Intervale Story Hour: Seth Gillim


For 30 years, the Intervale Center has been a place of stories - stories of the land, stories of farmers and gardeners, stories of renewal, and stories of hope. To celebrate our 30th anniversary, we invited the community to participate in an evening of funny, quirky, sad, and inspiring storytelling with an Intervale theme. Below is a transcription of Seth Gillim’s story, the final story of the evening.

“I recently turned 40. But I’m not the only one having a birthday milestone. This year marks the 30th anniversary since the Intervale Center’s founding. Now 30 can feel like a depressing milestone. The party’s over. It’s all downhill from here. But turning thirty also presents you with a unique opportunity. It’s really your last opportunity to take a good look in the mirror, take a deep breath, and do something phenomenally short-sighted and stupid.

So when I turned thirty, I decided that what I really wanted to do was become an actor. Never mind that I didn’t really have a plan for how this was going to happen, or that I lived in tiny Burlington, VT, or that I had quite a few friends who by that point in their lives had tried and given up on their dreams of the stage. I suppose that like the 80% of Americans who believe themselves to be ‘above average,’ I had fallen prey to the seductive notion that my life should somehow be unique . . . . distinguished. That happiness or joy, was somehow synonymous with exceptionalism.

So I enrolled at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater in Blue Lake, California.

What better way to be exceptional than by moving away from a community where I was known and, I like to think, respected, to the other side of the country to spend a year rolling around on the floor, studying clowning, and, as my classmate’s father put it, “paying good money learn how to stand on one leg?”

The unofficial motto of the school was ‘Effort. Risk. Momentum. Joy.’ And I went in, guns blazing, only to realize that I was pretty good at the effort, risk and momentum part. And I was really lousy at the Joy part. I just couldn’t fake it. No matter how much effort I exerted, how much I tried to muscle my way through the exercises, I couldn’t find any real happiness in acting. If an actor is a student of the emotions, I was an abject failure.

And so after a year, I decided to pack it in. And so now I was thirty-one, an MFA drop-out, with no job, no plan, no direction.

But I did have a few key things in my life. First I had my wife, who had followed me to California for a year of R&R after an exhausting stint in crisis counseling. We had about $800 between the two of us. And we had a crappy 1997 Saturn my parents had given us when we left Vermont.

So what do you do? You do what everyone else has ever done since the Europeans conquered the continent: you get in your vehicle and you strike out for the territories. You wander around and figure it out. And so we embarked on the grand, unplanned North American Road trip, figuring we’d just wander around until the money ran out and hoping that some sort of truth would reveal itself along the way.

We had been on the road for a couple of weeks when we found ourselves driving through central Oregon. I don’t know if you’ve ever been out that way, but they really, really love their chainsaws out there and there are these huge clear cuts that just go on for miles. Now I knew this practice existed, but after coming from Vermont where logging is as much an art as a science, and having spent a year in the Humboldt Redwoods where the trees are treated with almost sacred reverence, it really came as a shock. What once had been a vibrant, ancient forest was being cut down, turned into toilet paper and, what’s more, people actually seemed proud of it.

And so we’re driving along and I’m thinking all this and in a rare instance of self-awareness, I realized that I was having more of an emotional connection to that plundered landscape than I had in an entire year of actor training.

I turned to my wife and I said, “I don’t know what it means, but I want to do something to fix this.

And she said the most wonderful thing a partner can ever say, which is, “I support you in that.”

And so many twists and turns and about a year later, we found ourselves back in Vermont.

So now I’m 32, still mostly directionless, but I have this vision that motivates me and this vague notion that I want to do something to fix a fundamentally broken planet. And so I got a job in a deli. Because nothing gets you closer to your vision of healing and restoring the earth than making grilled Rubens, right? And don’t get me wrong, it was a fine job, I had a really nice boss and worked with some sweet kids, but it was a time in my life when I woke up every day with this terrible feeling of dread, like I was just completely lost, and the more lost I got, the more broken I felt. Every day I felt like I was drifting further and further away from a life of effort, risk, momentum and joy, and I would drive home every day in tears, thinking, what the fuck am I doing with my life?

And one day, I was on my way home when I made an unplanned stop at the Intervale. It was one of those places that I knew about, I’d even visited it a couple of time, but I hadn’t really experienced the Intervale: it was at the periphery of my personal geography of place. But in on that particular day, something compelling drew me to it.

And it was one of those early summer days when Burlington is at its most seductive: the trees had this gorgeous emerald green flush of growth, the birds were singing, the earth smelt like freshly tilled soil, the mosquitos hadn’t hatched yet, and everyone was out: gardening, biking, smiling at each other. And I thought to myself, “what is this place? Has this really been here all along?”

And there was something about that day, and that walk, that made things just a little bit better.

And I started going there regularly. It became like a little ritual. Wake up, panic, make sandwiches, suffer existential crisis, drive home in tears, go for a walk at the Intervale. Not a perfect life, but not altogether without redemption either.

And one day I was going for my walk, on the trail along the River, and there’s that area where two trails combine and there are car chassis sticking up out of the forest floor, sort of like a miniaturized version of Cadillac Desert. Now I’m familiar with the local folklore and on some small level I knew that the Intervale had been a dump, but in that moment I knew. I really understood that everything around me had at one time been a place that was broken, polluted, that had no value beyond somewhere to dump the things we no longer wanted or no longer worked. I understood that that it was only though the collective visioning of this community of what this place could be, and decades of slow, steady effort that it had been fixed, that Burlington had engaged in the process of what the permaculturists call earth repair, which goes beyond merely fixed something that’s broken so we can use it anew, to fundamentally revitalizing a place so that it becomes restorative in and of itself: what we choose to fix in turn fixes us.

And so to the Intervale, I say Happy Birthday. And thank you. Thank you for being a place where people who are lost, or broken, or in need of the tiniest sensation of joy, can find their way home. “

Abby Portman