VPIRG

“Are you aware that atmospheric CO2 levels are currently at 398 parts per million, well above what is scientifically considered safe?  Last year Governor Douglas passed a bill to decrease state regulations for polluting industries in Vermont.  Now you go.  You’re the homeowner,” the energetic girl with a short ponytail said, reading articulately from the front seat.  Three of us sat with our knees pinned, scripts in hand, together in the back of a Toyota Camry heading down I-89 en route to Lyndonville on the opposite side of the state.   

“No I wasn’t aware of that,” the round faced freshman acted beside me with a bashful smirk.

“Well you can help.  I’m with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and I’m traveling door to door to raise awareness about the environment and collecting donations which will go to support grassroots campaigns throughout Vermont.  Do you have a minute to learn more?”

“Sure, how can I help?” the boy asked. 

“Like that!” praised the girl in the front, “now you pick up on the next part Sasha, where I left off.”

Sasha read from the rap beside me brightly.

I’d been living at my grandmother’s farm that summer.  She lived in the house at the bottom of the hill and I stayed in the palatial barn at the top of the sprawling mountain farm.  I’d wake to cows hollering from the meadow or knocking their horns around the hay crib, scarfing grass downstairs.  I’d swim in the trout pond and dry on the naked traipse back across the field.  I’d milk the goats and take them for forages through the woods, enjoying the chilled milk upon return hours later.  I’d fashion tasteful bouquets and eat berries with stained black fingertips. 

There was considerable work to be done, make no mistake, but I obliged gladly to mend the water lines, cut the fields, and care for the beasts among other chores in exchange for my room and board.  What’s more, my grandmother agreed to pay me twelve dollars an hour to whitewash the fences which contained the 300 acre farm.  Whenever I needed pot, I’d paint for five hours and drive into town to see friends and pick up a satchel.  The nights were the stillest in my memory, suspended like the June humidity that shrouded the jungle farm.

I felt a kinship with the land, herding the goats to unforaged hollows of the forest, for they would only venture to where I led them; moving the cows from one pasture to the next frequently to maintain a balance with their grazing and fertilizing and the meadows themselves; turning over the topsoil for my garden which yielded beans, squash, all sorts of greens, broccoli, carrots and tomato. 

Most nights I’d walk the mile down the mountain to my grandmother’s house, often carrying produce from the garden and she’d prepare us dinner and we’d talk and watch Fox News (we clearly lived on opposite sides of the farm) and I’d read the Burlington Free Press.

One night we sat chatting, discussing my studies in Tibet which would commence in the fall and she pestered me about work. 

“You’ll never survive on painting money alone,” she said at which point I flipped to the classified page. 

ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCATE it boldly read.

We’d been in the car for nearly two hours when we turned onto Barking Dog Lane, where one could aptly hear the yapping and howling from a beagle breeder down the road.  We parked about a half mile down and you could still hear the howls of caged dogs.  All five of us stepped out onto the rural road with clipboards and vinyl deposit bags in hand.

Emily, the veteran whose Camry brought us here, huddled the group together.  The girl with the ponytail was similarly experienced and together she and Emily worked to psych us up.

“Ok guys, I know this is your first time but this looks like a really low key place, OK?  Just remember, this is important stuff and if people know what’s going on they’ll want to help.  It’s just about educating and that what you guys are here to do.  And that’s awesome,” Emily cheered.

“And you all know your raps?” quizzed the ponytail, jesting.  We all agreed with varying enthusiasm and split up.

It was a beautiful sunny day as I walked along the road alone.  There were miles of rolling fields, dotted with colonies of white mobile homes with narrow gravel roads, separated by spears of pine stands.  I walked into the first neighborhood and past a couple homes until I had built enough gusto to request money from a stranger.  I walked up to a singlewide trailer, rang a snare like knock on the flimsy aluminum door and waited, watching the colorful wind ornaments hanging from the low porch roof spin in the afternoon breeze.  A middle aged man, well built with a capital “R” branded on his forehead answered the door.

“Good afternoon sir, my name is Ted,” I said.  “Are you aware that atmospheric CO2 levels are currently at 398 parts per million, well above what is scientifically considered safe?” 

He looked at me and I could tell that after opening the door he could only here the alarm of “SOLICITOR, SOLICITOR,” ringing in his brain.  I made mention of Governor Douglas and the gentleman found his team in the fight.

“I voted for Douglas in the election.  Now what’s this about the carbon?” he asked dismissively. 

Disheartened, I reiterated the rap.  “Atmospheric CO2 levels are currently at 398 parts per million and climbing.  In order to stop global warming we must maintain a level of 350 parts per million or lower.”

“OK,” he said.  “Now how do you know that’s true?  And even if it were true, what do you want me to do?” 

I cringed, thinking of the money bag folded into my back pocket.  I didn’t dare mention it but, jarred, relied on the rap.

“Well,” I nervously scoffed, “this information is backed by scientific research and assessment, but I’m not a scientist, I’m collecting money to raise awareness and support grassroots campaigns to stand up to big business and special interest groups.”

“Aren’t you a special interest group?” he stabbed.

“We’re a public interest group,” I corrected, but there was no battle to win.

“Look, times are tight as it is and I’m not giving any money to global warming because I’m not certain it exists.  I know I have bills, sure of that, you catch my drift?” 

I caught it, thanked him for his time, left him an information packet which he handed back to me, and walked down the porch stairs and around the bed of his red F-150 to carry on with this demented version of trick-or-treating. 

The next few homes were much the same.  The sentiments of my calculated rap fell on ears of disbelief, disdain, lack of time, lack of money, lack of interest and so forth.  I distributed several information packets but this missionary work was secondary to the objective of collecting money.  Not even I knew the channels my work and proceeds would flow.  I had received an afternoon of information, when I interviewed days earlier back at headquarters in Burlington; several obvious truths about climate change and politics we all agreed upon.  After all, the only ones in the room were those who had inquired about the ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY position in the newspaper.  We all agreed that climate change was a serious matter, agreed that we preferred a world which featured clean air and water, natural beauty and animals of vast diversity.  We lamented extinct species and melted glaciers.  We raged against the catastrophic offspring of capitalism and industrialization and the politicians who hoisted him over their heads for centuries.  We identified our enemies, our allies and task.  We drew several bold dots but connections were left assumed.  And at the end of the afternoon, when it was quiet and serious and the handful of us pretended we all now shared something, we took a moment of pride that what we were doing would change something.

The first trailer park ended up a wash but midway through the second I’d collected a small wad of singles and change.  By this point and had hit my stride crying the injustices the Governor was exacting on the state.  I’d been chatting with a young mother with two kids rambunctiously heaving plastic trucks around the living room, a chaos the mother had obviously come to terms with some time ago. 

“You know we’ve been so strapped lately, it’s really just hard to think about the environment,” she said.  “Gas is like $4.00 a gallon, we almost needed a loan to pay our propane bill last winter, it’s just really hard.”

“I understand,” I said.  I shuffled through leaves of statistics and literature on wind farms and biodiesel but she, like so many faces who answered my supplicating knock, responded best to empathy.

“It’s really a tough deal.  I didn’t grow up with much money and you want to do what’s best for our planet.  But, at the end of the day you have to make ends meet.”

“I’d love to feed my kids organic food and all that and like, go green, but it’s like all the eggs are in whatever baskets the government says.  And it’s these big companies.”

“Well I hate to ask you for money but with the money I’m able to raise we’ll have a louder voice against big business and hopefully Washington will take notice.  I mean if you could get wind energy for cheaper than you could from the electric company, who wouldn’t?” I optimistically persuaded.

“Well I’ll see what I have,” she said.

I gulped with guilty triumph.  She waddled across the brown shag carpet, avoiding the strewn toys littered throughout the room.  Thumbing through a beat up wallet, she pulled out a 10 and two crumpled singles which she presented to me nearly ashamed.

“Well it’s not much but it’s all I got on me,” she confessed.

My instincts urged me to be polite and decline the offer.  I reasoned with myself that if a poor villager in a foreign land offers a meal, one must accept, for declining such a gracious offering would insult those who are pulling out the stops for you and the pride of their village.  In reality, I was tasked to collect money and I didn’t want to face the team empty handed after five hours canvassing.

“Thank You so much,” I applauded.  “You’re help is really making a difference.”

That I did not know and, growing weary of walking and begging for wheat in a fallowed field, began to doubt that the mother’s twelve dollars, or my canvassing, or the few signatures I had collected on can-you-at-least-sign-my-petition petition would garner any care for the environment at all.

I walked up the walkway through an uncut lawn to another home.  A small lady with soft white hair and round glasses answered the door.  She was old and was retaining the childish air of curiosity my own grandmother had not yet begun to develop.  She politely listened as I spun through an abridged rap I’d edited through the trials of the afternoon. 

“Oh honey,” she spoke with a shaky hand.  “I’m so happy you’re out here but I just don’t have anything to give.”

By this point I didn’t want to ask anything of anyone.

“I understand ma’am,” I said.  “I’m just hoping to raise awareness about the environment is all.  I realize contributing is difficult.”

“I wish I could,” she said. “I know global warming is a problem.  It’s just, I’m not well and I can’t even afford to keep this house.  I’m packing right now to move to a nursing home because I can’t even afford to keep my home.  So you’ll understand why I wish I could give but I can’t,” she said gesturing to the cardboard boxes and crumpled newspaper she had laid across her living room.

“I’m very sorry to bother you ma’am,” I said

“Heavens, no, I appreciate you doing what you’re doing, just folks around here don’t have much to give.”

“I’ve gathered that myself.  Not sure why they sent us out here to canvas but I’m happy to hand out these flyers regardless.”

I wasn’t.  I was had, disbursed to rail against massive industry and lobbying in Lyndonville on a quiet stretch of trailer parks.  A place where people use gas and electricity and waste and recycle what they’re told, who don’t have money to give to public interest groups.  People who were born in a society who educated them, provided them jobs, asked for taxes, and ushered into a system where neither party is left without crisis, who continually work more, for more people to avert the crises the system abscesses. 

I wished her good luck as she wished me and I started my wander back to Barking Dog Ln.  It was evening by this point and I had a meager $30 in wrinkled money to show for my five hours on the beat.  Money swindled from those trained by the alms bowl, money once tightly gripped by its donors.  The hills were in an intimate dimness of Vermont summer and my legs felt good from the exercise but melancholy was the word that continued to thud in my mind each step forth.  I walked for twenty minutes, often mistaking right turns for wrong and vise verse, until I was back within reach to the sound of wailing dogs, desperate to do something with their lives.

I found Sasha and Bashful, each equally dejected by the process as I was.  Even Emily and the ponytail, as they convened with us fifteen minutes after the meet-up time, bore signs of dismay.  We’d all left the brick Burlington headquarters with such ambition to do something we cared about and defend a world we wished to live in.  We practiced and focused the whole car ride to Lyndonville which swallowed more in gasoline that the combined sum of our day’s begging.  We spoke of fighting, of changing, of promoting a better future, investing in new industry, starting micro to effect macro, along with other jargon.  On Barking Dog Ln we handed over our vinyl bags of spoils and a few folded pages of signatures which Emily threw into a tote in her trunk to be later discarded into dark pipelines against the current.

I longed to be back on my grandmother’s farm.  I wished to be back in realm where I could prove my usefulness without competition or negotiation of salary, with a governess who would feed me and shelter me in her barn, who would offer me a space of land to till and grow food, who despite her affinity for Rush Limbaugh, regarded the river and the forest and the insects as our chief interests.  I wished to pull water from the river, milk from the utter and roots from the soil, unpurchased, untreated and untaxed.

After a silent drive home and an optimism that washes over one after memories of a recent plight are dulled smooth with nostalgia took hold, we wished each other good night and agreed the next day would be better.  We’d visit a more affluent community with more like minded individuals and we wouldn’t have to drive so far.  We decided with our shared deception that after enough days like that, our environmental concerns would be heard and demands met.  Our weak militias traipsing through trailer parks and across college campuses would rival Big Oil, Agribusiness and several other villains we thought of off the top of our heads.  I knew I would not return.

That night I sat in the hayloft of the barn smoking a joint, watching swallows fly hastily back and forth from their mud nests plastered to the barn’s timber frame into the unknown night.  I knew we weren’t the only species racing to the forest with unfettered ambition to collect resources, and feed our chicks upon a safe return, in our homes clinging to a manufactured assembly.    I knew I was quite fortunate to be prince of this apple town and loved my grandmother for being its gallant queen who offered resource and lifestyle harmonious with the kingdom. I knew the trailer parks in Lyndonville would survive, using each available resource they could afford, presented by their rulers, and teach their children with the king’s curriculum to do the same until it was all gone.