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

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