I come from a very green state. The green mountain state to be exact. I often walk through the farm fields behind my house and stand at the highest point where there’s a view of the mountains and hills to the north. I look out and see trees. Maybe there’s a field and a farmhouse, maybe a fire tower atop a mountain, but mostly I see a carpet painted with different shades of green, tawny and rich.
On my second day in Madagascar I woke up and decided to hike the mountain across the road from our hotel. Walking up, I passed through tilled farm fields, and occasionally I saw a farmer planting seeds or ploughing or just walking up the hill. I walked through trampled grass and under the shade of a few pine saplings. When I reached the top, I was struck by the vast view that stretched in all four directions. A shimmering lake spread out, nestled in the hills to the east, and to the north there was a hill of equal height. To the west there were two lakes, and the small mountain village of Ampefy where we were staying. To the south a larger, rounded mountain blocked most of the view and its summit was dotted with species of young saplings.
This spot reminded me of standing atop Mt Pemetic in Acadia National Park. In case you don’t know, Acadia is on Mt. Desert Island in Maine, and it is a geological anomaly: a series of bald-topped, rocky mountains cover the island. From the top of Mt. Pemetic especially, you have sweeping views of the surrounding hills and mountains. Because every mountain in Acadia has a bald top, you have beautiful views from almost any summit. The same can be said of the highlands of Madagascar. Each mountain I saw had a bare top. Some were rocky, but most were dominated by fields, cutting up the mountain sides into uneven geometric shapes.
It was incredible to see the domination of agriculture in this country, and to think of how much work it took to transform these landscapes. Once, maybe 500 years ago, this land was blanketed in dense jungles. The rivers flowed blue instead of brown and the mountain sides were most likely less steep. Without the clearing of trees exposing the soil and allowing for erosion, the mountains would retain their more rounded shape.
Standing there, a cool breeze in my face, a deep blue sky overhead, I was amazed at the ingenuity of humans, to take something so dense and seemingly impenetrable and erase it from existence. It reminds me of Vermont. During the “sheep craze” of the early 1800’s, the state was 80 percent open and 20 percent forested. Now, the opposite is true, allowing for such a thickly green view from my backyard.
Madagascar today is 96 percent open and 4 percent forested. Soon, maybe 100 years from now, forests will no longer exist on the island.
I walked down the hill, passing the same farmer again and exchanging hello’s. I met back up with the road and waved to the kids passing me on their way to school. Each person is so happy in this place, or so they seem from my brief interactions. They smile, they laugh, they play… They get by with what they have. They take the trees to make charcoal, to build houses, to stay warm, to stay alive. It is essential for humans to destroy, to take from the land, in order to make it to the next day. Maybe, I can imagine or hope that someday, I’ll come back with five thousand trees and plant them throughout the country. I will give to the land what the land deserves and give to the people what they deserve. Who knows what I’ll end up doing or where I’m going, but that view from the top of that mountain gave me this weird sense of the sheer power of mankind.