Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Mr. Mosher's Neighborhood

     Howard Frank Mosher has been on my "To Read" list for a long time. Unfortunately, it took his passing (January 29, 2017) to move to the top. I was doing the evening milking when a Vermont Public Radio program celebrating the life of the late author came on. Over and over I heard the words generous, fun, curious, warm and decent. It was obvious people loved this guy. A few days later I'm halfway thru The Great Northern Express. And now I'm one of the people who love this guy.

     Mosher and his wife, both just out of college, took teaching jobs in Orleans, Vermont in 1964. The day after their wedding and arrival in town their landlady introduced them to a group of neighbors:

'"These are the Moshers, Howard and Phillis," Verna announced. "They got married yesterday in New York State and drove clear up here to Vermont to go to bed together."'
-From The Great Northern Express 

       The author recalls this introduction to their new lives and community with affectionate bemusement. It sets the tone for his many stories of the Northeast Kingdom. At the time of his death he had written eleven works of fiction and two travel memoirs with a twelfth novel due out this year. 


      Look at a map of Vermont and you'll see where the upper Connecticut River kind of wiggles and squirms eastward, stretching out the top of the state while putting the squeeze on New Hampshire. This is the Northeast Kingdom, crunched hard up against the border with Canada. Legend has it that back in the 1950's Governor George Aiken gave it the name. It's high and cold, heavily forested and sparsely populated. To those of a certain sensibility, it's achingly beautiful. 

Lake Willoughby - web photo

     Vermont may be the Green Mountain State but the Kingdom has more in common geologically with the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Maine. There are tilted and folded layers of metamorphic phyllite, schist and marble. These have been intruded and further contact metamorphosed by plutons of granite that stand high as solitary peaks. Rocks and landforms here are the result of  a plate convergence termed the Acadian orogeny which occurred 400 to 350 million years ago. It was one stage in the creation of the supercontinent Pangea. These events followed the earlier Taconic orogeny that shaped much of eastern New York and western Vermont.

Geologic map of the Northeast Kingdom

     The Northeast Kingdom has been heavily glaciated, resulting in disrupted drainage and many wetlands and bogs. The vegetation has a boreal character due to cold temperatures and a short growing season. There are lowland spruce - fir forests, northern white cedar and extensive alder swamps. Farming is tough here with the wooded hills more supportive of logging.

Victory Bog-Nature Conservancy photo

     Harsh, rugged landscapes breed independent, resourceful people. It is these people and this place that Mosher chronicles. He's obviously fascinated by them and inspired to tell their stories. In one of his obituaries there is an anecdote about Mosher's decision to leave Vermont to attend a graduate school for writers in California. After a week he was feeling rather disillusioned with that decision. While stopped at an intersection in Hollywood a workman saw the familiar green license plate on his old car and yelled "I'm from Vermont too - go back!" Mosher wisely took it as a sign that a writer must never abandon his muse. He promptly headed east and has lived and wrote in the Kingdom ever since. 

     In Mosher's books 'place' is more than a simple stage for events to unfold. For his entire writing life he has immersed himself in the landscape and people, the culture and traditions of northern Vermont. As he says in The Great Northern Express:

     "...in the fall of 1964, I wanted to tell the stories of the
     loggers and hill farmers and whiskey-runners and
     moonshiners of the Northeast Kingdom. Though I didn't
     fully know it, my long apprenticeship, one that all
     writers and songwriters must serve, not only to their
     craft but to their material, had begun."

"An adventure that might, with luck,
enable me not only to alter the direction
of my writing career but to gain fresh
perspective on what I loved enough to 
live for in the time I had left."
-Howard Frank Mosher

     Knowing a place, building a relationship with that place can be one of life's great experiences. Others have been down this path and written beautifully about what they've found. Abbey about the desert, Dillard about mystical revelation, McClean about fishing and families and Frost about life revealed in New England"s forests and fields. They are guides for our journey. Recently I pulled a volume off my bookshelf entitled North Country - An Anthology of Contemporary Writing from the Adirondacks and the Upper Hudson Valley. It was published in 1986. Lots of poems, some short stories, essays and memoirs. I had read it back then - quite awhile ago. Now I sampled some of the Washington County writers I was familiar with - Bronk, Kunstler, McDaniels. Then I settled on"The Garden" by Barry Targan. It's the story of a developing   relationship set on Christie Road, over in the hills between Greenwich and Salem. That's one of my favorite running and biking roads. Breathtaking views, hard-breathing hills. From the willful first sentence to the poignant final line, "The Garden" is a beautifully written story and, with Mosher's work still on my mind,this passage had special resonance:

     "Do you get it? You can't see America unless you see
     its people at work against the backdrop of their two most
     important influences, terrain and weather. How about that?"

Christie Road

Cows with a view

     My idea of a perfect vacation? Load up the truck with my canoe on top, bike in the back. A stack of geologic maps, some field guides and my tattered Vermont Road Atlas. And, here's the essential part, I'll have as many of Howard Frank Mosher's books as will fit in the cab. Then head up to the Northeast Kingdom, setting up camp at Brighton, or maybe Maidstone State Park. During the day I'll bike big loops on Rts. 105/114, botanize in Victory Bog, examine outcrops and paddle some of the water - Seymour Lake, North Pond, maybe a stretch of the Nulhegan. In the evening, back at camp, I'll crack a beer and dip into one of Mosher's tales beneath a Kingdom of stars. Reading is another way of experiencing place. Howard Frank Mosher makes it a very good way.

Maidstone Lake - web photo

Saturday, January 28, 2017


     Ground Hog Day is still a week away, but one furry critter has already peeked out of his hole. That would be me. I tend to hunker down towards the end of the year. Lie low and let the holiday mayhem pass over. Both gift giving and receiving make me queasy. The last time I went shopping was before the war. I'm not even sure which war. There have been so many.

     Late December/early January is my time to reflect on the year gone by and the year to come. Looking back on 2016 I've come to see that there are gifts I'm grateful for.  They're from people who, in one way or another, helped me get to know my chosen place. As I look forward to another season of exploring, I want to recognize those who've made my past explorations so rewarding.

The park in Hudson Falls...we had a white Christmas!

     Let's begin with our place in the cosmos. I've read Sky &Telescope since I was a kid (that was shortly after the Big Bang). The magazine and its website are great resources for all things astronomical. Another site I appreciate is the Vermont Public Radio/Fairbanks Museum's Eye on the Night Sky. Mark Breen has an easy going, down to earth way of wandering thru the heavens. Locally, we are fortunate to have the Salem Astronomical Society where you can gaze thru a telescope with someone who can explain what you're seeing.

     The most amazing object in the universe? It's got to be Earth! Hometown pride. Geology is the study of the Earth, concentrating on the thin layer of crust where we do our living. This crumpled veneer of rock is the foundation of every place's identity and a fascinating puzzle to solve. Start with a basic text to understand core concepts. A field guide to rocks, minerals and fossils will also prove helpful. Then the fun (and the challenge) begins. How to make sense of the outcrops and landforms that you see everyday?

     I've found publications from the New York State Museum essential for understanding Washington County. Geology of New York is a 294 page publication full of photos, maps and diagrams. Bedrock Geology of the Glens Falls - Whitehall Region, New York is a more detailed mapping of the north-central part of the county by Donald W. Fisher. I've also found Fisher's The Rise and Fall of the Taconic Mountains valuable. Copies of Bradford Van Diver's Roadside Geology of New York and Roadside Geology of Vermont & New Hampshire are always in my truck. He includes a tour along Rt. 22 the length of Washington County describing the features you are driving by. 

      Just off Rt. 22 in Granville is the Slate Valley Museum, a magnet for those interested in the quarry belt on either side of the state border. You'll see geological timeline displays as well as historical bedrock maps by the legendary T. Nelson Dale. They also sponsor field trips and lectures. I've heard Ed Landing (NYSM), Helen Mango (Castleton) and John Van Hoesen (Green Mountain College) speak here. Landing has authored many papers on the Taconics. Mango and Van Hoesen, beyond their teaching duties, are both working on books relevant to the area. Professor Van Hoesen also kept a geology blog for a number of years. Speaking of blogs, Dr. Jack Share's Written in Stone... is amazing. In his archives you can find posts on the Taconics and the Adirondacks.

Dr. Jack Share
     Two organizations that sponsor field trips and publish guidebooks are the New York State Geological Association and the New England Intercollegiate Geological Conference. There is no substitute for looking at rocks with a geologist, being able to ask questions and get answers on the spot...even if the answers are indecipherable:
     "...oolites which are locally abundant in some beds do not appear strained to any significant extent. Stylolites do occur in some beds but they are bedding-parrallel, presumably compactional in origin. Laminated algal micrites, locally stromatolitic, can be seen, along with micrite edgewise breccias with oolites..."

All I can say is thank God the oolites aren't strained and the micrites are laminated.
     I've been fortunate to accompany James McLelland, Timothy Grover, Michael Williams and others as they examined the bounty of outcrops along Rt. 4/22 from Fort Ann north to Ticonderoga. I also need to mention William Kidd who, along with his students and colleagues, did a lot of work on the Taconics while at U.Albany. His papers and field guides, with detailed examinations of individual outcrops, have helped me see the story in the rocks. Incidentally, the bit about oolites/micrites quoted above came from one of his papers. We won't hold it against him. 
And you thought they were just plain old rocks...geologists along Rt. 22

     Speaking of outcrops, there's one over on County 49 near Cossayuna that I'm eager to visit. Michael Huggins, Washington County's homegrown geologist, writes about it in a delightful piece called "Searching for some of Argyle's Earliest Residents". This is the first chapter in a book of history and memories entitled Argyle, My Argyle. Many local histories feel obligated to include a little natural history, setting the stage so to speak, for the battles, settlement and bustling activity to come. Huggins gives us much more, telling of Charles Walcott's forays in search of Washington County trilobite fossils and explaining the series of geologic events that placed the creatures here. Science with a personal, local touch. Great stuff. 

Charles Walcott


     The Taconic hills to the east, the Hudson/Champlain lowlands and the southeastern edge of the Adirondack Mountains are the big tectonic features created over hundreds of millions of years. But much of the surface where we grow our food, build our homes and go about our lives has been shaped much more recently. Glaciation and subsequent soil development are fundamental to the nature of this place. Many of the resources already mentioned are helpful here: NYSM publications and Van Diver's books for example. John Van Hoesen's specialty is glacial geology and he lectures on it occasionally. Another book I like is The Hudson Valley in the Ice Age by Robert and Johanna Titus. It's oriented to the lower Hudson Valley but still useful in understanding further north. Finally, the USDA's Soil Survey of Washington County, New York connects the dots of bedrock and topography, of glacial history and weathering to explain how our complex mosaic of soils formed and what their characteristics are. Essential information.  

     How's that saying go? "Everybody talks about the weather, nobody does anything about." The thing is to listen to those who actually know what they're talking about when it comes to the atmosphere, climate and weather...natural phenomena that are defining features of place. As with geology, I have a couple of basic meteorology references to get the big picture. Other sources I've found valuable are David Ludlum's The Vermont Weather Book and Adirondack Weather by Jerome Thaler. They're good for historical context and regional influences.

     There's lots of options for daily forecasts. I typically check the NWS/NOAA site everyday and also listen to the Eye on the Sky guys on VPR for a little extra insight. Most of the time it's just wanting to know sun/rain, hot/cold, mow hay or not type of stuff. But if you can spare a few extra minutes there is a tremendous amount of information available and with a little effort you can start to understand why cats and dogs are falling out of the sky.
     I'm grateful for all the people and resources mentioned above. The natural sciences of astronomy, geology and meteorology have helped me understand the canvas on which life unfolds. In the next post we'll delve into the work of biologists and ecologists, historians, artists, writers and storytellers. There's a lot more gifts under the tree!