As in any tale, there are winners and losers. In this story, the natural world lost. An ecosystem, created over 450 million years, was cleared, leveled, and filled with concrete, in a handful of months — for a project that may possibly last 20 years before it becomes a hulking monstrosity, another broken down junk of industrialism, used up and consumed for its short life.
In 1789, Seth Hubbel snowshoed eight miles along a wooded path into Wolcott, accompanied by an Indian guide and his family with his youngest child strapped to his back, and staked a homestead. Bit by bit, often hungry, he cleared fields along the Lamoille that even today are cultivated. He accomplished these endeavors (his “sufferings” as he called them) through sheer grit, love of land and family, and faith in his course of actions, all attributes still strongly embodied in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
For years, we’ve been fortunate to live in our own rough-scrabble world. Granted, the fingers of Montpelier and Washington have slowly stretched into our towns, through the prejudicial tax structure and our school boards. Yet in many ways these are financial inconveniences, the jumprope of bureaucracy; our hills and landscape have been ours.
Until industrial wind.
First Sheffield, then Lowell. The Lowell story featured Green Mountain Power Inc., Canadian-owned, who from the beginning was sneakily the villain, cozying up to the Lowell townspeople through “kitchen table” meetings and luring the economically downtrodden citizens with a scheme GMP claimed would alleviate the burden of property taxes.
To build the 21 towers (towers: 459 feet tall, surpassing Lady Liberty by 154 feet), GMP had to build a heavy-duty road from Route 100 to the ridgeline to convey the construction crane and substantial tower components up the mountain. While GMP had secured lease rights for the towers’ footprints, the roadbed’s path traversed the upper corner of property Don and Shirley Nelson own. At that elevation, with those narrow glacial-formed ridges, little leeway exists. Brazenly, GMP claimed lease rights to the Nelsons’ property, and set about clear cutting, then blasting, the mountaintop.
Sterling College students and various other individuals set up camp on undisputed Nelson property near the ridge and named themselves the Mountain Occupiers. Leery of Green Mountain Power, they masked themselves with woodsy aliases such as Raccoon and Wolverine. Individualistic and lacking cohesive leadership from the beginning, the Mountain Occupiers finally had six members arrested in December 2011 on the Nelsons’ ridgeline property, where Green Mountain Power had begun constructing its road.
The Lowell Six hired an attorney and proceeded to fight their trespass charge.
My husband, Eric Wallace-Senft, is one of these six. The following August, the Lowell Six lost in a jury trial, and then appealed to the Supreme Court. As of this writing, their case is not resolved, nor is definitive legal status of the Nelsons’ property, although all 21 wind towers are complete.
The Lowell Mountain wind tower story is studded with a diverse cast of characters. There’s the opposition who never quite got it together, fighting a prolonged legal battle that, in the end, not many may really care about. (On the long drive home from Newport that trial night, after an 11-hour trial, my 13-year-old daughter wept, “All that for nothing? Why did we do all that?” All that: all the work and time and agony and financial duress our family had suffered: for what? I still can’t answer her question.) The Mountain Occupiers cared intensely about media coverage by a media that, with few exceptions, covered scantily and sometimes downright falsely.
The Lowell Six, after the arrest day, chose the simplest way to defend their case and hired an attorney to speak for them, opting not to go for the far harder haul and forthrightly address the political and moral reason for their arrest. While all present at the trial knew opposition to industrial wind had been the motivation behind the action, the Lowell Six’s attorney framed their defense strictly within the confines of the trespass charge. In retrospect, the trial itself appears a sham, a visible illustration that the judicial system that allowed GMP’s theft of the Nelson property continued to act in tandem with GMP, as if all the backroom chat wasn’t sufficient. In the courtroom, GMP’s attorney sat behind the deputy state’s attorney, passing notes.
The Vermont state government and Legislature enacted roles that revealed cronyism, willful disregard of public good, and personal vaulting political ambitions of state officials in a way which would sour the most starry-eyed.
There’s Green Mountain Power, the aggressor, the corporation who hired the smooth-talking big guns, the corporation that received over $40 million in tax credits for hastening through this project.
At the very center of this conflict are Don and Shirley Nelson, the multi-generation retired dairy farmers. Green Mountain Power not only constructed an enormous industrial wind project literally on the mountain right over their heads, but they created it using a road they had built on the Nelsons’ land, against their wishes. In all the voices raised in this dissonance, Don Nelson’s voice stands out: hard-bitten, angry, determined. Of all the participants, the Nelsons acted without self-interest or aggrandizement, refusing GMP’s $1.25 million offer to sell their farm, pull up stakes, and just get out of the way. Although the farm had been for sale, the Nelsons refused ownership to GMP.
Hayden Carruth writes that justice is proper poetry’s aim. In this vein, allowing “justice [to] be primary,” an elegy of Lowell Mountain and GMP would need to be spatchcocked and dissected with the keenest of scalpels to parse even a whisperlike thread of righteousness. Those immense steel structures, thrusting into the skyline above the sinuous spine of mountains, depict no proud tribute to human progress, but rather testimony to the persuasion of smoke and mirrors, of abject lies, and of our own foolish and dangerous willingness to believe the doublespeak of those in power. How easily and fiercely we grasp on to what we’re told is a solution to a problem that seems, frankly, insurmountable.
As in any tale, there are winners and losers. In this story, the natural world lost. An ecosystem, created over 450 million years, was cleared, leveled, and filled with concrete, in a handful of months – for a project that may possibly last 20 years before it becomes a hulking monstrosity, another broken down junk of industrialism, used up and consumed for its short life.
Of the human players, the Nelsons and their neighbors had the most to lose, and lost the hardest. If you drive along the Lowell and Albany roads of this “Kingdom Community Wind Project,” you will see a community of tumbled down shacks and rusting trailers. There are no Williston condos, no developments of McMansions, no posh private elementary schools. It’s an agricultural and forestry community, with all the accompanying abundance and privation. The community of Lowell itself was divided and conquered by Green Mountain Power, a near-deaf ear turned to the surrounding towns’ vocal remonstrations. If the Supreme Court overturns the Lowell Six’s conviction, what will that honestly matter? A few lines in the Free Press, an editorial maybe in the Times Argus, a possible case for some other attorney to cite? Perhaps the judicial system at some point will obtain a settlement for the Nelsons, but it seems clear the Nelsons never wanted money. They wanted their land. Perhaps they wanted justice.
They lost. Green Mountain Power’s hard-fisted greed won. As Vermonters, we lost, too, by allowing our pristine wilderness to be chopped up for mercenary greed. Those who believe these towers will offset any carbon footprint are sadly – or perhaps determinedly – deluding themselves.
I’ve often walked over fields along the Lamoille River, and, doing so, I imagine Seth Hubbel, this one man and his family who, with his horse and ax, cleared this river land. On these banks, he sometimes caught a fish from the river and cooked it in its skin over a fire. How marvelous with promise this piece of earth must have seemed then, with its uncut forests, untainted rivers, copious wildlife, trod by only the light foot of the natives. Highest in the horizon were the lovely green curves of earth.
What’s most grotesque about these towers is their monument to the unadulterated idolatry they reveal about ourselves. We’ve created our own uniquely human world of madness, where we kneel down slavishly to this false idol of American consumerism and this unabashedly destructive way of life from which we will not tear ourselves. The real lesson we should have learned from these towers is that the conundrum isn’t where or how we’re going to fuel ourselves but why we persist in perpetuating a culture based on unchecked devouring of the natural world. In all this material opulence, we’ve forgotten that we, too, slunk out of the primordial ooze, that the natural world doesn’t exist in spite of but with us. We are either unable or unwilling to break our foul addiction to destroying the world. Why do we madly insist on perpetuating the ultimate folly: destroying our own dear world, our origin, spiritual and physical succor, the only possible place of our salvation?
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