March 6, 2012 | Sustainability + Energy, Vermont Community

Jan Albers, author of Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape (MIT Press, 2000), teaches that the process of making decisions about human impact on the landscape is demanding, complex and continuous. She has written: “Landscapes do not just spring fully formed, from the earth. At any moment, they represent the accumulated total of the decisions made by hundreds and thousands of men and women over time.”

I interviewed Dr. Albers to gain some perspective on the effort to advance renewable energy, including wind power, in Vermont. Here is some of our conversation.

AJW: As an historian, you’ve said that Vermont’s quest for renewable energy is nothing new. Talk about energy use in Vermont in the 18th and 19th centuries.

JA: In the past, all Vermonters lived on renewable energy. There was wood and there was hydro. It’s about the geography – where you have lots of mountains, you have lots of rivers and waterfalls. In Vermont towns, the first things to be built were the sawmill for lumber and the gristmill for food, both powered by waterpower. Waterpower was able to meet their power needs and wood kept them warm.

In the 18th, 19th century, people didn’t think in terms of a working landscape. They just thought, “What can I get out of my piece of ground?” Vermonters worked with their hands directly on the land, in agriculture, lumbering, and mining. Most Vermonters have moved away from working with their hands, a function of technology, education, and changing economic circumstances. But we still have that image. Less than 5% of Vermonters work in farming or timber today. Fields and forests have an enormous visual impact on the state, giving us our beautiful valley farms, arrayed against the backdrop of wooded mountains.

AJW: There has been some dismayingly bitter fighting about wind power in Vermont. It’s gotten very polarized.

JA: One of the most important things I’ve learned, there is no pure landscape, no perfect landscape. All landscapes are contested ground. It’s going to be that way as long as there are people.

Landscape questions are polarizing; people go to black and white. Maybe it’s because people in Vermont are particularly tied to a sense of this place. Landscape beauty is very important to us, and much of our economy is linked to agricultural beauty. We have a more general awareness of aesthetics of landscape and how important that is.

But I think we can find a middle ground on this issue, and it’s important that we try. We know the environmental impacts of “Drill, baby, drill!” We know the enormous political and economic and social consequences of our reliance on foreign oil.

One way to preserve our landscapes is through sustainable energy. There’s a broad consensus that fossil fuel use is not good for the environment. If we block sustainable sources of energy, like wind, saying wind energy can’t go anywhere in Vermont, we are putting our heads in the sand.

I am not saying that wind can go anywhere. There are exceptionally beautiful landscapes that need to be protected. But there are many places where it can go. All energy sources alter the landscape somewhere. It’s kind of hypocritical of us to be willing to alter the fragile landscapes of Northern Quebec to get our hydropower, without assuming some of the responsibility for ourselves, in our own landscape. If we want to flip the switch and get electricity, we have to have wind in the picture.

AJW: So you’re saying the Vermont landscape we love was shaped by our demand for energy and will continue to be.

JA: I’m one of those people who does have renewable energy in my backyard. My 1831 house was built by a man who put a fulling mill on a waterfall on his land. Now it’s a hydro dam. They raise and lower my millpond every summer. But that doesn’t mean I support hydro development anywhere in Vermont.

It’s the same with wind. The answer to wind in Vermont is not all yes and not all no.

We have to be aesthetically responsible; we have to care about that. But we can’t say, “No turbine anywhere someone can see it.”

My family has lived and traveled extensively in Europe; my husband’s relatives are in Devon. There is a huge wind farm there, in a remote area. I’ve stood under them. What wind critics say about noise isn’t true. It’s more eerie, in fact, that they are so silent. I’m drawn to their sculptural look. In the right spot, it’s kind of cool to be able to ‘see’ the wind’s power by watching the blades move.

AJW: Many people are saying they are for wind energy, but just not here.

JA: I think it’s good to know where our energy comes from, like our food. We’re so often disconnected from the food source and the land that produced it. We know the impact of the food we buy at the farmer’s market, but we don’t ask about the environmental impact of the banana we buy at the supermarket.

Energy is like that. It’s too easy to lose our mindfulness. We start believing the fantasy that energy just appears magically from somewhere else, out of sight, out of mind. But if it’s not our landscape, it’s someone else’s landscape, often with huge environmental impacts.

AJW: Can you imagine a Vermont kind of wind energy?

JA: Certainly. Vermonters take pride in self-sufficiency. Wind energy is very much in the spirit of that self-sufficiency.

We could have Vermont-branded energy, energy that is ours – yet another value-added product from Vermont. In terms of the Vermont brand of being a green, progressive place, wind energy reinforces it.

AJW: Finding the middle for Vermont wind energy means compromise coming from both sides.

JA: Some environmental choices we’ve made in Vermont are disappointing to me, but I’m a pragmatist. I hope things will go the way I want, but I recognize that sometimes they won’t and I sometimes have to live with that.

Vermonters are used to making choices. We’ve learned to co-exist with the look of ski trails cat-scratched down the sides of many of our mountains. Most of them can be seen from many miles away and they don’t look ‘natural.’ I’d love to have been able to see those mountains without the gashes. We made the decision that the tourism dollars and recreation they represent matter more than keeping the landscape pristine.

For me, I can live with a glimpse of a wind farm. I pass a large solar array in what used to be a field, and I think, “That’s great! I wonder how many homes and businesses that is powering?” I’d think the same about a turbine in the right spot. Not every spot is right. But not every spot is wrong, either.

AJW: Are you hopeful about Vermont?

JA: Yes. Having an historical perspective is part of it. Things can get better. Vermont used to be 70% deforested; now it’s 70% forested. Everyone had a sewage pipe running out of their house into the river or the ditch; now there is sewage regulation, there is Act 250. Looking at the past century, more often than not, the landscape trends have been in the right direction. There is no need to panic.

Vermont has a real track record of getting things right. We need more self-confidence in our ability to make good landscape and environmental decisions together. Tough issues get mediated through tough conversations. That’s our strength – we can talk things through.