma Cotton: Truths are found through listening
I appreciate journalism as an occupation because it provides an opportunity to dive into perspectives I wouldn’t otherwise have a reason to understand. Sources open the door and allow reporters to question personal details about their lives. As farmers are responsible for feeding us and scientists are responsible for monitoring water, I am charged with seeing what my sources see and understanding the gravity of the decisions they face.
During my months-long reporting for the Addison Independent’s three-week series titled “The Giving Stream,” I encountered dynamics between groups of people that I now see repeated on a national and worldwide scale, and this new perspective has subtly shifted the earth under my feet.
Entwined in Lake Champlain’s phosphorus problem are two major players: advocates of water quality and farmers — groups that are not always mutually exclusive.
Farmers watch as the state analyzes their farmsteads—and sometimes homesteads—as if they were wastewater treatment facilities capable of being torn down and rebuilt. The cows that farmers rise to milk at 3 a.m., the land passed down through generations, the long hours spent looking after animals and plants and soil are all under the control of a calculating, seemingly impersonal eye.
Water quality advocates watch Lake Champlain and see algae blooming, count beach closures, hear reports of fish kills, worry about their drinking supply, hesitate to swim in water out their own back doors. They know that a precious ecosystem, a beacon of the recreation and tourism industry, a sanctuary for so many people who live in Vermont, is permanently slipping away.
These feelings are valid. But fixing these situations sparks a combination of urgency and helplessness that sometimes leads to anger, which is counterproductive to the issues at stake.
When asked about the public perception of water quality issues as it relates to agriculture, each of the farmers I spoke with resented the finger that points at their industry, that the state is blaming them for the pollution in Lake Champlain.
Make no mistake: phosphorus pollution from agriculture is a problem. Agriculture is responsible for at least 40 percent of Lake Champlain’s phosphorus loading; sometimes more, depending on the data model you’re looking at. In the Otter Creek watershed, that number rises to at least 50, maybe 60 percent.
But the farmers I spoke with know this. Many of them have invested dollars and time trying to address the problem. What the farmers seem to actually resent is the discourse surrounding this issue, which sours at the fringes.
We live in an age where tweets determine public policy and presidential candidates are expected to explain complex arguments on major debate stages in 30 seconds or less. We have become accustomed to gross oversimplification of important issues, making it easy to become fiercely loyal to positions we may not completely understand.
It is against the paradigm of our time to see two opposing ideas and find truth and validity in both of them.
While reporting this story, two truths came together in a tricky way. The first is that farmers rightfully carry a heavy weight to help remediate Lake Champlain’s water quality. The second is that the pollution, in many cases, isn’t of their making. Rather, it’s built on a centuries-old foundation and supported by an economic model in which they must choose between clean water and their businesses.
I would not have known that perspective had I not spent hours in conversation with them. I was not born and raised in Vermont, but I traveled here early and often to experience the lakes, the snowy mountains and the hiking trails. My family and I crossed a line on our drives to this state where the air became easy to breathe and the landscape easier to look at. My dad taught me about the ecosystems that could thrive in these large swaths of forest and waters that seemed pristine.
I attended college far away, and upon graduating, I became one of few young people to move here, and it was for those mountain vistas, the freedom of a comparatively untouched wilderness. This summer I found myself living aboard a sailboat on — you guessed it — Lake Champlain.
In short, I am much more an environmentalist than I am a farmer. And, admittedly, I approached this story with a fire in my belly. How could we allow this industry to damage a public good, those ecosystems that are suffering?
These are still important questions to ask, but now I understand how little I understood then. Life looks one way to a person who has grown up with water and wilderness as their refuge, and another to a person who grew up soothed by the sound of 30 cows breathing in a barn at 3 a.m.
This issue is loaded, and groups on both sides have important points. It is easy to use those arguments like missiles and toss them into the camps of those with whom we disagree. It is harder to keep in mind that we are all people who want the best for our families, our careers, our land and our lake.
You never know what’s behind a source’s door until you open it. After reporting this story for the past six months, I can’t hide from that fact. In order to move forward on the big issues of our time, not only in our state but also our country, I think it’s more important than ever that we open as many doors as we can, not to argue or prove, but to listen.
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