The notion of obsessing over, or even worshipping, an object, is often thought of as a sign of primitiveness. Here in the modern West, we know better than to believe a mere object can be imbued with magical powers or even divinity.
Funny thing is, we don’t act that way.
This is true wherever you look. Donald Trump’s wall is a fetish for him and his supporters: If we build it, we will be protected from malign influences. The American flag is a fetish; many value its security above the Constitutional rights it is supposed to represent. Heck, the Constitution itself is a fetish for those who carry it in their pockets but, when they open their mouths, reveal a lack of familiarity with its purpose. As is the Bible.
But here in Vermont, hoo boy, we’ve got ’em in spades. And far too often, our fetish fetish* sucks time and energy away from actually, you know, tackling the real problems we face.
*See what I did there?
Our latest inanimate fixation is a dying maple tree (link to article behind the Valley News‘ paywall), the last vestige of the Ascutney farm owned by Romaine Tenney. When the interstate freeways were being built, his land was in the path of I-91. Tenney repeatedly refused to sell out. When the farm was seized via eminent domain in 1964, he burned down the farmhouse, killing himself, rather than move away.
Only the maple remains. A state-contracted arborist recently concluded that the tree is beyond saving. Due to a local outcry, the state has postponed plans to cut it down and is consulting a second arborist. This isn’t the tree’s first health crisis; as the Valley News reports, “About 10 years ago, cables were installed to stabilize the tree.” Which is a lot of time and expense devoted to an organism with a lifespan that will inevitably end in death.
You know where I’m going with this.
C’mon, folks. It’s just a fuckin’ tree. Let it go. Death with dignity.
For some, the tree is obviously much more than a tree — it’s “the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit,” the manifestation of a concept or an idea.
The idea being, I guess, that we value our history and heritage, and we’re ambivalent about our place in the modern world. After all, if they hadn’t built the interstates, Vermont would still be a backwater. If you think our economy is stagnant now, just imagine how things would be if the only road access was by way of two-lane roads.
But if you want to honor Tenney’s memory, put up a plaque. (Or if you really want to honor his memory, stop using freeways. No? Okay, then.) Don’t push a tree beyond its lifespan because you’ve come to fetishize it. Instead, examine the values you have assigned to this poor tree and focus your work on promulgating those values, not on protecting an object.
Enough on the tree. There are fetishes everywhere in Vermont. In Montpelier, take the Taylor Street bridge. (Henny: “Please, take it!”) In the late 2000s, the bridge had become severely dilapidated. It needed extensive repair or replacement. After an outcry of local fetishists, the city decided to rebuild it exactly as it was.
Here’s the problem. The bridge was, and is, extremely narrow by modern standards — too narrow for comfortable passage by large buses and trucks. And at the time, Montpelier planned to build a transit center just off the bridge’s northern end. (The center was a long time coming, and finally opened this fall.) The bridge was, and is, too narrow for comfortable passage by full-sized buses! It’s as if we deliberately created a Smuggler’s Notch along a truck route.
And honestly, although the bridge has some historic significance, it’s far from unique. And it’s ugly. The cityscape would be better off with a new design. Bus drivers would be far better off with a new design.
Rampant fetishism has been a real roadblock in the buildout of renewable energy. Every mountaintop or ridgeline, every person’s viewscape, must be preserved as it is — even as the entire planet is roasting.
Some would argue that Vermont can’t make a measurable difference in a global crisis. Which is true, but it doesn’t excuse us from doing our part. I find it ethically questionable to exempt Vermont wholesale from helping to solve the problem, to treat Vermont like a national park.
Or a fetish.
Let’s take the ongoing brouhaha over plans to develop some kind of tourist amenity at I-89’s Exit 4, on the outskirts of Randolph. There are those who would preserve the land as it is. I would say, Vermont has plenty of land that’s not up for development. We have loads of farmland that’s lying fallow. This particular location would be an encouragement to tourism, one of our economic lifebloods. Many of our freeway exits are undeveloped. Tourists can travel long distances without seeing obvious places to stop. Exit 4 is in the middle of one such uninviting stretch. Is the land around the exit really so unique that we can’t afford to sacrifice part of it? Honestly, I don’t think so.
I could go on, but I’ll conclude with a stop in Burlington, the epicenter of whatever economic growth we have — and of Vermont fetishism. City Hall Park. Memorial Auditorium. The Moran Plant. The infamous MURAL. Hell, if they ever get around to redeveloping the site of the long-shuttered, dilapidated Midtown Motel, I’ll bet there will be a movement to save the structure. Just as there is opposition to the Champlain Parkway and to the Burlington CityPlace project, which is meant to inject new life into a DEAD SHOPPING MALL.
Here’s the thing. We like to seize upon familiar objects as somehow manifesting the true character of a place. And when we do, we equate the loss of that object, no matter how worn-down or outdated or in the way, with the loss of the ineffable essence of the place.
Which is nonsense. A community of human beings, whether it be a large city or a scattering of people in the back woods, is not a static thing. It is constantly changing. You can try to guide its evolution, but you can’t stop it. And no single object defines a community. The loss of a single object doesn’t mean the community is going to lose its uniquely precious essence. The people of that community have the power to guide its evolutionary path. But they would be well advised to stop obsessing over fetishes and spend their energy channeling the evolution of their community in a desirable direction.
When Bernie Sanders was mayor of Burlington, he didn’t try to maintain particular objects or landmarks. He aimed to make the city achieve more of its potential, often by way of major development projeccts. He even worked with — gasp — developers, including the late Tony Pomerleau. Bernie made deals that worked for all parties, and guided the city’s evolution in a positive direction. That’s what made him a great mayor.
Sometimes, a particular object is worthy of preservation, fetish or no. But you have to be selective. You have to balance the desire to preserve a place’s uniqueness with Bob Dylan’s reminder: “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.” If an object or a given location is undergoing — or might undergo — significant change, ask yourself: Is the thing, as it is, really worthy of preserving? Could the change actually improve the community, and its prospects for continued existence?
I’m not saying we should never fight to preserve an object or a location. I’m saying we need to exercise judgment. We can preserve Vermont’s essence without encasing the entire state in amber. And we need to stop fetishizing every dying tree, every run-down building, every outdated bridge and every single piece of land.