David Dobbs writes about the environment, community, and science from his home in Vermont. A contributor to Audubon, Sierra, Vermont Life, Popular Science, and other magazines, he is co-author of The Northern Forest and is now writing a book on the New England fishery, to be published next year.

Sunday, 9 May 1999

MONTPELIER, Vt.

I meant to build my recycling bin in March or early April, Vermont’s mud season, when earth and air are slushy and murky and one has little desire to go outside. Alas, I procrastinated, and so ended up constructing the thing on this lovely, fishy spring Sunday instead. My good friend John Wagner came over, bringing the tools and skills that actually made the job possible, and we worked all morning and into the afternoon, making noise, sawdust, small talk, and ultimately a simple but attractive cabinet next to the dishwasher — a place to hide the milk crate and grocery bag into which my sweetheart Alice, my son Taylor, and I toss our recyclables.

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David Dobbs (on left).

A satisfying job. But when in late afternoon I finally stepped off the property and walked with Alice to look at the river, I regretted missing the day. The first week of May brought rain following an uncharacteristically dry April, and both the gardens and streams, after warming in April’s unusual dryness and sun, are suddenly blooming. The tulips Alice plugged in last fall, having swollen full, have now redly erupted, our perennials have shot up in just days from sprouts to plants (the bleeding heart sweetly pink), and the maple is now leafy enough to hide the finches that perch there near the feeder. The early afternoon showers had left a fine damp ripeness to the air — a cool balminess. A Sunday like this, I’d ordinarily go fishing. Which I almost did, even though it was getting late, when Alice and I walked through the neighborhood to look at the river. The air over the water was full of bugs, the water above the dam dotted with rises. My rod, a block away in the garage, was mounted, strung, and armed with a bead-head hare’s ear nymph.

Yet I let the fish rest. I was tired, for one thing. I also wanted, after seeing how my garden had exploded, to walk the ‘hood and look at my neighbors’. I’ve lived here 6-1/2 years now, long enough not only to learn to really enjoy gardening (I moved almost constantly the 16 years before that, never tending so much as a flower pot), but to get to know, in semi-regular walks and bike rides through my densely settled, six-block neighborhood here in Montpelier, some of my neighbor’s gardens as well. I actually know more gardens than neighbors — maybe a third of the people, but all the front gardens. I know which ones have received creative care and attention, growing from plain-jane lawn and shrubs to richly textured plantings; which have hobbled along on auto-pilot while their owners tended to other business; which ones have declined because someone moved away, someone lost interest, someone got divorced, someone died.

Our neighborhood’s small front yards, typically about 15 by 30 feet, don’t provide room for grandiose statements. So people tend to use them not at all, or for more intimate communiques: the bright greeting (almost loud, but too full of cheer and color to bring anything but delight) of my gregarious neighbor John’s cutting garden full of tulips and daffodils; the quiet charm of another, nameless neighbor’s lungwort half-hidden under a hydrangea; the flawless execution — a sort of homage to garden aesthetic — of another neighbor’s classic arrangement of bulbs, perennials, and low picket fence; the half-finished but vaguely valiant efforts (iris, daffodils, a half-picked up pile of leaves) of the young single mother of two (preggers again, still single, still smiling) who rents the place on the corner.

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Most of these people have bigger, better, and more private garden space in their backyards, and some do keep gardens there, of course. So that they take these labors out front, where they are not likely to gaze upon the fruits for more then a few minutes at a time, touches me: It seems an absurdly generous offering to the rest of us. Particularly as I consider all that can prevent or discourage it — the hassles, the grief, the kids, the work, just plain selfishness –I’ve come to appreciate more and more the simple gesture that tending a front garden extends to one’s neighbors — an affirmation, as we re-emerge from the wintry isolation of our indoors, that we share this space, and that life can offer beauty if we cultivate it. Maybe I’m getting old (I’m 40), but on the right evening, taking that in can almost beat fishing.

Monday, 10 May 1999

MONTPELIER, Vt.

After the short-term, quick-return efforts of my weekend cabinet-building, I turned yesterday to a longer labor, a book I’m writing about the collapse of the New England fishery. The book is due this fall, to be published next year (by Shearwater Books/Island Press), so I’m now in the thick of composition. Writing the book is a delicious task but a challenging one, for the fishery’s collapse is, as my grandma would say, one of the most complexicated sitch-ee-ations I ever seed. There are about a million angles into this story. The angle that engages me most, however, is the spectacular discrepancy between the vision of these waters held by the fishers that work the Gulf or Maine (including Georges Bank) and that held by the National Marine Fisheries Service scientists who study and assess it. For in this discrepancy we’ve got not simply a failure to communicate, as the old Texas warden told the down-but-not-out Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke — we’ve got a spectacular divergence regarding basic facts.

Catching more than their fill?

Now, granted, the sea is fairly opaque: You can’t just fly over it like you can a forest and get a sense of how it’s doing, and counting the wildlife is considerably more challenging than on land. Even so, it’s astonishing that two groups of people that know this piece of ocean really well have spent most of the last 10 years fighting over whether some of its biggest, most dominant species are in trouble. Yet that’s the case. Fishers and scientists argued first about the health of the cod stocks of Georges Bank, until they collapsed in 1992, and then about that of the cod of the inner Gulf, until that population hit bottom last year. Even now, fishers finding nice concentrations of cod (some say they have trouble avoiding them) feel they have good reason to doubt scientific data showing the species is in deep trouble.

This is a much more profound than a half-empty/half-full glass argument. It’s more like a divorce. Two parties start out committed to a single cause (a healthy fishery), but after years of increasing disagreement, find themselves first in a state of alienation and then, as they move into separate camps, into and beyond estrangement, enmity, suspicion, even hatred. It was never an easy marriage, of course; but it had started promisingly enough, the two mates wed, if not to each other, at least to compatible linked causes: the science to the care and cultivation and aid of the fishery (for NMFS began as a sort of extension service, and took only serious regulatory duties only in the 1970s), the fishers (more tentatively, shambling reluctantly up the aisle) to a respect for a science that would help them gauge and protect the fishery’s health. Now they can hardly speak to each other. What went wrong? Who strayed first? Who first ab
andoned the pact to which they had pledged? Who uttered the first unforgettable insult?

Actually, these “who’s to blame?” questions interest me less than does the underlying disjuncture that inspired them. Why has it been so hard to mesh the fine-scale, experiential, gestalt-like knowledge of the fishers with the broader-scale, more formally structured knowledge of the scientists? Put that way, the two perspectives seem destined to never meet. Yet they started out merged: The scientific assessment of the Gulf of Maine was pioneered in the 1910s and 1920s by an individual, Henry Bryant Bigelow, who combined these two perspectives beautifully, and in doing so produced some of the most enduringly useful biological science ever done. (And the best field guide of any sort I’ve ever read, Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, along with some funny lectures. His inaugural talk as first director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, for instance, was called “Seas I Have Vomited In.” A subject that covered a lot of water, so to speak.)

So my book is partly a search for the spirit of Bigelow, as it were, among the fishers and scientists who work the Gulf of Maine today — people who merge the big and the small, the particular and the general, the observed whole and the recorded discrete fact into an integrated, superbly rich picture. I’m also searching for — and finding! — some really good seasickness stories.

But my time and cyberspace are up, and I gotta get back to this book. I’ll have to save the “feed the fish” stories for later.

Tuesday, 11 May 1999

MONTPELIER, Vt.

After spending the morning writing about commercial fishing, I did a little fishing myself this evening, the first outing of the year taken in earnest. I had only an hour or so, so I took the easy route: I fished under the interstate. This is actually much nicer than it sounds, as this particular spot must be one of the more idyllic under-the-interstate spots in the country. It’s just past the cemetery on the edge of town, with greenery both ways up and down the river, a bike path there, too, so I can look up now and then and maybe see someone I know (“Hey Richard!” “Heya Dave, any luck?’ “Not yet!”). You park among the big concrete pillars that hold up I-89, slip down a bank, and Voila! — you’re hunting rainbows in the Winooski. I was wading 10 minutes after pulling out of my driveway.

David Dobbs, fishin’.

Such pleasures, of course, are very much what people refer to when they speak of the “quality of life” Vermont offers, and Lord knows I agree. I could go on for some time (and have been known to) about how wonderfully scaled this state is, particularly this town, which offers not only three rivers but two good bookstores, two hardware stores (one good, one superb), an independent cinema, a good music store and a great ski-and-bike shop and good restaurants and a Ben & Jerry’s and fine parks and probably one too many swank coffee shops (which of course is just the right number). No fly fishing shop, however — a strange omission. I’ll open one when I retire.

As I said, I could write about this town for a while, but right now I’d rather write about the sweet fishing under the interstate. It’s a fairly reliable spot, and once I’m in the water I forget about the tons of concrete and cars over my head. At some level, I suppose I’m hearing the swish and hum of the occasional car passing over 80 feet up, but I’m rarely conscious of it, and the noise in fact is never loud enough to cover the gurgle of the water or, more important, the splash of a rise anywhere within casting distance.

Which was the sound that greeted me as soon as I’d taken my position out there at midstream this eve. As I fumbled in my vest for my fly box, I heard a small splash to the left, saw it peripherally as well, a little white flick maybe 30 feet away. I knew instantly that even though I’d spent all morning and afternoon chained to my desk while outside one of the finest days of the years passed — 60 degrees, sunny, dry under an intense blue sky — I was fixing to get the best part of the day. The fatigue I’d been fighting all day vanished, replaced by a fine calm alertness, What was that big boy eating? Hovering above the water were three bugs: a goodly number of tiny white tricos, a lesser number of some hyperactive little gray thingies I couldn’t get close enough to i.d., and here and there, looking heavy and juicy next to these other insubstantial insects, some big reddish-brown-looking fellas that looked like drakes but when snatched from the air revealed themselves as Hendricksons.

I figured, it that was me in the river, I’d be eating these Hendricksons. So I tied one on, size 12. Gauged the distance to the spot I thought I’d seen the rise, worked out some line, then dropped the fly about one foot short of my target. ‘S okay, I told myself; first cast, and better short than long. Second cast was right on target. And for once I was ready for that first quick strike — maybe I’m learning this game after all, after I don’t know how many times being too slow to raise the rod on the first strike of the day — for no sooner was the flicking sound of the fish’s rise gone than my rod tip was up and the fish on. He jumped twice quickly, then a third time, then settled down and came to heel, a lovely rainbow 8 or 9 inches long. He had no real rosiness to his stripe yet, but a lovely line of pale leopardy spots along his side startled me with its painterly beauty. And soft — I always forget how impossibly soft these fish are. Like holding silk, or cool melting butter, if that were possible.

I caught three more in the following half-hour, none of them big but all of them beautiful, and let each one go, feeling happier with each fish. And just now, sitting in my rocker writing this on my laptop, I’ve discovered another treat I’d forgotten over the winter: If I raise my left hand to cup gently my nose, I can smell, ever so faintly, the scent of the fish I briefly held: proof that the season — not just the fishing season but summer, o glorious, long-awaited summer — has really begun.

So let us be thankful for the riches of this earth.

Wednesday, 12 May 1999

MONTPELIER, Vt.

Looking over my entries the last few days, I realize it may appear I’m rather lazy — all these fishing outings and garden walks. Let me assure you, dear reader, that while I feel lazy, I’ve actually been much too busy, doing much too much. (Here’s one to ponder: Which causes more environmental problems: Being lazy, or doing too much? You get the answer, let me know.) I suppose Wednesday is the classic day for realizing you’ve signed on to an overstuffed work week, and such was the case for me today.

The Dobbster in Hubbard Park.

Fortunately, most of it is work I’m intensely interested in, which is more than many people can say (and more than I could say for many, many years). Along with the fisheries book, I’m working right now on articles about the return of predators to the Northeast, whether seals are depressing the return of cod in the northwest Atlantic, and how clashes between different ways of enjoying nature can sabotage both our experience of the outdoors and political efforts to protect it; reviews of Jay Parini’s biography of Robert Frost (a tortured, often very unpleasant man) and of a new CD-ROM guide to environmentally kosher remodeling and design; and a how-to on soundproofing your home cheaply. Plus writing this diary.

Meanwhile, away from my desk, I’ve been helping to coach my eight-year-old son’s baseball team (a gas — plus I get to pitch batting practice) and, last but not le
ast, helping to plan the annual meeting for the Friends of Montpelier Parks, of which I’m secretary.

FOMP, as we call it (we were going to name it Friends of the Parks until we realized that acronym was FOP), is both pleasure and pain. A pleasure because our parks are lovely; a pain because … well, it’s organizational stuff, and that doesn’t really blow my hair. FOMP started a couple years ago when the park manager, a great guy named Geoff Beyer who lives in a cabin in our biggest and oldest park, 170-acre Hubbard (just up the hill from me), recruited me and a few other frequent park users to start the group. They’re good folks (the meetings are actually pretty fun — one new attendee said, “Your meetings are a lot looser than the conservation commission’s”) and we’ve got lots of great ideas, but we’ve had trouble getting the thing really rolling. We’re no good at publicity, for one thing, and none of us is into the nitty-gritty membership chores that make these organizations grow — working the phones, stealing mailing lists, handing out brochures, pressing members into service, that sort of thing. We do publish an occasional newsletter, we put together a little website, we post a flyer now and then, and doing all that we’ve recruited about 65 members from the several hundreds who use the park frequently. But only a few of these people attend the monthly meetings, and three or four of us do most of the work. Which I suppose is how most of these things go.

Despite failing to hit warp speed, however, we’ve done some good work. We held a really good, large meeting early on to come up with a “vision” (stinky word) of how people would like to see Montpelier’s parks in 20 years, and that has helped us pass those ideas on to other groups working up a new downtown plan and such. We helped establish a new Peace Park along the river. Geoff is putting together a winter ski-trail network that sends spokes out of the park into surrounding areas. Chris and Tony are working with the conservation commission to form an open-space study group to document the contributions parks and other open space make to the town. And we’re going to sponsor a Keeping Track course, a program this amazing woman, Sue Morse, of Richmond, Vt., puts on to teach local groups how to use animal signs to assess wildlife habitat.

We’ve done much of this in connection with a year-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of Hubbard Park, which was donated to the town in 1899 by George Hubbard, then one of the town’s leading lights. His gift was a gesture of considerable vision, given that the park was basically chewed-over sheep pasture and Montpelier was surrounded by plenty of what we now would call open space. It short, it seemed nothing special. Now the park is a rich forest full of birds and visited by moose and even bear; the surrounding towns, meanwhile, are being slowly but steadily suburbanized. The park is becoming a protected core among land feeling pressure. So all millennial silliness aside, I think it appropriate that we’re using this centennial to jumpstart some new thinking about our town’s open space. After a century of letting this park recover, it’s time to ponder how it might serve as a sort of hub, a node in a lacework of green space that can help bind both nature and our community together. We’re lucky to have a town and a countryside where this is possible; hopefully we’re smart enough to make it happen.

Thursday, 13 May 1999

MONTPELIER, Vt.

Writing this diary, with its editorial request that I plumb the environmental implications of the various things I do all week, has indeed proven provocative. It’s made me appreciate where I live. And today it’s made me think of two of my favorite Neil Young lines, from different songs:

We got fuel to burn, we got roads to drive… — From “Rockin’ in the Free World”

I’d like to take a walk; not around the block. — From some song on Rust Never Sleeps.

The Dobbster.

Thinking of these because I walked my son to school, as I do most days, and as always it was a pleasure. When we first moved here six and a half years ago, I was immediately impatient for the day when I could walk Taylor the four blocks to Union Elementary School, and though I’ve now been walking him there regularly for almost three years, the routine has not diminished the pleasure: a half-block down our street to Elm, follow Elm for a short block to Spring, which takes us over the river (where Taylor always stops to spit off the bridge), then a long block down Main before taking a left at the library at the edge of downtown and passing Manghi’s bakery (maybe duck inside for a fresh roll) to get to Union. At Union, give Taylor a kiss and a “G’day, smile and work hard,” the walk back home to work, maybe stop at Main Street News first to pick up a newspaper and chat with Jan, the proprietor, who always seems to know what’s going on around town.

I’m quite aware of how cloying or smug New Englanders can seem when we laud the appropriate scale of our village and small town living. Yet I’m also aware, having grown up in Houston, which I watched “grow” from a medium-sized, civil place to a savage, anonymous sprawl, and having lived since then in every sort of population arrangement — from isolated houses in the countryside to small college towns in the Midwest to an 11th-floor Manhattan apartment — that the density and scale of a community greatly influence not only one’s sense of self and well-being, but one’s behavior. This awareness might be codified in what I’ll call Dobbs’s rule of development: The best community is one that you can walk across in about an hour.

A town of such size has endless benefits. For starters, most of its people will know most of the places in town as well as a good number of the faces, and thus feel a responsibility to look after both environment and populace. This sense of mutual oversight and responsibility — of community — encourages good behavior and discourages bad in children of all ages. It makes much less likely, for instance, the sort of isolation and alienation that helped motivate the killings in Littleton. Sprawling suburbs, on the other hand, almost force such isolation and alienation on lonely kids. It works similarly with adults: Live in a small town, you’re a lot less likely to yell at, give the finger to, or for that matter shoot someone who, say, cuts you off in traffic, because later that day you may find yourself buying groceries or wing-nuts from that person, or maybe sitting across from them at a parent-teacher conference. The lack of complete anonymity keeps the conciliatory id in balance with the murderous, elbow-throwing ego.

The small town also possesses an immense environmental advantage: You can meet most of your transportation needs by walking, thus reducing the number of times you commit what is arguably the most single destructive act most of us are likely to ever commit: Starting a car. Think Exxon Valdez; think global warming. To drive is to destroy, even to kill. (Think Gulf War.)

For that reason I’m increasingly appalled (this is a slowly growing complaint of mine) that so many people who feel strong ties to nature and to environmental causes choose to live in the country. I know well the attractions, for I’ve felt and enjoyed them myself. The quiet, the big garden, the walks or skis out the back door: wonderful.

But really. How do we reconcile a professed love of nature with a way of living that requires we drive so frequently? Yet we do it, millions of us — I did, for years — blithely, blindly, shrugging it off, accepting it as part of the way life is. And all (now let me get this straight) so we can live closer to nature? Hmm. Time to play the game: What’s wrong with this picture?

I expect I’ll get some real crap on
this from some of my friends in the country, who may give me a good and possibly deserved upbraiding for my smugness. I’m wondering even now what social or eco-crime of my own they’ll remind me of, what slappings-around I’ll take in the letters to the editor. I’m thinking, Should have written this earlier in the week, when I had a chance to fire another round later if need be.

But so be it. I’ll take my lumps. Anybody gets me really aggravated, I’ll calm down by going for a real long drive in the country.