“Next stop Fullerton. Doors open on the left at Fullerton.” I sluggishly open my eyes after the sound of an automated voice resonates over the quiet chatter of train folk. As the iron horse picks up speed, I squint moments after the last rays of sunlight from a Western sunset radiate against my face. I gaze through a squalid Plexiglas window as row upon row of old brick buildings flash before me. As the giant metal beast comes to a screeching stop, my focus shifts to what seems like only a tiny sliver of natural beauty amidst such a massive concrete jungle: a soccer field. The green rectangle stands out among its somber grey friends and forces my attention, reminding me of my appreciation for fresh mountain air, wildlife, and my one true home: beautiful Vermont.
Chicago, Illinois – often referred to as the heart of the United States. Living in this quintessential American city taught me many things. The most important of them – my gratitude for growing up in the Green Mountain State. Often I found myself daydreaming about being in the backwoods of Georgia, Vermont, free from the everyday hustle of strangers and machines – liberated from honking car horns and roaring trains in the distance. It was not until living in Chicago that I truly learned of my longing to be in the woods, surrounded by the harmonious symphony of Northeastern wildlife. Now that winter has faded and spring is upon us, the wildlife of Franklin County has started to flourish once again. Sometimes as Vermonters we forget to take a moment from our everyday lives and reflect on the wonderful creatures and plants that share our great state with us.
Conversing with city people, I often found that they knew little about Vermont. Most of my conversations led to “Oh I love Ben and Jerry’s” or “Can you get me some real maple syrup?” While these are both notable staples of Vermont, I repeatedly found myself trying to explain that our state is defined by much more than just ice cream and maple syrup. Those of us who grew up here and have lived in other places of the world may not have the best explanation – but we know in our hearts there is an everlasting and unparalleled bond we share with our wildlife. It can be as simple as spotting a bluebird, picking an elegant flower, hearing a turkey gobble, or even tasting the running sap from a maple tree during sugaring season. All of these things, simple or not, contribute to the connection we share with our surroundings.
Growing up in Chittenden County, I frequently traveled to Franklin County to visit relatives. It was in Franklin County where my appreciation for wildlife began. I learned to hunt, fish, and put in an honest day’s work – chopping wood, driving a tractor, and gathering sap with my cousins. It wasn’t until I moved back to Vermont that I realized how important my connection to the outdoors is, and how it has shaped me into the person I am today.
I like to think of Franklin County as one of the most special places in Vermont. I recall a clear summer day sitting on top of a hill in my Uncle’s tractor, when something caught my eye in the distance. Out of the woods appeared a coyote – it’s pearly white coat contrasting the green pasture, distinct from any wild animal I had ever seen before. I raced across the field with my camera phone flipped open, hoping to capture a picture – knowing my fairytale would not hold up without evidence. Before I could get close enough, it playfully trotted to the end of the field, giving me one last glance before disappearing back into the woods. Later that night, I went for a night swim in Lake Champlain. As I stared up at a full moon, it’s bright white light reflecting off of the glass-like water, I couldn’t help but think of the coyote from earlier. It was at that very moment that I felt a sense of belonging, moreover – that special connection that we as humans share with our homeland.
Many years ago, I felt this connection while out hunting turkeys on youth weekend with my father. We hiked into the woods at early dusk with just enough light to see each other’s outline. A slight morning drizzle made for a long morning, as the turkeys’ gobbles echoed throughout the woods, provoking my adrenaline. My father whispered into my ear “be still” as he communicated back and forth, attempting to call them in. The crafty and stubborn wild bird’s eventually silenced themselves, refraining from coming into sight. As the morning sun lit up the woods, we decided to get up and move. Time passed as we crept through the woods like silent warriors, keeping our eyes peeled. We made our way down a hill and across a tiny stream. My father stopped and knelt down, unearthing a small rock. Beneath it lay a couple of small bright orange newts. No need to scatter, they seemed perfectly aware of the two giants standing over them. My father picked one up and held it in his hand. “Cool, aren’t they?” I held out my hand as the tiny salamander slowly inched his way onto it. I will always remember what my father said to me next, “You see, it’s not always about the hunt. Sometimes you have to stop and appreciate your surroundings – appreciate the wildlife.”
We all have special moments that we remember. My grandparents, Rod and Betty Vallee, have spent most of their lives capturing moments like these with their photography. Whether spotting a skunk from the car, or even looking at pictures in a magazine, we are reminded of the plants and animals that we as Vermonters share our love for. For me, Spring marks a time of enlightenment. As the warm weather creeps in and the animals come out to play, we find ourselves filled with glee – embracing this new season with an opportunity to get out and enjoy the wonderful wildlife that helps make our great state such an amazing place to live.