Matt Dickerson: A decade of family, friends and rivers
The decade of the “Teens” has come to an end. I know that most writers penned their end-of-the-year columns, or best-of-the-decade stories in late December as the decade was winding down. I’m a bit behind, as you may have noticed. But it’s not because I haven’t been thinking about it.
As I reflect on the past 10 years, three themes emerge. For me it was a decade of growing awareness of the importance of protected and threatened public lands, especially as I experienced, learned more about, and increased my appreciation for numerous national parks and national forests across the country. Hand in hand with that, it was also a decade when years of warnings of the growing impacts and threats of climate change became more dramatically visible even to the casual observer. And thirdly, it was the decade in which I reached the half-century mark in age. The longer I have lived (and the less time I have remaining) the more I value time, and in particular I value time with family and friends — the people most important to me. Since my memorable highlights revolve not only around awe-inspiring places but also around spending time with family and friends, and a favorite way to spend time with people is in beautiful and wild places, and sometimes pausing to pay attention in those places makes me more attuned to what is going on ecologically, the three themes all weave together.
These days when my wife and I consider spending money (for example, on presents for family and for each other) we are increasingly given to ponder what gifts will lead to spending quality time with people we love. Sometimes the gifts are the activities themselves. Sometimes they are objects whose primary use will be to enhance spending time together.
Those who read my column regularly in 2018 may remember that my wife and I celebrated our 30th anniversary — hereafter to be known as the Kevlar anniversary — by buying a new ultralight canoe from Wenonah. We made extensive use of it around Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island in the month of May when I served as Artist-in-Residence there. Because the difference between lifting a 38-pond Kevlar canoe onto a roof and lifting a roughly 80-pound ABS plastic canoe on the roof is significant (and even more significant having surpassed 50 years of age), we probably canoed more in Vermont in the past year and a half of owning that canoe than in the previous 20 combined.
I also learned about some ongoing projects in and around Acadia National Park (often in the same waters we canoed) for the protection and restoration of diadromous fish species like alewives, American eels, and salter brook trout — species that link together marine, freshwater and even terrestrial forest ecosystems. These projects may be the most vital steps for recovery of a decimated Gulf of Maine ecosystem, and for its vitality and future health over the next half-century as it faces increasing stressors from climate change. These projects brought some hope, even in the midst of lots of other depressing news, as I saw what can be accomplished both when land and water are protected (for example by a national park) and through collaboration of federal, state, and local agencies and private conversation groups.
In fact, over the course of the past decade I had the opportunity to visit numerous national parks, forests and wildlife refuges across the country: Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Olympic, Grand Canyon, Lake Clark and Katmai national parks as well as the White Mountain, Green Mountain, Flathead, Lolo, Shoshone, Bridger-Teton, Ouachita, Cherokee, Nantahala, Chattahoochee, Chugach, Wallowa, Bighorn, Arapaho and San Juan national forests. Like the alewife and salter brook trout restoration projects in Maine, I visited other conservation projects and research work taking place in several of these locations under the oversight of dedicated scientists working for federal agencies (National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S.G.S.). I witnessed firsthand the positive and vital benefits of this work made possible because of those public lands — even while funding for this work was challenged, and we saw ongoing attacks on public lands and on laws protecting clean air and clean water, and of course the increasing (and increasingly dynamic) impacts of climate change.
Hope and fearfulness often come in packages delivered at my door on the same day.
Although my wife and I enjoy exchanging gifts at Christmas and for birthdays, and we like getting things for our sons and their partners, this year we bypassed putting gifts under the tree for each other. (OK. Full disclosure. My wife actually picked up for me at the Vermont Book Shop a very thoughtful book, “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.) Our primary gift to each other was taking all our sons and their partners out for a nice dinner at the Arcadian to start the new year.
And then we went down to the Middlebury Mountaineer, and with a little bit of helpful local customer service bought ourselves some new cross-country skis to replace the pairs we’d had for a quarter a century (whose wax-less fish-scale bottoms had rounded with wear to near uselessness.) We hope to make use of these for many years to come (as long as climate change doesn’t fully eliminate snow in Vermont) up at Rikert and in the surrounding Green Mountain National Forest.
This local national forest is one of the public lands I happened to spend time in over the past decade. In fact, it’s the national forest I’ve spent by far the most time in, cross-country skiing, hiking, hunting, camping, canoeing and fishing. Yet, despite being only a few stone throws across the street from my house, and within sight of my office, it’s a forest I hadn’t given much thought to: one that I’d taken for granted. It was, ironically, in my intentional efforts studying the conservation and preservation work being done in some of the bigger national forests out west in the Rockies that I came to appreciate what a tremendous treasure we have out our back doors here in Vermont. And that may be the real theme of the decade for me.
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