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One Saturday this October, a bald eagle flew low over the Whetstone Brook at Melrose Terrace in Brattleboro. Faces turned skyward; fingers pointed. The eagle’s arrival felt auspicious, especially because the people watching were already in the mood for metaphor. Little did the eagle know that it had flown right through a mindfulness workshop hosted by the Vermont River Conservancy and Peter Gould, an author, performing artist, and educator with a special place in his heart for natural floodplains.
This serene scene wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for a recent community-led floodplain restoration project. As Peter and other group members recalled, seven brick buildings – all part of Brattleboro’s first public housing complex – stood here in the floodplain of Whetstone Brook from 1966 to 2020, occupied by some of the town’s lowest-income elder residents. Catastrophic flooding of the homes during Tropical Storm Irene prompted evacuations and an undeniable realization: especially as flooding in Vermont becomes more frequent and severe, floodplains are not safe places for homes.
Brattleboro constructed new, up-to-date housing nearby under the name of Red Clover Commons II – a safe and beautiful place for residents to relocate. But that was only half of the solution. Just like the people of Melrose Terrace, the river itself needed room to move. So the Town worked with ecologists and engineers to remove the old buildings and restore the natural floodplain through a combination of earthwork and plantings. Adding a large box culvert was the final step to give the Whetstone room to move during high-flow events.
As Peter looked around the newly restored floodplain, he shared his memories of the flooding that changed the story of Melrose Terrace forever. Peter lives along the Whetstone Brook, too – he’s been watching this river for decades. When Melrose Terrace flooded in 2011, Peter saw that 250 Birge Street – a large, open area that was owned at that time by a lumber company – didn’t. Why? Artificial changes to the land had raised the surface of the floodplain so high that the Whetstone Brook was trapped in its deep, narrow channel, forcing it to rush faster and harder during floods instead of spreading and slowing over its banks. The flood damage downstream of this site was extreme. Peter felt for the town, and he felt for the river – so he wrote an essay meditating on the Whetstone Brook and on how a person might restore his own metaphorical floodplain.
If my own stream of consciousness flows like a river, then I want there to be a floodplain for that flow. I want to know that it’s available. When pressure builds within my mind, or even just as a routine event, I want the river of my life and consciousness to be set free of its normal banks and the access offered to its flood plain.— Peter Gould
When we read Peter’s essay as a staff over the summer, we got goosebumps. It especially resonated with us as we were hard at work on a floodplain restoration project to transform and heal 250 Birge Street, the very site that the essay describes. Our Southern Vermont Conservation Manager, Hayley, who has been instrumental in increasing our reach in southern Vermont, wrote to Peter and relayed how inspired we all were by his ability to relate the important natural functions and processes of floodplains to meditation and self-care. An idea was born: Peter and Hayley would work together to bring Peter’s mindfulness practices and VRC’s river and floodplain experience to the community.
So, hours before celebrating the release of his recent book in audiobook format at the Brattleboro Literary Festival, Peter gathered a group of community members at Melrose Terrace to engage in mindfulness and meditation. The participants were people of many different professions: a school teacher who had just moved back to the rivers of home from Arizona, an NRCD soil scientist who connected the group’s reflections back to Vermont’s glacial history, a state representative who had spent the day touring flood resilience opportunities in the region, and John Ungerleider, a mediator and musician, who co-wrote with Peter the Inner Peace Outer Peace Reader, where the essay that started it all was published.
Facing the group on the restored floodplain, Peter read aloud, bringing to light the beauty, benefits, and processes that a floodplain provides. In the quiet that followed, the mindful souls meditated on the land around them and on their own metaphorical floodplains, some kneeling in place as the breeze played across their faces, some walking quietly along the river’s edge.Then, from this place of individual reflection, Peter invited the group members to take the metaphor in a different direction, imagining themselves as floodplains for their loved ones and communities. What does it look like, when you’re able, to help each other create space for life’s tumultuous waters to spread out, slow down, and go calm? The experience was collaborative and welcoming, with folks sharing their reflections and questions as the spirit moved them. In pairs and as a whole group, they connected around their desire to step up and act as floodplains for themselves and for the people and places they love.
Keeping with the theme of spontaneity, Peter and John closed the afternoon with an original song and invited everyone to sing along. From Peter’s words and group members’ reflections to the sights and sounds of the river and its floodplain, to the eagle’s visit and the closing song, the day sparked feelings of hope and connection – as people to people, and as people to an extraordinary place
This opportunity to build peace among members of the Brattleboro community was made possible by AARP Vermont, which supported a wonderful series of all-ages VRC field walks and talks in southern Vermont this summer and fall.