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Eco Trip

Don Mitchell takes a novel approach to environmental terrorism


Published March 24, 2004 at 5:38 p.m.

Anti-immigration factions are hijacking the Sierra Club. An eco-activist is arrested for torching SUVs in California. Vermont environmentalists are battling it out over the pros and cons of wind power.

These days, it's not much of a stretch to imagine some eco-terrorist transplant hatching a plot to take out the transmission towers on Mount Mansfield. Vermont Public Radio's worst nightmare comes true in Don Mitchell's timely new novel, The Nature Notebooks, when a smooth-talking conservationist enlists three female nature writers to take back the Nose.

"Part of writing a novel is playing, ‘What if?'" says Mitchell. Could such a plot succeed? "I guess the book's answer is ‘yes.'"

The Middlebury College professor and sheep farmer has imagined a scenario that might not have been conceivable before 9/11, although some old-timers may remember the Earth First activist who camped out on top of a crane to protest the Winooski Hydro Project in 1992. "Eco-terrorism is not going to go away, and our fascination with the culture of terrorism isn't, either," Mitchell suggests. "The way we use the landscape is very much on people's minds."

Ironically, the World Trade Center attacks delayed publication of The Nature Notebooks by more than a year, according to Mitchell, who has not had a successful novel since he was 23, roughly 33 years ago. That book, Thumb Tripping, also struck a cultural nerve. "It was, in every way, a young man's novel," Mitchell says of the collection of tales about his experiences hitchhiking with his girlfriend Cheryl --now his wife --in 1967. He wrote the book while he was still a student at Swarthmore College, then sold the film rights and wrote the screenplay, which was made into a movie starring Bruce Dern and Meg Foster.

Although he felt compromised by the movie-adaptation process, Mitchell saw it through -- an experience that qualified him to teach screenwriting years later at Middlebury College. The greater motivation, though, was monetary. Holed up in a lavish condo and collecting paychecks from MGM, "I recognized that I was being paid an insane amount of money and if I hung onto it I could do something like buy a farm in Vermont."


Today Don and Cheryl Mitchell graze over 100 sheep on 150 acres in New Haven with a clear view of Snake Mountain. Their long dirt driveway winds by snowy pastures and a series of funky structures before arriving at a south-facing passive-solar residence. Mitchell built everything on the farm himself, including the house. Cheryl's father lives on the property. So do Mitchell's two adult children.

The spread has got "back-to-the-land" written all over it, and in fact, the Mitchells moved north in the early '70s to be closer to nature a la Scott and Helen Nearing. Mitchell's big, square glasses appear to be from that same period, too, and lend him a rather geeky look. But a 25-year-old black-and-white portrait of him that hangs in the kitchen shows a handsome, rugged farmer holding a lamb to his chest.

Mitchell is a rebel by nature --but more along the lines of Henry David Thoreau than of the scheming ecoterrorist in his new book. Mitchell modeled Kyle Hess at least in part on Edward Abbey, who, in addition to being an early environmental activist, may well have been involved in some "monkey-wrenching type activities." According to Mitchell, "He was also notoriously promiscuous."

His short-lived group-marriage experience notwithstanding, Mitchell appears to be closer in spirit to the thrifty Transcendentalist who lived on Walden Pond. When he was a junior in college, he built an underground shelter in the woods that was designed with the 19th-century writer in mind, spending about three dollars more than Thoreau did to build his shack at Walden Pond. He and Cheryl lived there for a semester until local kids discovered the trap door over the Christmas holiday.

The father of civil disobedience also shaped Mitchell's political views. He recalls, "For any young man who came of age in the late '60s, and opposed the war in Vietnam, finding Thoreau was like saying, ‘My God, here's this cultural figure from a literary heritage who is urging me to do what my conscience says.'"

Mitchell's conscience told him to major in philosophy "primarily to piss off my parents, because it had no possible career path attached to it." It told him to become a "conscientious objector" during the Vietnam War. It inspired him to write books that publishers turned down, and to refuse to promote others after they were published.

Non-conformity is a theme in all of Mitchell's writings, from the semi-autobiographical novel about alternative marriage to the three collections of rural-living essays selected from columns he wrote for Boston magazine. "I suppose that streak runs pretty deep in me," he acknowledges. "But at 56 years old," he queries, "How rebellious can you be?"

Well, you could land a teaching job at Middlebury College without having spent a day in grad school and get your students to help with spring lambing as part of their studies.

And in your spare time, you could write what Mitchell believes is the first-ever novel constructed of nature-observation journals. Mitchell uses three accounts of the same basic events to develop a plot that emerges with each subsequent retelling. It's a unique narrative device that's meant to make the book feel like a "found object, or three found objects," he says. "I smile when I think of that."

His long-time friend and colleague John Elder notes Mitchell's "irreverent side. He's not a true believer, you know, and so that's why I think he had fun playing around with this story. In some ways it sends up the environmental pieties of the day, and that seems very characteristic of Don. He's a really thoughtful guy who's also got sort of Puckish resistance to conformity to people's expectations."


Mitchell's got to be pleased that after being shot down by agents and editors for "appropriating the female experience" in earlier works, in this book he writes from the perspective of not one, but three women. (His daughter, now a senior at Middlebury College, urged him to sex it up.) He likes the idea of constructing a novel in which no character "could point the finger -- even metaphorically -- back to me."

But at the same time Mitchell readily admits that his own ever-evolving relationship with nature is reflected in the views expressed by all three women. He identifies most with Lauren, a farmer who tries to reconcile the day-to-day difficulties of agriculture with a more romantic view of the natural world. He uses his character to protect himself, not unlike Kyle, "who recognizes these middle-aged women nature writers can operate on the mountain with impunity, because no one is going to suspect them as long as they have a pencil and notebook in their pocket."

Despite the detailed list of how-to sabotage techniques he provides in The Nature Notebooks, Mitchell says he's not harboring any eco-terrorist fantasies. He wrote the book to "express a wariness about ideologues who are so sure of the rightness and justice of their cause that they are prepared to disrespect the ordinary protocols of human behavior -- to cheat, lie, steal to accomplish their end," Mitchell explains. "They feel that they are justified in doing so because the end is so important.

"I don't think that any thoughtful reader of the novel could come away with the impression that it was exalting or condoning eco-terrorist activity," Mitchell says, add-ing he thinks such a thing is less likely here than in California, because there is a broad consensus among Vermonters about how the landscape should look. And there are numerous protections --both public and private --to keep it that way.

There's at least one anti-VELCO sign on the road back to Vergennes. Mitchell is well aware of the controversy, but the proposed power line "is on the other side of Buck Mountain," which lies to the east of his place. "If it were going down our street, we'd be taking a more active position," he says, somewhat apologetically. That's a long way from joining the SUV-burning fray.