The Land of Second Chances
As I drive down Prospect Street through the campus of the University of Vermont, my dog stares intently out the windshield, whining in anticipation. A few blocks from the busy academic scene of backpacked students and the intrepid bicyclists braving the slushy streets with studded tires, we descend the winding road into Burlington’s 700-acre, not-so-manicured version of Central Park: the Intervale.
This farmland-cum-conservation land represents that clichéd Yankee thriftiness, the drive to fix what’s broken rather than discard it, to make something work again. The floodplain here has been farmed on and off for at least 4,000 years. It had become an informal town dump until the mid-1980s, when the area was reborn as the thriving farmland and conservation center is it today.
My car bumps across the railroad tracks as we pass the flagship store of Gardener’s Supply—purveyor of plants, tools, and other ingredients for creating one’s dream landscape—whose founder was responsible for the Intervale’s rebirth. Next door sits an old-yet-sturdy red farmhouse that houses the Intervale Center, steward of about half of the land as well as coordination center for the numerous farmers who toil here. Tucked behind it, a newer red barn the organization built to hold produce for a popular year-round community-supported agriculture (CSA) program the Center runs.
A quarter-mile down the washboard road, I park my car across from the now-dormant community garden and clip on the dog’s leash. With several excited barks to announce our arrival, he takes off, setting a pace that is hard to sustain with snowshoes shuffling through the fluff.
The path wends its way through snowy fields, with tarp-covered tractors and empty greenhouses waiting for spring. The outbuildings sport wavy water-damage marks—reminders of the floods that ravaged these fields, first in the spring of 2011, and again in August of that year when Tropical Storm Irene roared through Vermont. Some farmers left the Intervale for higher, drier ground, but most remain, dedicated to ensuring the success of this agricultural renaissance.
As we follow along the ice-edged Winooski River, I can smell the cows on the opposite bank long before I see them—it is farmland here, after all, not rose gardens. The trail banks away from the river and crosses into the land owned by the Ethan Allen Homestead. One of Vermont’s local heros, Allen lived on this land for the final two years of his life.
Near a row of birch trees lining the river, corn stalk stumps poke jaggedly out of the snow. In the warmer months, refugees from Bhutan and Somalia tend their gardens, their vibrant clothing with bright, geometric patterns providing a blast of color to the muted green vegetation. Under the guidance of an organization called New Farms for New Americans, immigrants use this six-acre plot to grow food for their families as well as to sell at local farmers markets. This collaboration has helped the newly settled families create a successful new life in Vermont using the old farmland.
Heading back to the car, with a tired German shepherd following in my oversized snowshoe prints, I feel reenergized from our trek through this reminder of second chances and community-supported success.