Saturday, December 30, 2017

Be it Resolved...

     Let's get the obvious out of the way:

     I'm probably not going to lose weight in 2018. Doubt if I'll even try.
     Eating better is equally questionable. I've gotten this far without any kale passing my lips. Why take a chance now?
     Yoga or a gym membership aren't going to happen either. Not when there's a big, beautiful world to walk, run, hike, climb, ski, bike, swim and paddle in.

     So where does that leave me for resolutions? How about this one: Read more John Lubbock. Maybe adopt a bit of his outlook. You know Sir John? 1st Baron Avebury, 4th Baronet. Lived from 1834 to 1913. English banker, politician, scientist, and author. Friend to Charles Darwin. Archaeologist and preservationist. Amateur biologist. Endlessly, enjoyably quotable. So much so that a whole cottage industry has grown up around pairing his words with inspiring images. Let me share a few I've come across:

     And here's the cover of one of Lubbock's books:

     There's my New Year's resolution. To immerse in "the beauties of nature and the wonders of the world we live in". Who knows? Maybe I'll come across that stream on the books cover. Maybe she'll be there. 2018 is starting to look like a very good year. As long as there's no kale in it. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


     No, not that Bigfoot. Not the one who's so ubiquitous around Whitehall that you expect to see him walk into Stewarts for a couple dozen deli dogs and five or six shakes. The Bigfoot of my title isn't particularly elusive, mysterious or scary. It's just little, old me with my snowshoes strapped on. I played Bigfoot for the first time this season on a Sunday hike up Hogtown way. Here's a little of what I saw.

     We've had snow for about a week. Just a few inches down in the lowlands, but I'd heard there was a foot or so in the mountains. Time for a fun date, but "What to wear?" - bare boots, micro-spikes, snowshoes, skis? I have no fashion sense and usually make the wrong choice. My thought for this outing was that there wasn't enough snow for backcountry skiing but too much for a simple walk. Snowshoes got the call.
     Just before the season's first snow Gwenne and I had planned a hike up Pilot Knob from the lake side. Our schedule didn't have us leaving the Buck Mountain parking lot until 1:30 pm. Unfortunately, the Sun has its own schedule this time of year and we walked out of the woods in 5:00 pm darkness. We made it up and over the bald ridge but didn't have time to go to the true summit.

     This time my idea was to try for the top from the east. The approach is a little shorter with less elevation gain. I started up the Inman Pond/Pilot Knob trail about 1:00 pm but right away I could tell the pace would be slower ... the snowshoe handicap effect. I'm many years beyond charging up a mountain so I just settled into a 
'patience and gratitude' shuffle. I was grateful to be out in the woods on this cold, blue day and just needed the patience to see how far I could go.

     I got my answer in a little over an hour. That's how long it took to reach a height of land in an open notch. This is the divide between Butternut Brook, which tumbles down to Lake George, and the headwaters of Bishop Brook whose waters flow thru Hadlock Pond on their circuitous route to Lake Champlain. To the north was a steep ridge (with a good climbing ledge) between me and Crossett Pond. Higher and further was the summit of Buck Mountain. My destination was in the opposite direction, south of the trail. But it would be a trail-less bushwhack of a little over half a mile with 750' of climbing to the top of Pilot Knob. Not far unless you consider that it was mid-afternoon on one of the shortest, coldest days of the year. Here was the equation: .6 miles + 750' of elevation x 10ยบ F. - 2:30 pm ÷ (old + slow+ tired) = turn around and enjoy the hike back to the truck. In daylight. No search and rescue required. I was never good at math but solving this problem was easy.

     Heading down gave me time to explore a connected set of beaver ponds on the upper reaches of the east flowing brook. The hiking trail winds thru a string of pools created by several dams. I saw at least two mounded stick houses rising above the frozen surface. Beavers are large (50 - 60 lbs.) rodents in the order that includes squirrels, woodchucks, rats, mice and porcupines. They are characterized by two upper and two lower incisors which they use to gnaw. This propensity was obvious in the numerous cut-off shrub and tree stumps along the trail. Hidden beneath the snow, they would snag my snowshoes and were sharp enough to impale if you fell on one. A field of pickets to be carefully negotiated.

     Beech seemed to be the preferred menu item for the Pilot Knob beavers. I think of beech as the precious metal of trees. The bark has a silvery sheen while the winter leaves, buds and nuts are shades of bronze, copper and gold. Leaves on young trees tend to hang on late. The open woods here look like they've been sprinkled with glitter - beech leaf glitter. The bristly husks of beechnuts decorated the snow but very few of the edible nuts could be found. They are prized by all types of wildlife and probably helped give this area its name. Back in 1816 (the year without a summer) desperate farmers let their stock forage in these woods. It's been Hogtown ever since.

     Pigs and beavers may be the least of the tree's problems. Beech bark disease starts when a scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) creates an opening that allows fungi to enter the wood. This eventually leads to the plant's death. With climate change and invasive insects and disease our northern forests feel like they are under siege. 

Beech Scale Insects

Fungus Fruiting Bodies

     Hiking both sides of the Pilot Knob ridge within a matter of days was revealing. The west side that faces Lake George is steep and rocky with ledges and views. The east side slopes gradually down to where the next range - the Putnam Mountains - rear up. There's a geological explanation, of course. These are tilt block mountains formed by vertical movement along northeast trending faults. Adirondack rock is very old - in the billion year range - and over the eons it has been subject to both compression and tension as the earth's crustal plates collide and pull apart. These forces crack the rock and then, with further tectonic pressure, movement occurs along the faults to relieve stress. Eastward from Lake George are three distinct ranges: the Pilot Knob ridge, the Putnams and the Fort Ann Mountains. They all show steep, cliffy west faces where blocks of crust have pivoted up along faults.

Goggle Earth screen shot of Lake George, Pilot Knob range, Putnams (center), Welch Hollow and Fort Ann Mountains (left to right)

     But don't take my word for it. The thing to do is get your feet 
(big or otherwise) out on the trail. Feel the geology in your legs and lungs. Maybe you'll run into me. Trying to climb Pilot Knob. Again. 

Pilot Knob summit


     After twice backing off a small, easy mountain I was in need of some encouragement. Tom Petty's I won't back down was it. 
I was sad to hear of Tom's passing earlier this year. His was a life that brought joy and inspiration to so many people. Can there be any better way to live? Surely he's up there with the angels Learning to Fly. 


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Page Turner

     It's here. The season of snow, cold and a weary Sun that's late to rise and early to bed. For 'outsiders' like myself these are hard times. Long hours of darkness that would test even Rip Van Winkle's need to sleep. Might as well settle into a cushy chair with a good book. A hard working woodstove and a couple of furry friends complete the scene. Time to turn some pages until spring.  This post features some local interest books I plan to spend the winter with.

          Shays Settlement in Vermont: A Story of Revolt and Archaeology                        
          by Steve Butz
          I've wandered the border hills for many years. I've heard Steve talk about what he and his students have been finding up on Egg Mountain. Now I'm looking forward to reading his book about Shays and a bit of lost history.

          Untold Stories of the Battenkill
          by Elizabeth and Barton Conkey

          If you grew up in Greenwich, you grew up with memories of the Battenkill. Lucky for us, Betsy share's her memories in this coffee table book of art, photos, oral histories and stories.

          Teaching Trout to Talk: the zen of small stream fly fishing
          by Stuart Bartow

          Bartow knows and loves the Battenkill. He's a poet, author, educator and passionate advocate for his hometown stream. He also likes to wet a line on occasion. A mid-winter reminder of how wonderful clear running water is.

          Images of America

         There must be thousands of volumes in Arcadia's Images of America series. They feature old photos with accompanying text by local historians. There are several focused on Washington County and many more of surrounding areas: Lake George, Vermont and Saratoga. Fun to see what's the same and what has changed.

          A Guide to Architecture in the Adirondacks
          by Richard Longstreth

          One of the joys of wandering Washington County is the beautiful (sometimes bizarre and even ghastly) architecture you come across. This book looks like it would be a fun and informative companion on road trips in the Adirondacks.

           In the Bleak Midwinter
          by Julia Spencer-Fleming

          This 2002 murder mystery was the first in a series that now numbers seven or eight novels. It's set in the upstate community of Millers Kill, and features Clare - Episcopal priest/tough cookie and Russ - the Chief of Police. The author lives in Maine but I have a sense that she has a Washington County connection. Can anyone fill me in?

          The Harrows of Spring
          by James Howard Kunstler
          The fourth and final volume in the authors World Made by Hand series. They're set in the disrupted future but feel like tales out of the past. Recognizable locales add to the appeal.

          There you have my chosen company for this years reading season. Cat and dog are optional but highly recommended.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Wash Day - 12/4/17

     Shiver me timbers! Woke up to a blanket of freezing fog this morning. The meteorologic term is radiation fog. It occurs when clear skies and no wind during the night allow enough heat to escape for the air to reach its dew point. Then water vapor condenses into liquid water. The droplets in fog are tiny but there are enough of them to dramatically reduce visibility. It's like a stratus cloud at ground level.

     Yesterday was warm, calm and damp. Last night a super-moon peeped thru clouds that gradually dissipated. Perfect conditions for the cooling that produces fog. With the temperature right around freezing this morning, the moisture also gilded leaves and branches with frost. A vivid demonstration of water in three physical states - solid, liquid and gas.

     I love to wander Washington County taking in what makes it special - geology and landforms, plants and animals, architecture and all that people have created. But I also like to eat and have a roof over my head. Seems like providing those basic necessities takes ever more time and labor. The result is long stretches with little opportunity for the exploration I so enjoy.
     But even when work-shackled, you can still enjoy the sky show. Late fall, with its shifting weather, colorful sunsets and early evening stargazing is a gift. We're so lucky to have the circle of seasons and the variety they offer. Pity the poor folks in Hawaii with their monotonously perfect weather patterns. If anyone would like to contribute to my airfare, I'll volunteer to go there and offer our condolences... 

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 -