Paul LeVasseur of Transition Putney. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Paul LeVasseur of Transition Putney. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Friday December 24, 2010

A maple tree lives close to Paul LeVasseur's home in Putney. Four hundred years old, its trunk is corrugated in thick, still waves buttressed by gnarled and sturdy roots. The ancient branches billow outward like symphonies, each twig and leaf a timpani, a flute or violin.

Listening to the endless wind, the maple plays its grace notes and heavy chords. It sings and celebrates the earth, its home.

"I call it Grandfather Tree," Paul says.

A professor at the School for International Training and a devoted organizer for the Transition Putney movement, he is dressed in soft blacks and grays. Right leg crossed over left, he rests comfortably in his chair, arms relaxed on his lap.

His face is calm, his eyes gentle.

"I often visit the tree in the mornings, put my hands on it," he says. He straightens and places his hands in the air, as if to feel the rough bark beneath them. "And say, hey. Say, hello and say--"

His smile is so wide now, his reverence and affection so present inside him that the feelings billow high into the room and he falls back into his chair, laughing.

Paul LeVasseur loves that tree, this town, the Earth and he delights in his love.

But these are scary times for people who care about the natural world.

Depleting oil reserves here, an economic meltdown there, melting ice caps here and there, poisoned food, barren soil, drought and floods and corruption and greed and poverty and sickness and isolation and war -- we live in an age rich with nightmares.

Terror and grief suffocate us like a vapor, invisible and dense, leaving us choked and alone.

Paul knows these crippling feelings well. He has grappled with such threats to our collective well-being for much of his life.

He served in the Peace Corps, digging wells in Chad's arid Sahel region. He started a back-to-the-land farm in the 1970s in Farmington, Maine.

Attending SIT in 1978, he became a teacher devoted to building communities in and out of the classroom where people felt appreciated and heard. He and his partner, Bonnie Mennell, led workshops on the Way of Council, a practice of compassionate group communication.

Then, in 2009, after he had been organizing community events in Putney for more than a decade, his neighbor and friend Simon Renault asked him to read a new publication called "The Transition Handbook."

"I read it and thought, this is it," Paul remembers. "This is everything we want to do."

The book laid out three imposing threats -- the end of cheap oil, climate change and economic instability -- but then showed how communities can meet the challenges by becoming more resilient, whether by localizing the food supply or generating their own energy or providing health care, in order to withstand the shocks to come.

"It was so exciting, because it offered such hope and possibility that we don't have to wait for governments to solve the problems. We can use our own imaginations to make our community strong," he says.

With Simon and several other Transition enthusiasts, including Putney Co-op manager Robyn O'Brien, Paul helped organize an informational meeting at the Putney Library in late November 2009.

"Fifty people showed up!" A year later, Paul's eyes still sparkle at the turnout. "Fifty people!"

At the end of the meeting, the organizers asked if Putney should join the Transition Towns movement. About 300 communities across the country are currently participating.

"We did a straw poll," he says. "Everybody said yes! People were so jazzed."

In the year since, Transition Putney has led or endorsed more than 150 events, from book groups to educational films to garden tours to skills workshops to repurposing old clothes and making sauerkraut.

The group has also facilitated forums on large-scale projects, such as a community garden and a farmer's market, both of which were accomplished within a matter of weeks, and big ideas, including cooperative health care and community art. Many more events are planned for 2011.

For Paul, the specific projects are crucial, but the heart of the movement is people coming together to share the burdens and joys of this modern life.

"I LOVE this community," he says. "We had a garden celebration and a one-year anniversary celebration for Transition Putney, and people had tears in their eyes as they shared what gifts they'd gathered from the experiences."

They had never known their neighbors so well. They had never felt so hopeful. They had never known how lonely they were, or how they longed for community and connection, until they felt it here.

"We build a foundation out of care and openness and love for our neighbors, and out of that we begin to address the problems," he says.

That feeling of welcome and belonging comes in significant part from Paul's gifts as a leader, teacher and organizer.

"The main thing is, he knows how to listen," says Simon Renault. "A key concept of Transition is that we all have one little piece of the big answer, so when people come to the core group and say, I have this idea, our response will always be, Wow! Yes! Do it! How can we help you!

"And the person who does that best is Paul. He is able to listen to people deeply and help them feel extremely empowered. And I will add that he is a gentle soul, able to sit with you through pretty much anything, and that is very comforting."

"I love this work," Paul says. "I get to talk with people about what they care about, and help them through Transition Putney to do what they love."

He laughs with a quiet delight, and his one golden earring catches the gray winter light, turning it to sparks.

For his community, then, Paul is the maple tree, vital and kind, holding the space for their hopes and fears, and singing with them in the wind.