Young composers get a chance to hear their works

North Country music teacher Anne Hamilton and Adele Woodmansee listen as musicians from the Burlington Ensemble, including violinists Michael Dabrowski and Sofia Hirsch, rehearse Ms. Woodmansee’s String Quartet in D Minor.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

North Country music teacher Anne Hamilton and Adele Woodmansee listen as musicians from the Burlington Ensemble, including violinists Michael Dabrowski and Sofia Hirsch, rehearse Ms. Woodmansee’s String Quartet in D Minor. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the chronicle 05-08-13

by Joseph Gresser

DERBY LINE — At noon on a fine spring Wednesday, a stream of youngsters from elementary to high school age poured into the doors of the Haskell Opera House.  In front of the entrance to the Haskell Free Library a man sat gazing intently at sheets of paper in his lap as he conducted an invisible orchestra.

That man, Eric Nielsen, is a distinguished Vermont composer and one of many who work behind the scenes as part of Music-Comp.  That organization, once known as the Vermont Midi Project, encourages students in their efforts to compose music by having professionals mentor them through the Internet.

On May 1, preparations were nearing completion for the twenty-sixth in a series of concerts which allow student composers to hear their works performed by professional musicians.

Among the 26 composers whose pieces were to be featured on the evening’s bill were three from North Country Union High School — Adele Woodmansee, Erin Spoerl and Bradley Dopp.  Their teacher, Anne Hamilton, has been involved with Music-Comp since it began in 1995, and has heard many of her students’ compositions played over that time.

She guided her students through the rehearsal process, sitting with Adele Woodmansee on the stage of the Haskell as four players from the Burlington Ensemble ran through her String Quartet in D Minor.

First violinist Michael Dabrowski asked Ms. Hamilton, “Is our goal to learn the piece?”

“The goal is to have a conversation with the composer,” Ms. Hamilton replied.

Her response reflected an attitude of respect that permeates the program.

The musicians immediately got it, and began asking Ms. Woodmansee technical questions about how she thought the piece should be performed.

Ms. Woodmansee, herself an accomplished violinist, answered easily in a manner that revealed that she had given the questions a great deal of thought during the compositional process.

That she did so is in part due to the work of Mr. Nielsen and his fellow composer mentors, who look over compositions e-mailed to them by the young composers and make suggestions for ways the pieces might be developed.

The exchanges often grow lengthy as compositions change and new possibilities open up.

One astounding aspect of the concerts is that young composers are afforded instrumental possibilities that a professional would envy.  For the Opus 26 performance, composers had a string quartet plus a contra bass at their beck and call, as well as the forces of the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, a wind consort that includes flute, oboe or English horn, bassoon and clarinet.

Mr. Dopp’s composition Frosk, a Norwegian word meaning frog, he explained, brought together bass clarinet, contra bass and bassoon.

He, the musicians, Ms. Hamilton and some classmates squeezed themselves into a tiny dressing room for his rehearsal.

Bassist Evan Premo mentioned in an offhand way that Mr. Dopp had marked the tempo for his piece in a way that was difficult for the musicians to understand.  He took a moment to explain the math needed to figure how fast Mr. Dopp wished the piece to be performed, and made a suggestion about how to handle the matter in the future.

Clarinet player Steve Klimowski asked Mr. Dopp how he wanted a very quiet entrance performed.

The trio performed Mr. Dopp’s piece once and Mr. Klimowski made a major error, finishing long after the other two musicians.  A second attempt corrected that mistake.

Afterward, Mr. Klimowski explained to a curious onlooker that, although musicians receive the pieces well in advance of the concert, it is hard to know how an ensemble will sound without playing together.  He said there is time to work through any technical challenges an individual player might face, but only about ten minutes to play each work together.

The musicians worked through the afternoon until all trooped off to the Universalist Church for dinner.

As part of its Opus 25 concert, Music-Comp produced an e-book reviewing the organization’s history.  Executive Director Sandi MacLeod said the book will be available on the organization’s website in the middle of May.

Ms. MacLeod said the book was part of a fund-raising effort.  Grants that were available in the program’s early days are drying up, she said, and the organization is seeking new revenues.

One way they are going about it is by expanding Music-Comp’s horizons.  Ms. MacLeod said the organization changed its name in part because midi is old technology and in part because it is now a national organization working with students in many other states, including New York, Indiana and California.

Among those testifying to the effect the organization has had on them are a number of students from Orleans County, many of whom are now pursuing music as a career in one way or another.

Twins Matt and Adam Podd graduated from North Country and are living in New York City working as freelance pianists, arrangers and composers.  Matt Podd still maintains his connection with Music-Comp and works as a composer mentor.

Sam Schiavone of Greensboro, whose work was performed in four Opus concerts, is a graduate student in mathematics at the University of Vermont.  Another Greensboro participant, Mavis McNeil studies music at Skidmore College.

When students returned to the auditorium, and the audience filtered in, there was a moment not usually seen in the concert hall as composers, musicians and teachers crowded the stage for a group photo.  The performance began with a work by Susie Francy, a ninth grader from Leland and Gray High School.

Ms. Francy, who was the first from her school to have a work chosen for performance, was accompanied by her parents and her music teacher, Ronald Kelley.  She stood when her piece, called Child, was introduced and again at the conclusion stood for the applause.

Two composers, Ivan Voinov and Ms. Spoerl took turns introducing the pieces and reading statements from the artists. Ms. Francy said her composition, written for flute, oboe, cello, bassoon and clarinet, was a depiction of a child’s growth to adolescence.

Ms. Francy received a good round of applause, and the concert continued with pieces by younger composers, all of which belied their years.  It was only when a young composer stood to be recognized and was little taller than when seated, that his or her youth was apparent.

The younger composers took up the first part of the concert.  After an intermission the program was to continue with works by older students.

Instead, Ms. MacLeod stood and announced that the musicians were not satisfied with the performance they had given of Ms. Francy’s piece.

The five players returned to their places and performed the work again as a gesture of simple respect.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Gardeners asked to watch out for rare bumblebee

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Bombus terricola, the yellow-banded bumblebee, is found in parts of Vermont but it is so rare it is being considered for the endangered species list. Photo by Larry Clarfeld, courtesy of the North Branch Nature Center.

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 4-24-2013

NEWPORT — Home gardeners rely on wild pollinators to help their gardens grow, but one species of bumblebee is in big trouble.
Others have already gone extinct, leaving the remaining species to fill in the gaps.
Larry Clarfeld, an educator for the North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier, studies Vermont’s bumblebees. He told a group at Newport Natural Foods and Montgomery Café on April 10 that while there are still lots of bees, biodiversity of the pollinators has dropped dramatically.
The meeting was part of a master gardener lecture series.
Mr. Clarfeld said there are, in all, 33 species of bumblebees in this country. Of those, there are 19 or 20 in Vermont.
“Why is biodiversity important?” he asked rhetorically. Without it, he added, “We’re making our ecosystem more and more fragile.”
He said each bumblebee species has a different lifestyle and niche. Some have long tongues to reach into deep-throated flowers. Others are active earlier or later in the season. Some are most attracted to one particular flower or do better in warmer or cooler climates. The more types there are, the more chance that various plants will get pollinated.
“Certain types of orchids are only pollinated by bumblebees,” he said.
Bumblebees are not the same as honeybees. He said honeybees can be compared to cows. They are domestic animals, useful to people, but not native to the places where they live now.
Honeybees have suffered recently due to a problem known as colony collapse disorder.
An article in the New York Times on March 28 says colony collapse disorder was first discovered around 2005, and the past year saw 40 to 50 percent losses. The article talked about California almond growers, where honeybees pollinate 800,000 acres, using two-thirds of all the commercial hives.home bee guy
Mr. Clarfeld said some of the theories about what is causing problems for both wild and domestic bees include pesticide and herbicide use, habitat destruction and climate change, and viruses. Between 1994 and 1996 bees were taken to Europe and brought back, and a disease came with them.
Mr. Clarfeld said researchers really don’t know what is causing all the problems but are starting to try to find out.
“It’s hard to protect and conserve something if you don’t understand it and don’t know where it is,” he said. As it happens, some work had been done in Vermont by author Bernd Heinrich, who wrote a book called Bumblebee Economics in 1979.
New research has started to find and map all the bee species in Vermont, and Mr. Clarfeld decided to help as a volunteer.
So last summer he adopted six areas specified by researchers and systematically looked for bees.
“All my free time was spent chasing around bumblebees,” he said. He would drive around a particular quadrant, stop at a specific location and go catch bees. In most cases he killed the bugs he caught, rinsed them, blow dried them, and pinned and labeled them. The one exception was the species that is so rare, bombus terricola. He did not kill any of that species. Over the course of the summer he caught 700 bees.
“As a result, I saw almost every species of bee,” Mr. Clarfield said. Differences in markings are sometimes so small that it can be difficult to tell what species one is looking at until a precise measurement of jaw length is made, for example.
Bombus terricola, the yellow-banded bumblebee, still exists in Vermont even though it has died out elsewhere.
“It seems to have a stronghold in Vermont,” he said. “Something in Vermont is allowing them to survive.”
“This is a bee that is being proposed to be an endangered species,” he said, along with two or three others.
Bombus terricola can be distinguished from other bumblebees by its black body and wide yellow double band in the middle and two narrow yellow bands at the front and back. Mr. Clarfeld said these are sometimes hard to see on the back.
Gardeners who think they might have a bombus terricola in their garden are asked to take a photo and post it to a website about insects called The Xerces Society for Invetebrate Conservation. www.xerces.org.
Another website with good information is bugguide.net. Mr. Clarfeld said if you can’t figure out what bug you have seen, you can post a photo and a naturalist will identify it for you, sometimes in minutes.
More information about the Vermont bee study can be found at this website:
www.vtecostudies.org/vtbees/
Gardeners who want to encourage and help bumblebees can plant some of their favorite flowers. Mr. Clarfeld said these include red clover, purple vetch, milkweed and bee balm.
“Pollinators are important, and they’re in trouble,” he said.
contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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Katz preaches the gospel of sauerkraut

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Author Sandor Katz speaks with a couple who attended his talk on fermentation. Mr. Katz, who grew up in New York City and has since moved to rural Tennessee, writes that his interest in fermentation comes from an early love of kosher dill pickles as well as a concern for health gained as a person living with HIV. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle 4-10-2013

CRAFTSBURY COMMON — A self-proclaimed “fermentation evangelist” preached the gospel of sauerkraut March 3 to a receptive congregation at Sterling College.

Sandor Katz has gained wide recognition for writing and teaching about different types of fermented foods.  But his talk at Sterling followed his most recent book The Art of Fermentation on a more philosophical exploration of a method of food transformation that is practiced in one way or another by every culture.

The word culture itself is central to Mr. Katz’s new book and also to his talk.  He noted the use of the word to indicate the specific microorganisms that are introduced to milk to make yogurt and particular varieties of cheese, as well as its common meaning, denoting a collection of activities, beliefs and artistic practices that are the hallmarks of a human society.

In Mr. Katz’s view, a culinary culture is, in part, made up of the microorganisms that help create foods and drinks that characterize a society.  We consume many of these without giving much thought to their origins.

Beer, wine, bread, cheese, coffee, pickles, cured meats are all foods that rely on fermentation, a process that, in turn relies on a healthy society of microorganisms.

Mr. Katz said he has tried to find societies that do not use the process of fermentation to preserve foods or create dishes of extraordinary flavor.  So far, he said, he has failed to discover one.

The key to fermentation, he said, is the world of microorganisms that have evolved along with humanity.  In his book, Mr. Katz says that previous generations depicted these microorganisms as humanity’s tiny servants, working tirelessly to transform milk into cheese or grain into beer.

Another way of viewing the situation, he said, is to see these creatures as having tricked humans into working hard to provide a nice comfortable environment in which they can grow and reproduce, by producing flavors that we enjoy.

After the French scientist, Louis Pasteur, discovered the relationship between bacteria and disease, humanity’s relationship with these creatures has undergone a radical change, Mr. Katz said.

“All of us raised in the United States in the twentieth century have been indoctrinated to consider bacteria as bad,” Mr. Katz told more than 100 students, teachers and community members.

He said the current craze for soaps that kill up to 99 percent of all bacteria is a mistake, especially when our own bodies are mostly made up of bacteria.

Mr. Katz said research shows that bacteria outnumber human cells by ten to one in our bodies.  “We are host to them,” he remarked, “but maybe they are host to us.”

These bacteria are not parasites, Mr. Katz said.  They do things for us that we could not do without them, and contribute to processes as vital to our survival as digestion and reproduction.

Coexistence with these microorganisms is imperative, Mr. Katz said.

As a person who has conducted thousands of workshops to teach people how to make sauerkraut and similar foods, Mr. Katz said he has found many people who worry about the danger of getting the wrong kind of bacteria in their fermented foods.

Fermented foods made with raw vegetables are very safe, he said, although “more parameters for safety need to be followed when working with meat or milk.

“The number of reported fatalities from eating fermented vegetables, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture is,” Mr. Katz paused for emphasis here, “exactly zero.”

He continued, saying, “Once cabbage is chopped, salted and fermented in its own juice, natural bacteria take over, acidifying the environment and destroying invading bacteria.”

That process is one in which a group of bacteria create a stable environment for themselves, Mr. Katz said.  Such a culture, propagated by the process of back-slopping — adding a portion of one batch of the ferment to milk or grains to create the next batch — can last for generations, he said.

Yogurt and sourdough cultures can last for years if tended carefully, he said.

Industrially produced ferments, such as commercial yogurt, generally rely on specific microorganisms purchased from catalogs, Mr. Katz said.  These produce uniform results, but do not do well in the wild.

He told of how he tried for years to make yogurt by adding some commercial yogurt to warm milk.  The first batch, he said, was satisfying with the flavor and texture he craved.

Each succeeding generation was less successful, he said.  The specialized cultures purchased by the commercial yogurt makers were not able to ward off wild microorganisms and so deteriorated over time, he said.

In contrast yogurt made from wild strains in the Balkans can be cultured by back-slopping indefinitely, he said, because the culture is made up of a variety of organisms that work together to ward off invading bacteria.

In his talk, as in his book, Mr. Katz equates the cooperative interaction of the wild microorganism with people learning and teaching about fermented foods, and even experimenting with new foods, to create a culture apart from the large-scale commercial food industry.

In his book he explores the different ways people have learned to preserve foods as diverse as fish, grains and casava roots with the assistance of microorganisms.

He gives the loosest types of recipes to make most of these foods, but most importantly Mr. Katz gives encouragement and even permission to those who are on the brink of entering the world of ferments.

Mr. Katz’s talk was the first in a series sponsored by Sterling College and the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick that they say is designed to bring “contemporary perspectives and visionary speakers on local and global food systems to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.”

During his stay Mr. Katz got to see the work on local food systems that has developed here over the past few years.  In turn he provided an overview of a global system that predates, and will likely outlast, humanity.

The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz.  Published by Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, 2012, 498 pages, hardcover, $39.95.

 

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Jon Somes creates hair and skin product line

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Jon Somes.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Jon Somes. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 3-20-2013

NEWPORT — In a culmination of years of creative process, Jon Somes of Newport is now selling hair and skin care products in his salon, under a label with his own name on it.

“It had been on my mind for years and years,” he said in an interview at the salon Friday.  In 2006 he started thinking about it seriously and looking for the right chemist.  He found someone in Oregon and has been working on the recipes ever since.

These recipes aren’t something you can cook up in a regular kitchen.

He tried to find someone in Vermont, but he could not find the right person or lab.  So for now, the products are shipped in bulk to Vermont and bottled and labeled here.  If sales quantities justify a change in the future, he will set up a lab to make it here too and possibly create local jobs.

But for now he’s just really glad to have finally settled on the right recipes and be able to offer his products for sale — at the shop or from his website.

“At first I was just going to do shampoos and conditioners,” he said.  But he decided that facial products are also really important for someone’s overall look.

He read a lot about various ingredients and tried lots of combinations before settling on the right mixtures.  One important ingredient for skin is hyaluronic acid, which was originally made of roosters’ combs.  These days the same ingredient is made in a lab with a fermenting process.

The ingredients are 83 to 93 percent organic, but Mr. Somes said he finds that completely organic shampoos and conditioners have a tendency to leave hair somewhat too dry, not shiny, and staticy — especially in winter in Vermont with wood stoves drying out the indoor air in a lot of homes.

Getting the right fragrance for the shampoos and conditioners was another whole process.

“I had a feeling about how I wanted it to smell,” he said.  He found a perfumery in Pennsylvania that was able to help him come up with scents that he had described to them, with ingredients he wanted.  Some of the ingredients are amber, citron, and mandarin.

He said it should have one scent when it first comes out of the bottle and hits the air in the shower, and another one later after one’s hair is dry.

“There’s undertones to it,” he said.

He’s had the products in the shop for a while already, long enough to get some reaction from clients.  The very first person he used the shampoo and conditioner on immediately mentioned it.

She said, “I don’t know what this is, but I love this.”

He said he’s pretty sure many of his clients are enjoying the products.  If they had only bought one bottle he might think they were trying to be polite, but they have been coming back for more.

The products are expensive due to the expense of some of the ingredients.  One of the ingredients, argon oil, is critically important and only comes from Morocco.

Mr. Somes said once the perfumery had put together the fragrance he wanted, the people there gave him some feedback that really pleased him.  They told him the fragrance could be a perfume, not just a shampoo.  Their comments were:

“A sophisticated, modern, fine fragrance type, opening with a citrusy sparkle of citron and mandarin, leading to a floral heart of night blooming jasmine, ylang ylang, vetiver and rose, and finishing with an ambery, mossy, patchouli, sandalwood and then an exotic, spicy dry-down.”

Mr. Somes has just finished his website:  www.jonsomes.com/index.php.  It’s getting some attention already on the Internet.  He doesn’t know where this will take him, but he’s extremely happy with the products themselves.

“I had an idea that manifested into an incredible finished product,” he said, and having it done is completely satisfying.  “My intention was to make the very best thing possible.”

The Jon Somes Salon has been on Main Street in Newport for three years and draws clients from out of state and Canada.  Mr. Somes had a salon in Derby Line in the late ’90s until 2001, then spent some time out west.

He started in his career as a hairstylist after working in real estate and marketing and deciding he wanted a change to something more personal.  He studied hairstyling in Paris, and he has been a stylist for 25 years.  He serves on the Vermont Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists.

He grew up in New York and Michigan.  When he was working in Taos, New Mexico, his reputation as a hairstylist grew to the point where film industry clients sought him out.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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Chase Gosselin makes theatrical waves with Moby Dick

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Michael Chase Gosselin, back in the days when he was just Chase Gosselin, performs in a production of The History Of America, Abridged.  Mr. Gosselin directed himself and two friends in the show just after he graduated high school last June.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Michael Chase Gosselin, back in the days when he was just Chase Gosselin, performs in a production of The History Of America, Abridged. Mr. Gosselin directed himself and two friends in the show just after he graduated high school last June. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle 2-27-2013

It has taken Michael Chase Gosselin little time to make his mark on the New York theater world.  Last week, Internet sites that cover Broadway were ablaze with the news a cult musical might finally hit the Great White Way.

They did not necessarily realize that the man behind this plan graduated only last year from North Country Union High School.  Mr. Gosselin was admitted to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, but postponed his freshman year to check out the theater scene in New York.

That has proved to be a smart move.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, an excited Mr. Gosselin tried to explain how he found himself working with one of the world’s most successful producers on a project that may see him make his Broadway directorial debut.

Mr. Gosselin said it all began with his interest in Moby Dick — A Whale of a Tale, a show that notoriously flopped when it ran in London’s West End in 1992.  The show presents the Melville novel as enacted by high school girls who are trying to raise money to keep the doors of their boarding school open.

In a reverse drag role, the headmistress of the school, played by a man, also portrays the monomaniac Captain Ahab.

As Mr. Gosselin described it, the young ladies use whatever they can find to put their benefit on, even draining a swimming pool to serve as their stage.  It first opened in a small theater in Oxford, England, and quickly gained popularity.

Cameron Mackintosh saw the show and decided to take it to a large theater in London, where it famously bombed.

“I call it the Spiderman of 1992,” said Mr. Gosselin, speaking of the presses delight in the show’s failure.

Though a commercial disaster in its first major run, Moby Dick gained the kind of notoriety shared by The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mr. Gosselin said.  Many small companies have presented productions of the show in varying versions over the past 20 years.

Mr. Gosselin said he had considered it as an offering for Third Act Productions, the theatrical company he ran during his high school years.  It never seemed like the right choice for Newport audiences, he said.

While in New York, he said, he started looking at the script again and decided to try to rework it so it would play better.  There had been attempts to rewrite the show over the years, he said, but they had taken out much of the salacious humor of the original.

“I wanted to open it back up,” Mr. Gosselin said.

He describes the show as combining elements from a wide variety of musical theater traditions, ranging from British musical hall and Gilbert and Sullivan to Riverdance.  He said the show is a fluff piece, but is also the most accurate translation of Moby Dick to the stage.

What Mr. Gosselin didn’t realize was that the show was owned by Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of such hits as  Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins, Oliver!, Miss Saigon and Cats.  What’s more, Mr. Makintosh told Mr. Gosselin that Moby Dick was his favorite show.

Mr. Gosselin said he got in touch with Mr. Mackintosh’s office in London to get permission to work on the show, but soon found himself emailing the producer directly.

“Cameron was very involved in rewriting,” Mr. Gosselin said.  “We were sending lines back and forth.”

When Mr. Mackintosh was in New York recently to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Phantom of the Opera, he took three hours to meet with Mr. Gosselin and go through the script with him.

“When he read the headmistress’ lines he sounded just like Mrs. Doubtfire,” recalled the delighted Mr. Gosselin.

The composer of the show, Hereward Kaye came over from England for several weeks to work on revisions, including reviving songs originally written for the show but left out of its first production, Mr. Gosselin said.

One of the outcomes of all the work was a staged reading of the show as revised by Mr. Gosselin.  The reading, which took place on February 25, featured seasoned Broadway professionals directed by Mr. Gosselin.

Heading the cast as the headmistress was Tony Sheldon, an Australian actor nominated for a Tony award for his work in the Broadway production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

“A brilliant, brilliant guy,” said Mr. Gosselin.

He said he was very pleased to have a person with not only musical theater skills but with a deep acting background.

“The show needs to be grounded by a really great Ahab,” Mr. Gosselin said.

Other members of the cast included Nicolas Dromard (Mary Poppins), Jacey Powers (Falling), Erin Crosby (Shout! The Mod Musical), Christina Bianco (Newsical), Kirsten Wyatt (A Christmas Story) and Noah E. Galvin (Our Town).

Mr. Gosselin said that Mr. Mackintosh was unable to attend the reading because he had to attend the Oscar ceremonies in Los Angeles.  Representatives from his New York office were there, Mr. Gosselin said.

The reading didn’t include stage action, Mr. Gosselin said.  The actors read and sang from behind music stands.

Whatever happens from here on out, Mr. Gosselin said, it is a thrill to be able to list himself on his resumé as a co-producer with Mr. Mackintosh, if only for the reading.

Where things will go is unclear.  Mr. Gosselin is aiming for a Broadway production.  He said Mr. Mackintosh may not want to be the producer if it opens first in New York, because he is based in London and has always opened his shows there first.

Mr. Gosselin said he would like to start working with the spatial elements of the show, but said Mr. Mackintosh does not like the idea of tinkering with a musical in a rehearsal studio, a process pioneered by A Chorus Line.  Mr. Mackintosh prefers to go straight into the production process in a theater, Mr. Gosselin said.

Some shows begin their runs off-Broadway, but that move is questionable, he said.  Because since the success of shows like Rent critics keep a sharp eye on work opening downtown, and both Moby Dick and Mr. Mackintosh would be targets for intense and distracting press scrutiny, Mr. Gosselin said.

“I’d like to try the show out in New Bedford,” Mr. Gosselin said, referring to one of Massachusetts’s famous whaling ports.

No firm plans are in place, but Mr. Gosselin said he is devoting himself fully to the show.

“I’ve never taken so many meetings in my life,” he said.  The verb “taken” signals that he is truly finding a place in the theater’s major leagues.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Lydia Spitzer Demonstration Forest dedicated

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Lydia Spitzer cuts the garland created for grand opening of the demonstration forest named in her honor. The garland was made by NorthWoods Stewardship Center program assistant Meg Carter because it seemed more appropriate than cutting a ribbon. Left to right are NorthWoods Stewardship Center board president Nancy Engels, operations manager Jayson Benoit, Ms. Carter, Ms. Spitzer, and Sam Perron, NorthWoods’ sustainable forestry specialist. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 2-6-2013

CHARLESTON — “I can’t imagine anything I would be more proud to be associated with,” said Lydia Spitzer at the dedication of the Lydia Spitzer Demonstration Forest at the NorthWoods Stewardship Center on Friday.

Ms. Spitzer donated 1,300 acres to the center in 2008.  She had donated conservation easements to the Vermont Land Trust in 2007.  It is the largest donation the land trust has ever received, Tracy Zschau, regional director of the trust, said Friday.

“All I did was buy a piece of land a long time ago,” said Ms. Spitzer.

She said when she bought the land in 1993, she had thought she might be a visionary entrepreneur and start an enterprise with a school, trails, and other features that would support nature, forestry, and conservation.

She said by her fiftieth birthday when she had not done it, she thought it might be better to connect with her neighbors instead.  Coincidentally Bill Manning had created the Vermont Leadership Center in 1989 with some of the same goals in mind.  In the beginning the center owned no land at all, but in 2005 it got about 100 acres.  The name and structure changed and the center became the NorthWoods Stewardship Center.

Ms. Spitzer has been more than a neighbor all along — more like a friend and fan.  She described her relationship with the center as: “the absolute joy of being in love with this organization.”

She said the staff and board of NorthWoods are the ones who should get the credit, along with her grandfather, Ward Canaday, who made money during World War II with a company called the Willis Overland company that produced Jeeps used in the war.

Mr. Canaday made enough money to start a large trust, and the Canaday Trust has supported lots of arts and educational causes over the years.  In the fall, the NorthWoods Stewardship Center was awarded a grant from Canaday of $185,000 to create the Forest Stewardship Institute.  The grant will cover staff and the institute’s purpose will be to teach sustainable forestry practices to landowners and others.

There are already some hiking trails on the land, and plans are to make some more and link the existing trails, said Trails Coordinator Luke O’Brien.  The land stretches over Tripp Hill to the shore of Echo Lake, where there is one trail already.

When Ms. Spitzer first bought the land, most of it had been cut off with little old growth remaining.  One of her goals was to improve its value for forestry as well as educational purposes.

Mr. O’Brien said there were, at one time, 30 kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails, but they were too expensive to maintain as groomed trails.  The new trails will be more likely ungroomed, basically self-service access to the land.

Logging roads will become available as trails as well, he said, for backcountry skiing and snowshoeing in the winter and hiking and horseback riding in the summer.

Mr. Benoit said the plans are to build a bunk house and more parking lots and access spots over time.  There are three new kiosks with information and a map, and three more are planned.

The institute will be working with the land trust and local Audubon societies, Mr. Benoit said.

Ms. Spitzer lives in North Pomfret.  She has a kitchen designing business called Design Discovery.  She said the land is beautiful, but as an absentee landowner it’s been difficult to keep an eye on it.

“There’s a lovely swamp.  And somebody was putting out half a cow carcass,” she said, to bait coyotes to shoot.  It’s an activity she didn’t like but it was hard to do anything about it from North Pomfret.

Donating the land is a win-win, she said.

“There is nothing I could have done with it that would be better,” she said.  “It’s nice for me.”

NorthWoods Operations Manager Jayson Benoit spoke on behalf of the center, and presented Ms. Spitzer with an ash walking stick.  The NorthWoods Stewardship Center has four permanent full-time employees and other seasonal help.  In the summer there are 80 people working at the center, including the Conservation Corp student workers.

He said the center is approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary and has recently developed a recreation plan and new mission statement.

After each brief speech on Friday there was a round of applause, which included enthusiastic barking by the dogs on hand.  Two of them were Ms. Spitzer’s golden doodles, which are half golden retriever and half standard poodle.  They are named Milo and Hopper.

For more information, see the center’s website: www.northwoodscenter.org

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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Bloodhound and owner help find lost pets

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Redford the bloodhound.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Redford the bloodhound. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 12-26-12

ALBANY — Lisa Robinson spends a good deal of her time crashing through the woods or running through the brambles behind a big rangy dog named Redford who might quite possibly be pursuing a cat.

Though she’s not a young woman, and runs on two surgically replaced hips, Ms. Robinson’s accounts of these expeditions suggest that she enjoys every minute of them.

Redford is a bloodhound, and Ms. Robinson makes him — and herself — available to people who have lost household pets.

She and Redford have looked for a Westy that wandered off from his new home in Pownal, in the far southwest corner of Vermont, and a Chinook sled dog in Richford, on the Canadian border.

They’ve looked for a Siamese cat in Barre and a mother-and-son pair of Labrador retrievers in West Glover.

bloodhound pogo copy

James and Lisa Ash of Barre sent Lisa Robinson this photo of their recovered cat, Pogo, who followed them home the day after Redford the bloodhound led them on a search. Pogo disappeared on a Monday evening, and Redford wasn’t called in until the following Saturday. The cat came back on Sunday.

Ms. Robinson doesn’t think there are any other bloodhounds available in Vermont to search for lost pets.  She’d like people to know about Redford so they’ll call her when their pet’s trail is still fresh.  All too often, she says, by the time people locate her by word of mouth their pet has been missing for several days.

That doesn’t stop Redford.  Ms. Robinson says her young bloodhound exhibits the tracking skills his breed is famous for, and can track a missing animal long after it has disappeared from home.

The problem, she says, is that she and the dog can only cover so much ground in a day.  She hangs on tight to his leash on a hunt, for fear that his exuberance for his job will lure him so far ahead of her that he will become one of the missing pets himself.

Redford doesn’t always track down a missing pet.

On several searches, Ms. Robinson says, he’s led her and the missing pet’s owner over long distances to surprising locations, where the animal was eventually found.

But sometimes the trail just comes to a bewildering end, leaving Redford wandering around in uncertain circles.  When that happens, Ms. Robinson suspects the worst — someone picked the pet up and made off with it.  That, sadly, is how the search for the West Glover dogs ended, several miles from their home.

In Barre, the missing Siamese cat showed up the day after Ms. Robinson and Redford had climbed into her aging Subaru and headed home to Albany.  The happy owners believe Redford led them close to it — what self-respecting Siamese would rush out of hiding to greet a drooling bloodhound? — and the cat followed their familiar scent home.

Redford, at three and a half, is a relatively new recruit.  Ms. Robinson got him from a bloodhound rescue group after he was abandoned in Alabama.

He’s a replacement for Thurber, the bloodhound who taught Ms. Robinson the art of tracking.  Thurber is memorialized, in a way, on the sweatshirt his owner was wearing during an interview last week.  It’s decorated with a sketch of a big dog, most likely another bloodhound, by the great American humorist James Thurber.

Ms. Robinson’s first bloodhound was named after the humorist — she has a friendly but offbeat cat named Dillon, and a matching pair named Cassidy and Sundance — and Thurber, like Redford, was a rescued animal.  Their owner thinks the dogs’ difficult early lives only enhanced their ability to find lost animals.  They know what it’s like to be out on the streets, she says.

Thurber was killed by a condition called bloat, and Ms. Robinson is anxious that other dog owners — particularly owners of large dogs — be more aware of its dangers.

“It’s something that really worries me,” she says.  “It affects the large breeds, the big-chested dogs that tend to gulp their food.”

When the condition strikes, Ms. Robinson says, the dog’s stomach swells to look like a barrel and, if tapped, to sound like one too.  The condition is also called torsion, she says, because the dog’s stomach can start to twist, and actually flip over.

If it strikes, Ms. Robinson says, “there is no time.  You’ve got to get to a vet.”

Untreated, she says grimly, a stricken pet faces “a horrible, painful death.”

Since Thurber’s death, Ms. Robinson watches her three bloodhounds closely for bloat, and tries to keep them as still as possible for an hour or so after eating.

At home when he’s not working, Redford is a big, floppy, affable young dog.  This visitor had just left a dog at home, so Redford took a careful inventory of boots, pant legs, shirt cuffs, gleaning heaven knows how much information in the process.

He shares a big fenced enclosure with Simon, a seven-year-old bloodhound who quickly demonstrates a timidity that, his owner says, makes him unfit for tracking.

A good tracker, she says, “needs to be bold and friendly.

“Bloodhounds are stubborn,” she adds.  “They want to find that scent.  They don’t care what’s at the end of it.”

When working, she says, Redford ignores people he would otherwise spend time visiting, and anything he finds along the trail.  She’s been amazed to see him stride heedlessly past bear scat, moose scat, deer scat, even a deer.  But he proudly brought her the frozen scat left behind by that missing Westy.

A third bloodhound, Waseeka, has settled pretty permanently on a rug under a table in Ms. Robinson’s log house.  More than 12 years old, Waseeka has lost much of her vision and her hearing.

There are two horses in a paddock, a Morgan and a Tennessee walker, along with three outside cats and five inside cats, all rescued animals.

Ms. Robinson and her dogs haven’t gone looking for lost people.  That job involves a lot of legal regulations, she says, and a lot of paperwork.

She held a job for years at Kodak in Rochester, New York, before she and Thurber moved to the Northeast Kingdom almost 12 years ago.  Working with that large corporation left her “tired of doing what somebody told me to do.”

But when she’s looking for a lost pet, Ms. Robinson strives to do what Redford tells her to do.

When a dog and handler team makes a mistake, she says, it’s almost always the handler’s fault.

“It’s all about Redford,” she says.  “I’m just his translator and his transportation.  He’s the one who knows what’s going on.”

To help dogs like Redford do their job, Ms. Robinson suggests that pet owners wipe each of their animals with a bit of clean cloth, and put the cloth aside in a sealed and labeled plastic bag.

If the pet ever should come up missing, she says, that will give Redford something to work with.

Ms. Robinson can be reached at 755-6331 or by e-mail at allcritters@wildblue.net.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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An essay on longevity: New magazine features old trees

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old treescopyright the Chronicle 12-26-2012

The following is an excerpt from an article written by Julia Shipley of Craftsbury for a new magazine based in Hardwick called Taproot.  The magazine comes out four times a year and each issue is based on a theme.  Its motto is “living fully, digging deeper.”  The magazine seeks to publish high quality writing, photos and art from local and national writers on topics related to what would have been called, a generation or two ago, the back-to-the-land movement — an effort to get back to basics in matters of food, home life, work, and more.  “We didn’t see media that addressed this nascent movement in any meaningful way,” said publisher Jason Miller.  The magazine has no advertising, except it ran an insert for natural toys in one edition.  Its goal is to pay for itself by subscriptions, which are $30 a year.  In the most recent issue, the theme was wood.  Cover art was by Maine artist Jennifer Judd-McGee.  Single copies are available at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick.  For more information, see the magazine’s website:  www.taprootmag.com.  For more information about Julia Shipley, take a look at www.thenewsfrompoems.com where she writes about poetry, and www.writingonthefarm.com

by Julia Shipley

On the upper west side of Manhattan, on the first floor of the Museum of Natural History, sequestered in a dim corner is a slice of a mammoth sequoia, God’s torso, I think as I gawk at this hunk which germinated from an infinitesimal seed in the year 550 AD, the year St. David converted Wales to Christianity.  The year it was cut down, 1891, was the year the zipper was invented.  None of us staring at this shard of a sequoia had even been born yet.

When it was exhibited at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893, according to the museum’s docent, people were incredulous that a tree could ever grow so big, and disgruntled that it had been severed for their viewing pleasure.

The cross section — displayed on end showing the growth rings, all 1,342 of them, one for each year of the tree’s life — is broad as a Cadillac Coup de Ville and tall as a UPS truck.  Were it to somehow flop over and appear as it had in the forest the day it was finally cut from the stump, its dimensions would match that of our town’s stout gazebo, a lone edifice on the Common where small orchestras play in the summer.  In my mind’s eye I grow the gazebo into a sequoia tree that looms hundreds of feet over the town ground.…

Stuart LaPoint, the owner of a landscaping business and assistant tree warden for the town of Craftsbury, gets around — meaning he drives the back roads a lot, keeping an eye out for something big.  In 2010 he put together a group of photographs showing 12 of Craftsbury’s most majestic specimens.  After some pestering (I’d rib him when I saw him at the general store, “Hey, I’d love to go check out those trees.”) he agreed to let me come along.

It helps I happen to have two of the biggest trees in town, or rather, they have me, whichever way you look at it:  they are the oldest things I live with — these huge red oaks, with limbs as tall and thick as regular trees.  In the fall when they’re tawny, the one on the left has goldish leaves, and the one on the right’s are more russet.  As I spend the weekends of October and November raking up their endless bequest, I ponder how old they are.…

So one day in March, when Stuart calls up and asks, “How’s tomorrow?” I tell him it’s perfect.  We are going to visit the biggest living trees he knows about within five miles of the town gazebo.  He’s called all the landowners; we’re cleared to visit.

As he pulls in the driveway the next morning, my big oaks throw zebra stripe shadows all over his pickup truck.  As we gaze 70 feet up into the trees’ canopy, I tell Stuart how recently a tree- size limb wrenched loose and how I hired a guy named Karl Nitch to help take it down and how Karl used tree spikes to climb 60 feet up and fell the monstrous limb.  The whole time I worried what I might have to say to Karl’s surviving wife, but in the end, he returned to the ground of his own accord and I had enough bucked up chunks to heat the house for half the winter, and to give to my neighbor Dave Brown, who churned out eight oak bowls on his lathe.  As my Dad and I split firewood together, we marveled at the pretty pink flesh of the oak — oh, so this is why they call it “Red.”  And when folks come over for dinner, I’m sure to tell them how these bowls grew in the yard.

The second stop on our tree tour is just up the road, by the Whitney Brook, and there it is:  strong, straight and tall, growing impossibly from the bank of the brook.  Standing beside it you can see the Atwoods’ silo and the power pole running current up to the barn.

Stuart announces, “It’s a hoyt spruce.”

A hoyt spruce?

“Yeah.”

“Hoyt?”

“Hoit.”

Oh, you mean ‘white’?

“Yup, and 32 feet high if I had to guess.  You’ll look hard to find one bigger.  Should live another 30 years.  I just happened to see it from the road one day as I was going by.”

And then, quick as a wink, we are back in the car headed further up the Creek Road toward Albany, to get a look at Bruce Butterfield’s hop hornbeam (also known as ironwood) off near a clearing, and then his American Linden (also known as basswood).

Standing beneath the Hornbeam I am blasé — its stature seems unremarkable, neither broad nor tall, but as I learn later reading Donald Peattie’s A Natural History Of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, my nonplus is dipped in ignorance, as Peattie writes, “Only occasionally does this tree grow 30 feet high,” and here Stuart has located this “occasion” right in our neighborhood.  Meanwhile, he defends the linden growing nearby, stating, “I don’t think that it’ll be a wow-er, but it’s pretty big — look on the trunk, it’s got some girth, close to 42 inches I’d guess.”

On with the tour, we buzz back toward town, merely driving by the jumbo paper birch on the roadside near Ron Geoffroy’s East Hill Auto and the quaking aspen in the bank by the Midis 20 feet from the intersection of South Albany and Ketchum Hill Road.

So often I simply see “trees” and not individual species, as in a stadium I simply see “people,” a human blur.  When I moved to Craftbury eight years ago, the town was full of blurry people, but in the intervening years, or in arboreal terms:  eight growth rings, I’ve learned names and personalities, so it is fitting that each tree Stuart introduces is linked by its name to a neighbor, as I start to see the forest through the trees….

In the early days of pioneering in the northeast, the “land-lookers” brought back tales of a tree of gigantic height, which grew in the wildest and remotest recesses of the great North Woods”— Donald Peattie A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America.

The last time Jim Moffatt saw the yellow birch was about a year ago.  These last few years he’s gotten behind on some of his winter woods-work — and counting backward, he’s had five hip operations; then there was a winter with so much snow he couldn’t get into the woods, so he took his skidder apart to make some adjustments and put it back together; and the winter before that he spent going down to Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington to take his wife, Joan, to her appointments.

As we climb into his Ford pickup, Mr. Moffatt tells me he was born in the house.  The land came into the Moffatt family when Jim’s father bought the estate from Daniel Dustan, a descendant of the founding families of Craftsbury.  And Mr. Dustan had purchased the parcel containing the Yellow Birch upon his return to Vermont after a stint in the South at outset of the Civil War.  In a diary kept by Mr. Dustan, he describes building a sugarhouse.  Back then, the yellow birch must have been surrounded by giant sugar maples.  To form into a soaring tree, straight and tall, the yellow birch had to bide its time in the shade of older trees, and then shoot up, “released,” as the others died off.

We are driving north through Moffatt’s Tree Farm.  Acres of Christmas trees grow on both sides of the road.  What began as a sideline enterprise to dairy farming when Jim’s father started cutting wild balsams in old pastures has turned into a full-time cultivated tree farm operation under Jim’s management.  Now Jim’s son Steve is responsible for 100,000 trees on parcels of land spread out over five towns.

We travel down a side road and pull over as Jim hops out to open the gate across his right of way, then climbs back in.  Entering the leaf-shingled shelter of the woods, we lurch along a cobble-cluttered skidder road.  Jim recollects, “The first time I looked at the yellow birch was in the 1960s after I bought the parcel from my father….  I thought there was some lumber in it, but it was too much, more than my equipment could handle to bring it down.”

Though Jim’s father never mentioned it at the time, he too knew about the yellow birch.  Eventually Jim learned his father had seen it years before and also thought it large, too large to take down with the equipment they had.

Back in 1972, a man named Jeff Freeman, then a professor at Castleton State College, began making a list of Vermont’s largest trees.  In 2001, Loona Brogan of Plainfield, Vermont, founded the Vermont Tree Society, a group and website celebrating Vermont’s largest trees.  And now the most up-to-date list, with more than 110 species and varieties, is maintained by Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.  Jim Moffatt’s tree is not on this list.  There is an even bigger yellow birch in Victory.  But Jim’s may be the oldest.

“It must be three hundred years old.  I’m 75 and it is relatively unchanged in my lifetime.”

We get out of the truck and walk a ways up the road, and then he stops and says, “There.” Though it sits back amid the woods of other sturdy trees, I am absolutely certain which tree he means.

It’s like coming across an I-beam in a box of tooth picks:  it rises with authority; and it has a demeanor, emanating a sort of warmth and feeling, the way a person does.  It seems far more sentient than anything else around it and indeed, it has convinced three centuries of appraising men that it’s not meant to be felled by saw.

When Jim leans against the yellow birch’s broad trunk for a photo, he does in a companionable way, and lets the trunk take some of his weight, an intimate gesture, more personal than simply standing beside it; and he favors the right side of the trunk, as opposed to the center, as if to leave room for where Joan would have stood, or still is standing, in some way.

Peattie concludes his chapter: “Frequently when a yellow birch comes to the end of its life span, it stands a long time, though decay is going on swiftly under its bark.”

Jim puts this truth another way, “You can see the inside’s rotten — one day the winds are going to bring it down.”

As we back away I ask, “Does it have a name?” — as the cypress was called the Senator or the chunk in the Museum of Natural History was from a tree named Mark Twain.

“No, it’s just the yellow birch.”  After a pause he adds, “But if it did, I guess it would be ‘Joan,’ after my wife, as it represents so much about our our lives together.”

Then, once more, as has happened for hundreds of years, we turn away to leave, and the yellow birch remains.

I like to imagine one day, Steve’s boys, Jim’s grandsons, will grow up and bring their children here.

On page 36 of the 2011 town report, the Craftsbury Municipal Forest Committee notes that Stuart LaPoint received a grant from the Preservation Trust of Vermont to plant 12 trees.  He planted one in the village and then tucked in 11 others on the Common, surrounding the lone gazebo and the hidden-in-plain-sight ancient maple.  Stuart planted red maple, river birch, flowering crab, blue beech, hop hornbeam, Princeton elm, Japanese tree lilac and serviceberry.  How about that?  The man cruising the roads looking for the biggest and oldest being in the woods, is also cruising through town making sure the youngest have a chance to grow into something substantial, maybe even large, maybe even old, and hopefully recognized years, decades, maybe even centuries from now.

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“Spaceman” Santa helps promote Toys for Tots

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Craftsbury General Store owner Emily Maclure, left, and Michelle Guenard, creator of Michelle’s Spicy Kimchee, pose on Santa’s lap.  Santa was being played by Red Sox baseball player Bill Lee.  Photos by Bethany M. Dunbar

Craftsbury General Store owner Emily Maclure, left, and Michelle Guenard, creator of Michelle’s Spicy Kimchi, pose on Santa’s lap. Santa was being played by Red Sox baseball player Bill Lee. Photos by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 1-2-2013

CRAFTSBURY — The Toys for Tots box was looking a little sad.  Craftsbury General Store owner Emily Maclure was searching for a way to encourage customers to bring in a toy to donate to the project, which provides new toys for children who might not have a lot under the tree.

She got to talking about the situation with Bill Lee, the retired Red Sox baseball player who lives nearby.  Next thing you know, Mr. Lee was signed up to play Santa in order to get some more attention to the Toys for Tots program.

It was an opportunity for Mr. Lee to promote his new brand of wine, called Spaceman.  Add live music, provided by Mavis MacNeil and Andrew Koehler, and an event was born.

Mavis MacNeil and Andrew Koehler provided music for the event.

Mavis MacNeil and Andrew Koehler provided music for the event.

Spaceman was Mr. Lee’s nickname when he was on the Red Sox, and he had a label created that looks like an old-fashioned baseball card.  Mr. Lee grew up in the Napa Valley in California but has roots in Vermont as well.  He feels strongly that wines made in California are better because the state gets more sun.  He said maybe Vermont wines made with white grapes will be all right.

Spaceman wine is also a fund-raiser.  The label promises that a portion of the profits from the wine will go to the Red Sox Foundation, which supports a Red Sox Scholars program and an inner city baseball program.

Mr. Lee calls his wine a “petit cera cera.”

He describes it, on the label, as such:

“Shanghaied for fifty years on the east coast by the game of baseball, Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee — sixth generation Californian and prodigal son has returned to his roots by making a monsterous red wine, like that which has run through his ancestors veins and vines since the 1800s.

“This wine will knock your Sox off.”

On the day of the promotion, December 22, Mr. Lee gave people tastes of his wine.  He came equipped with autographed baseball bats as well.

Michelle Guenard, right, pretends to attack Bill Lee with a bottle of the new Spaceman wine he has created, called Spaceman, while Ms. Maclure pretends to attack him with an autographed baseball bat.

Michelle Guenard, right, pretends to attack Bill Lee with a bottle of the new Spaceman wine he has created, called Spaceman, while Ms. Maclure pretends to attack him with an autographed baseball bat.

Michelle Guenard, creator of Michelle’s Spicy Kimchi, came by with a Red Sox jersey, and before long, she and Ms. Maclure were posing for photos on Santa’s lap and pretending to attack him with wine bottles and an autographed bat.

Ms. Maclure added another incentive for people to donate:  Anyone who brought in a toy would be entered to win one pizza a month for a year.

It worked.

As the musicians were packing up on the afternoon of December 22, Ms. Maclure said the event had helped fill up the Toys for Tots box.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital  editions.

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In Memoriam: Maureen O’Donnell July 6, 1952 – December 11, 2012

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maureen memoriam

Maureen O’Donnell at home in Albany, with her 1959 Melody Maker guitar. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Iconic and ironic, O’Donnell releases Rogue Element

This article first appeared in the Chronicle in 2009.  It is republished here in her memory.

by Bethany M. Dunbar

ALBANY — In these days of excitement about renewable energy, it just might be the perfect moment for Maureen O’Donnell to release her new compact disc.

Years ago, Ms. O’Donnell was a local celebrity as part of a band called the BTUs.  The BTUs rocked out at the Valley House in Orleans and other local venues, back in the days when dancing was the preferred weekend aerobic exercise in the Kingdom.

“We were ironic as hell and iconic,” says Ms. O’Donnell, when the timing is pointed out to her.

Ms. O’Donnell has been making music by singing and with a guitar and harmonica and other instruments since she was a small child.  She remembers thinking that someday she would get rich and have a place in the country.  It’s all true except for the rich part (so far).

This is the introduction from Ms. O’Donnell’s notes to be included with her new compact disc, Rogue Element.

“Listening to another ‘final mix’ thru JBL’s in a 20’ X 24’ room with a large window view of beautiful meadows, free of all traces of human endeavor.  A moose gazing in at me, so close I could count the flies on her magnificent mouth.  Fifty or so wild turkeys strutting in a line through the yard; crows cackling, calling; hawk soaring, swooping, elegant, effortless in the totality of its being, nothing more, nothing less.”

The cover photo is Ms. O’Donnell practicing — not with her guitar.  She is shown in a black T-shirt and cap, ear and eye protection in place, holding — with what appears to be complete comfort — a rather large rifle.  The photo was taken by David Bradshaw, a shooting friend.

Ms. O’Donnell’s album could be described as rock or folk, alternative, or something like that.  She has written all the songs except for “Cover Me” by Bruce Springsteen, which was recorded live with the Reused Blues Band at Burlington City Hall.

Ms. O’Donnell’s voice is, on some tracks, Bonnie Raitt-esque.  It’s full of soul and life, and life experience.  It’s less frightening and more forgiving than the cover art.

She produced the CD herself.  Its sound is homegrown and authentic.  On the intro, she puts it this way:

“This slim collection represents my first solo process relying almost entirely upon my own skills (or lack thereof), as writer, musician, engineer, producer, singer, objective witness and executioner…

“Honest and raw as November, sonic imperfection becomes part of the charm of this offering, no opting for technical preciousness.”

At age four, Ms. O’Donnell first saw a Telecaster guitar and remembers it in perfect detail.

“It was kind of a blondish vanilla with a white maple neck, and I was just gone.  I didn’t want anything else ever,” she said.

One issue right away when she was growing up was that girls did back up.  Ms. O’Donnell had talent, but people kept telling her “chicks didn’t play lead.”

They wanted to put her in tall, white go-go boots and a short skirt with a tambourine.  She said she thought she would prefer her Carhartts.

“When I saw the Beatles, I wanted to be one.  I didn’t want to marry one,” she said.

The Beatles were a huge influence on her because it seemed possible for music to be a career.

“All of a sudden you knew you didn’t have to go to home ec.  You knew you didn’t have to be Betty Crocker or a Barbie Doll.”

Ms. O’Donnell grew up in Brookfield, Connecticut, which she said was — in those days — a lot like Vermont is now.

“It was a great place to be a kid,” she said.

“The Moody Blues were my parents,” she said.  It might be a slight exaggeration, but her actual parents were dysfunctional and abusive.  Her mother was married six times, her father was married four times, and they married each other twice.  Ms. O’Donnell went to ten high schools due to her parents’ moving around.  Her father was a Teamster.  She got into drugs at age 15.

But music kept her interest.

“When I was ten I joined the drum corps,” she said.  She learned drumming from a man named Earl Sturtz, who was drum champion 36 years in a row.  He had an “impeccable sense of meter,” and she soaked it up.

She dropped out of school but was reading voraciously.  She would go to college campuses and argue Nietzsche and Kierkegaard with the students and professors.  She tended bar in a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall and met a band there called Spiral Country because all the songs were written in a spiral notebook.  She joined them, they got on the radio and got fan mail from all over — including truck drivers in Colorado.

She came to Vermont with a former lover who was going to Goddard.  Ms. O’Donnell graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and theater from Goddard.

“She and I had done a lot of feminist theater,” Ms. O’Donnell said, including at Yale Drama School.  She found more music in Vermont.

“Denny Clifford taught me the fundamentals of how to do the dobro,” she said.  And then there were the BTUs.

She recently went back to Ohio and got to play with old friends and some up-and-coming musicians, including one woman she had mentored out there years ago.  The shows were a blast — 1,000-seat venues, some with a packed house.

“I always knew I was meant to be on the big stage,” he said.  “I made good use of it.  I didn’t just stand there.”

Music has kept her going in hard times and good times.

“It’s just really nice to feel that you have something in your life that gives you a sense of self-respect and dignity, that you have something to offer the world,” she said.

“The tunes on this album kind of picked me,” she said.  “I was really shocked at the serendipity.”

She said she used to “push the river” a lot because of her own aggression and compulsion, but these days she’s trying, with some success, to let the music just come through.

“Now I’ve learned to empty yourself out and get out of your own way,” she said.

Ms. O’Donnell has a web site at http://InHouseMediaWorks.com, and by April 15 Rogue Element will be available for sale through CDBaby.com.  Anyone interested can also reach her by snail mail (1535 Creek Road, Irasburg, Vermont 05845) or e-mail (dragon52@localnet.com).

“The response to the CD has been amazing, considering so far it’s only been word of mouth,” she said.

“I wanted to just thank everyone for remembering.”

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

An obituary of Maureen O’Donnell appears here: /bartonchronicle.com/category/obituaries/

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital  editions.

 

 

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