Great thoughts: Deane Davis’s ‘Green Up’ day

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(Host) Great thoughts and philosophies from Vermonters have shaped our state and sometimes influenced the nation. Commentator Philip Baruth says conservative governor Deane Davis left a legacy of environmental protection.

(Baruth) In 1969, the governor of Vermont was a Republican named Deane C. Davis. Davis had the military crew cut and the thick-framed glasses that I associate with late-1960s conservatives. I know this because his autobiography has lots of black-and-white photographs, shots of Davis campaigning on his own Morgan horse with a group of six other Morgan riders called the Davis Morgan Posse. Shots of Davis and his wife wrapped in furs, driving a horse-drawn sleigh. Their kids on ponies. Davis and Ronald Reagan, on horseback, out in California. Lots of horse photos in the book – nine of them if you want an exact number. Davis, like Reagan, clearly cultivated the cowboy image, and took a similarly hard line in the late ’60s with what he called “hippies” and “welfare cheats.”

To all outward appearances, Deane Davis is exactly the kind of figure from the past I’d normally give a wide berth. In his photos, he looks like the kind of guy who would have told Joanie Mitchell to get a job. So why did I read his 338-page autobiography cover to cover? Because this man was the driving force behind Act 250, Vermont’s groundbreaking development-oversight legislation. This man passed the bottle bill, inaugurating the era of recycling in Vermont. And this guy, maybe most incongruously of all, developed and instituted Green-Up Day in the state.

Working with a reporter from the Burlington Free Press named Bob Babcock, Davis spent a year putting together an environmental event with the unstoppable force of a military campaign. On the first Green Up Day, 70,000 Vermonters took part, and they removed 8,000 truckloads of trash from the state’s roads and highways. Those trucks held some 40,000 cubic yards of garbage. It was a stunning success by any measure.

But the massive size of the clean-up isn’t my favorite part of the story. What I love is that Davis ordered the interstate closed for three hours that day in April 1970. The interstate. He closed it. Nothing could have said more clearly that the environmental health of the state must, in certain times and places, take precedence over the growth of the state’s economy.

It was a strange statement for an anti-tax Republican to make, but Davis made it with real panache. “At first some of the travelers were angry or annoyed,” he remarks casually in the book, “but they became immediately cooperative when the project was explained to them. A Green Up litterbag and a bit of literature was given to each traveler.” That kills me. Not only did he close the interstate, not only did he make no apologies for it, but he made every single disgruntled traveler take away a Green Up litterbag for their car.

Davis spent that first Green Up Day hovering over the interstate in a helicopter, touching down wherever he and his pilot spotted a large gathering of volunteers. I like that image, this kid from Barre who grew up to be governor, hanging suspended in the air over the interstate as thousands and thousands of Vermonters enacted his vision of radically direct environmental action. Hanging there in that chopper like a Greek God, like Zeus, looking down on litter and unreturnable bottles with a great and powerful anger.

Philip Baruth is a Burlington novelist who teaches at the University of Vermont. VPR’s commentary series, “Great Thoughts of Vermont,” examines the big ideas that came out of a small state. Learn more about the Great Thoughts in this series.

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