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Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa

Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa: From Vermont to Italy in the Footsteps of George Perkins Marsh

Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 300
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  • Book Info
    Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa
    Book Description:

    "Set aside yourBella TuscanysandYear in Provencesfor a different kind of travel book.Pilgrimage to Vallombrosaputs a walking stick in your hand andMarsh's Man and Naturein your knapsack, exploring how Italians have managed their natural and cultural heritage in ways that sustain both. John Elder's poetic meditations on land and life demonstrate that only by searching beyond our familiar boundaries can we discover better ways of living back at home."-Marcus Hall, author ofEarth Repair: A Transatlantic History of Environmental Restoration

    "This collaboration-between George Perkins Marsh and John Elder, between Vermont and Italy, between maple and olive-is one of the smartest, soundest, deepest books about the relationship between people and nature that I've ever read. It will be a classic."-Bill McKibben, author ofThe End of Nature

    "Elder's impassioned pilgrimage shows us how to delight in messy wilderness, to secure a curative habitation of the world, and, with Marsh, to lend ecological nous to our gravest task: knowing ourselves and respecting one another. Let the maple seeds and olive stones of Elder's visionary harvest restore to us a reflective and redemptory future."-from the foreword by David Lowenthal

    The pivotal figure inPilgrimage to Vallombrosais the nineteenth-century diplomat and writer George Perkins Marsh, generally regarded as America's first environmentalist. Like Elder, Marsh was a Vermonter, and his diplomatic career took him for some years to Italy, where, witnessing the ecological devastation wrought upon the landscape by runaway deforestation and the plundering of other natural resources, he was moved to produce his famous manifesto,Man and Nature.Marsh drew parallels between the despoiled Italian environment and his home landscape of Vermont, warning that the latter was vulnerable to ecological woes of a similar magnitude if not carefully maintained and protected. In short, his was a prescient voice for stewardship.

    Elder follows in Marsh's footsteps along a trajectory running from Vermont to Italy, and at length fetches up at the managed forest of Vallombrosa. Punctuated throughout with learned and genial considerations of the poetry of Wordsworth, Basho, Dante, and Frost, Elder's narrative takes up issues of sustainability as practiced locally, reports on family doings, and returns finally-as did Marsh's-to Vermont, where he measures traditional stewardship values against more aggressive conservation-oriented measures such as the expansion of wilderness areas.

    John Elder, Professor of English and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, is the author ofReading the Mountains of Home and The Frog Run.

    Under the Sign of Nature: Explorations in Ecocriticism

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3429-7
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-XII)
    David Lowenthal

    How, wonders John Elder, can we begin to feel at home in the universe? By telling “the story of a place through the narrative of our individual lives,” as he does so superbly here. His enchanting book recounts two lives, that of George Perkins Marsh and his own. It is framed by two unforgettable formative places, Woodstock, Vermont, and Vallombrosa, Italy. Inspired by a “passionate compulsion to reinscribe the world,” Elder emulates Dante in compelling those who travel with him to “see and change.”

    For over thirty years, says Elder, he has been on his way to Woodstock’s once denuded...

    (pp. XIII-XVIII)
    (pp. 1-12)

    In March, when the sun drops behind our southwest ridge, cold cruises up this hollow like a mile of ice. That’s when the slender, budded maple twigs begin to suck in sap. Their only chance as temperatures fall is to engorge themselves. Furred with frost, they’ll hold their breath all night and keep on doing so until the morning light has shone on them for several hours. Then they can finally give it up again, sap trickling down a thousand springs into the river of the trunk. Then the lidded buckets, still half filled with ice, can start to tick...

  6. Part I. Vallombrosa

      (pp. 15-27)

      Although we knew our destination from the start, we were happy to take our time in getting there. Rita and I were traveling toward Florence, and the start of my leave devoted to the Italian career of George Perkins Marsh. We decided to allow ourselves the adventure of eight weeks walking across Europe before settling in Italy, though. First we would follow England’s Coast to Coast Walk from St. Bees, on the Irish Sea, to Robin Hood’s Bay, on the North Sea. Then we would improvise a path through southern France on that country’s magnificent Grande Randonnée trail network. We...

      (pp. 28-45)

      The path toward conservation and stewardship leads through a landscape shadowed by disasters. Ignorance and mistakes may become more than errors, however, when we find the courage to learn from them. They may open broader vistas on both the wholeness of nature and culture and the historical implications of our immediate, local decisions. For the past thirty years, our family has lived in the wounded and recovering terrain of Vermont. Over the course of these decades I have become more and more impressed by the power, for conservation thought, of what might be called creative grieving. By this term I...

      (pp. 46-59)

      The first time Rita and I visited the forest of Vallombrosa, we took a blue SETI bus that left from the train station in Florence and swung up into the Casentino mountains by way of Pontassieve. It was October, the summer heat had passed, and the resort towns ringing the abbey were largely abandoned. A single hotel, Le Terrazze, remained open in Saltino. We arrived in the late afternoon and checked into a spacious room for half the high-season rate. The next morning we took our breakfast in the hotel’s formal salon in splendid solitude. Then we strapped on our...

      (pp. 60-74)

      On a mild December afternoon, several weeks after our visit to the Vallombrosa arboretum, Rita and I stood beside an ancient beech in the forest above the abbey. Its solid gray bark had the characteristic scoured texture we recognized from Vermont. But much more massive branches than we were used to seeing on a beech undulated out and up in their centuries-long dance with the filtered light. A stone wall shored up the embankment where the beech was rooted, while a small chapel stood nearby. Inside the chapel hung a portrait of San Giovanni Gualberto. The altar before his picture...

      (pp. 75-94)

      The olive trees of Impruneta live in two eras at once. Their lower trunks are often centuries old, as twisted and muscled as the bases of our cedars in northern Vermont. But smooth new trunks emerge from these rugged vestiges, with branches curving up from them in turn like wands. On a cold morning in December, the trees spangle as cold gusts flip over the powdery gray surfaces usually hidden beneath the leaves’ glossy tops. They pulse at a slower frequency, too, as the slender branches bend back and forth within that scintillation of leaves. One of the stories these...

  7. Part II. Landmarks and Covenants

      (pp. 97-119)

      Harvesting olives for the production of traditional Tuscan oil turned out to be the climax of our Italian pilgrimage. By deepening our awareness of what it meant to produce maple syrup, this experience also represented the first step in our return to Vermont. Perhaps it is often true that once one has traveled far enough into a new landscape, it becomes possible to see within it the familiar lineaments of home. A. R. Ammons writes inSphere: The Form of a Motion,his book-length poem on relativity, “things go away to return, brightened for the passage.”¹ For me, our curve...

      (pp. 120-143)

      In order to enter the animal dreaming of our ancestors at Pech-Merle, we must first climb down into the darkness of the earth. To remember the balanced constellations of Orion and the Scorpion, we have to leave our houses, walk past the last street lamp, and feel ourselves falling out into the sky. Beyond all its ecological insights and political stratagems, conservation requires a relinquishment of our floodlit confidence in human prerogatives. This is a recurrent need. Stepping away from our masterful routines, we recover membership in the larger circle of life. At the heart of the prophetic tradition associated...

      (pp. 144-165)

      We live in a day when love of the earth can feel like a long grieving. One sometimes wants to shut the door on grief, through the denial or the anger that are so often adopted by the newly bereft. Even if avoiding the distractions of travel, possessions, and the other comforts that are offered so lavishly by our consumer society (and few of us middle-class Americans avoid them to a very significant extent), devotees of nature can easily fall into another form of evasion. Our moments of serenity in lovely natural settings can sedate us against the dreadful damage...

    • 9 MOWING
      (pp. 166-180)

      Following the footsteps of George Perkins Marsh into the landscape and culture of Europe places the conservation movement in an enriched historical and cultural context. Such an enhancement allows us to understand stewardship not as a rejection of our tradition but rather as a way of interpreting, activating, perpetuating, and reforming it. The attainment of practical mindfulness requires both perceptiveness and discipline. As Aldo Leopold writes in For the Health of the Land, “Conservation . . . is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence or caution.”¹ It is a schooled manner of...

    • 10 DUST OF SNOW
      (pp. 181-188)

      When I think of literature’s power to redirect attention and renew alertness, I remember another outing, when a small group of students from Middlebury College and I were walking in the winter woods with the tracker Sue Morse. Our eyes were fixed on the ground as we searched for more of the bobcat prints we had just traced around the base of a cliff. When Sue called to us, we figured she must have picked up the trail. But instead, when our small group had gathered around her, she pulled back the bough of an overhanging hemlock and released it...

  8. Part III. Ottauquechee

      (pp. 191-209)

      The path up Mount Tom starts from Prosper Road in West Woodstock. It climbs east around a little secondary summit, then veers south to touch the shore of a high pond called the Pogue. My walks through the woods of Vermont often converge with long-abandoned skidder trails. But this one follows a broad carriage road, designed with great care near the close of the last century. The Pogue, while previously existing, was further landscaped in the same era. Both landmarks are artifacts that continue to exist only because of regular maintenance—grading and graveling, dredging and reinforcement. They are features...

      (pp. 210-225)

      At the Woodstock Historical Society, I found a print depicting the view from Mount Tom during the last decade of Marsh’s lifetime. The slopes of the Green Mountains to the south and east were largely shorn of trees, except for occasional rows of pines and maples separating pastures. In many cases, fields for grazing sheep extended almost all the way to the ridge lines. The Ottauquechee was plainly visible down below, too, as it followed its broad curve around the village. This is the view that would have greeted townsfolk who drove their carriages up Frederick Billings’s grand new roads...

    • 13 INTO THE WIND
      (pp. 226-237)

      Our Cessna four-seater taxied down the Middlebury Airport’s narrow runway, then swung around to the north in preparation for takeoff. The pilot John McNerney checked all the mechanical systems one more time, recalibrating his compasses and shutting off each spark plug in a given cylinder to make sure that the other half of the combustion system functioned independently. Before we started to roll, he explained to his three passengers that we would be taking off directly into the wind. In contrast to what we might have assumed, this was preferable to having a tail wind. The important factor was not...

      (pp. 238-252)

      A road of pale gray cobbles curves up through the abandoned meadow. Goldenrod and sumac crowd in from both sides. On this late-summer morning, black-eyed Susans and chickory intertwine with the taller thickets near the road’s edge, while golden seed heads droop with dew in the meadow’s central, green-brown tangle of grasses. We’ll brush hog this area soon, now that ground-nesting birds like savannah sparrows, song sparrows, goldfinches, and upland sandpipers have had a chance to hatch their young. Along the line where the upper meadow transitions into woods, we expect there are also some yellow throats, yellow and chestnut-sided...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 253-264)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 265-283)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 284-286)