It’s no secret that our climate is changing. Storms and fires are getting worse, whiplash weather, and also “stuck” weather are both wreaking havoc with what was once a relatively predictable round of seasons.

But how to make sense of what’s happening? News and weather reports seldom offer an in-depth story. We hear about hurricanes, we see photos of burned or flooded towns, we notice how dry the summer’s been. We don’t get much idea, though, of how storms and drought, floods and fires might be part of a bigger picture.

Sunday afternoon, three people who’ve been working to find the connections between weather and climate will come to St. Johnsbury to share what they’ve learned.

All belong to the Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition—and all three of them see our best hope for taking care of ourselves, and of each other, in taking care of the ground under our feet. It’s the soil-carbon sponge, they say, that can filter water, absorb rainfall, keep ground green in drought, produce nutritious food, and pull excess carbon out of the air, returning it to the soil where it belongs.

They’re bringing back an awareness that has been almost lost to us—the recognition of how since Europeans began settling in North America, the land has become drier, much drier.

Back in 1956, writer and artist Eric Sloane wrote, in “American Yesterday,” that “It has almost been forgotten…that the world in which we move about today is much drier” than that of “great-grandfather…who invariably wore boots because he continually walked on moist ground…The consequence of two centuries of reclaiming wet lands and building cities on the sites of former marshes and meadows has been the creation of a far different workaday climate.”

That is a bold, even startling assertion. But 21st century science supports it. Even back in 1957, Al Gore’s college professor, Roger Revelle, was teaching students to see what Sloane described.

“Despite this climatic alteration,” Sloane continues, “the weather during the last hundred years has not changed as much as the landscape has.”

Describing the years from 1856 to 1956, Sloane observed, “The virgin forest and mossy topsoil of a century ago were a natural sponge, absorbing rains which now roll across the surface of ‘tired,’ dry landscapes and into abnormally swollen rivers.”

“A New England farmer,” he continued, “put it nicely by comparing today’s [1950s] landscape with a modern blotter.”

(What’s a blotter? It’s gone the way of the fountain pen, the inkwell, and daily lessons in penmanship in elementary schools—but this absorbent, heavy piece of paper was once a necessity for persons wishing to write in permanent ink.)

Sloane quotes the farmer: “It used to be that blotters were just made for absorbing ink. Now they are money-makers, with one whole side advertising some darned thing instead of doing the job they were intended to do.

“That’s the way the whole countryside is getting. Bulldozers are covering over the good bog meadows with money-making real estate developments. When a good rain comes, it runs over the top of the ground just like ink on the wrong side of the blotter.”

As the ‘60s song put it, “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.”

Today, ironically, it’s the town of Paradise, California, in the news, consumed by wildfires so ferocious as to beggar imagination.

And, last summer, even as St. Johnsbury celebrated the return of “The Domes of Yosemite,” the outsize oil painting for which the Athenaeum art gallery was designed, California’s Yosemite Valley was closed to tourists as wildfires blazed and smoke filled the air. The scene restored to brilliant clarity on Bierstadt’s canvas was beyond the reach of thousands who had traveled to Yosemite National Park in July.

Here in Vermont, we are fortunate to have forests still covering much of the land, and water more abundant above and below ground than in many other states.

As the presenters at Sunday’s public forum, “Common Ground for Climate Action,” will show, we can choose to manage our land in ways that restore that soil sponge. Carbon-rich soil, like a sponge—or a blotter—not only absorbs rainfall and keeps ground green in dry spells, it also supports microorganisms that nourish trees and plants, allowing them to release water and cool the air.

Working with our soils, we can do something about climate—and what we achieve, following the lead of work that many others are doing—across the nation and around the world—may show the way forward to still more people.

Choosing to return carbon from the air to the soil, via plants’ marvelous power to harvest carbon dioxide from the air and energy from the sun—which we call photosynthesis—we might find that as we take care of the land, the land will take care of us: Nourishing us, cooling us, and keeping water cycling in ways that support life.

This Sunday afternoon, Nov. 18, from 1-4 p.m., all are welcome to attend “Common Ground for Climate Action,” a free, public forum, with Grace Gershuny, Cat Buxton, and Didi Pershouse, at the Universalist-Unitarian Church, 47 Cherry St., across Eastern Avenue from Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury.

Beth Champagne moved from Randolph into Caledonia County 20 years ago. She is a freelance journalist specializing in climate and agriculture, and lives in St. Johnsbury.


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