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Hanover Man’s Documentary Explores Humanity’s Lost Connection to Nature

  • "In some cultures, the word nature doesn't even exist," said gardener and filmmaker Stefan van Norden, 64, of Hanover, N.H. He explores the relationship between humans and nature in his new film "Negotiating with Nature," which will screen at the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro, Vt., on April 14 and at the Arsenal Gallery in New York's Central Park on May 3. "We have to start thinking as if we are nature, said van Norden. "We're part of it, not separate from it." Van Norden was photographed at the Dartmouth College Life Sciences Greenhouse in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, April 3, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Stefan van Norden, 64, of Hanover, smells a leaf of peppermint-scented geranium at the Dartmouth Life Sciences Greenhouse in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, April 3, 2018. Van Norden's new film "Negotiating with Nature," explores the relationship between humans and nature. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • "In some cultures, the word nature doesn't even exist," said gardener and filmmaker Stefan van Norden, 64, of Hanover, N.H. He explores the relationship between humans and nature in his new film "Negotiating with Nature," which will screen at the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro, Vt., on April 14 and at the Arsenal Gallery in New York's Central Park on May 3. "We have to start thinking as if we are nature, said van Norden. "We're part of it, not separate from it." Van Norden was photographed at the Dartmouth College Life Sciences Greenhouse in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, April 3, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Stefan van Norden at work in a garden.



Valley News Correspondent
Thursday, April 12, 2018

Gardening has been Stefan van Norden’s life work, as well as his passion. From April through November van Norden makes a living tending to other people’s gardens, and is in his own every chance he gets.

“When I’m out there I feel complete,” he said.

Over the years he’s realized, though, that many people tend to think of themselves as existing apart from nature. Nature is something to be encountered out there, at times and places of our choosing, rather than something that is always around us, even in urban environments.

That is not van Norden’s view. “We’re just as much a part of nature as any flower. When we’re out there we feel comfortable. We feel that, that’s part of our DNA. But we’re getting so far away from it that it’s not healthy.”

So he set out to make a film about the human relationship with nature, and gardens.

Negotiating with Nature, an hour-long documentary that includes interviews with gardeners, landscape architects, poets and writers, has its Vermont premiere Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro, and will then screen on Thursday, May 6, at the Arsenal in Central Park in New York City. There are, as yet, no Upper Valley screenings scheduled.

It’s van Norden’s second documentary. In 2013, he made Hand of Brick, which recounted the history of Lebanon’s Densmore Brick Co., which made the bricks for many of the buildings in the Upper Valley. That was a simpler, less expensive film to make, van Norden said in a phone interview from his home.

After its completion he debated whether to make another. It wasn’t the actual filming and interviewing that gave him pause but the nitty-gritty long haul of raising the funds. The Byrne Foundation in Hanover contributed to the project, as did the Hendricks/Felton Foundation, which is based in Washington state but has local ties. Numerous local individuals also donated money, which allowed van Norden to hire Sean Clauson, a professional director of photography, and Charles Geoghegan, an editor. The funds also paid for his trips to interview his subjects, who include the directors of gardens at Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello, and Mitchell Silver, the New York City parks commissioner.

Now 64, van Norden came down on the side of damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.

“I’m going to give it a shot. I’m going to pour all this energy into making a film that, when I’m done, will start a conversation about the natural world. And I also felt when I decided to  do it, that I wanted to make a professional film,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Hanover.

“To me this is not a gardening film, but a film about nature brought to you by a gardener,” he said. The musical score is composed and performed by Norwich musician David Vergil and the band Many Here Among Us.

Someone once asked van Norden what he does in his garden all day. His answer gave him the film’s title. “We don’t negotiate with nature on the large scale, but I like to think I negotiate a little with nature on the small scale,” he said.

During the course of the filming, van Norden traveled to both New York City’s Central Park and the High Line, the elevated walkway and native species garden that parallels the Hudson River in lower Manhattan, to watch how tourists wander through and interact with these carefully designed landscapes.

“We can also make places for people in cities. That’s why they’re so important they are places where people can go. You can have your own little space in a park,” van Norden said.

“Every part of the film is something we can empathize with and understand. It’s not a philosophic treatise but a very personal human statement, ” said the noted Vermont gardener and writer Gordon Hayward who lives in Westminster West and is interviewed in the documentary.

Van Norden also spoke with the poet and writer Jay Parini, writer Susan Salter Reynolds, a professor of entomology, an ecological educator, a landscape architect and a founder of the Children and Nature Network, which seeks to bring families and children together in nature.

“I found the film wonderfully aspirational about connecting with nature and the value of it,” said Annie Bond, a writer of books on green living who grew up in Hanover but now lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. Interviewed in the film, Bond has known van Norden since they were kids.

“It made me want to find the birds’ nests and the bees and find connections to nature. I thought it was wonderfully put together in a humble way,” she added.

Van Norden wants the film to take on a life of its own. He is submitting it to film festivals in New England and hopes it will screen on some New England public television stations. He’d like to see it screen at garden clubs

There are obvious global, overwhelming challenges facing nature, including climate change. While science and policy clearly play a significant role, there is more individuals can do, van Norden said.

“It has to be more personal. We should start thinking of ourselves as being part of nature because you don’t harm something that you care about,” he said.

For more information about Negotiating with Nature, including screenings, go to negotiatingwithnature.com.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.