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After the Flood
Finding hope for a battered city among its books and butterflies
IN THE DAYS before the terrible flood ruined Montpelier, before it devastated our downtown businesses and neighborhoods, I had been visiting now and then with caterpillars living beside the river below my home in the city.
Orange and black and named Baltimore Checkerspots, the spiky larvae had been eating and growing on the leaves of turtlehead, ash, and honeysuckle. Soon enough, I had hoped, each caterpillar would stop feeding, become a chrysalis, and undergo one of nature’s great makeovers to emerge as a butterfly flashing its colors on gossamer wings.
But on July 10 and 11 the rains came to Vermont, and the rivers rose to flood the caterpillars’ leafy plant community — my downtown community as well. Little was spared. The waters came for cafes and bars, banks and shops, city hall and the fire station, our two movie theaters and two drug stores, our hardware store and post office, and too many homes and apartments.
The flood also came for our literature. Montpelier’s public library and two bookshops were devastated. At a time when independent booksellers can be, like wildlife and wild places, threatened or endangered, piles of soggy books were, apart from the human suffering, among the more poignant casualties of this disaster.
As soon as the waters withdrew, however, we Vermonters went to work. We mucked out mud from basements of shops and from the homes of families we’d never met. We hauled to the curb soggy belongings and lifetimes of memories. We donated cash from our savings so that businesses and families might recover and rebuild. In community meetings we spoke of resilience and preparations for the next flood, which will surely come for more of us on this warming planet.
And yet nearly three months after the storm, parts of Montpelier remain construction zones. Walking past gutted storefronts on State and Main streets and crippled office buildings in the capital district, I fear for the future of my city, even as I recognize that despite our caution or intellect or brute force, despite our best-laid plans, none of us can wholly protect what we love and what is vulnerable. No one knows that better than a parent.
As a conservationist, I now know that a city can be vulnerable like a flower or a songbird. Despite my life’s work, I can never completely safeguard the most precious things in nature. Bulldozers will come for the forests. Floating bits of plastic will come for the whales. Fires and floods will come for the butterflies. And for us.
We move onward nonetheless. Although some of Montpelier’s businesses are gone for good and others are weeks or months away from returning, my battered city is at long last showing signs of resurrection. Displaced merchants have been selling goods online and at our Saturday farmers market (temporarily relocated to higher ground). Shops and eateries are gradually reopening.
But nothing has been more hopeful and affirming than the return of our independent bookstore, Bear Pond Books. Its reopening was more than a triumph over the brown water and mud and despair, more than a testament to the volunteers and donors who helped Bear Pond’s owners recover. It was a celebration of community, intelligence, and ideas expressed in the force of the written word.
I rode my bicycle to the reopening, where I met up with friends and colleagues. There among aisles of books, we talked of art and literature, the rare birds we saw this summer, and what we’d heard about the fate of other downtown businesses. It did not matter that Bear Pond’s venerable creaky wooden floor was a casualty of the flood. Our bookstore was back. I bought two books (including a hardcover copy of Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead) and then pedaled toward home.
Along the way, I passed Kellogg-Hubbard Library, which has been heroically providing outdoor computer services and taking book reservations online or by telephone for curbside pickup beneath a big white tent. With the library planning to reopen with a party on Oct. 7, and another book and board-game shop, The Book Garden, on its way back, I pedaled onward with even more optimism for our capital city and for other flooded communities across Vermont.
I am by my nature somewhat cautious about hope. I like to think that I’m neither naive nor defeatist about the human capacity to do better in the world: to be kinder to one another, to end wars and suffering, to avert nuclear annihilation or a more deadly pandemic or the worst of the climate crisis, and to better know and respect the natural world. When I tend to lose faith in humanity, when I become despondent about the world, I often find refuge in little things and prosaic moments in nature.
Especially among butterflies.
A few days after the floodwaters had receded from Montpelier, I wandered down to the river to check on the caterpillars. As I had feared, I found none remaining in the muddy vegetation. But as I turned for home, I noticed a splash of orange on the underside of a fern frond. These were not caterpillars, however — not anymore. At least two of the larvae had cheated death and accomplished their metamorphosis to become Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies going about their business above my city’s new high water mark.
Hope is no mere aspiration that things will turn out well. Hope instead takes our hand, shines a light ahead, and pushes us onward into the messiness and uncertainties of life. The checkerspots were doing just that. Like the return of our bookstore, these two butterflies were performing a gesture of hope for life persisting beside the river and in my city’s downtown.
They were mating.
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A version of this essay appeared in print on Sunday, Oct. 1, in the Ideas section of The Boston Globe (and a bit earlier there online).