DUMMERSTON — Every one of us has benefited from the fossil fuel economy: Cheap gas has made us the most mobile generation in the history of the world, and plastic products have facilitated a lifestyle focused on convenience and disposability.
But all the while, we have avoided a true accounting for our wastefulness. My generation will be able to avoid that comeuppance because of mortality, but our kids and grandkids will look aghast at the overdue invoice we hand them when we shuffle off this mortal coil.
Fortunately, there are people of my generation who are taking a hard look at their own culpability in contributing to the unsustainable path humanity is on and are finding ways to, if not prevent catastrophe, at least delay it long enough for the kids to find a solution.
For example, Mary Ellen Copeland and Ed Anthes have spent the last few years working with like-minded folks in establishing a nature preserve that spans almost 1,000 acres in Dummerston, Newfane and Brookline.
“We’re a very greedy species,” says Mary Ellen, an author, educator and mental health recovery advocate. “We’re just taking and taking and not caring about what are the long-term consequences.”
In 2018, Anthes and Copeland, with Sam Farwell and Michael Pletcher, restarted the dormant Green Mountain Conservancy with the mission of preserving a vital block of forest along the West River.
Their efforts were a resounding success, resulting in the Deer Run Nature Preserve, 914 acres of conserved land with more than 2 miles of river front. It includes unfragmented interior forest blocks and critical pathways for species movement between core habitat areas.
Deer Run is also a crucial piece in linking the Green Mountain National Forest with land conserved by the Windham Hill Pinnacle Association in Putney and hiking trails designed by expert trail maker Roger Haydock. The hope is to eventually create a corridor, for humans and wildlife, across Vermont, all the way to the Connecticut River.
But Ed and Mary Ellen also see the preserve as a means of addressing their own responsibility to future generations who will have to confront the challenges of our global climate crisis.
“I see this as a gift to the people of the future,” says Mary Ellen. “We only have a few years left to really enjoy it, and we’re doing that, but after we’re gone, we wanted it to still be there.”
Mary Ellen says she feels the burden of responsibility of the choices we as a society and individuals have made over the past 100 years that have led to the climate crisis.
“I need to go shopping. I need to have all these plastic things. I need to drive this long distance. I need to go on this cruise,” she says. “And instead of living a simple life that would ensure the continuation of the Earth, we’re warming it up way, way too much, way too quickly.”
“I think about climate refugees,” says Ed. “As the water level rises, there are millions of people, even just in the United States, let alone in North and South America and Central America, the rest of the world, who are going to have to move.”
Mary Ellen and Ed might not be considered Vermonters by some people; Mary Ellen moved here with her first husband in 1961 from New Haven, Conn., and Ed moved here from the Southwest in 1994 to work at Northeast Cooperatives, a pioneering natural goods distributor in Brattleboro that was acquired by United Natural Foods in 2003.
Despite being what some people might consider transplants, they are, in my non-native eyes, quintessential Vermonters — modest, respectful, self-sufficient and hard-working with a deep and abiding connection to the land they live on.
They met in 1995 during a walk at Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center led by Mary Ellen’s daughter, Patti Smith, who is herself, a force of nature.
Mary Ellen and Ed see the Deer Run preserve as not just a gift to their children and grandchildren and to the people of Vermont, but also to the wildlife that are increasingly being squeezed into smaller and smaller parcels of fragmented wildlands.
“In a way, it’s a gift to the land itself and the species that live on it,” says Ed. “And it’s a tremendous gift that all of us get to enjoy it and in perpetuity, as long as that exists.”
The success of the Green Mountain Conservancy is getting noticed by folks in the region, too.
“We’re being approached by people who are saying ‘We have this piece of land that’s being threatened. What do we do?’” says Mary Ellen. “So we ask ourselves, ‘How do we use what we’ve developed to help others?’ We’ve developed a capacity to do really good fundraising, and we’ve developed close relationships with the Vermont Land Trust, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and the Nature Conservancy, as well as a lot of people with the state.”
For now, they’re hoping to rest on their laurels for a while, but they are aiming to expand the Green Mountain Conservancy’s reach, though they believe it might take some new blood to propel it forward to its next iteration.
“We’ve done a lot of work, but we have some up-and-comers with strong backgrounds in the environmental sciences,” says Mary Ellen.
In addition to land contributed by Ed and Mary Ellen, Sam Farwell chipped in nearly 100 acres, and through fundraising, the Green Mountain Conservancy was able to purchase land from brothers Alex and Chris Wilson and the Mercede family.
The conservancy also received support from the William P. Wharton Trust, the Conservation Alliance, the Windham Foundation, the Windham Regional Commission, the Thomas Thompson Trust, the Southeastern Vermont Watershed Alliance, the Northeast Wilderness Trust, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont Fish and Game, and the Fields Pond Foundation.
But they couldn’t have done it without the support of many individual donors. “We thought it would be hard to raise the money,” says Mary Ellen. “But we had a very large number of people who were walking the trail during the pandemic, and I think it made people think about what was most important to them, now and into the future.”
And Mary Ellen, having spent her whole life in the mental health field, understands the power of nature in helping people heal.
“It’s very, very important to people’s health and wellness to be able to get outside,” she says. “It certainly is to mine. I go and wander all over the place out here.”
Mary Ellen and Ed remind me that there are many good people who are working hard to give future generations a chance to avert the disaster we’ve heedlessly left at their feet. It’s easy to feel despair when reading the news about unprecedented heat waves and buildings collapsing and species being obliterated by humanity’s hunger for more, more, more.
Thankfully, there are people who keep me going when, on my bad days, I conclude humanity is slowly eradicating the very habitat that sustains it. Mary Ellen and Ed are two of those people and I thank them for giving me this glimmer of hope.