The hills of home: Environmental identity in the rural north, 1815–1860
During the first half of the nineteenth century, Vermonters crafted a shared regional identity rooted in the physical geography of the state. In particular, Vermonters located the source of all that they found to be unique about themselves in the state's mountainous topography. Vermonters borrowed universal ideas about environmental determinism and applied them to the specific geography of the state in a way that cast the Vermont environment as exceptional, the virtues associated with the local topography quite specific to place. The regional virtues born of the local environment included a fierce independence (exemplified by the history of early Vermont); a love of liberty; solid common sense; and a strong bond to family and community. By stressing what was unique about place, Vermonters hoped to remedy what they viewed as the misdirected set of values increasingly guiding the daily lives of their neighbors and children. Vermonters invested in the idea of place particularly wanted to redirect attention back toward the immediacy of the home environment and away from the lure of other regions, in particular new farming lands opening to the West. In a collective effort to stem that tide of out-migration, Vermonters defined the regional environment as home and found domestic virtues in the natural world surrounding them. It was hoped that promoting the idea of environmental domesticity would instill an emotional attachment to place among those who might otherwise be tempted by the promise of starting over in an easier landscape. Environmental domesticity offered a softened image of the region as a place where community mutuality trumped individual ambition and where finding happiness in a life that honored the limitations of the environment was encouraged. That definition of place, like any such definition, carried the most weight when framed in opposition to what and to where it was not. Without explicitly calling for environmental conservation of the natural spaces of home, regionalists nonetheless hoped that strengthening emotional as well as physical bonds to the local environment would ensure not only the survival of the community as they imagined it, but also the continued viability of the lands that bound the community physically in place. As ideally imagined, the Vermont community was a landscape of vibrancy as well as contentment, one in which families would thrive and in which there would be both room and resources enough for successive generations to share in that feeling of hominess toward the natural environment. Finally, while the effort to define an environmental sense of place was strongest in Vermont, other states expressed similar faith that they embodied certain moral virtues for which they credited the local geography. In particular, the White Mountains of New Hampshire—though isolated in one section of that state—held both a dominant physical and imaginative presence throughout the state. Like their Vermont neighbors, residents of New Hampshire believed that the mountains had instilled in them certain virtues—in particular, a collective love of liberty—and so they, too, offered positions on moral issues by invoking the natural landscape. This study of place focuses on Vermont but considers aspects of environmental identity that were strongly shared by the wider region of northern New England.