Sunday Rutland Herald/Times Argus
A natural warrior
June 24, 2001
Pipeline and OMYA foe Annette Smith gets inspiration from the land
By PETER CRABTREE Staff Writer
DANBY Annette Smith once played the violin, but it doesn’t sound as if it came easily. It wasn’t a question of talent. Smith seems to have had more than enough. Yet when asked to perform in public, her bow arm would shake uncontrollably.
There was another problem, if you want to call it that. Despite her stage fright, Smith’s skills propelled her into the first section of the orchestra, where the violinists are often required to hit the high notes on the E string.
“I like playing second fiddle,” Smith, the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said recently. “I like the lower, mellow tones.”
That might come as a revelation to those who know Smith only as a citizen activist. For the past two years she has been out in front of an aggressive some would say shrill campaign to defeat two big projects: the first, a natural gas pipeline and associated power plants; the second, OMYA’s proposed calcium carbonate mine.
“This isn’t a cross I gladly choose to bear,” Smith said of her leadership role. “I’m doing it so all my neighbors can go along with their lives.”
To hear her tell it, Smith’s life has been transformed since she stepped off her subsistence farm on Baker Brook Road and began making the rounds of select boards and planning commissions to present the VCE’s case.
And while she has assumed a very public role, Smith is wary of revealing much about her private life. In two lengthy interviews spaced more than a year apart, Smith was alternately open and guarded, trusting and suspicious.
Given the nature of her opponents large natural gas companies and a multinational corporation Smith said she had no choice but to turn aside some questions about who she is and how she came to be that way.
“We’re still in a war zone,” Smith said. “I have to assume OMYA has hired private investigators, that they have a complete dossier on me and will tap my phone.”
Smith, 44, lives on a stony piece of land that could be named Cold Comfort Farm, a harsh and lovely place where garlic grows among the cabbages and the roosters appear to roam at will. Other inhabitants include an ornery mule and a dog who answers to Wesson, as in Smith & Wesson, the gun maker. The dog has bitten, among others, a minister’s wife. The sign posted beside the driveway says simply: Visitors By Appointment Only Smith.
That may be off-putting, but Smith also has a softer, more welcoming side. One day she’s wearing a pair of overalls bearing a childish applique of Winnie the Pooh, complete with honey pot.
On another she’s eager to show off a day-old Jersey calf that is all legs. As she leads the way to the barn, Smith tucks her shoulder-length brown hair beneath a green print cap decorated with tiny red lady bugs.
It was a circuitous route that brought Smith to Danby in 1987. Born in Pennsylvania to a mathematician father and a mother who was a musical prodigy, Smith and her family moved to Florida when she was 7. According to Smith, she never graduated from high school but attended two colleges, earning a bachelor’s degree in contemporary European history.
“I went through four years of college without saying a word,” Smith said.
To earn a living she apprenticed to an instrument maker and worked as a seamstress. Later she started a crafts business, making metal furniture and wooden boxes. At one point she moved six times in the space of two years.
“I was a servant for rich people cleaning toilets. ... I think the term is caretaker,” Smith said.
That experience, plus “a very difficult period” in which someone close to her was ill, helped clarify her priorities. Smith said she came to realize that she was interested in where her food came from. As a result, she decided to grow her own. But like the violin, that hasn’t been entirely easy.
“Over the last 20 years I’ve been at that place where it can’t get any worse and it does,” Smith said, adding that she has spent most of her adult life “with practically no money, living very much on the edge.”
Yet Smith said the satisfaction of living a “low-impact” life her home is off the electric grid had compensated for any deprivations. The same holds true for her decision to neither marry nor have children.
“I don’t look at it as making sacrifices. ... Overpopulation is more of a concern to me than breeding,” she said.
Smith said the farm had provided her with roots. At the same time, the daily chores have forced her to miss her sister’s wedding, her parents’ 50th anniversary, and more than a dozen Christmas celebrations with family.
“My greatest success in life has been my farming,” Smith said. “My point in this whole thing is, I’m happy.”
In May of 1999 Smith mounted a soapbox at the base of a war memorial on the Manchester village green and announced the creation of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
“We are not opposed to natural gas,” Smith said to a small crowd of reporters and private citizens gathered around her. “But this billion dollar project will cause enormous damage and it is wrong.”
The project in question called for a 63-mile underground pipeline between Bennington and Rutland that was to be anchored by gas-fired power plants at either end. The project’s backers have not come up with financing, nor applied for the necessary state permits.
But meanwhile, thanks in large part to Smith’s organizational skills, several towns along the pipeline route voted to oppose the project, leading early booster Gov. Howard B. Dean to withdraw his political support.
“The pipeline is dead, I give up,” the governor told Arlington voters at the March 2000 town meeting.
When asked about her leadership role in the gas fight, Smith said it had been thrust upon her by other project opponents. It was not something that she had sought.
“I’ve tried any number of times to get out of the public role, but the finger always gets pointed back at me. I appear to be good at it,” Smith said. “It does not involve what I’d call ambition. It’s the antithesis of ambition: Make it stop!”
Smith said no one was more surprised by her emergence as a public figure than she. Smith, who thinks of herself first and foremost as a “practical person,” said she discovered that she had a talent not only for public speaking, but research and governmental policy. People began praising her for her intelligence, she said, sounding surprised.
“I’m sort of detective minded ... and I’m interested in energy issues. I seem to have a large capacity, compared to other people,” she said. “And I work really, really hard.”
Much of Smith’s work as the VCE’s executive director is done at the computer. A former professional typist her first job came at the age of 14 when her father paid her to put a manuscript in shape Smith said she has sent out as many as 1,000 e-mails per month. When things are heating up, “my response time can be instantaneous,” she said.
The debate over the gas pipeline and power plants had been cool for awhile when OMYA came forward with its proposal to use the Jobe Phillips Quarry in Danby, according to Smith.
“I was just getting my life back. Now this is my job for the foreseeable future,” she said.
OMYA hopes to truck material from the quarry to its operation in Florence, where the material would be ground into a calcium carbonate slurry to be sold to manufacturers. Smith contends the project will scar the scenic valley, disrupt water supplies and add dangerous traffic to local roads.
To make her point, Smith takes a visitor first to an overlook from which the Taconic Range and Green Mountains can be seen running north, a view that has appeared in National Geographic and tourism brochures. The next stop is a green and leafy place in Tinmouth where an underground spring bubbles to the surface. Such places are what the fight is all about, according to Smith.
“Those of us live here consider it the best kept secret in Vermont. ... But if we keep it quiet, we lose,” she said.
Despite making remarks that some state officials considered intemperate, Smith claims never to have felt the “real deep anger” that other opponents gave vent to during the fight against the gas project. “It was much more intellectual for me,” she said.
The proposed quarry is a different matter.
“This OMYA fight breaks my heart,” Smith said.
In addition to her VCE activities, Smith serves on the Regional Planning Commission and the state’s Committee to Ensure Clean Air. Given her appetite for policy issues and her proven ability to rally people to her cause, has she ever considered running for office?
“Politics is not what I do. Politicians go out and schmooze people. ... I think I’d be a lousy candidate,” Smith said. “In the political realm what’s required is playing games. I don’t do that. I’m not a game player. That’s not to say I won’t compromise. Frankly, I’m a warrior and that’s a different type than a politician.”
Warrior or not, Smith let down her guard for a moment and revealed that she refuses to fly, preferring instead to travel long distances by train. But she quickly had second thoughts about what she had done.
“I don’t think I should admit to fears,” Smith said.