Thursday, February 28, 2019

Poets & Paths

     I didn't plan on this. On being in North Bennington again. Not so soon. 
     Don't get me wrong. It's an inviting town, well worth a visit. Just a few weeks ago I spent a rewarding afternoon exploring the writer Shirley Jackson's legacy here. But there's the rub. My habit is to become intrigued by something or somewhere. I'll do a little research, then go and check it out. Boots on the ground. And, too often, not go back again, sometimes for years. 
     It isn't that the 'something or somewhere' disappointed. More a case of "So many places, so little time". My restless curiosity gets the best of me. I crave fresh discovery. There's nothing like the thrill of a first date, even if that first date is with a limestone ledge and its fossils. Or a buggy swamp that might possibly host a few overlooked orchids. And so I move on and on. And sadly, don't keep in touch with my old 'place' friends.

Cuddling with Mary - Web image

     But on January 17, 2019 Mary Oliver died, and I knew I'ld be going back to North Bennington. Oliver's poetry was an inspiration to all who take their sustenance from nature. Over the course of a long life she wrote hundreds, maybe thousands, of poems. Some fine prose as well. In Long Life there's an essay titled 'Home' that could well serve as the anthem for this blog.

     She liked to walk. Almost every morning found her wandering thru fields, woods, along beaches. Always with a notebook, often with her beloved dogs. For most of her life she lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her poems are filled with images of the shore, the ocean and the life they nourish. 
     She also taught. For five years from 1996 to 2001 she taught at Bennington College. Her students remember her warmly. She was selflessly dedicated to them and their work. Humble about her own writing. And they remember seeing her walking. Early in the morning, usually with a dog.

Bennington College - Web image

     Since her passing I've been reading and rereading Oliver's poems. So have a lot of other people. If I could, I'ld go to Provincetown. Walk where she walked. Follow her admonition:      
"To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work." But the Cape is a little beyond my reach. North Bennington, on the other hand, I can do. And that's what Gwenne and I did recently. We went to Vermont and walked where Mary might have. I'll share a little of what we saw. Nothing poetic but I did try to pay attention.


     From the circle in the center of town we crossed Paran Creek and drove up Prospect Street to where it turns sharp left. Instead of turning, go straight thru the stone pillars to a small parking lot. The Short Aldrich Trail begins just a little back down Prospect on the left. It's a narrow footpath that winds thru several distinctly different wooded areas, eventually coming to a place where you can cross Paran creek, walk some streets and then enter the Mile-Around Woods on the other side of the valley.

     At least that's the way you are supposed to do it. We, on the other hand, followed what seemed like a well trodden path that started right from the parking area. It turned out to be a short cut  that students use to get to town. We quickly came out in back of Jennings Hall, the impressive stone mansion that houses Bennington College's music department and that is reputedly haunted. Denied any ghost sightings, we wandered college lanes and paths before coming to The Orchard, a small cluster of houses used by faculty. Past the colleges observatory and gardens we eventually entered the woods and picked up the Short Aldrich Trail back to our truck.

     The Bennington College campus is invitingly spacious with open fields and eclectic architecture. What's called The Blue Trail encircles it. I don't know what the college's policies are but it seems OK to walk here and it's certainly pleasant. I'm sure Mary Oliver's footsteps fell on every inch of these paths.


     I doubt if she ever walked the next trail we went on. But I'll bet she would have liked to. What poet wouldn't want to follow The Robert Frost Trail? But it wasn't built until 2011, post-dating Oliver's time in North Bennington. It goes from the Lake Paran beach to the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in nearby South Shaftsbury. Lore has it that Frost, after an all night writing session, went out for a morning walk. Then he came back, sat at his kitchen table and wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening". That fruitful walk, in June of 1922, may have traced the route of today's Robert Frost Trail.

     We hiked a couple of miles out to Paran Creek and back (With nothing to show for it but this blog post. Obviously, I'm no Robert Frost!). That's about half the way to the Museum. Most of the route is along the lake shore with one hill that takes you up to a high, open meadow with sweeping views. The Green Mountains look like a wooded tidal wave coming in from the east while cone shaped Mt. Anthony shares the southern horizon with its phallic companion, the Bennington Monument. To the west are the low hills of the Vt./N.Y. border. This area is sometimes referred to as the Hoosic Falls reentrant, where the Walloomsac and Hoosic Rivers have eroded a gap in the High Taconic ridgeline.

     Naturalist will find much to enjoy along the Robert Frost Trail. Even on a cold winter day we saw mallards on open water above a beaver dam and scores of tracks in the snow. Come the first warm days of spring this south facing hillside will come alive with flower blossoms and bird song. I'm think Mary would have liked it here.


     No walking tour of North Bennington is complete without visiting The Mile-Around Woods. Since they were open to the public in 1994, and the carriage road has been there much longer, I would be surprised if Mary didn't spend time here during her teaching years. 
     To access the property go up West Street from the town circle. After going thru an intersection and past the Park-McCullough House you'll see a lane leading across fields on the left. There is limited parking along the road. Walk on the lane between fences and don't disturb the horses that sometimes graze in adjoining pastures. The maple lined lane ascends a low hill to informational maps and signage at the forests edge.

     The carriage road winds thru an impressive, mature forest with lots of healthy looking beech trees and some glacial erratic boulders that kids have fun playing on. Most folks will just stroll the Mile-Around loop but there is an extensive network of trails that can be explored. This would also make a good ski tour, being wide and gently rolling. The bedrock in this part of Vermont is dolostone with some marble and these carbonates should encourage a profusion of spring wildflowers. No matter the season, The Mile-Around Woods will delight.

Map with trails in purple - Short Aldrich on right and Mile-Around to the left

       Mary Oliver's heart may have been in Provincetown but her feet had a five year fling with North Bennington. Life gets a little better when you read her poetry, share her sensibility, walk where she did. And when you pay attention.


     Learn more about Mary Oliver and North Bennington at these sites:

     * Her former students reminisce here. 

     * The poet gave few interviews but she did talk to Krista Tippett for On Being. Listen to the podcast or read the transcript here. 

     * The Fund for North Bennington is the community organization that has preserved the land and developed the trails I mention. Find out more about them here. 

     * Isabel Marlens has put together a neat guide to spring ephemeral's that you might see on these trails. Access it here. They'll be blooming before you know it.

     * Info on the Robert Frost Stone House Museum here. 

     * Many people go to North Bennington just to visit the Park-McCullough House. It's conveniently adjacent to the Mile-Around Woods. Here's what you need to know.

     * Brett Stanciu is a writer/blogger from northern Vermont. She's also a fan of Mary Oliver. You might enjoy her Stony Soil Vermont.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

For Landsakes

     Landscapes for Landsake is a much anticipated date on Washington County's yearly calendar. It's an art show and sale held  Columbus Day weekend at Maple Ridge's barn near Cambridge. The Agricultural Stewardship Association sponsors the event with proceeds supporting their farmland protection efforts. Last fall's exhibition featured nearly 600 works by 58 artists with over  $84,000 in sales split evenly between ASA and the artists.
     For those who can't wait till October, Crandall Library in Glens Falls is currently hosting a mini-version of the Landscapes show. It's in the upstairs gallery and features 21 paintings by eleven artists. Maybe some of them will be at a reception for the exhibit on Thursday evening, February 21 from 6 to 8 pm.

ASA image

     According to their fall newsletter, ASA has conserved over 20,000 acres of farm and forestland and hopes to protect another 4000 acres this year. By raising money locally thru their Forever Farmland Campaign they can leverage up to $7.5 million in state and federal funds. The land trust will then use that to buy easements that save farmland from development. Find out more about this worthwhile organization here.


     - A group in Cambridge hopes to create a community forest on the edge of the village. The land would be used for education, recreation and low impact forestry. Find more about their plan here.

White Creek runs along the base of the hill at the far end of the field. I believe the community forest would be on the wooded slopes and beyond.

     - In Fort Ann the site of a July 8,1777 Revolutionary War skirmish has been preserved and plans are underway to create a Battle Hill historical park.

A plaque along Rt. 4 marks the site

     - More bird habitat has recently been protected near Fort Edward. During the summer, New York State bought 180 acres from Merrilyn Pulver to add to the Washington County Grasslands Wildlife Management Area. Then, towards the end of the year, the Friends of the Important Bird Area received a state grant to purchase another 64 acres.

     - The Leeming Jelliffe Preserve was opened in September of 2018. This 33 acre Huletts Landing property features a short hike to a viewpoint across Lake George. It was a project of the Lake George Land Conservancy.

LGLC photo

     - The Saddles State Forest is located on the ridge between Whitehall and South Bay. Access to the 2471 acre parcel is off Rt. 4 south of the village. Wildlife habitat, ponds and cliffs. Wouldn't it be great if there was a trail from here along the crest of the range to Fort Ann's Battle Hill Park. Maybe someday.

     - The Battenkill Conservancy has received several donations of property in the last few years. The Schmidt Meadow Preserve consists of 10.8 acres along the river in the town of Jackson while the Rexleigh Marble Mill is a historic structure just upstream from the covered bridge in the town of Salem. It was given by the Oakley family.

Conservancy photo

     Places are always evolving, always changing. Sometimes they even change for the better! We can all be grateful for the generosity and hard work that went into saving these lands for present and future generations to enjoy.

     Bonus: Here's a link to Woody singing this post's theme song.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Blowing in the Wind

     I was in the skid-steer when the aeolian processes blew in. Now, 
skid-steers are small worlds onto themselves. Strapped into a tiny cab, surrounded by diesel roar and hydraulic whine, view blocked by the 800# bale of hay the machine had in its grasp, it's a space capsule-like realm of isolation. Still, there was no denying something was happening. 

The view from my office

     It had been cold and calm when I started working. Now billowing curtains of snow were blowing across the field. Beyond the din of the machine I sensed a howl. The wind was that strong. When I had to get out to open a gate...WHOA! hit me with the force of an NFL linebacker. I could have been in the movie Alien, one of the Nostromo's crew called by a distress signal down to that spooky moon. I stepped out into a surface scouring maelstrom. My eyes watered, my face stung. I could barely stand up.
     I didn't appreciate it at the moment, but that was when the beauty was being created, when the sculpting was being done. Aeolian processes (such a lovely phrase) is simply a scientific term for wind and its effects. It's most often used to describe dune building. As in desert and beach sand dunes. Usually these are made of quartz mineral sand. But consider this: frozen water (ice) is also a mineral and in the form of snow it can be shaped by the wind much like sand. Most winters we get the conditions to observe this phenomenon: cold, dry snow followed by wind. That's what we had in late January.

     The classic dune shape is termed 'barchan'. It is a crescent with a low angled windward (stoss) side and a steeper downwind (lee) side. Other dunes may be transverse (perpendicular to the wind) or seifs (longitudinal to the wind). Some are even star-shaped. Processes of deposition and erosion work on dunes, moving them across the landscape and changing their shape. The sand grains sometimes slide along the surface and other times bounce in what's known as saltation.
     It would be a fascinating adventure to visit some of the world's great dune fields (if you need a travel companion I'm available for a small fee!). Namibia, in West Africa, may be the most popular dune destination. The desert near the Atlantic Skeleton Coast has stunning formations. In this country, Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park is the spot, while Zion National Park features lithified dunes that have been compacted and cemented into rock.

A sand dune reaching for heaven - Namibia

Great Sand Dunes National Park - Web image

     Closer to home, many people make a summer pilgrimage to Cape Cod with its coastal dunes. Regionally, I'ld recommend visiting Alburgh Dunes State Park on the shore of Lake Champlain in northwestern Vermont. The scale here is small but you can see the natural processes and efforts to stabilize and protect the beach/dune/wetland complex. Also consider a trip to Sandy Island Beach State Park on the east end of Lake Ontario in Oswego County, New York. The Nature Conservancy has worked with state and local government to conserve this unique beach and dune area.

The beach at Alburgh - Web image

Busy day at Sandy Island Beach - Web image

     Even closer to home, as in right out my back door, are dunes leftover from the last ice age. As glacial Lake Albany drained some 12,000 years ago it exposed beaches made of sand that had been eroded out of the Adirondack Mountains. This exposed sand was worked by the wind into a dune field across a broad swath of what is now Saratoga County. Eventually, vegetation became established and stabilized the area. With the arrival of Europeans the sand was mined, farmed, leveled and built upon. But you can still find remnant dunes with modest relief, including some in my hay fields. Maybe that explains my attraction to dunes...they've been the backdrop to my entire working life.

I use sand from the crest of this small dune

     When most of us think of sand dunes we think 'hot'. As in deserts and summer days at the shore. Ever the contrarian, I like to watch the same processes that shape sand work on cold snow. I remember a blizzard some 25 years ago. Bitter temps with sideways snow blown at near hurricane force. After the storm had spent itself I went out on skis to explore a molded world of drifts, gullies and corniced waves. A schuss thru winter's art gallery.
     I've often seen beautifully shaped snow up on the Lake George mountains. Buck, Pilot Knob, Sleeping Beauty and Shelving Rock  all have areas of wind swept open rock interspersed with wind blocking patches of low shrubby trees. Here, sometimes you can find mini snow dunes on mountaintops. Other times the frozen lake will itself be covered with snow. It's the bane of ice fishermen and skaters but gives the wind a big canvas to paint upon.

     And I have to mention 'sastrugi'. The first time I heard the word I imagined some yummy Italian dish. Maybe sausage smothered in marinara and melted cheese. That's the way my mind works. Of course, my mind is often mistaken. Sastrugi is actually from the Russian zastrugi, or 'small ridges'. It refers to parallel, wave-like undulations caused by winds on the surface of hard snow. It's  commonly seen in polar regions and would be fun to find around here. Sun cups, snow rollers and penitentes are other neat features most often seen at higher elevations.
     Whenever the snow flows in sheets across my fields I know it's time to wax the skis. Time to get out there and see what nature has wrought. Sculpted, sensual snow, like life itself, is ephemeral. Catch it while you can.

Also worth catching...
     Does drifting snow make you think of Dylan's Blowin in the Wind? Thankfully there are versions that don't try to sell you Budweiser. Here's one.