If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, the old question goes, does it make a sound?
Here’s a more timely variation on the question: If you hold a demonstration in one of the most inaccessible places in the Northeast Kingdom, have you demonstrated anything?
There was a certain brilliance in the idea, dreamed up by opponents of the industrial wind project on Lowell Mountain, of planting a campsite on the western edge of Doug and Shirley Nelson’s farm, too close to the wind project to permit safe blasting.
But there was also a weakness inherent in the plan. It’s so hard to get to the campsite that almost nobody knows what goes on up there.
There’s great drama in the idea of determined demonstrators standing up to the high explosives that, as this is being written, are reducing four miles of remote ridgeline to a nice, level, 34-foot-wide gravel road.
But drama demands an audience. Without one, even the most daring and determined resistance risks becoming an exercise in futility.
Some of the demonstrators who climbed the mile-long trail to their campsite on Wednesday morning, October 19, were prepared to go down the mountain in police custody.
The stage, it seemed, was finally set for the confrontation with authority they were braced for.
It had been set up the Friday before by the wind project’s developer, Green Mountain Power (GMP). The big utility had gone to court and quickly obtained a temporary restraining order against the Nelsons and their guests. It ordered them to be 1,000 feet from the property line for an hour before, and an hour after, high explosives were detonated near the farm.
Blasting had proceeded on Monday and Tuesday, but at a safe distance that didn’t provoke any confrontation between GMP and the handful of demonstrators on hand.
But the mood was different Wednesday. GMP had called the Nelsons to say there would be blasting from 2 to 4 p.m.
On top of the mountain, the demonstrators got their first clear view of two big drill rigs, poking holes in the rock about 800 feet from the campsite.
With binoculars, they could watch workmen carry boxes of high explosive from a cubical white body mounted on tracks to the drill holes. Then they could watch as a large backhoe dragged massive mats of steel and rubber over the blast site, while other massive machines made a ponderous retreat.
All that clatter aside, the place was remarkably quiet. The demonstrators exchanged a bit of small talk, did a bit of planning, but didn’t talk much about their concern for Lowell Mountain, or their despair at what GMP was doing to it. Their presence in that high, steeply sloped forest said those things for them.
Nor did the demonstrators have anything to say to two GMP workers who passed within a few feet of them, putting yet more yellow warning signs on trees along the disputed line that separates the Nelson property from the project.
They numbered each sign with a marker, photographed it, and moved on out of sight to the north.
The four demonstrators who were prepared to be arrested gathered up their gear and tossed it into one of the tents. If necessary, it would be carried down the trail by the people who were there to support them.
Two more GMP workers approached the protesters as they moved as close as they could get to the blast site, just after 3 o’clock.
The one who wore a blue hard hat, Dave Coriell, is community outreach manager for Kingdom Community Wind, which is the name GMP gave to its project.
The one in the unpainted tin hat, John Stamatov, manages the construction project for GMP.
Mr. Coriell, who used to do public relations work for Governor Jim Douglas, looked a little out of his element. That wasn’t true of Mr. Stamatov, though he looked like he’d be more comfortable running a bulldozer than a video camera.
Mr. Coriell stopped within easy earshot of the protesters. Behind him, Mr. Stamatov started recording the proceedings on his camera.
“I’m going to have to ask people to please move back,” Mr. Coriell said. Nobody moved.
If the demonstrators didn’t move 1,000 feet down the mountain, Mr. Coriell continued, they would be in violation of the temporary restraining order.
Copies of the order were nailed to a scattering of nearby trees.
“I ask you to please move back,” Mr. Coriell said. “I’m not going to force you physically to move.” Nobody moved.
“If you’re not going to move, I’d ask you for your name or some identification,” Mr. Coriell said.
Nobody said anything.
“That’s a cute dog,” Mr. Coriell said of Koyo. A handsome yellow lab who’d carried a backpack up the mountain for his owners, Koyo was the only demonstrator who used his real name. If he was flattered, Koyo didn’t say so.
I identified myself to the GMP twosome, and said I planned to stick around and see what happened next.
“By standing there you’re risking serious injury or death,” Mr. Stamatov said.
Knowing that, I asked, was GMP still going to touch off the explosives?
“We’re hoping people move,” said Mr. Coriell.
They withdrew across the wide orange ribbon that divides the construction site from the forest.
But they came back a few minutes later. Stepping up to a tree, Mr. Coriell read the entire text of the restraining order aloud to the silent demonstrators, while Mr. Stamatov recorded the event.
The two withdrew again, but remained in the clearcut that GMP’s logging crew had created where the crane path will run along the top of the ridgeline. They were not significantly further from the blast site than the demonstrators.
Everybody waited. It became quiet, an ominous silence that settled as the last machines withdrew.
The demonstrators were there, of course, in the belief that their presence would stop the blasting.
They had been warned that they were standing in harm’s way, and they had every reason to believe it.
What Mr. Coriell hadn’t told them was that the contractor, Maine Drilling and Blasting, had carefully laid a much smaller charge than it hopes to use in the near future, and covered it with particular care with particularly large blasting mats.
At 3:26 the silence was broken by three loud horn blasts. According to the yellow signs on so many nearby trees, that signified five minutes until the explosion.
Two horns sounded four minutes later, the one-minute warning. Still nobody moved, nobody talked. One demonstrator, a young woman sitting legs crossed in a lotus position, closed her eyes.
The words “fire in the hole” carried through the silent forest from somebody’s radio and the explosives went off, sending a cloud of gray dust into the sky. There were no casualties.
The demonstrators had stood their ground, a they had pledged to do. And GMP had blown up another piece of Lowell Mountain, as it was so determined to do.
If there’s a moral victory to be claimed, it clearly goes to the protestors. But that may only serve as consolation, a year or so from now, as they contemplate the wind towers on Lowell Mountain.
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