Christopher Ketcham has written for Harper’s, Vanity Fair, GQ, and many other magazines. He is currently working on a book about a secessionist movement in Vermont. More of his work is available at ChristopherKetcham.com
Last September, about 60 Vermonters met in the chambers of the house of representatives in Montpelier to celebrate the state’s “independence spirit” and to discuss the goals of “environmental sustainability, economic justice, and Vermont self--determination.” The speaker of the house had given up the space free of charge for the one-day conference. First at the podium was a Princeton-educated yak farmer and professor of journalism named Rob Williams, one of the organizers of the event, who at 9 A.M. opened the proceedings by acknowledging what he called “some unpleasant and hard truths.” Amid the twin global crises of peak oil and climate change, the United States was “an out-of-control empire.” It was “unresponsive to the needs, concerns, and desires of ordinary citizens.”
The high tide at 8:53 p.m. on Monday night, made higher by the full moon, sends the bay 13 feet over the Battery in Lower Manhattan. The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is flooding; so are the subways tubes that cross the East River. At least 250,000 people are already without power in Manhattan. In the south, distant flashes of light look like explosions, diffused in the howling sky. From my rooftop in Brooklyn, the explosions burn for a long moment, then are gone. A half hour later, the sirens call out, the firetrucks and ambulances race, and I wonder what has happened. Nothing to do but head out into the wind on the bicycle—the ultimate hurricane-adaptive transport to move fast in a city where all public transit is shut—and take stock of the moment, for it is historic: This is the first major hurricane in the age of climate change to strike New York City nearly directly, drive the ocean across the land, and put the city in its place—low-lying, seagirt, exposed.
In April 2001, a U.S. government wildlife trapper named Carter Niemeyer choppered into the mountains of central Idaho to slaughter a pack of wolves whose alpha female was famed for her whiteness. He hung from the open door of the craft with a semiautomatic shotgun, the helicopter racing over the treetops. Then, in a clearing, Niemeyer caught a glimpse of her platinum fur. Among wolf lovers in Idaho, she was called Alabaster, and she was considered a marvel—most wolves are brown or black or gray. People all over the world had praised Alabaster, had written about her, had longed to see her in the flesh. Livestock ranchers in central Idaho, whose sheep and cows graze in wolf country, felt otherwise.
In the month before the destruction of the encampment in Zuccotti Park, I got in the habit of biking across the Brooklyn Bridge each night to talk with the Wall Street Occupiers and wander among the tents. There was always work to behold—bigger tents going up, new volunteers welcomed, the kitchen doling out free food, the media groups live-streaming, dishes being done, cops being teased—and always conversation to be had and heard.