By Courtney Cook
(A version of this essay appeared in the weekly newsletter, Survival by Book)
This recent cycle of freeze and thaw was just enough to cause some mid-winter inconveniences. The snow berm that the snowplow persists in leaving at the end of my driveway is now a solid embankment fronting a pond of icy slush. My wooden front steps now sport fresh gouges from when I had to hack the ice away earlier this week. These are small things in the context of a Vermont winter, and I am all too aware of how lucky I am to live in a well-insulated house, with plenty of warm winter gear, running water, and perfectly fast internet access. I felt this good fortune keenly as I watched what was happening to the people in Texas and the South this week. It seems clear enough to me that we are living in what William Gibson called “The Jackpot” in the present tense. The climate crisis, exacerbated by crumbling infrastructure and raging income inequality, is here.
In dismay and despair, I picked up a much-loved essay, “The Work of Local Culture,” by Wendell Berry, to look for some comfort.
Berry is an OG on topics of sustainability and community building, and I think that for the most part he still holds up, but the “for the most part” does matter. My guess is that an essay like “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” in which he describes how his wife types up his hand-written manuscripts on a typewriter would not survive a cancellation-style event in this era. He took plenty of snail-mail heat about it even back when he wrote it. And though he is gut-wrenchingly prescient about everything from eco-diversity to the false idea that putting women into the same wage-slave status as men is good for anyone, he does write from the mindset of an older generation and a hyper-local point of view. Still, I think that Berry’s rhetoric and logic is strong enough for our modern concerns and that whatever he lacks in experience, he makes up for in analytical courage. You can read him and ask the hard questions. He can take it. It will be worth your time.
“The Work of Local Culture” is a good example of this. He begins with a quick rhetorical hat tip to the idea that it is our local communities that have failed us; that is to say, if we took care of each other at the local level, we wouldn’t need federal interventions. Now, I don’t think anyone would dispute the idea that we’d be better off if we looked after each other locally; it’s just that it doesn’t happen—as the state of Texas has just proven in gigantic fluorescent letters written on snow. And in some cases, it can’t happen even if we want it to—as the pandemic has proven in gigantic fluorescent letters written across the map of our nation.
Then, he starts delivering the good stuff, starting with talk about “centralized, undemocratic, filthy and expensive” energy dependence:
A forty-eight hour power failure would involve almost unimaginable deprivations. It would be difficult to travel, especially in cities. Most of the essential work could not be done. Our windowless modern schools and other such buildings that depend on air conditioning could not be used. Refrigeration would be impossible; food would spoil…if it was winter, heating systems would fail. At the end of forty-eight hours many of us would be hungry.
Such a calamity (and it is a modest one among those that our time has made possible) would thus reveal how far most of us are now living from our cultural and economic sources, and how extensively we have destroyed the foundations of local life. It would show us how far we have strayed from . . . a life based to a considerable extent on what we now call solar energy, which is decentralized, democratic, clean, and free.
It’s an insight written in 1990 that is terrifyingly prescient given today’s headlines. But the reason I find this essay comforting, is it reminds me to look to my local community for opportunities to shore up those “foundations of local life.” There are 10,000 or so of us who live here in Hartford at the junction of three rivers and five villages in eastern Vermont, as well as many thousands who live on the other side of the river in western New Hampshire, and to our north and south. We are a closely linked ecosystem, and knowing that we are absolutely dependent upon each other’s well being, my town, along with our neighboring towns, is trying to get plans in place so that our community stops contributing to global warming and starts strengthening a sustainable and resilient local culture. This is a small point of hope for me; this is something I can act on.
Last year, Hartford’s Selectboard and School Board passed a “Joint Resolution Declaring a Climate Emergency” and the voters approved it on Town Meeting Day. It was my first ever Vermont Town Meeting, and I remember reading the ballot and thinking what the heck, this town is for real. The language of the resolution was unequivocal. The resolution calls it a climate emergency and says that the town faces rapid transformational change, and calls for mitigation of global warming and adaptation to the effects thereof. This is strong stuff.  I was thrilled when the results were tallied.  Hartford is now committed to reducing town-wide GHG emissions by 45% below 2010 levels by 2025 and achieving net-zero GHG emissions by 2030. I wanted to help, so I joined the town’s Climate Advisory Committee (CAC).
At my first meeting, I fired up and ready to end Climate Change right then and there, but first we had to start with what felt like a cumbersome read-aloud: an acknowledgement of Vermont Governor Scott’s Addendum 6 to Executive Order 01-20 and Act 92, which allows municipal and government business to be conducted electronically. It turns out that this is serious business. Vermont’s governance has taken place online since March.  The only way this works is if it is public, transparent, and orderly. Even though our committee was, at the time, just three people (soon to be four) and an occasional Selectboard liaison, we still had to follow precise meeting protocols that included “warning” our meetings so that anyone can attend, publishing detailed minutes, and following strict voting procedures. My impatience faded as I began to understand why these measures were so important. This is democracy, I realized, this is how accountability works. 
The second thing I noticed was that the work of the CAC was a lot like my day job, which is to say, it primarily involves a group of white-collar professionals doing project management. Just as with my day job, the value I was bringing was as a communications expert, not a subject-matter expert, which meant that in the CAC, as well as at work, I had to do a lot of focused listening. In the beginning, I didn’t know anything about the practical application of climate mitigation, or even the difference between carbon neutrality and “net zero.” Nor did I know the details of my town’s operations and budget, nor any of the people who managed the town. It was interesting to learn, but working on the CAC meant adding a one- or two-hour meeting at the end of an eight- or nine-hour work day every couple of weeks. Since all of this work was conducted online, at home, it was a lot of time looking into a screen trying to grasp technical topics for which my graduate degree in poetry had not prepared me.
The third thing I noticed was that the other people on the committee were extraordinary. Each person brought multiple areas of expertise (law, technology, environmental science, renewable energy, community organizing, consulting), broad understanding of state and federal environmental standards, and wide community networks. What became clear rather quickly was that the declaration of a climate emergency that had drawn my attention just a few months before was the result of careful groundwork that they and their peers had been laying for years. We were working on one part of a thoughtful, multi-year roadmap.
Our primary work during the summer of 2020 was to write a “Request for Proposal” for consultants who could help Hartford make an action plan to implement the requirements of the Resolution.  Then, once people began to reply with their proposals,  we screened and interviewed applicants. The last step in this process was to present our recommendation to the Selectboard. As it happened, we were scheduled to present on the same night as a hearing about a controversial aspect of our town’s policing policy. I knew this would not be uneventful; even before the death of George Floyd raised the awareness of millions, our town meetings had sometimes been contentious.
What I did not know was that it would be the first time in four years that I have seen what real, live civil discourse looks like. For three and a half hours, concerned citizens in a digital queue were unmuted, one by one, and given the chance to speak and ask questions, and for three and a half hours the Selectboard and the Chief of Police listened and answered. Every point of view was stated in a civil way, every question was answered thoughtfully, even if it was a repeat, or rhetorical, and every emotion was given space.
I would never have made it through to the end of this marathon except that the CAC recommendation was scheduled after the policing policy hearing. And, I am so glad that I had to stay online, because it was yet another educational moment in what community change looks like. It was difficult, awkward, frustratingly long, and repetitive, but more importantly, it was representative: many points of view were given a hearing, and I am quite sure that people learned things. I know that I did.
“Rural people are living, and have lived for a long time, at the site of the trouble,” writes Berry. “They have much reason, by now, to know how little real help is to be expected from somewhere else. They still have, moreover, the remnants of local memory and local community. And in rural communities there are still farms and small businesses that can be changed according to the will and the desire of individual people.” This is what is happening in my community, one hour and one Selectboard meeting at a time by people who are committed to doing the long, hard work in the right direction.
Our proposal was approved around 9:30 p.m. that night, and the work of writing and researching the Hartford Climate Action Plan commenced, including hiring a consultant and forming a large working group who are busily proposing a slate of practical solutions. I will never take careful, administrative, detailed organizing for granted again. I now know that the big, bold, exciting, zeitgeisty moments that give me my beloved dopamine hit are built in moments and mediums that are not necessarily thrilling, but are essential. The work of building and adapting local culture is not television-ready. Representative Ocasio-Cortez raising four million dollars in four days for the people of Texas began with her wearing out her shoe leather knocking doors in Queens. The Alabama Amazon union organizing drive probably started with four people in a room or on a Zoom call.
Meanwhile, the quiet momentum started by my fellow CAC members who are, week after week, husbanding those “remnants of local memory and local community” for the good of our future depends, in part on a  “Yes” vote on Article 22 at Hartford’s Town Meeting March 2nd.  I look at what’s happened in Texas and fervently hope it will pass so that my community will be a little bit more ready for whatever environmental catastrophe is coming our way.
What I have learned about building local culture is that sometimes it’s the quiet, steady work in the right direction that makes the difference. I hope you’ll think about looking for ways to strengthen your local community, too. If a committee of three or four experts, plus one ridiculous and overwhelmed person like me can get the job done in our town, it can happen in yours, too. (You can start by finding information about your local Town Meeting in the Valley News.)
Since, after all, this is meant to be a bookish newsletter, I will hand things off to Louise Erdrich to put this much more poetically.
Have you ever seen, at dusk,
an owl take flight from the throat of a dead tree?
Mist, troubled spirit.
You will notice only after
its great silver body has turned to bark.
The flight was soundless.
— from “Owls”
February 2021
Courtney Cook is a writer based in Wilder, VT. She has degrees from Dartmouth College and the University of Wollongong, Australia, taught English literature for ten years, and now works as a technical writer and marketing manager.  You can read her writing at the Los Angeles Review of Books and in her weekly newsletter, Survival by Book.​​​​​​​ 

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