‘Commoners’ take on conservation at Bristol gathering

SANDRA MURPHY CHATS with Elnu Abenaki Tribe citizen Melody Walker Brook, who appeared via videoconferencing at the Commons Conservation Congress at Mount Abe on Nov. 2. Brook, who spoke from her home in Virginia, emphasized the importance of helping people understand their connection to “place.” Photo by Jonathan Blake

Don’t get dragged down by existing paradigms. So what if ‘this is the way it is’? If we want to change something, we should change it.
— David Brynn

BRISTOL — Melody Walker Brook, a citizen of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, never thought she would move away from Vermont and the land of her ancestors. But when her husband, a military policeman, was transferred to Virginia, she went.
“I’ve been on an incredible journey,” she said by video link on Nov. 2 during the Commons Conservation Congress at Mount Abraham Union High School. “I thought my entire identity was gone.”
When Brook arrived in Virginia she thought, There are no hawks here. No turtles. Nothing.
“But then a big hawk came and sat right out in my garden, on the post,” she said from her new home in Virginia. “The next day the turtles visited me. And the next day I saw some of my favorite dragonflies. The day after that my winged friends visited me — some blue herons that live over at the pond.”
Before Brook left Vermont a friend and mentor had told her that You can always go home to a place you’ve never been.
For the 84 people gathered in the Mount Abe cafeteria that Saturday morning, Brooks’s remarks not only felt like a blessing, but they also challenged the group to expand its notions of “home” and “land” and “we.”

“Caring for Our Home Grounds: A Commons Conservation Congress in Vermont’s Center-West Ecoregion” was organized by Vermont Family Forests and coordinated by VFF’s Director of Forest Community Outreach and Rewilding Sandra Murphy.
VFF Executive Director David Brynn gave the opening remarks.
“Today, we the people who live, work, and play in the Vermont Central-West Ecoregion are gathering as Commoners to explore ways to help our water, wildlife and air resources weather the storms of an increasingly unpredictable, violent and rapidly changing climate,” Brynn said.
The Vermont Central-West Ecoregion is roughly bounded to the west by Lake Champlain, to the north by the Winooski River, to the east by the Mad River watershed and to the south by the Middlebury River and Route 125.
VFF defines the Commons as the “parts of our environment (natural, social, and cultural) that are un-enclosed and un-owned — something we all share. In Vermont, and around the world, there are many social, financial, and cultural commons.”
Paraphrasing “Commons-guru” David Bollier, Brynn further described the Commons as paradigms that combine a distinct community (Commoners) with a set of practices, values and norms (Commoning) that are used to conserve or mange a common-pool resource (such as water, wildlife or air).
“Today this community is a group of people who have stepped up as Commoners to explore how to do an even better job of caring for our home grounds,” Brynn said.

Eric Sorenson, a Natural Community Ecologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the principal architect of the Vermont Conservation Design, gave the Congress’s keynote presentation.
Vermont Conservation Design is a vision, based on the best science, to sustain the state’s ecologically functional landscape. The design includes such tools as thoughtful stewardship of private lands with public support and incentives; conservation easements; regulations such as local planning and zoning; and ownership by a public agency or conservation organization.
In his presentation, Sorenson discussed conservation design at three scales: landscapes, natural communities and species.
Threats to Vermont’s biological diversity, which includes anywhere from 24,000 to 43,500 species, include population growth, habitat loss and fragmentation, invasive species and climate change.
But Vermont Conservation Design is about more than just sustaining biodiversity, Sorenson pointed out. It also benefits outdoor recreation, clean water, a sense of place and the state’s rural character, which includes working farms and forests.
For more information about Vermont Conservation Design, visit

In three breakout sessions dedicated to water, air and wildlife, attendees discussed ways to take better care of their common-pool resources.
The water group began by assembling a list of more than 30 things they love about the Center-West Ecoregion’s commons, including its beauty, its accessibility, its resilience and the wildlife it sustains.
After considering the tangible ways they were already caring for that commons, each of the three groups was then asked the key question of the day:
What additional conservation actions related to air (carbon sequestration), water or wildlife in the Center-West Ecoregion is most compelling to you?
Many of the dozens of ideas presented in the groups fell into the following categories:
• education.
• better science-based standards.
• community standards that exceed those of the state.
• building trust and collaborating with farmers.
• going beyond “sustainable” to “regenerative.”
• incentivizing good practices.
• expanding citizen science.
“Don’t get dragged down by existing paradigms,” Brynn told them when they reconvened. “So what if ‘this is the way it is’? If we want to change something, we should change it.”

“It was heartening to see how many people poured themselves into the process,” Brynn told the Independent a few days later. “People are concerned about climate change and they are willing to step up and work.”
Now, he said, Commoners need to figure out a way to coordinate themselves and connect and avoid duplicating efforts.
VFF has proposed creating a Center-West Ecoregion “wiki” to help record, track and share Commoning actions, such as monitoring and conservation actions. A wiki is a knowledge-based website where users can modify content and structure.
“Commoners are not waiting to be recognized,” Brynn said. “They are fueled by the realization that we are already in climate crisis, the economic system is broken, and that we all need to make some very real differences in the ways we live and in the economic model that guides our decisions.”
More to the point, he added, “People are waking up to the fact that this opportunity is a positive one and that they have spent their lives preparing for it.”
For a Congress summary, visit
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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