Thursday, October 22, 2015

Go Van Gogh

     Jack Sprat could eat no fat
His wife could eat no lean
And so betwixt the two of them
They licked the platter clean.

     What a wise and wonderful nursery rhythm. To think that even back then they were chewing over the virtues of grass-fed vs. corn finished beef! And pondering how opposites can come together to make a "lick the platter clean" marriage.
     Reminds me of two people I know. He's a slow motion planner, always waiting for things to be just right before doing anything. She's a more spontaneous, do it now type. And most of the time they find a balance avoiding the stress and frustration such a match might be prone to.
     Take a recent Friday, for example. I said, "It's too bad we missed the van Gogh exhibit. This is the final weekend." The end of the summer had been really busy with hay, corn and cows. We had missed a lot of things and were just beginning to catch our breath.
     Gwenne countered, "The paintings are still up today. Let's get in the van and go."
     I complimented her on the clever word play while pointing out that we didn't own a van.
     "Really not a problem," and with that we got in the Kia and went.
     And I'm glad we did, both for the drive and for the art. I take the "Savor the journey as much as the destination" admonition a bit too far. It's a small miracle I ever actually arrive anywhere. For me a trip is all about looking at rocks, trees, flowers, streams and everything else along the way. Years ago we drove to Florida and I tried to do it on dirt roads just to go slower and see more! Had limited success with that endeavor as the asphalt virus has infected most of America.
     There's the Goggle mapped route from Schuylerville to Williamstown, logical and efficient, and then there's the way we went. Down thru Easton to a short visit at the Quaker South Meeting House and Cemetery where the whitefeather story is celebrated. Stops to look at cute little campers (Gwenne) and distant Catskill to Adirondack vistas (me). Detours down inviting dirt roads past well cared for old homes and barns and lots of corn chopping, with plenty of squirrels and turkeys fattening on the leftovers.
     Of special note was the subtle color shift of early fall. Not explosively gaudy as it would be in a couple of weeks but not the bright, energetic green of early summer either. We didn't know it but this Washington County landscape was preparing us for the art we would see later in the afternoon.

     We crossed the Hoosic River on the Buskirk Covered Bridge and entered Rensselaer County. The Hoosic, like the Battenkill, originates in the Green Mountain/Berkshire range to the east and cuts thru the Taconics on its way to the Hudson. The area from White Creek and Eagle Bridge thru Hoosic Falls towards Bennington marks an open break in the high Taconic ridgeline. This is sometimes called a reentrant and is probably the result of erosion by the Hoosic and Walloomsac that has removed the Taconic rock down to the level of the carbonate shelf rocks that lie beneath.

     South of the low hills of the reentrant is the Rensselaer Plateau. This is higher, forested ground underlain by some of the oldest rock in the Taconics. There's a lot of graywacke found here. It's an impure sandstone that formed as an early super continent (Rodinia) rifted apart and began dumping sediments into a newly developing ocean (Iapetus) sometime between 500 to 600 million years ago.  Subsequently, the plate motions shifted and the rocks were pushed up onto the edge of Laurentia, an ancient precursor of North America. This Taconic Orogeny produced the much loved landscapes of western New England and eastern New York.
     With no defined route and just a general northwest Massachusetts drift, I decided to let strange street names be our guide. Sadly we had to forgo Nick-Mush Hill but did traverse Rabbit College Road. This is basically a roller-coaster masquerading as a highway and it dropped us off the plateau and down into the valley at North Petersburg. I'ld recommend this as a mini-adventure but make sure your brakes, steering, airbags and life insurance are up to snuff before the attempt.

     Heading east we followed a mellow route cut by the Hoosic. It's a level, scenic drive thru farm country backed by hills. Just before crossing the river into Vermont is a sign for the Taconic State Forest and Taconic Crest Trail. In the northern Taconics, just east of Washington County, there are a scattering of trails (Merck Forest, Mt. Equinox, Haystack) while a little to the south is this ridgeline trail with several side access points. Definitely worth exploring.

     In short order you come to a string of houses along the road. This is the Village of North Pownal and it seems to cower beneath a big cliff with striking white outcrops. These limestone crags may be similar to Bald Mountain near Greenwich in western Washington County. Both appear to be chunks of Laurentia's carbonate shelf that got broken off and carried along when the Taconics came calling.

     North Pownal has a small park along the Hoosic where mills used to be. The mills are gone now and one can see the effects of lost employment and economic activity. The views to the west of the Taconic Range (with a triple corner of New York, Vermont and Massachusetts up there somewhere) are gorgeous but views don't pay the rent. This community misses the industry and jobs it once had.
     Just down the road is Williamstown, Mass., an upscale college and cultural center with a patrician vibe. Here, down a quiet tree-lined street is the Clark Museum. It houses the art collection of Sterling and Francine Clark and has recently been expanded with additional gallery space and landscaped grounds that include linked reflecting pools. While we were there two boys had found a painted turtle in the water which they were happy to show to a third kid (that would be me). I think we were more taken by this little critter than by the priceless paintings that hung nearby. Speaking of critters, the museum's extensive grounds and walking paths include a pasture where you can stroll amongst a herd of cows. No matter how far I roam I just can't seem to get away from them...

     The van Gogh exhibit was wildly popular and on the day of our visit the parking lot was full, you waited in line to buy a ticket and the galleries were a little crowded for quiet contemplation. We went thru a second time after it had thinned out and it was easier to linger over favorites. The art draws a diverse mix and I'm sure many of the visitors stop at restaurants, seek lodging and do some shopping. Even us poor farmers bought gas and a hot dog at Stewarts.
     Back in Washington County the scale may be smaller but art and culture have a similar impact, enriching lives and wallets. Just recently I was struck by the number of paintings sporting a red sticker at the Landscapes for Landsake exhibit and sale. This signifies that they were sold, providing income for the artist and funds for ASA's farmland preservation efforts. Gwenne, Licia and I were wowed by Landscapes and later in the day had a fun hike amongst the sculptures at the Salem Art Works, but we also found time for lunch at the Roundhouse Cafe and a cone at the Ice Cream Man, dropping a few dollars into the local economy. Art that draws people to a community benefits everyone.
     After returning from the Clark I was telling Holly about our trip and she challenged me, "You're just swept up in the hype, blinded by van Gogh's overblown reputation." She had seen Starry Night exhibited at school and the college owns The Night Cafe. These, along with his self-portraits are among the artist's most iconic works. Let's just say she wasn't star-struck.

The Starry Night - Vincent van Gogh

The Night Cafe - Vincent van Gogh

     Maybe she has a point. I have no training in art appreciation, and who isn't influenced by what they've heard? Gwenne had seen some van Gogh's many years ago in New York City. That experience didn't leave her hungry for more, but when I told her the Clark's exhibit included paintings done in Provence, her curiosity was aroused. Several years ago she had spent time in the south of France and the landscape enthralled her.

Wheat Field with Cypresses - Vincent van Gogh

     The show at the Clark was called Van Gogh in Nature and it was organized chronologically. As a young boy in Holland he had an interest in collecting and identifying all sorts of living things. Several old French field guides that he might have used were displayed as part of the exhibit. Once he began painting he often turned to bugs, birds, trees and landscapes for subject matter. Wheatfields and sunflowers frequently drew his attention as did the rugged limestone crags of southern France.

Wheat Field with Crows - Vincent van Gogh

     He had a short but very productive career, creating over 2100 artworks in a little over a decade. He was engaged with the intellectual life of his time, reading literature and studying other artists while still developing his own very original style of swirls and dabs in a rich color palette. Standing close to his paintings you're struck by the texture and shading, you feel their gravitas. On many canvas's the paint seems to be applied with a trowel, not with a brush. The surface has a topographic dimension that isn't apparent in a photograph.
     The exhibit hinted at, but didn't dwell on the more lurid details of van Gogh's life: his struggles with mental illness, the severed ear, relationships with prostitutes and resulting STD's, overwork and unhealthy lifestyle and eventual strange death from a probable self-inflicted gunshot. Knowledge of his demons provides insight into some of his work but it may not be necessary to appreciate his nature studies.
     What I saw was a man deeply attuned to the places where he lived and painted, a man sensitive to both the cultural and physical environment who worked tirelessly growing his skills to interpret and respond to the world. I'm certainly not qualified to critique his work or pass judgement on his stature as an artist so I'll simply say that I'm grateful for van Gogh and his paintings, for the opportunity to stand before them and contemplate his and my place in nature.

Self-Portrait with Straw Hat - Vincent van Gogh

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Preserve the Farm / Prepare the Farmer

     Hands on the land. Yours, mine, everybody we know and a whole lot of people we'll never know. The central concept of Jan Albers book, which is a history of the Vermont landscape, is that we all play a role in shaping the look and feel, the liveability of a place. And as sentient beings, blessed
(or cursed!) with consciousness and self-awareness, we can think about and make choices in how we mold our world.
     I've been reading Albers book over the summer. It's the discounted copy I picked up at Hermit Hill Books in Poultney, with the cover that was bound upside down and backward to the text. This has provided endless amusement to my family and confirmation of their suspicions about my reading comprehension. I'm happy all of us got some enjoyment out of the book...

     Albers works in and synthesizes a long tradition of scholarship on the New England landscape.  My bookshelf contains works by Cronon, Meeks, Thomson, Jorgensen, and Wessels among others.
Hands on the Land draws from these and many other sources with a deep bibliography that will keep me occupied (at my glacial reading pace) for many years. Albers was educated at Yale and has also taught there and at Middlebury. She comes from a dairy farm background and has New England in her blood.
     Her book is full of quirky facts and thought-provoking concepts presented in a visually colorful package. There's art work, photos, maps and drawings, all showing us how the Vermont landscape was created and where it might be headed. This has appeal well beyond the Green Mountain State, as many influences and trends she discusses are universal. With a shared border, the book illuminates Washington County's landscape history as much as Vermont's.
     Locally, two organizations have put their hands on the land in hopeful ways. The Agricultural Stewardship Association is a land trust based in Greenwich which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Since incorporation in 1990 it has conserved 16,000 acres on 101 properties in Washington and Rensselaer Counties. Focusing on working farms and forests, it buys or accepts donated easements that allow and encourage continued productive use of the land while preventing development. The idea is to build a critical mass of conserved acres with good soil and proven capability. This in turn should help keep the crucial support systems in place, things like veterinary clinics, equipment dealerships and seed, feed and fertilizer suppliers. The ultimate goal is a sustainable farm community that provides food, jobs, economic activity and a desirable landscape in perpetuity.
     George Houser Jr., Jim Perry and Pam Cali among others got the ball rolling back in the early 90's and a committed board of directors has kept it energized ever since. ASA hired Teri Ptacek as its executive director in 2003 and she has proven to be a visionary leader. With a capable staff the group pursues its primary mission of "protecting the future from the present" by negotiating and monitoring easements while also generating enthusiasm for local food and farms with a series of outings and events.

Conserved fields of Hand Melon Farm
Conserved farmland in Bald Mountain
     Its biggest fundraiser of the year is the Landscapes for Landsake art sale and exhibition on Columbus Day weekend, October 10-11-12. With dozens of artists contributing it's an opportunity to celebrate both the beauty of our agrarian countryside and the talented people inspired by it. All while supporting a great cause. The Maple Ridge Inn on Rt. 372 in Coila (just west of Cambridge) plays host in its classic high-beamed barn. Stop by to chat and mingle at the opening reception from noon to 5 on Saturday or quietly enjoy the art from noon to 4 on Sunday and Monday.

     What's farmland without farmers? That's where SUNY Adirondack (formerly ACC) has a role to play. The community college, located in Queensbury just north of Glens Falls, is looking to increase its ag education offerings. With sponsorship from Washington County, where agriculture is the leading industry, this is welcome news.
     I can remember decades ago when the college had a dairy farm located right next to it and there was some connection...the farm owner may have been a college trustee. Some of us thought that the addition of the farm to the college would have been a golden opportunity to offer ag courses locally. That was probably an idea before its time because the farm subsequently became a golf course and high-end development.
     But times change and there's been a resurgence in interest among young people for farming as a career. Educators at the college have taken note of this trend. Biology professor Dr. Tim Scherbatskoy developed some food related courses and found eager students. Kristine Duffy, the colleges recently appointed President, seems open to fresh ideas. Then, last year, SUNY Adirondack received a gift from local residents Ruth and Sandy Lamb to help fund a Sustainable Ag Initiative.
Scherbatskoy with young hop plants and hoop house at SUNY Adirondack

     Local farmer and Town of Jackson resident Jared Woodcock has been hired as Coordinator of Ag Initiatives. He is working with an advisory committee of area people involved with food production and distribution. The goal is more course offerings and potentially a degree program. I don't believe SUNY Adirondack intends to replicate what Cobleskill or Cornell does. Both of those schools being oriented towards large scale production ag. More likely are courses that help small, niche producers with business and marketing skills. All this is a work in progress and Jared is actively seeking input and ideas. Contact him at and get more information by typing in "agriculture" in the search box of the colleges website.
     I'm proud that my daughter Holly has been active in supporting local ag. Several years ago she wrote an opinion piece for The Post-Star encouraging ACC to consider adding a farming curriculum. Now she serves on their advisory committee. She has also worked as an intern with ASA and still volunteers when not busy with her job as land access coordinator for the National Young Farmers Coalition. It's her way of putting her hand on the land. Oh, she also milks cows and throws hay on occasion. That's called giving Dad a hand.

Taproots Farm
     Jared Woodcock, in addition to his work at SUNY Adirondack, operates Taproot Farm with wife Shannon and their children. They are located on Shunpike Road between Cambridge and Shushan. Check out their website, buy some of their products (pork,chicken, eggs) at the Cambridge Farmers Market or arrange a visit to the farm. Here's a fun gallery of photos from their site:

Sunday, October 4, 2015

After the Falls

     The marriage between water and gravity is on the rocks. Just look under the Rt. 29/40 bridge in Middle Falls to see what I mean. The Battenkill here is all grown up, just a few miles and a couple of tiny tributaries from its confluence with the Hudson. Above this spot is a big watershed encompassing the central part of Washington County and a good chunk of Vermont. From the high ridges of the Green and Taconic Mountains streams drop precipitously to form the river in the Valley of Vermont. Below Manchester, all the way to Center Falls, the gradient is steady making for
family-friendly floating and legendary fishing. Below Center Falls it gets more complicated with a series of dams and pools until Middle Falls where things head seriously downhill.
     The Battenkill's level above Middle Falls is 305 feet and it joins the Hudson at 80 feet. That's a drop of 225 feet in just four miles. Yet there's some great flatwater paddling in this stretch. What gives?

     The answer involves limestone, shale and concrete. After skirting the Village of Greenwich the river bumps into a north-south band of limestone and dolostone that acts like a dam. This is the rock that is quarried by Peckham and called Cement Mountain on topographic maps. It causes the Battenkill to draw a big lazy backward S before finding a way over the barrier at the falls beneath the Rt. 29/40 bridge.
     Currently the water power here is used to generate electricity but the site has a long history dating back to 1766. Called at various times Arkansaw and Galesville, it finally became Middle Falls in 1875. Plaster and cement, woolen and flouring mills have all been located here.

     The hydro plant maintains a small parking lot that's a mini-adventure to access. It's just off Rt. 29/40 on the south side of the river along the lane leading to the Battenkill Country Club. If your car's undercarriage survives the descent, you can leave it here and follow a short trail down to the water. This is called the Tailrace Access and is probably mostly used by fishermen. There's a tiny, gravelly beach that's a pleasant spot to hangout and, depending on water level and how much hospitalization insurance you have, you can explore a little ways up towards the falls. Old mill buildings and aqueducts are visible and the juxtaposition of limestone and plentiful moisture may make this a botanically rewarding spot. In that respect it reminds me of Carvers Falls on the Poultney River up in Hampton.

     It may be possible to put a canoe in here but I would not recommend it. There's just a short, fairly swift run down to the next falls which you absolutely don't want to go over. What I would recommend is the short walk back up to the middle of the highway bridge to view the falls and rock formations. None of this is visible from a car and it's really a neat sight. You might also consider strolling downhill to the country club vista. Warning: this scenery is dangerous. It made me consider taking up golf.

     The opposite bank of the river can be accessed by driving across the bridge into Middle Falls and taking the first left on Co. 53 to its end where the Dahowa Hydro facility has a place to park and a path that leads down to the water at a trestle crossing.

     Just downstream from this spot is a dam (or two?) and Dionondahowa Falls. But you can't get there from here. To view the Big Falls backtrack to Middle Falls turning right on Rt. 29 and driving a mile or so till you pass the Ice Cream Man (it's difficult but possible to drive by this yummy place. Don't worry we can come back later.).

     Turn right on Windy Hill Road and in about half a mile look for a small two car parking spot, just a little nook beside the road that's easy to miss. From here a short trail leads to several viewing platforms where you can see the falls, its plunge pool (the Devil's Cauldron) and the gapping downstream chasm in all their glory. This used to be a popular picnic spot and pleasure grounds accessible by trolley from Troy. The line crossed the deep canyon on a high bridge and you can still see its grade in the woods as it paralleled the river down to another crossing at Clarks Mills. From there the route went north towards Fort Edward and eventually Lake George. Remnants of the bed are visible in Denton Preserve and a bridge carrying it over the Moses Kill still stands.

     Those interested in the history of Dionondahowa falls and the old trolley line can read David Nestle's Rails along the Battenkill and check out the Gill Room local history collection in the Greenwich Library.
     The shale gorge here may be a relatively new landscape feature, cut since the last glacier melted. I've heard theories that the pre-glacial Battenkill used to flow south thru the Cambridge valley towards the Hoosic before being diverted by ice and outwash deposits into its present course. In any case, the river you see today has cut down thru its own delta of unconsolidated sediments (gravel, sand and clay) which built up where it entered a lake 13000 years ago.

     These are the flats that stretch from the Bald Mountain area in the north thru the fairgrounds to the fields of Hand Melons and BJ Farms further south. In the center of this unusually level landform the river has carved out a path.
     As you stand high above the gorge (keeping a tight grip on dogs and kids) you are looking down at the upper reaches of a nice paddling destination. But, as you've probably guessed, you can't get there from here. It's time to get back in the car and drive to the lower end of Windy Hill/Hogsback Road, past the H&V mill, across the bridge to a right on Pulp Mill Lane.
     From a parking area at the end carry your boat a few hundred yards thru an old mill yard till you're on the upstream side of the second Clarks Mills dam. The gate here is closed in late afternoon, just when most people get out of work and have time to paddle. Some miscreants have been known to carry around the right side of the gate when its shut. Once you're above the concrete dam look for a small launch site. I'ld like to say its clear sailing (or paddling) from here but I'ld be lying. The water close to shore can be choked with aquatic vegetation until you get out in the main channel. Persist and you're rewarded with a pleasant flatwater trip of several miles until you reach the shale gorge that leads up to Dionondahowa Falls. Here its up to the water level and your ambition how far you go against a progressively stronger current.

     I've canoed here several times, including a trip earlier this summer. It's certainly not wilderness but it's wild enough to host lots of life. I've seen turtles, deer beaver, egrets, comorants, herons, geese and ducks and heard a barred owl hooting. Shallow backwaters are filled with water chestnut, milfoil, yellow water lily and every type of green growth imaginable. There are mud flats, low spits and steep wooded banks lined with cottonwood and sycamore and giving way to a lush mixed forest. Yellow iris (invasive but attractive) lines the shore in early summer.

     There are also people fishing from small motor boats. At first this was puzzling. How did they get the boats up and around the dam? The answer is, they didn't. As we neared the upper end of our paddle, civilization appeared in the funky form of The Wrek. This is an RV campground with boat launch for members and trap shooting into a big gravel bank carved out of delta deposits.
     There were colorful strings of lights and music could be heard but not a single person seen on a beautiful summer evening. Several weeks later on a Saturday night Holly and I drove in off Fiddlers Elbow Road past a sign proclaiming "Bobby James, the singing DJ in concert". There's a long dirt road descent, you cross RR tracks and take a left at the Snob Hill sign. The Wrek wasn't exactly hopping but we did see a few signs of life: a couple of girls on floats in the river, a scattering of people sitting outside their campers and that was about it. Apparently Bobby James is the very quiet, invisible singing DJ because we neither saw nor heard a peep out of him.

Place at the Table - Fish and Drips

     Big Falls always leaves me with a big appetite. Good thing the corner of Rt. 29 and Windy Hill Road is nearby. That's where the Moby Dick Fish Fry wagon is parked next to the Ice Cream Man most of the summer. Dinner here includes a big pollock sandwich, onion rings or fries and some cole slaw. This place bucks all the foodie fads and I love it. It doesn't pretend to serve local, organic or even fair trade, whatever that means. The rolls aren't whole wheat or gluten free and everything but the cole slaw is fried. Furthermore, according to a recent Outside magazine article we shouldn't be eating anything out of the ocean. So enjoy a small helping of guilt along with a nice selection of condiments and great summer time cart food. And here's a little known fact about Moby Dick's Fish Fry...Herman Melville was inspired to write a novel after eating here!

     Now on to the main course. The Ice Cream Man has been a real sweet deal for many years. I can remember when Keith Mann started out small and quickly became an icon of summer in southern Washington County. All you had to say was "Log cabin?" and everybody was on board. Today the little stand where it all started has grown and expanded. Ice cream will do that to you. There's still window service under the porch roof while an indoor counter with seating and a screened room off to the side have been added. But my favorite spot remains the picnic tables in a shady grove out back.

     The stand has changed hands several times thru the years and each owner has added their personal touch with one thing remaining constant - great tasting, freshly made ice cream in a variety of creative flavors. Cones, sundaes, shakes and handpacked pints are available and a soft custard has become popular. The lines can get a bit long on summer evenings but they move fast and it's fun to chat with people. Like that interesting conversation I had with a couple of guys awhile ago. I think they said their names were Ben and Jerry...

Wild Watch

     This week it's a case of the early bird getting the moon... and some planets. In the wee hours between 4am and 6am the waning crescent moon will be threading its way past Venus, Mars and Jupiter and approaching Mercury on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, October 8-9-10. All this takes place near the constellation of Leo so its bright star Regulus also is part of the mix. Later in the month on the 17th the three planets form a close group and on the 25th Venus and Jupiter are side by side before sunrise. It's also a good month for meteors with the Draconids on Thursday the 8th and the Orionids on Tuesday the 20th.
     I've always thought that from now till the end of the year offers the best sunsets and cloud formations. I don't have a scientific explanation, just years of personal observations. Also more sundogs from fall thru winter.
     I spent the day disking a field of corn stubble in preparation for a rye seeding. Had lots of help with a red tailed hawk swooping down on mice right beside the tractor, and flocks of geese landing in adjacent fields. Now as I write in the evening a barred owl is hooting outside. I think I'll go out and listen to what he has to say...