Monday, December 21, 2015

Give me Shelter

     This is a story that begins with a story. Tellabration is an event that's been held in Fort Salem's Cabaret Theater the last couple of Novembers. Siri Allison does a wonderful job organizing and hosting as well as being one of the tellers. Also appearing was Vermont's Tom Weakley, the godfather of area storytellers and an inspiration to a new generation. Graciously, he has come out of retirement, making the trip to Salem to enthrall the audience this year and last. Joe Peck is also a regular participant with his amusing tales of rural farm life. Other familiar faces included Kelvin Keraga and Christie Keegan. Speaking of familiar faces, my wife Gwenne returned with another glimpse into her "interesting" family. Rounding out the program was first time storyteller Bonnie Hoag with an offering called 'Fairies'.

Fort Salem Theater

     Whether reading or listening, I think we all experience a slightly different version of a story. There's an interaction between what's being told and who we are, our receptiveness and emotional involvement. After the performance Bonnie's story stuck with me. It was the first time she had told it in public so I hadn't heard it before and yet it felt familiar. A few days later I was  at the library and found myself almost unconsciously picking up a copy of Refuge.  I had read it years ago but felt drawn to the book again.

     Refuge - An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams was first published in 1991. Its setting is the Great Salt Lake of Utah in the 1980's. The author interweaves two stories. The first is of her mother's struggle with cancer and the counterpoint is the flooding of the lake and inundation of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Seemingly disparate events but in Williams' perceptive tale they become intimately connected.

     People and birds (all life for that matter) need safe, secure places to raise their young and live out their lives. The flooding of the Salt Lake wetlands was apparently a natural phenomenon, although what we have subsequently learned about climate change makes you wonder. It was incredibly disruptive to millions of birds but some were able to find other refuges and the lake level eventually subsided. Today Bear River is once again attracting birds and people. If you are in Utah you can visit or check out their website here.

     For the people of the Basin and Range the picture is more clouded. 'The Clan of One-Breasted Women' is the poignant Epilogue to Refuge. In the essay Williams lays out her belief that above ground nuclear testing could be the cause of her families history of cancer. The author has had her own health challenges but fortunately she is still energetically working at her writing and activism. She has a new book on the national parks coming out this summer an Refuge holds an honored place in our environmental canon. Here's a link to more on Terry Tempest Williams.
     What of the connection I sensed between Refuge and 'Fairies'? Certainly Dionondehowa Sanctuary  has something to do with it. This is 217 acres of fields, woods and wetlands that slope down to the Battenkill River near Shushan in southeastern Washington County. Bonnie Hoag and Geoffrey Ovington established the sanctuary and placed it in a land trust to provide a refuge and recharge area and a place to base their school devoted to nature studies and the expressive and healing arts. You can learn more about the school, sanctuary and opportunities to visit at their website.

Bonnie and friend

Views of Dionondehowa

     The land here provides the setting for Bonnie's story and the similarity between "sanctuary" and "refuge" clicked with me. Cancer also makes an appearance in each story, fortunately minimal in 'Fairies' while central to Refuge. Beyond that the works seem to share a sensibility. Both have a reverence for life and know that we need a healthy natural world to be healthy ourselves. And the two women see the need for faith to sustain us. Consider these passages, first from Refuge
     "Faith is the centerpiece of a connected life. It allows us to live by the grace of invisible strands. It is a belief in a wisdom superior to our own. Faith becomes a teacher in the absence of fact."
     And from the closing lines of 'Fairies':
     "Between our need for proof and Fairies there is a great divide. If wings are what we seek we must set our fear aside."
     The dream of a sheltering place to call home is timeless. Call it Eden or Paradise, it's the same thing. You often see people move to Washington County, Vermont or the Adirondacks seeking something better, refugees from corruption and violence, from urban blight or suburban bore. They are the new pilgrims playing out a long tradition of looking for a better place. Of course, wherever you go, there you are. We all need to search our values and lifestyles, to look at how our very nature is affecting the world. And question whether our economies, our government, our religions are taking us where we want to be. To me it seems so simple - people, wildlife, even Fairies - we all just want to live at peace in the garden.

     * Beyond Dionondehowa Sanctuary what other land has been set aside in Washington County? Here's a brief and no doubt incomplete list:
     - The Lake George Wild Forest consists of thousands of acres of New York State forest preserve, part of the Adirondack Park located on the east side of Lake George. Owned by you and me!
     - Several Lake George Land Conservancy properties in the Towns of Fort Ann, Dresden and Putnam. 
     - The Nature Conservancy has protected much land along the Poultney River and recently transferred The Saddles west of Whitehall to New York State. Also own Denton Preserve near the Hudson River. 
The Saddles
     - There are a number of state forests in the southeastern corner of the county as well as Carter Pond Wildlife Management Area in the Town of Greenwich.
     - A small wetland that hosts a heron rookery has been protected by the Battenkill Conservancy near East Greenwich.
     - Land is being saved for the birds in the Fort Edward Grasslands.

     - A linear park exists along the Feeder Canal in Kingsbury and Fort Edward.

Feeder Canal Towpath

     - The Pember Nature Preserve consists of 125 acres in Hebron.
     - ASA has conserved thousands of acres to be used for farming but not development. They can be        visited occasionally during ASA outings.

     It would be a fun project to explore as many of these as possible. Let me know if I've missed anything.

Wild Watch
     The Heavens have some nice gifts this week. Christmas Eve features a full moon which should make a certain someone's work easier. Of course, Monday December 21 is the longest night of the year and the beginning of winter - it's all about the tilt of the earth's axis (23 degrees from vertical) in relation to its orbital plane around the sun. Tuesday, December 22 finds the moon in Taurus near the Pleiades star cluster. You can also see five naked eye planets for the next few weeks. Mercury is low in the southwest, visible 30 to 45 minutes after sunset. You'll have to get up before sunrise for the other four. Saturn is low, close to the horizon as dawn begins. Higher up is brilliant Venus, then dim Mars and finally Jupiter quite high in the sky. There's also Comet Catalina in the morning sky but you'll need binoculars to see it. Check the web for its location which changes day to day.

Comet Catalina
     Exoplanets are also in the news. We've found thousands orbiting other stars. While this holds out the promise of life out there, it's not a given. So many things must fall into place. What are the characteristics of the host star? How about the orbital distances and eccentricities of the planet? Is the body rocky or a big ball of gas? Does it have plate tectonics, liquid water, a magnetic field? What's its atmosphere like? How long has it been around? When you think about it, you realize that what we have right here is pretty special, maybe even unique. A refuge and sanctuary in a big strange universe.

What's the Season without music?
     While I love the depth and substance of a good book and the personal connection of a story told live, it's hard to beat music and song for pure emotional impact. 1969 was an interesting year. We landed on the moon while waging futile war in southeast Asia and being buffeted by social upheaval at home. Schuylerville Central School washed its hands of me and breathed a sigh of relief when I walked out the door for the last time. And there was some great music playing as these events unfolded.
     Two songs from 1969 seem particularly appropriate to this post. You can listen to the studio version for Keith Richards exquisite guitar and Merry Claytons legendary vocal performance (the band realized they needed a female singer so they called her in the middle of the night. She got out of bed, went to the studio, did the take and then went home for some more sleep!) Or for visual (and local) appeal you can watch Grace Potter, Vermont's beloved songbird, fire up a bunch of grumpy old men in a live version recorded just a few months ago. It's the Rolling Stones with 'Gimme Shelter'.
     And then there's 'Woodstock', Joni Mitchell's lyrical poem of longing for a better world. My eyes always moisten when I hear it. The world is better because of her.    

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