Vermont farmer and conservationist Peter Forbes is one of the keynote speakers we are welcoming to our Building a Land Ethic Conference this June. The June 2017 conference will explore the theme of “Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide,” a topic Peter intersects daily in his work on Knoll Farm in central Vermont. In 2009, Aldo Leopold Foundation Senior Fellow Curt Meine interviewed Peter about his work to connect urban and rural landscapes for our documentary film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time. Only a small portion of their discussion made it into the film, so we thought we’d share a longer excerpt here to share more about Knoll Farm, land ethics, and transformational moments. Enjoy.
Curt: How did you first become aware of Leopold, and what was your impression at the time?
Peter: I think it was after reading Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. It mentioned A Sand County Almanac and I hadn’t heard of it at all. So I went to it, and the essay on the land ethic really captured me. It was interesting because in reading Wendell Berry, I found it somewhat hard to relate. As a first-generation American, I was never going to have a four, five-generation heritage to a piece of land like the Berry family. But reading Leopold, I realized that I could become native to a place, and that it wasn’t about how long I lived here. It was about how I chose to relate. So it gave me a tremendous amount of hope.
Curt: One of the interesting things about Leopold is that in A Sand County Almanac, he wasn’t writing about inheriting or buying a piece of land that was beautiful, healthy, scenic, or monumental. It was a worn-out piece of degraded sandy bottom land in the middle of Wisconsin. Do you see some parallels with what’s going on in the recovery of the Vermont landscape and the communities there?
Peter: Well, yes, but not only Vermont. I mean, take urban gardens in Harlem as an example. That is such a powerful, powerful manifestation of that story of what Leopold was doing, taking a vacant lot and turning it into a garden that can feed people and educate people and give them a sense of relationship. It’s a powerful continuation of Leopold’s story.
Curt: Since the last time I visited you at Knoll Farm, there’s really been an explosion of interest in the urban agriculture movement. Have you been tracking the same trend?
Peter: Absolutely, and I take it as evidence of that longing for a relationship with the land. All the growth of organics, the growth of farmer’s markets, the growth of the food justice system in this country… it all demonstrates that longing.
Curt: One of the things that I’ve noticed is that many people really appreciate Leopold’s work as a wilderness advocate and wildlife manager, and those are incredibly important legacies. But there’s been this whole new rediscovery of Aldo Leopold’s writing on agriculture and working landscapes. What do you think about that?
Peter: One paragraph I remember really clearly, not the exact words, but Leopold essentially talks about there being two schools of thought: one that’s about human history and one that’s about biological history. He refers to a time where we’ll see the inevitable fusion of those. Of course, it’s not been inevitable… but that really struck me. I mean, I love wilderness and I love all that that entails, but I also am enthralled with the human experience and how to make a healthy whole human being.
Curt: So making those connections is really what you’re all about.
Peter: Making it visible. Making it visible and if you can, giving it taste.
Curt: So, tell me about the sheep you raise on your farm.
Peter: They’re Icelandics. They’re very hardy, they’re great mothers, they make wonderful wool, they’re good meat, and they’re perfectly adapted to Vermont, to our climate. And each generation, they’re becoming more and more adapted to this farm. When we first started, we weren’t grazing them in rotation, and they had health issues. So we’ve learned to move them regularly across the pastures to literally mimic the way a wild animal would behave, and we have healthier animals overall.
Curt: Tell me a little bit about the educational programs you offer on your farm.
Peter: We began with the core idea that we wanted to try to bring people together from very different backgrounds, representing all kinds of disciplines, skin colors, and economics. What we’ve learned is that simply bringing people together isn’t enough. To find what a healthy whole community is, you have to be willing to explore difference. You have to be willing to engage in the forces that keep healthy whole communities from happening. And that’s really when things begin to get interesting and possible. I don’t think you can do that kind of inquiry anywhere as successfully as you can on a piece of land, because it is on a piece of land that people tend to find that place within inside of themselves that is most meaningful to them, that allows them to the possibility of becoming a better person, a different person. Otherwise, we’re just in our own ruts, in the old grooves of our disciplines in our lives, organizations competing with one another, movements competing with one another. What would Leopold say if you looked at that today? I think he’d say was it’s not a healthy whole system and that’s one of the reasons why we have not meaningfully addressed the problems.
Curt: In conservation, it’s necessary to engage our minds to understand both science and policy. But there’s also a component of connection to the heart. Can you speak to that?
Peter: The heart is is where we get our courage, and the heart is also what enables us to cross the boundaries that divide us from one another. When you’re talking science, many times you’re just putting up more boundaries. When you’re talking from your heart, you’re not trying to prove anything, you’re merely telling someone what you believe in, then the possibility of transformation happens. I think that’s what makes “Thinking Like a Mountain” so powerful. Leopold reveals his heart and his limitations as a human being. I mean, he lays it all out there. He killed this beautiful creature and in killing it, he saw its beauty boldly and starkly in front of himself, and as a result, he was changed forever. That is our capacity to act from our heart. Aldo Leopold’s “green fire” was a transformational moment in his individual life, and it also suggests a transformational moment in our movement, if we’re willing to change ourselves.
Peter Forbes will be offering the closing keynote address at the Building a Land Ethic Conference on Saturday, June 24. Online registration is open through June 8, 2017.