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Learning from the Land 

Kerstin Lange finds history in your own back yard

Like many Vermonters, Kerstin Lange has had to cobble together a variety of jobs in order to earn a living in a state not known for its career opportunities. But she has taken moonlighting in Vermont a step further: She's invented a profession all her own.

Lange has worked the past three years as a landscape analyst. As far as she's aware, no one in North America -- and maybe not in the entire world -- shares this job title. The occupation should not be confused with landscaper or landscape architect, both of which involve the alteration of natural environments. Landscape analysis, as Lange defines it, seeks to identify and understand the natural and human forces that have shaped particular settings. Telling the stories of these areas is an integral aspect of her work.

Landscape analysis can have practical applications, too -- advising property owners on where to site a structure, for example, or how to preserve or restore natural features. Lange will talk about her evolving profession this Wednesday, February 8, as part of an ongoing lecture series called "Conversations with the Land" at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe.

The field she is pioneering combines her academic training in anthropology and natural science. Lange holds a Master's in anthropology from the Binghamton branch of the State University of New York and a Master's in natural resource planning from the University of Vermont. "I'm out on the land a lot studying plants, soil, rocks and other such features, but so much of what I do involves working with people," she says.

A native of Germany who still speaks with an accent, Lange, 41, moved to the United States in the mid-1980s with her American husband, with whom she is no longer partnered. The couple lived in Binghamton for nine years. Lange moved to Vermont in 1995 after a number of visits here left her feeling powerfully drawn to the state's nature -- in both senses of that term.

"I'd fallen in love with Vermont's woods," she recalls. "In fact, there's a nature preserve at UVM that has saved my mental health many times. The woods there are like a dream," Lange remarks, sounding a bit like one of her favorite American authors, Henry David Thoreau.

The Long Trail also served to motivate her move. Soon after arriving in Vermont, Lange got a job with the Green Mountain Club, working in the summer of 1995 as a caretaker of Butler Lodge on Mount Mansfield. She also found work as a guide for Burlington-based Music Contact International, a company that conducts tours -- not necessarily involving music -- in Europe and the Caribbean. Lange went on to become a tour designer for Vermont Public Radio, managing listener trips to cultural destinations.

For Lange, Vermont's human community was as compelling as the views. "The European part of me felt especially in touch with Vermont," she says. "I was taken with the mix of people letting each other be, but at the same time having a certain sense of social obligation and a commitment to the larger good."

After earning her UVM Master's, Lange worked with the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee. The natural attributes of the VINS property spoke to her academic interests, while the institute's mission of public education fit with her desire to share her knowledge with others, she says.

It was the VINS experience that led Lange to pursue working on her own in a field she came to define as landscape analysis. Former professors

at UVM put her in touch with landowners curious about the natural history of their properties or concerned about specific environmental threats.

Lange has also been hired by public agencies such as the Burlington Department of Parks & Recreation. She is surveying the Mount Cavalry Red Maple Swamp with the goal of recommending a trail network in this New North End natural area. "It's already accessible to users, but we're making an effort to raise awareness that this is a special place that should be used in a light-touch manner," Lange explains.

The Intervale Foundation has contracted with her to study the riparian buffer of the Winooski River to gauge its effectiveness in filtering non-point sources of pollution. Lange is also examining the impact of invasive species on the stability of the riverbank.

Most of her work so far, however, has been with private landowners, many of whom have moved from the flatlands to what they regard as their own small pieces of paradise in Vermont. Some of these newcomers yearn to develop an understanding of the forces that forged their local landscapes. "Being from somewhere far away from Vermont," Lange says, "I figure that if this kind of understanding inspires me, it can also inspire someone from New Jersey."

Her longest-running project involves a 100-year-old communal summer camp property on the western shore of South Hero, whose owners asked that it not be identified for this article. Lange has worked there in all seasons since 2004, studying a limestone bluff cedar-pine forest of the sort that has graced the Lake Champlain shoreline for thousands of years. It is nonetheless a rare kind of natural community, found only in Vermont and parts of New York State, Michigan and Ontario.

Lange mulls over old maps and photos of a property in order to learn how it has been changed by humans and by the elements in the relatively recent past. In an unheated communal library at the South Hero camp, she points with gloved fingers to nearby open lands visible in 60-year-old aerial images. Those blank spaces have since been filled in with forests and cottages as farmers sold off plots of land to developers of lakeside havens. Lange also shows that the bluffs then extended further out into the lake and along the adjoining shoreline, but they too have been reshaped or removed by the hand of man and the pounding of wind and wave.

During a walking tour of the property one recent blustery morning, Lange elucidates her "layer cake" method of delving into a property's natural history. Beginning with the geological forces that formed the bedrock, she examines, in physically ascending order, the area's glacial deposits, its soils, legacies of human land use, its vegetation, topography and wildlife. Landscape analysis further involves an inquiry into the relationship among these various components -- "the patterns and processes they have undergone and now exhibit," Lange explains.

On this particular 10-acre parcel, Lange says sediments remain from the ancient ocean that covered the Champlain Islands some 600 million years ago. "We're standing on that ocean's shelf now," she notes. The sediments deposited took the form of calcium carbonate from shells collected in rocks.

Invasive species -- "plant assassins is what I call them," Lange says -- have also transformed this and many other of Vermont's natural communities. "Ever since humans have begun to travel on a wide scale, plant species have moved around faster than ecological adaptations can take place," she explains. "Invasive species have no natural predators and they start to crowd out native vegetation, leading to homogenization and loss of the land's indigenous character."

On the South Hero camp property, the uninvited arrival of buckthorn poses special dangers. "This plant seems to have effects on soil properties that in turn affect other species," Lange surmises. Salamanders may ultimately and indirectly be harmed by the coming of buckthorn, she suggests.

Few of these features are visible to an untrained eye, scanning snowy pathways that surely swarm with campers in summer but now contain only rabbit tracks and deer prints. But even in this leafless season, Lange is able to identify a particular shrub by tearing open a slice of stem to reveal its hollow core. "One of the non-native species of honeysuckle," she confidently remarks.

The camp families that have enjoyed the property for generations are hoping that Lange's insights will help them to slow the erosion of the bluffs above the lake, chunks of which have already calved off. She also hopes to compile a booklet that will document the ancient and recent past of the camp, as well as its present appearance. A key aim, Lange explains, is to pass down to future generations an understanding of the land's natural heritage and to encourage its preservation even as change relentlessly proceeds.

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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