Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Very Mercky Christmas

     Santa deserves extra cookies and milk this year. On Christmas Day we found a trove of presents under the trees of Merck Forest in Vermont. Most treasured was the gift of close friends to hike and visit with. Add the good cheer of lots of other folks out enjoying a late December day that felt like early October. Then there was the contented flock of sheep grazing in their high meadow and the wild apple trees still laden with fruit, both evoking lush bounty. Beyond was a pleasant trail winding up thru the forest to an open summit with scenic views. Finally, throw in a brief dog fight for a little excitement. What more could you ask for?

     Our family has a tradition of going out for a holiday ski tour but in snowless years I've noticed  that the skis don't glide as well. So Plan B is a hike. Last year we checked out the New Skete trails and marveled over the architecture at the monastery in White Creek. This year Susanna and Dara planned a camping trip and hoped we could join them for a few hours.
     The drive was like climbing a tree of water. First was the trunk of the Hudson River. Then we ventured along a big limb known as the Battenkill. Next came a side branch called White Creek
(stream names tend towards the monochromatic over here - there are two White Creeks, a Black Creek and its mate, the West Branch of Black Creek, and last if not least, a Little White Creek.) Finally, rising past Rupert, Mill Brook divides into a numerous little unnamed twigs that collect the runoff from the Taconic ridgeline. And out on the hiking trail we passed moss covered ledges seeping with individual droplets, the leaves of this sprawling watershed tree.

     During a Stewarts stop in Salem we were rewarded with a possible Santa sighting. There he was, a rotund gentleman with bushy beard wearing a tee shirt and shorts held up by suspenders. Combat boots completed the outfit! After his night of hard work I guess the old guy deserves to dress-down and visit the convenience store of his choice.
     Salem, like Cambridge, is sited on flat, well-drained outwash deposits ideal for building. After turning onto Co. 153 in the center of town I always look for a magnificent sycamore just past the Fort Salem Theater. Love that tree and the beautiful old homes that line the street. Beyond is classic hill country scenery with fields backed by wooded slopes. Soon you reach West Rupert and then Rupert, sibling Vermont hamlets that seem content to be far from the maddening crowd. The D&H rail trail parallels the road before heading north towards West Pawlet. It's a good route to walk, ski or bike.
     A steep hill leads to the entrance to Merck Forest and a narrow dirt road that ends at a parking area and visitors center. Walking from here we passed a cabin, sugar house, barns and sheep pasture before meeting Susanna and Dara for the hike up Mt. Antone. At 2600 feet, it's the high point. The maple forest was strung with sap lines ready for the sweet season in March. A colorful mix of birches and spruce were sprinkled thru the sugarbush along with rocky outcrops of slate and phyllite.

Lila ready to rumble

     I often do this trip as a ski tour in snowy winters, arriving on top sweaty and then chilled by a frigid wind, while facing the steep descent with a roiling brew of anticipation and abject fear. So it was pure joy to take in the amazing vistas in the calm warmth of this Christmas afternoon. At least mostly calm. Just as our happy crew was preparing to head down, another family arrived. They were accompanied by a couple of miniature dachshunds resembling fat sausages sliding steadfastly up the trail. Holly's dog Lila made it clear that the mountain wasn't big enough for the three of them and for an instant the fur was flying. Fortunately, intervention was swift, collars grabbed and leashes snapped. Befitting the day, a gentle peace soon returned. All that was left was to be like water and flow gently down hill towards home.

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.    

Friday, December 4, 2015


     Time for the last First Friday of the year. In Granville two institutions have turned the date into a popular event. The Slate Valley Museum and the Pember Museum and Library open their doors this evening, December 4th, offering a variety of art, music and refreshments along with their usual displays and a chance to socialize.
     The venues sit across the Mettawee River from each other and are connected by an attractive footbridge making it easy to visit both. The Slate Valley Museum is the younger sibling, recently celebrating its 20th anniversary. Inside its attractive building the geology, industry and culture of slate come to life. Here you'll see displays honoring the ingenuity and hard work required to produce a useful product from a places natural resources. The museum exudes a justifiable pride in the areas history and continuing enterprise that's both upbeat and inspiring.

     Part of the SVM's mission is education and they host occasional geology lectures. I've heard Ed Landing (New York State Museum), Helen Mango (Castleton State College) and, most recently, John Van Hosen (Green Mountain College) speak here. Van Hosen's October 17 presentation was called
"Stories in the Landscape". He encouraged us to use our senses, and some commonsense, to see, touch and even taste rocks to figure out their history - how they were made, what has happened to them. His specialty is glaciation and the landforms it leaves behind but he also hopes to write a book on slate in the near future. Mango is also working on a project for general readers about the areas geology. This is exciting news. The Taconics have been extensively studied but most of the findings are in scientific papers that are hard to find and very tough sledding for us non-academics.

     The short course on the New York - Vermont slate district goes something like this: for tens of millions of years a landmass called Laurentia (a precursor to North America) was eroded dumping sediments into the ocean. The finer clay particles settled out on the continental slope and rise, consolidating into shales and mudstones. During this time ocean levels rose and fell and oxygen levels in the seawater varied. This fluctuation resulted in the layers of rock taking on different colors.
     About 450 million years ago the churning of plate tectonics brought an arc of large islands into collision with Laurentia's east coast. The crustal plate carrying the islands pushed the accumulated rock off the seabed and up onto land in a huge mountain range. Using a shovel to push a few inches of snow off the driveway is a good analogy. The snow piles up, slides in stacked slices, or folds and breaks. That's what happened to the rocks with some of them experiencing just the right amount of pressure to align the minute clay minerals resulting in parallel cleavage and creating the metamorphic rock called slate. Subsequent erosion exposed the slates at the surface, people came along and an industry was born.

     Franklin Pember was an entrepreneuer and natural history buff, not necessarily in that order. In 1909 he established a library and museum in a large marble building on the main street of his hometown - Granville, N.Y. His wide ranging collection of mounted birds, animals, insects and just about everything else is housed upstairs in the museum. You can read more in The Pember edited by Delight Gartlein, a former director of the institution.
     The place has long served as a focal point for nature lovers. Many years ago I helped Delight lead a series of outings to places such as the Dorset Bat Cave, South Bay and Lost Pond Bog in Vermont. We always had fun groups of knowledgable naturalists and I remember learning a lot on every trip. First Friday is a great way to get acquainted, and perhaps involved, with the Pember.

     If you want to spend a whole Friday, or any other day, in the Granville area here are a few suggestions:
     - The SVM has pamphlets describing walking tours in the village and driving tours in the valley. Both would be fun. I remember the time I was wandering backroads over towards Lake St. Catherine. I came across a bunch of quarrymen just getting done with work. In short order we were sharing a sixpack and talking rock. I learned more about slate in that half-hour than in a lifetime of reading. Thanks guys, for both the beer and the insight.

     - There's a rail trail that bisects the village offering a nice place to walk, run or bike. Not sure if it connects to a longer route in Vermont that goes from Castleton down to Rupert.

     - The Hebron Nature Preserve is 125 acres of forest and marsh with Black Creek meandering thru it. There are several miles of trails and wildlife is plentiful. It's eight miles south of the village on Rt. 22.

     - Lake St. Catherine State Park is closed for the camping season but still a good place to walk. It's in Vermont on Rt. 30 north of Wells.

     - For a more challenging climb you can't beat Haystack Mountain near Pawlet, Vermont. It pokes up above the Mettawee Valley like a ... haystack! Years ago I asked permission to climb it from a farmer. "Yup, go on up." So I traipsed out thru his pasture and began a bushwhack that turned into a rock climb on the steep south face. Today, the Nature Conservancy owns the peak and there's a safe and sane trail, but the views are just as amazing. Directions here.

Haystack summit view - photo by Jana Mason from mountains website

Place at the Table

     The last time I was at the museums I stopped in Edwards Market for soup and a sandwich that stretched into coffee and a cookie. This is a bright airy place that's a little of everything: deli, bakery, coffee shop and market. There are inside tables and an in-season outside deck high above the Mettawee River. It's right on Main Street just before the bridge with parking across the street. You'll come out smiling and stocked up for more exploration.

 Haystack Mountain - photo by Loretta Taylor from mountains website