This blog is the first in a series of profiles written by 350VT intern Julie Elfin. Julie got the chance to speak with Mary Martin of Cornwall, who’s been involved with fighting the VGS pipeline since 2013. This is Mary’s story.
In the beginning, I was angry. I wasn’t afraid. There’s no fear with anger. I just knew I had to do something.
I wasn’t an activist or an environmentalist. I wasn’t looking for a cause. Vermont Gas came knocking on our door, my family’s home. They just took the wrong approach with me. They threatened to seize our land right off the bat. What they were trying to do, using eminent domain for a private company, was just so wrong.
At the time, it was just about our land, and I didn’t care about the world. I was like a mother bear protecting her cubs. It was personal: my land, my town, my territory. I was still blissfully ignorant about the harms of natural gas and climate change. I didn’t know about the tar sands, where the gas was coming from. Once you are informed, though, you have to do something about it.
Cornwall, my town, was a different duck. I think it was different than some of the other towns on the pipeline route. Cornwall, in general, did not want outsiders, Vermont Gas or activist groups, coming in and telling us what we should do. So we Cornwallians organized our community. I gathered a group of my neighbors at my house. We called ourselves Keep Cornwall Safe. We canvassed our neighborhoods. That worked a lot better than some bigger outside group would have, I think. People want to hear from their neighbors about how projects like the pipeline affect them personally.
I had never done anything openly political before, but suddenly I was in the middle of this big public debate. The insurance agency I run out of my home lost quite a few clients because of that, but there are more important things in this world.
Our campaign had good timing. We were luckily in the throes of rewriting our town plan when the pipeline was proposed. We petitioned the selectboard and got the new plan to include language that prevented the pipeline from being built in Cornwall. We shared this technique with other towns like Leicester and Shoreham.
The turning point for me was when they canceled Phase II, the section of the pipeline that had threatened Cornwall. I’d like to say it was because of our activism, but really, it was financial. At that point, when it’s no longer your town, do you just go home? Do you walk away after that and say “job done”? But it wasn’t, so I couldn’t.
It’s not just Cornwall. It’s not just the Vermont Gas pipeline. It’s the whole damn world. What happens at Standing Rock, for instance, affects all of us. Every day I tell myself, “You can’t go to Standing Rock. You’ve got things to do.” So I do what I can where I am. It’s the same fight everywhere.
The mass action at Geprags Park in October was the first time I was willing to be arrested. I stepped up to be arrested because so many of the same people have done it again and again. I needed to put my money where my mouth was and put my body on the line. I talked to my kids, and they said, “we couldn’t believe you haven’t been arrested before! Go ahead!”
My family is the most important thing to me. My world’s core is my family. I have five kids, and three of them still live in Vermont. I don’t ask their permission, but I let them know what I’m doing, and it’s great when they support me.
My children are shocked by me. This is not what I was like when they were growing up. I was a stay-at-home mom for them. I think it was an ideal family situation. I was always available for them. My kids perceived me as a mother who kept the house clean, put meals on the table, and that kind of thing–certainly not a protester. They’ve come around, though. My grandchildren send me cards that say “Go get the pipeline, Grandma!” They’re very proud of me, and they inspire me as well.
As for the future, I just keep hoping, hoping, hoping that we can make a difference. I still haven’t given up hope. We’re not done. And if there ever is a Phase III, people will be so far ahead of the game.
Julie Elfin is a senior at the University of Vermont studying the environment and communications. This profile series is her culminating project for her Online Organizing internship with 350VT.