10 in Their 20s – New Jersey honesty

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(Host) Over the last few weeks, VPR has been featuring a series of commentaries from “10 in Their 20s”, in which members of Vermont’s 20-something generation share their perspectives on issues that matter the most to them – from the local to the global. This week the series concludes with Helen Labun and her perspective on environmental honesty.

(Labun) This January, I returned home to Vermont after six years away, intent on saving the world from environmental ruin. That’s not much of a revelation. A lot of 24 year old environmentalists come to Vermont to save the world. Here’s another confession. I am a liberal environmentalist, an outdoors-loving, car-shunning vegetarian, born and raised five miles south of the Kingdom… and I like New Jersey. In particular, I like northern New Jersey.

In New Jersey there is a highway intersection marked clearly with Hope to the left, the Land of Make Believe Amusement Park to the right, and Buttzville straight ahead. Presented with these options, most people in New Jersey go to Buttzville, because on the way is Hot Dog Johnny’s, serving wieners and frosted mugs of birch beer. New Jersey will take hot dogs over Make Believe; it is honest in ways that prettier states often are not.

Stroll along the most popular stretches of the Jersey shore. Miniature roller coasters, fried dough stands, flashing lights and such arcade favorites as “Shoot the Geek” line a boulevard raised above imported sand. No one is pretending it’s real. You can see the boats harvesting new batches of sand just beyond the jetty that is failing to keep the old batch in place.

Every movement has its white lies. Working in the environmental movement the temptation is always to deny the zeitgeist of the children of the eighties and claim allegiance to an earlier time that never existed for my generation. Those of us who grew up when human activity had touched every corner of the world like to pretend that we can find pristine places. We are especially fond of playing this game in rural Vermont, taking every human alteration of the landscape as a new affront to wilderness.

I don’t like these changes either and it’s easy for me to pretend to remember a greener time when Chittenden County was mostly farmlands, when we only sugared with tin pails, and never saw a
clear-cut in the North Forest. But then what is my experience worth?

Yes, I am a native Vermonter, but the only true distinction I have is that I remember how I loved my state before an environmental philosophy cast it in shadows of right and wrong, natural and not. Remembering this past guards against ignoring the reality of a state defined as much by man’s construction as nature’s evolution.

New Jersey has its own natural places. These don’t interest me. What interests me is that the birch beer drinkers in Buttzville know a place without judging it. What interests me is that no one pretends they don’t, on occasion, crave fried dough from the boardwalk. These things are why I like New Jersey, because there is an honesty there that I wish
we all could have.

Helen Labun is a graduate student at UVM with an interest in local agriculture and the environment.

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