Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Coming Home

Earlier this year I interviewed an old woman in Cambodia named Grandmother Soch, a dignified village elder who had outlasted war, the murderous Khmer Rouge, famine, occupation and crushing poverty on her family's land in Kompong Cham, on the Mekong River flood plain. We first met while she was hip-deep in paddy water harvesting rice, and later that night talked for hours by candlelight, with her daughter interpreting as best she could.

The old lady spoke frankly about horrific things, like seeing people shot in the throat against the wall of her home, but the last question I asked made her angry, angry and sad.

"You've experienced so much history," I said after one of her stories, picking my words as carefully as I could. "What do you see for Cambodia in the future?"

"Khmer? Our nation? It'll be gone soon. It's almost gone now."

Her daughter began to interpret but the old lady kept talking.

"When I was young this was a rich place. All the food we could want. Now, just look. Dust everywhere. Forests cut down, rivers are full of mud, hardly any fish. No tigers. Cambodia is finished. There's no future in this land."

I couldn't stop thinking about this woman when I went back to my apartment in the smallest city in all of Japan, a place deep in the mountains of Hokkaido where the first Japanese pioneers arrived only 150 years ago. Utashinai, a name that means 'Swamp of Much Sand' in the aboriginal Ainu language, was once a boom town, but its population has fallen from 50,000 to 5,000 in the ten years since the coal mines closed. In the two years I lived there, the only baby strollers I saw were being pushed down the sidewalk by bent-backed old women too poor or too proud to use a cane. Here too, in one of the richest countries on the planet, a place and a culture were slowly dying.

It's been almost a month since I left Asia and returned to Vermont, and since then, I've looked at home with new eyes. Sometimes I feel like a tourist. Last week, my friend asked me why I was so excited to be in Morrisville. But leaving for a while and then coming back has made me appreciate some things about our humble corner of the earth. Vermont is a beautiful place, and the people who make their homes here hold values that are all the more important for their present scarcity. Vermonters value our close-knit communities, and nearly everyone I know in these hills demonstrates a deep-rooted respect and appreciation for the land. The fields and forests and ridgelines and rivers aren't wild, or even pristine, but they aren't manicured parks either. Centuries of sugaring and haying, hunting and skidooing, have worn and civilized the landscape, but not conquered it entirely. We've reached a nice equilibrium, a point where Vermont fits Vermonters like a worn leather pair of hiking boots. It's a good place to live.

There are a lot of people in these parts who think along the same lines. I've just read books by two of them, Bill McKibben, who wrote "THE END OF NATURE" and John Elder, whose book "READING THE MOUNTAINS OF HOME," which I finished today, is built on this acute observation:

"We have come to a moment," Elder writes, "as the conservation movement searches for a more inclusive vision, when the land and history of Vermont have a crucial word to say to the rest of our nation."

Right on, Mr. Elder. And to the whole world too.


Blogger Scott Lothes said...


Glad to see some fresh work from you! You're making me feel like a slacker...I'm really interested in your comments about the landscape in Vermont. After nearly nine months in Hokkaido, I feel there's less of a balance here, even though some true wilderness remains.

Anxious to hear more,


7:59 PM  

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