Monday, March 2, 2009

Champlain Valley, the Banana Belt

I spent the weekend in Vermont's "banana belt," although it felt more like the arctic as a cold winter wind blew down the ridge overlooking Lake Champlain. Much of the year the Champlain valley is warm and dry compared to other parts of the state, a good climate and even better soils for farming.

I was in Charlotte, Vermont visiting my sister's family for my niece's birthday party and celebrating the move into their new home. They built an energy efficient home with one-foot walls filled with cellulose, a tulikivi masonry stove for heat, solar tubes for hot water, photovoltaic panels to generate electricity, and more features.
Their home is in the Champlain Valley Cohousing community, which is set on 125 acres of field and woods. The planned 12 independent houses and 14 townhouses are clustered around a central green on 10 acres; the remainder of the land is conserved for farming, trails, and wildlife habitat. Building lots are still available so new families interested in this community can check out the website.

Charlotte overlooks Lake Champlain and is home to some of the best remaining examples of clayplain forest, the forest that once dominated the Champlain Valley. Two of the best remnants of this plant community are found along Thorpe Brook, which flows through the cohousing community. To the north lies the town-owned Burns Woods at the headwaters of Thorpe Brook. To the south is Williams Woods, a natural area owned by The Nature Conservancy.

The cohousing is set on reverting farmland, but several large bur oaks, one of the tree species associated with clayplain forests, were left by previous owners and are prominant woodland features. The mother oak and the hollow tree are regularly visited by the families of this community. Eastern red cedar, gray birch, quaking aspen, oaks, white pine, and unfortunately buckthorn and other invasives have established themselves on the abandoned farmland. Some fields are kept open by grazing sheep, for the community farm and other gardening, and for Dawn the milk cow and Sawyer the alpaca.

Mt. Philo, Vermont's oldest state park, rises to nearly 1,000 feet a few miles to the southeast of the cohousing community. Blueberry, strawberry, and raspberry picking are within walking or biking distance.

At the Champlain Valley Cohousing kids laugh and play on the green or walk to each other's homes on the gravel walking paths that ring the green and homes. They skate on the pond and walk to the big oak trees or to the neighhboring berry farm. A nice place for kids and a chance for families to live in a community sharing common open spaces for growing food, protecting special areas such as Thorpe Brook, and generally getting outside to enjoy the woods and the views.

Back in coastal New Hampshire, far from any banana belt, we just cleared a foot of fresh snow from the driveway and pathways.

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