Sunday, October 29, 2017

Grey & Barbara & Life & Loving

     The year was 1961. She was a journalist with Life magazine. He was a photographer assigned to work with her. In what could have been the opening scene of a Hollywood romantic comedy, their relationship got off to a rocky start. His six foot four stature gave her pause as did his old jeans and wrinkled shirt fashion style (accented with dangling cameras). And what to make of that odd South African accent,  that "attitude". 
     But there was work to do, a story to be told and they got on with it. Then, after only a few hours of collaboration, her first impressions began to shift. She sought the essence of a subject in words. He did the same in images. They might make a good team. Apparently he thought likewise:

     "That night, when we got back to the hotel, he walked me
     to my door, kissed me lightly, and told me I was going to
     marry him. After three more days of working together,
     I agreed."

          - Barbara Villet on meeting her husband, Grey Villet, as told 
          in a Middlebury Magazine profile by Sara Thurber Marshall

Web Image

     The following decade was tumultuous. Vibrant young leaders emerged and then were lost. There were massive protests against discrimination and an unpopular war. Economic and cultural upheaval shook the country. The Villets helped make sense of it all 
with thought-provoking photo-essays in the pages of Life. That was until 1972, when the magazine ceased weekly publication. In an experience many other Americans have shared, they had the rug pulled out from under them, their livelihood taken away.

Life magazine covers

Books by the Villets

     They landed in southern Washington County where Barbara sold real estate and Grey built houses. He died in 2000. Barbara still lives in the house that they shared on the banks of the Battenkill. I have a few acres of "getaway" woodlot next door and see her occasionally when I'm there. Sometimes her little dog comes over to say hello...friendly visits I always enjoy.

The Battenkill

     In these days of Instagram and Snapchat, carefully crafted photo-essays that take time, patience and empathy to create have fallen out of favor. In some small way, blogs seem like the digital heirs to magazine photo-journalism. The best of them use images and words to deeply probe a subject. Maybe that's why I'm drawn to the Villet's body of work. They showed what could be done with camera and text guided by sensitive intelligence.
     In recent years Barbara has been active in preserving her husband's artistic legacy. Here's a look at some of her efforts:

     * Grey Villet -- Photography is a web-site with biographical 
     info and a selection of his work.

     * Rights, Race & Revolutions is an exhibit currently on display
     at the Folklife Center at Crandall Library in Glens Falls.
     Large scale prints of some of Villet's iconic images.                   

     * The Lovings - an intimate portrait with Grey's photographs
     and text by Barbara is a book about the landmark civil rights
     case giving couples of any race the right to marry and paving
     the way for freedom to marry for all. Available at local 
     bookstores and libraries.      

     * The Loving Story is a 2011 documentary by Nancy Buirski.
     It's about the case and uses many of Grey's photos. Available 
     from local libraries. 

     * Loving is a 2016 feature film dramatizing the case. Starring
     Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving,
     with actor Michael Shannon appearing as Grey Villet. 
     It's an interesting portrayal of the photographer at work.            

     Villet's portrait of the Loving family has been the subject of renewed attention in recent years. No doubt that's because of the debate around same-sex marriage equality. In a heartfelt statement shortly before her 2008 death, Mildred Loving said, "I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving and loving, are all about."
    It's easy to become blase' about what we consider to be our inalienable rights. Isn't this America where there's "justice for all"? But the current political climate reveals the naiveness of such assumptions. The Loving case is a reminder to never take even the most basic of rights for granted.
     Villet's images from the time brought up personal memories. Back in the early '60's my grandfather managed a textile mill in Glens Falls. It was on Elm Street across from where the Downtown City Tavern is now. Today the building has been converted into luxury condominiums. Back then the company had decided to close the facility and move production to North Carolina where wages and costs were lower. Now days they would have gone straight overseas.
     My grandfather became manager of the new southern factory, prompting my mother and I to take a bus trip down to visit. At one point, maybe in Virginia, there was a bus stop where you could get something to eat. We innocently walked in a side door and sat at the counter, not really noticing that we were the only white faces in the room. After a few minutes a kindly older gentleman came over and said "You folks may want to go around the corner and in the front door. This part is for us." There were segregated dining areas, something we had never experienced up north. And this in my lifetime!
     In North Carolina most of the workers at the weaving machines were black women - probably because they could be payed the least of any segment of the population. I was struck by how fond they were of my grandfather, a gruff, no-nonsense white boss. In retrospect I think I know the reason. I don't believe he was particularly progressive. But he certainly wasn't overtly racist either. What he looked for in people was common sense, competence and hard work, traits his employees had in full. If you did your job he treated you with dignity and respect. That was all the women wanted.
     Villet saw the Lovings at a human level. Two people who simply wanted to commit to and care for each other. Sure there were big civil rights issues involved, fundamental constitutional decisions to be made. But Grey's perceptive compassion for Richard and Mildred as individuals with personal and emotional needs set the tone for much of the subsequent coverage. He "got it", saw the essence of their situation and caught it on film.
     At the Crandall exhibit there is only one photo of the Lovings. Given that the entire photo-essay can be seen in Barbara's book, this makes sense. It allows room to display the wide and varied range of Villet's other work. Whenever I'm at the library I focus on one particular set of images - maybe the Smith family of Vermont or the Cow Creek, West Virginia tragedy. Last time it was the portrait of Celestrina that transfixed me. She's a little girl from the slums of Lima, Peru who has just been given a crust of bread. Villet caught the happiness that morsel of food brought in both her smile and her eyes as she looked into his camera and into our hearts.  

"the work will tell" - Grey Villet


     Along with the Villet photos here's a couple of other 
     exhibits that might be of interest...         

     Grandma Moses at the Bennington Museum until November 5 -

     And at Middlebury until December 10 -  

Monday, October 9, 2017

Need a Lift?

     "You're lower than a snake's belly in a wagon rut!"
     I guess she found me less than perfect. But, that was a long time ago. Now I'm much improved and I can smile at her clever put-down. It comes to mind whenever I'm near the Champlain Canal. I think of this overachieving little ditch as Washington County's wagon rut. And what a fine rut it is, with water, life and stories. Maybe even a few snake's belly's.

     What the canal does is connect Lake Champlain to the Hudson River, creating a north-south route between the Atlantic at New York Harbor and the St. Lawrence Seaway, outlet of the Great Lakes. Along with the east-west oriented Erie Canal it offers cruising access to the rest of the world. It would be possible to launch your boat in, say, Fort Ann and sail away to the Sea of Japan, should you desire to have North Korean missiles rain down upon you.

     The canal starts on the Hudson River at Waterford and goes thru a series of locks to reach its high point just east of Hudson Falls, before descending to Lake Champlain at Whitehall. Below Troy the Hudson is basically at sea level and fluctuates with the tides. There are no dams or locks between there and the ocean, allowing large ships to navigate the channel. Northward to Fort Edward the river has more of a gradient and there used to be rapids. Now a series of dams creates a stairway of flatwater pools. Canal locks raise and lower boats around the dams with level cruising in between. At Fort Edward the canal leaves the Hudson and strikes off overland in an excavated channel towards the the southern tip of Lake Champlain.


And locks

     There are eleven locks in the sixty mile length of the Champlain Canal. Since my cruising yacht and the leisure to use it continue to prove elusive, I won't be needing a lift thru one of them anytime soon. But even the boat-less among us can enjoy a visit to the locks. I hope to do a post on each of them, if the creek don't rise.

     The first few locks are terra incognita for this farm boy. They are more than a half hour from my home, and lie in the direction of cities. Ugh! But I did visit Lock 4 this summer. It's a stone's throw from the southwestern corner of Washington County and can be reached by a pleasant drive down River Road, aka Co. 113. Its access lane even skirts a soybean field. My type of place.

Lock 4 locust

Looking south from Lock 4

     The locks make a great first impression. They are neat and well maintained, park like. On the day we visited kids were riding bikes and people were fishing, walking dogs, taking photographs. We found trails, unmarked but obvious, that enter adjacent woods and lead to a point where the Hoosic River enters the Hudson. There's a nice variety of trees here with a slightly southern feel - oaks, sycamores, silver maples and cottonwoods. At the tip of the peninsula you can see the paper shale bedrock that has been tilted from the horizontal by tectonic forces. There are also muddy alluvial areas with thick growths of semi-aquatic plants waiting to be identified.

     From the cliff-top trail you look out upon several islands and spot a railroad bridge downstream. Beyond that is the Mechanicville Dam and Lock 3. With a canoe you could explore the two mile long pool between the locks.

     Particularly attractive is a path that follows the Hoosic a short distance upstream. It winds high above the river with a number of scenic overlooks. Below, the water drops over several low ledges in a shallow gorge. You wouldn't want to paddle up against the current but with the right conditions a trip downriver from below the falls in Schaghticoke might be fun. Just do your diligence and carefully scout the route before attempting it.

The Hoosic looking upstream

     The Hoosic strikes me as the Battenkill's hard luck twin. Both streams gather themselves in the Green Mountain/Berkshire Range and then head west cutting scenic gaps thru the Taconics before emptying into the Hudson. Unfortunately, the Hoosic has been forced to work a little harder than the Battenkill, with development and industrial activity taking its toll. After leaving Massachusetts and cutting across the southwestern corner of Vermont the river flows thru northern Rensselaer County and for a few miles either side of the Buskirk Covered Bridge it grazes Washington County while picking up a number of streams that drain the Towns of White Creek, Cambridge and Easton.

     The Hoosic's last hurrah is at Schaghticoke. In post-glacial times it built a large sandy delta here. Today it has cut down thru those deposits and into bedrock creating an impressive gorge with interesting geology. This stretch is also rich in Native American history. For further info check out the Hoosic River Watershed Association and Lauren R. Stevens' "Dispatches from the Beyond Place". 

     After our hike along the Hudson and Hoosic we got back to Lock 4  in time to watch several boats pass thru. To wonder where they were going. You know the feeling when you're hungry and you catch a whiff of something delicious being grilled? Sweet torment. The canal is sort of like that for those of us with wanderlust. There's something about watching a boat with a long ribbon of water stretched out before it. It speaks of freedom, the lure of escape and finding out what's around the next flowing bend.


     The road leading to Lock 4 is gated at 4:30 pm. If you want to visit later in the day look for a dirt lane on the narrow strip of land between the river and the canal. Drive or walk down this a ways and cross the canal on the railed top of the lock gates. There is a long, lovely stretch of river between Lock 4 and Lock 5 (above Schuylerville). There are several access points to this section, all in Saratoga County. Stillwater has a river side park with trails and a picnic pavilion. You can launch canoes and kayaks there. A little further north along Rt. 4 you'll see a graveled ramp suitable for trailered boats. Also available is the commercial marina at the Cove. I don't know of any access on the Washington County side. Kind of disappointing. Rt. 4 and Co. 113 make a nice bicycle loop tour though. You could start at Lock 5 and take a lunch break at Lock 4 before heading back to Schuylerville for post-ride refreshments. Perfect way to spend a fall day. 

Opening doors to who knows where

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


     I know it's unseemly to boast. I know and still I can't help but tell you about my brilliant academic career. It consisted of one continuing education night course some 35 or 40 years ago. It was offered by Adirondack Community College and entitled "History of Washington County". It was taught by an older gentleman whose name I can't recall. I do remember him inviting the class up to his Hogtown camp for a "graduation" party. That was fun - a group of friendly people brought together by their shared curiosity for a place. 

Hogtown Highway

     Truth is, I'm more of a cover-alls and Carhartts guy than cap and gown type. But I still have the final paper I wrote for that course. Its pompous title: "History and the Landscape - A view across Washington County over the years". It's pretty lame - no footnotes, a skeletal bibliography, handwritten. This, in a class where others handed in work so original and well researched that it was destined for publication.

My paper - notice the high quality graphics

     My scholar-less little thesis was more like a seed than a fully developed flower. Mostly I just wandered around the county trying to see how the natural landscape had influenced what people had done here. Now, all these years later, technology has changed but my inquisitiveness remains the same. Looking back - at that course, at that paper - I see the genesis of my wash wild blog. I still like to wander the backroads, to wonder about all the things that have happened here, from over a billion years ago up to today. And wonder where we're headed tomorrow.

     Speaking of tomorrow, I want to tell you about a few upcoming opportunities. The college, now known as SUNY Adirondack, has some fall classes that may be of interest. I see in their catalog that they still offer a full semester "History of Warren and Washington Counties - His 270". It covers Native American occupation up to the present. I'm still waiting for a Big History type of course. That would start from the very beginning, the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. Then (once the sun and earth have arrived on the scene) it would detail the various orogenies and other geologic events that have lead to the landscape we see today. We'd learn how the slates, limestones and iron ores that have influenced the county's economic history were created. Glaciation and the development of soils would be covered. Finally, there would be a segment on the botanical colonization that produced the plant communities and ecosystems we see today. Also a brief look at how the animals, including one we're particularly fond of, came here. Lots of field trips and a deeper understanding of the natural stage that has shaped the human story. If Professor Donald Minkel and colleagues ever develop such a course I'll be the first to enroll. 

     In the meantime, here are some items from the current Continuing Education catalog relating to Washington County:

     * Adirondack Lavender 101 - Tour their Whitehall lavender farm with the Allens and learn all about this beautiful and useful herb. Friday, September 22 from 1 to 3pm.

     * Fort Miller walking tour - Paul McCarty will guide the group in visiting this historic hamlet. Wednesday, September 27 from 1 to 3 pm.

     * Bakers Falls walking tour - Learn how Hudson River waterpower lead to early industrial development. Wednesday, October 11 from 1 to 3 pm.

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     * New Skete Monasteries Tour - Unique architecture in a peaceful mountain setting. Friday, October 13 from 1:30 to 3:30 pm.

     * Slate Valley Quarry Tour - Stops at the Slate Valley Museum and a quarry in the Granville area. Saturday, October 14 from 9 to 11 am.

     * Tour and lunch at the Skene Manor - Enjoy a visit to Whitehall's very own castle. Friday, November 3 from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm.

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     * SUNY Adirondack also has a Lecture and Lunch Series with talks on the Feeder Canal, the Battenkill and the Slate Valley. 

     * Find out more about these and other offerings here.

     * Also of interest: Lake Champlain Bridge Guided Walk on Sunday, September 24 from 1 to 3 pm. Meet at Chimney Point State Historic Site, Vermont. A Vermont Archeology Month event.

Web images

Monday, September 11, 2017

Coot's a Hoot

     It came down to the wire this year, but I finally managed to squeeze in a summer vacation. Several whole hours of vacation on Labor Day afternoon. Call it my sandwich escape. Sunday it rained heavily and showers were predicted for Tuesday. But  Monday was sunny and nice. You can't do much farming with just one dry day between slices of storm. Might as well turn the day into a serendipitous get-away sandwiched in at the end of summer.
     Not as easy as it sounds. First there was a Dutch Belted heifer who decided Labor Day was a good time to go into labor. Fortunately she delivered her little miracle without a problem and somewhat reluctantly agreed to be milked for the first time. Gwenne fed the calf his first meal and got him off to a good start on life's journey. After the rest of the herd was milked, I cut a load of green-chop and by noon we were done. 

Spotted on Labor Day

     With chores finished it was time to head for our vacation destination.... Coot Hill here we come! You know Coot Hill, right?
Well, maybe not, so let me introduce you. It's up in the North Country above Crown Point, not too far from Port Henry, and sort of between Moriah and Ironville. It might be easier to just say it's way out there in the sticks. And that's just part of its charm.

CAT Trail Map

     Coot Hill is in the Adirondacks, but just barely. It's on the eastern edge of the mountains overlooking Lake Champlain and Vermont. From its summit you can sense how the hard metamorphic rock (mostly gneiss) has been pushed up to where it stands above the eroded limestones and shales of the foreground lowlands. Beyond the sinuous lake and its broad valley lies Snake Ridge with the more distant Green Mountains forming the eastern horizon. They are features created by the Taconic Orogeny some 450 million years ago when a volcanic island arc collided with the ancient North American crustal plate.

     That event and other tectonic activity over many eons has left its mark in the form of faults and fracture zones in the bedrock. When rock is cracked and broken it is more susceptible to erosion and that is the probable explanation for the deep cleft between Coot Hill and Bulwagga Mountain just to the south. This is called Big Hollow and it drops off so precipitously that it's hard to see the bottom. This hill and hollow has been the site of "mishaps". Locals like to tell of an amorous rendezvous that went downhill when the busy couple felt their parked vehicle suddenly rolling down the steep slope. Talk about your rocky relationships...

     Thankfully, our visit was less eventful. We found a place to pull off Lang Road about a mile in from Essex CR7. The dirt road makes for pleasant walking. It threads thru a young mixed forest where some unusually tall and straight locust and a few cedar trees added interest. We soon crossed Grove Brook with its scenic cascades on either side of the road. Also evident were stone walls and several large "wolf" trees that speak to a time when the land was mostly open and farmed. Some of the early settlers rest in the Lang Cemetery where we stopped to read the inscriptions. Lang Road may be the trunk but as you climb higher there's a dendritic pattern of paths used by ATV's, snowmobiles and the lovestruck equipped with hi-clearance 4X4's. Just follow the CAT trail markers and you'll soon come to the open summit area. 

     Notice the pinkish colored ledges. This was iron mining country in the past and I wonder if the hue comes from magnetite/hematite ore? Not sure, but the geologist, botanist and ornithologist will find much of interest here. The bare rock is being colonized by lichens and mosses. Between outcrops there is a ground cover of bearberry, blueberry, various grasses and clumps of dwarf juniper. Late in the summer there were still numerous flowers including a sprinkling of Ladies'-Tresses orchid. Soaring overhead were Turkey Vultures and crows. The updrafts along the steep escarpment make it a favorite site for migrating raptors with eagles and various hawks often seen.

     We spent a relaxing hour on top and enjoyed a conversation with a woman who told stories of Whitehall and canalling days...she had a relative born on a canal boat in New York harbor! Finally, Holly and Ethan needed to be back north while Gwenne and I wanted to head home via the scenic west side of Lake George while it was still light. With a dip in the lake, dinner and a stop for ice cream my summer vacation was history. Now this old coot has to get back to work. At least till next Labor Day.


     "CATS invites you to get out on the trails and share the
     vision of New York's Champlain Valley where productive
     forests and farms surround vibrant hamlets and people
     hike, snowshoe, and ski on a network of public trails."
- from the CATS Trail Map

     Champlain Area Trails (CATS) is a non-profit located in Westport, Essex County on the shore of Lake Champlain. The trail map and brochure that I used to visit Coot Hill lists over 50 places to explore. Most are located between the Northway corridor and the lake. This is east of the vast public Forest Preserve lands of the central Adirondack Park with their extensive trail system. The CATS trails tend to be shorter and less demanding because the topography here is gentler. That makes them appealing to folks who aren't hard-core hikers. They lead to scenic destinations with no death march required. Of particular interest is the ownership profile of the lands the trails traverse. A few are owned by New York State, some by various land trusts and others are privately held but permission has been granted for the public to park and walk within defined areas.

     The Champlain Valley seems to have a buzz to it right now. Young people see it as a good place to farm or start a business and to raise a family. Seniors like it as a quiet, scenic place to retire or own a second home. Even former Governor George Pataki, who used to have a farm in Washington County, has moved up this way. The CAT trails are one component to the quality of life that attracts people to the region.
     On Coot Hill my thoughts drifted south to Washington County. Can we learn anything from CAT that is relevant here? Growing populations inevitably lead to increased demand on natural resources. Can we build a relationship with the landscape that provides the timber, mineral and energy resources we need while leaving enough land for food production, building and infrastructure? Will there still be clean water and room for wildlife? Do we care enough about our historical legacy to preserve some of it? And finally, will there be quiet, natural places to recreate and rejuvenate? Big challenges but a lot of good people are working on solutions. I came back from the CAT trail on Coot Hill filled with hope. 

     Finally thoughts...

     - Check out the September/October 2017 issue of the Adirondack Explorer magazine for an article about Coot Hill

     - Find out more about Champlain Area Trails here

     - Bill McKibben's Wandering Home is inspired by the landscape that that you see from Coot Hill. A good read.

     - A Farm-to-Fest hike and Adirondack Harvest Festival are scheduled for Saturday, September 16 at the Essex County Fairgrounds in Westport. Check the CAT website for full details.