Plenty of Vermonters would like to take a break in the Italian countryside, especially in January. But how many of us would use a sojourn in the land of dolce far niente to gain a better understanding of our own landscape?
Middlebury College professor of English and Environmental Studies John Elder did just that, and he tells the story in his latest book Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa: From Vermont to Italy in the Footsteps of George Perkins Marsh. Published last September by the University of Virginia Press, the nonfiction narrative follows Elder on a Fulbright year in Italy, which he used to retrace the travels of 19th-century diplomat Marsh.
A Vermonter, Marsh was passionate about environmental conservation. The deforestation he observed in Italy inspired his manifesto Man and Nature, and the Vermont sugar maples he planted in the forest around the abbey of Vallombrosa are still there. A blurb from Ripton writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben predicts that Pilgrimage "will be a classic."
Elder is currently on sabbatical with support from a Guggenheim Fellowship he received in 2005. Once again, he's using the time to research a book in warmer climes. But this time he's stayed closer to home, traveling back and forth between Vermont and Louisiana's battered Gulf Coast.
Elder originally planned to focus his new work on maple sugaring as a New England way of life. But he found the topic led him to two new ones: "traditional foods and conservation, and traditional foods and climate change," he says. "I'm comparing the impact of climate change on maple sugaring with what's happened to traditional fishing communities down in southern Louisiana. It's about how climate changes are making us more aware of the importance of traditional working landscapes and traditional foods."
The book's working title is Green Mountain Gumbo. Elder says he may end it with a gumbo recipe that includes maple syrup, even if he has to invent one. "It's a wild and woolly topic at this point," he says. "But it feels like it has a lot of velocity."
Elder reads at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier on January 23, 7 p.m. Free. Info, 229-0774.