A look at Vermont’s environmental movement

GrenningVTCoverGreening Vermont, The Search for a Sustainable State, by Elizabeth Courtney and Eric Zencey.  Paperback. 173 pages.  Published by Thistle Hill Publications, North Pomfret, Vermont, and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Montpelier, Vermont.  $35.00

Reviewed by Tena Starr

A book whose main characters are, arguably, Act 250 and I91 might not strike a potential reader as having much promise in the way of being riveting, but Greening Vermont is actually a highly readable book with much insight into what makes Vermont be Vermont.  It’s the story of environmentalism in the Green Mountain State — its successes, its failures, its current goals, its conflicts, and its evolution in the face of shifting challenges.

It’s also, almost accidentally, a modern history of the state, evidence of just how thoroughly Vermont’s character has become entwined with, and often defined by, how its farms, forests and waterways are used and how its towns and cities look and function.

In order to understand environmentalism in Vermont, it’s necessary to go back 150 years to a boy named George Perkins Marsh, who grew up on a farm outside Woodstock and, through his father, began to grasp the relationship between man and nature.  Among other things, he learned about natural watersheds and soil erosion, about their effects as well as their causes.

So says Tom Slayton, former editor of Vermont Life magazine, and author of the forward to Greening Vermont.  Mr. Slayton says that Mr. Marsh went on to be the first to argue that human actions could seriously damage natural systems, and in 1864 he wrote Man and Nature, a tome that warned about the havoc humans could wreak on nature.

Jump ahead to 1958.  It was a chilly Saturday morning in November and a few hundred citizens and officials gathered near Guilford on the Vermont-Massachusetts border.  In the book, grainy black and white photos show a collection of people in overcoats, men in fedoras, waiting to cut the white ribbon stretched across the new, and at the time remarkable, highway.  It’s a scene from another era, in so many ways.

“They were there to mark an important moment in the state’s environmental history — though it’s doubtful that any of the participants would have described what they were doing in those terms,” Ms. Courtney and Mr. Zencey write.  “They had gathered to listen to speeches, witness a bit of ceremony, and then climb in their cars to take an inaugural drive on Vermont’s first stretch of Interstate highway.”

It took just minutes to travel that first small stretch of Interstate.  However, Ms. Courtney and Mr. Zencey suggest the new road was the catalyst that led to rapid change in Vermont, and the need for environmental regulations to protect what isolated Vermonters had come to treasure, if also take for granted.

“The opening of those first few miles of modern roadway signaled the opening, also, of an era of rapid and far-reaching change for the state of Vermont, which had been until then a lightly populated, rural mountain fastness,” the authors say.  “Many of the hallmarks of modern life — television, telephones, even electricity — were not yet fully present in the state.  The engines of twentieth-century progress had largely passed the state by.  It was too remote, its population too sparse, its towns and villages too small to draw much attention.  With the arrival of the Interstate that was about to change very quickly, for the world that held Vermont in a remote and distant corner had suddenly become much smaller.  As one state official put it years later, the highway ‘took us out of the sticks and put us within a day’s drive of eight million people.”

In 1960 Vermont’s population was 389,881 with nearly 77 percent born in the state.  There were 9,400 farms and 258,000 cows.  About 2,624,370 acres were being farmed.  That was the first year that people outnumbered cows in Vermont.

Twenty years later, by 1980, the population was 511,456, with 64 percent born in Vermont.  The number of farms had dropped by nearly half, to 5,890 with 1,537,751 acres in farming.  There were 186,000 cows.

When that first stretch of Interstate was built, “growth and expansion — the easily foreseeable result of the Interstate — were widely embraced,” Ms. Courtney and Mr. Zencey write.  “If change meant jobs, a path out of rural poverty, and lives like those whose images had begun to flicker in (some) Vermont homes through the wonder of television, then change was good.  What wasn’t so easily foreseen was how thoroughly those changes would shape the state, testing its ability to preserve its landscape, its communities, and its character.”

Not everyone welcomed change then, as not everyone does today.  Former Associated Press reporter Chris Graff has told the story of an Ascutney farmer who refused to leave his land to make way for the Interstate.

“Eventually a sheriff arrived with a court order and a cohort of deputies, who set to work dispossessing the old man from the family farm,” Ms. Courtney and Mr. Zencey write, recounting the story.  “They moved tools and harnesses from the outbuildings, working until sunset, intending to return the next morning to finish.  They never got the chance.  That night Tenney’s house and buildings burned to the ground, with him inside.”

Romaine Tenney had said, “I was born here and I’ll die here.”  He was a man of his word.

And then came skiing.

With the introduction of rope tows and lifts in the 1930s, skiing was no longer limited to the hardiest of mountain climbers.  Once skiers had a ride uphill, the sport’s popularity was immense, and the owners of ski areas ceased to be content with what existed.  They used heavy equipment and dynamite to create new trails and reshape mountain slopes to make them more attractive to devotees of this newly mainstream sport.

Opponents of industrial wind on Vermont’s ridgelines will relate to this scenario.  Blasting mountaintops is not so much new as a revisitation of what happened 60 years ago on an even larger scale.   Then, as now, there was debate — roughly framed in the terms of conservationist versus preservationist.

It’s a conversation that would be familiar to anyone who has participated — either pro or con — in the controversy over commercial wind power.  At the time, as today, the mountaintop debate split environmentalists, with conservationists operating under the belief that using resources for the greatest good for the greatest number over the greatest period of time was the wisest use.  That view was at odds with “preservationism,” which held that nature should simply be left to its own devices for all to enjoy.

Ski areas created jobs but also pulled in a flood of newcomers, increasing property values, advanced commercialism, and burdened municipal services.  And at the time, there was no means to deal with the influx, with the billboards, the development, the seasonal homeowners — and the cultural, as well as environmental, changes that resulted.  Vermont went from a “handshake” culture to one that was forced to rely more on law and formally structured exchanges, the book asserts.

“The social cost of that change is difficult to calculate, but a direct measure of its scale can be made in dollars,” the authors write.  “In the late 1940s, skiers spent about five million annually in the state.  By the early 1960s, that figure had risen to well over thirty million, a sixfold increase in a decade and a half.”

Thomas Watson Jr., an avid skier himself, decided in 1957 to locate IBM in Chittenden County to be near his beloved ski areas.  IBM remains the state’s biggest employer.

Vermont’s organized environmental movement was likely established at Goddard College in Plainfield in 1963 where a two-day conference called Natural Resources in Transition was held and the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) was formed, an all volunteer organization at the time with the goal of shaping public policy through education and “to promote wise use and preservation of natural resources to the benefit of Vermont citizens….”

It was not VNRC, however, that waged war against Vermont’s billboards.  It was a character named Ted Riehle.  This book is populated by many characters Vermonters will admire for their courage, their quirkiness, their bullheadedness, or their idealism.

Mr. Riehle is one of them.  “A lifelong Republican, a fan of both Barry Goldwater and the Grateful Dead, he was a well-connected politico who much preferred the solitude he got as the owner-operator-designer of an off-the-grid sheep farm on an island in Lake Champlain,” the book says.  His son called him “Jimmy Stewart meets John Wayne.”

In 1968, Mr. Riehle somehow convinced his fellow Republicans to support a total ban on roadside commercial advertising.  He also managed to persuade business owners that the ban would be in their long-term best interests — that individual self-interest would bring about loss for all.

That ban is one of Vermont’s hallmarks, as is Act 250, the environmental law that set out to regulate how the state would be developed — not haphazardly, not simply for short-term profit, but with a vision in mind of what Vermont would like to be and look like.

Act 250 has been a heavy lifter toward that end, but nearly 40 years later, even it remains subject to criticism and steady calls for alteration.

It’s 2013 now, and many battles have been fought, Vermont has, for the most part, resisted rampant sprawl.  But challenges continue, in many forms.

“Vermont is not now a sustainable state, but in the effort to achieve that goal, it has a head start,” the authors of this book write.  “How this came to be is the story we have aimed to tell in this book.”

It’s a story they’ve told well, a bit idealistically perhaps, but it’s one that acknowledges many factions in the great and ongoing debate about what Vermont is and will be.

“And what exactly is a sustainable state?” the authors write.  “As with any longed-for object, distance and anticipation shape our expectation, making the destination seem a completely marvelous place.  We’ll recognize the sustainable state as a place where economic and environmental interests are identical, because we’ve shaped the economy to the limits that the planet gives to us and learned our hard lessons about what is and isn’t possible.”

The old challenges are not conquered, and new ones have arisen — climate change, for instance, and commercial wind.  There is no final solution, only a continuing and ever shifting challenge.

This book tells the story of how we got to where we are today, where we’d like to be tomorrow, and offers a bit of advice on how to get there.  Along the way, it recounts conversations with some of the people who have been instrumental in many of those endeavors, tells a remarkable history, and provides some vision for the future.

Elizabeth Courtney served on Vermont’s Environmental Board for a decade, and she was executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council for 14 years.  She was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University and is now an environmental consultant.

Eric Zencey is a Fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller-Bellagio Foundations.  He writes regularly for the Daly News, a publication of the Center for the Advancement of the steady State Economy.  He is the author of three previous books.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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Tea Leaves explores the mother-daughter relationship

tea leavesby Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 5-15-2013

Tea Leaves; a memoir of mothers and daughters, by Janet Mason, published by Bella Books, Tallahassee, Florida, 2012, paperback, 202 pages, $15.95.

I celebrated Mother’s Day pretty quietly this year.  My own mother died a little more than a year ago, so it was a time to think of her, which I always do anyway.  My thoughtful adult son came to see me with a basket of flowers.  My thoughtful boyfriend took me out and gave me flowers.  I had spent the week before with my thoughtful adult daughter in California seeing some great new music, some killer whales, and trying — completely unsuccessfully — not to freak out over traffic in Los Angeles.

To pass the time while waiting for airplanes on my way out and back, I brought with me a small paperback I thought might be good to read at this time.  It came to me last fall, when the author gave a talk at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick.  Since the death of my own mom was so recent, I had to set this book aside.  A book about a daughter my age taking care of her dying mother was a bit too much for me right then.

Yet, I was intrigued by the parts I’d read.  And I was glad to have it with me on this trip some months later.  Now I’m glad to recommend it as the kind of book that makes you think about your own life.  What’s right with your relationships with your mother and your daughter?  What’s wrong and why?  What doesn’t really matter?  Sometimes reading other people’s experiences puts your own into perspective.

Janet Mason is a talented and honest writer.  Her relationship with her own mother was not perfect, which of course is what makes the book interesting.  More interesting is the fact she is willing to explore the imperfections without dwelling on them and becoming one of those victim writers whose memoirs I can never quite stand to read.

Life is hard.  Being a mother is hard.  Nobody’s really ready for it when she gets the job, no matter how much you might have read or planned.  It’s just not like anything else, and you can’t really prepare.

But somehow the species keeps managing to perpetuate.  Somehow some of us seem willing to take that plunge and become parents.  We do our best, whatever that is.

Ms. Mason was an only child.  Her grandmother and mother were factory workers.  She was the first generation to go to college, and that in itself puts a certain amount of pressure on.  The politics are not the same through the generations, and neither is the sexual orientation.  Ms. Mason is a lesbian, and while that might have put a strain on some mother-daughter relationships it wasn’t a big issue for her mom, who was open-minded in this respect.  The family supports and loves Ms. Mason’s partner, their “unexpected daughter-in-law.”

Ms. Mason’s mother was, herself, a bit of a rabble-rouser and one to question authority or the status quo in general:

When I was old enough, she sometimes took me with her, the two of us marching and attending rallies, waving our matching mother/daughter coat hangers at pro-choice events.  I was the less adventurous one — hanging back and watching with something bordering on amazement as my mother heckled the hecklers and squeezed the balloon testicles of a Ronald Reagan cardboard cutout.

Ms. Mason’s grandmother was a lifelong Republican and Episcopalian, yet she, in her own way, questioned the status quo by getting a divorce in the 1920s and raising her children herself in a time when many other single mothers were forced to give theirs up.

Ms. Mason’s mother developed cancer, which was misdiagnosed at first.  By the time she found out what it was, the disease had spread too far and the diagnosis was terminal.  From then on Ms. Mason spends much of her time with her mother and father.

At first it’s hard for Ms. Mason to understand and accept that her mother is dying:

The next day we had an appointment to see the oncologist whose office complex was next to a shopping mall.  As I sat in the backseat of my parents’ car, I felt lost in long loops, off-and-on-ramps that seemed to go nowhere.  I was subsumed in a hard glittering sense of doom — deep in a nightmare that would not let me wake.

A theme of the book is a mother’s hopes for her daughter — hopes that she will do better, or accomplish more, or accomplish something the mother was not able to do.  Ms. Mason’s mother had very strong feelings about this, and sometimes Ms. Mason feels she has not lived up to her mother’s dreams for her.  Meanwhile Ms. Mason’s mother was a woman of artistic talent and interest, but who needed to work at a basic job to support her family.  Ms. Mason finds a portfolio stashed away with no artwork in it, which leads to feelings of guilt — did she get in the way of what could have been her mother’s success as an artist?

She finds something else to hold on to in these final months — and for long after her mother is gone.  It’s a “School Years” book with report cards and pictures from each grade:

She always asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I wrote it down each year.  It didn’t matter how ridiculous or remote the possibility was.  In first grade I wanted to be a fireman, later a violinist, a gypsy, a scientist, a comedienne, an oceanographer, a guitar player in a jazz band.

My mother let my dreams be dreams.  She did not expect consistency or demand a discipline that would eclipse my childhood.  No one ever asked my mother what she wanted to be when she grew up.  But she asked me every year and wrote down my answers.  As I watched my mother slipping away from me — as painful as it was, day after day — the thought of this book, filled with my earliest dreams and aspirations, was something for me to hold onto.

A simple thing that meant so much.  Tea Leaves is a simple book with a lot to offer.  It’s about figuring out your future, your past and your present.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com.

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

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Radiant Hen publishes Higher Ground to benefit flood victims

by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle 9-12-12

Higher Ground, by Kevin Fitton, is a simple little story for children.  Basically, it’s about Tropical Storm Irene and one Vermont farmer’s efforts to keep his family and beloved dairy cows safe in the face of rapidly rising water.

This farm family doesn’t experience the devastation that many Vermont farmers did because of Irene, but it does know loss.  However, their grief and recovery efforts are tendered by the neighborliness, the kindness and generosity that characterized the aftermath of Irene in Vermont.

Although the story itself is pretty basic, this is a gorgeously illustrated little book.  Of course. The illustrations are by Plainfield artist Mary Azarian, who made a name for herself decades ago with her stunning woodcuts.  In 1999, she won the Caldecott Medal for her book Snowflake Bentley, a picture book about the life of Wilson Bentley.  She’s illustrated more than 50 books, and that doesn’t begin to describe her art.

The bigger mission behind the publication of this slim paperback is that 100 percent of the proceeds from its limited edition sale of 1,000 books will go to the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund, which was established with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to help farmers hurt by Irene.

Mr. Fitton of Ferrisburgh is a pastor in South Burlington.  He developed a love for books at an early age and is the author of several short stories.  This is his first published book.

“It’s a lovely story that shows not only how community comes together in times of need, but also how important the farm animals are,” said Tanya Sousa of Radiant Hen Publishing.  “They’re family to the characters in the book — not just moneymakers.”

Mr. Fitton had submitted the manuscript, and “we really liked it,” Ms. Sousa said.  “Since it was about Tropical Storm Irene it crossed my mind that, by some chance, people might want to do it as a fund-raiser.”

Mr. Fitton immediately agreed to the fund-raiser.

Ms. Azarian also donated her time, as did the graphic arts and editing team of Theresa Perron-Janowski and Jeannine B. Young, both of West Glover.  Carl and Susan Taylor of Derby paid for the printing so that all the money from book sales can go to the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund.  “Everyone agreed to do it for nothing,” Ms. Sousa said.

Ms. Sousa of Coventry started the Radiant Hen Publishing company about five years ago.

“My thinking was that, as an author myself, it’s very frustrating to me to be treated sometimes poorly, to sometimes not get paid even when there was a contract,” Ms. Sousa said.  “I saw the need for companies that gave Vermont authors and illustrators a chance to break in in a way that they are treated like somebody, and they get decent royalties.”

People don’t make a lot of money with a book published by Radiant Hen because they don’t sell an awful lot of books, but they do get generous royalties on those they sell, Ms. Sousa said.

She doesn’t recommend either writing or publishing as a path to riches, but personally she doesn’t care.  “We’re doing it for the love of it,” she said.  “For the money to generate money for the next book.”

Radiant Hen’s goal is to publish three books a year, but that number recently slipped to one a year for economic reasons, although Ms. Sousa said business is picking up some again.

Authors submit their work to Radiant Hen and Ms. Sousa, as well as a team of volunteer readers, screen the manuscripts.  To start with, they must meet Radiant Hen’s basic guidelines:  The author must be a Vermonter and the book must be about either an environmental or agricultural subject.

At the moment, picture books likely stand the best chance of publication.  “We’ve decided not to do chapter books,” Ms. Sousa said.  “We did well with them, but they don’t bear the publication costs.”

Nor does Radiant Hen help people self-publish their books, she emphasized.  Prospective authors can’t simply offer to pay the little company to print their book.  “If it gets chosen, it gets chosen because it fits,” Ms. Sousa said.  “We’re not a vanity publisher.”

Authors and illustrators get royalties; Radiant Hen keeps the rest of the money to cover printing and marketing costs, standard practice in the publishing business.  That income usually does no more than pay the bills for printing and marketing.

“I’m not concerned about making money with it,” Ms. Sousa said.  “I’m just concerned with giving people an option.”

She said Radiant Hen receives hundreds of manuscripts, many of them very good and worthy of publication.  She can sometimes recommend another publisher.  “Often we have to say no, but we try to give them a foot up, try to give them any help we can.”

The publishing company’s unlikely name starts with a sad story that ended with what Ms. Sousa views as a bit of a miracle.

She and her husband had a small flock of chickens, but for unavoidable reasons the chicken coop had not been fully tightened up.  One day she walked out to the coop and found the entire flock slaughtered by a raccoon.  There wasn’t a chicken left alive.  In fact, there wasn’t a chicken left whole.

Ms. Sousa said that after she got done crying she went back out to the coop to clean up the mess and was amazed to find one white leghorn hen standing there unharmed.   She had no idea where the hen had been or how it had survived.

“She was my beautiful white radiant hen, and when it came time for the publishing company I wanted a name that boded well for survival.”

Radiant Hen’s mission is to publish books, for both children and adults, that encourage good citizenship, kindness, and environmental awareness and debate, and to raise awareness of Vermont places and people and sustainable agriculture.  Ms. Sousa also hopes to incubate promising authors and artists.

At the moment, Higher Ground is available through Radiant Hen.  It can’t be sold through bookstores unless the store is willing to take no cut from its sales.   The 30-page book is $10.95.  Radiant Hen’s website is:  www.radianthen.com.

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

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

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Vermont’s history of women, Native Americans, and African Americans revisited

Reviewed by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle 8-29-2012

Vermont Women, Native Americans & African Americans, Out of the Shadows of History, by Cynthia D. Bittiinger.  Paperback.  158 pages.  Published by the History Press.  $19.99.

It generally wasn’t until the 1960s that Vermont history books were written to acknowledge the fact that Europeans were not the first to inhabit this ground, Cynthia Bittinger says in this slender book.  The man who finally assembled a convincing body of research on the early presence of the Abenaki, the man who finally managed to get historical mention of a people who’d been here for something like 11,000 years before Europeans were, was from Albany.

Historians generally credit Gordon M. Day with being the person who unearthed New England’s native past, Ms. Bittinger says.  Mr. Day was born in Orleans County in 1911 and, as a child, played with children who were part Abenaki.  He also knew the area as a place for natives to hunt and trap.

“In his adult years, he initially set out to study forest ecology, but after serving in World War II, he decided to devote himself entirely to saving Abenaki culture from oblivion,” Ms. Bittinger writes.

Mr. Day used French records (apparently more accurate — and more friendly — than British records) and Indian tradition in his research, discovering that, until the end of the eighteenth century, the village of Missisquoi, near present day Swanton, was a political hub for Western Abenaki.

Since he knew the Abenaki language, he was able to avail himself of natives’ oral tradition to reconstruct a narrative for a people who had either died wholesale, largely from European diseases they had no immunity to, or willfully vanished, either literally or figuratively, in order to avoid persecution, destitution, or sterilization.

What, Ms. Bittinger wonders, allowed for misinformation so grave that an entire people was excluded from the history books?  Ethnocentricism?  Lack of imagination?  Lack of sources?  The willingness of the Abenaki themselves to disappear?

Whatever the cause, Ms. Bittinger has done her part to remedy the omission and devotes the initial part of this book to the eastern Indian tribes.

The American Revolution seemed to spell the end of the Abenaki as a visible presence, she says.  Although many pulled back into Canada, some lingered in northern Vermont.

However, the Abenaki did little to reclaim their own history, possibly because of fear of retaliation for taking captives or attacking settlers, Ms. Bittinger speculates.

Later, in the twentieth century, Abenakis would be likely to hide their ancestry if possible because revealing it could lead to involuntary sterilization through the eugenics movement, which was not only aimed at Indians, but also at the poor and the less intelligent.

Ms. Bittinger has packed an awful lot of information into this little book.  Any one of the subjects she tackles here could have been a book in itself.  However, the section on the natives of Vermont is the most tantalizing and left this reader, at least, yearning for more.

Ms. Bittinger is a history professor as well as a commentator and lecturer, and this book reads more like a text than a narrative, with brief, sometimes very brief, descriptions on significant events, people, and historical information.  Each section ends with a “conclusion,” summing up the information that precedes it, much in the way one might write a scholarly paper.

What Ms. Bittinger set out to do, though, is admirable.  “Women and people of color have been denied a usable history,” she writes in her introduction.  “With a focus on landscape, military battles and government, natives, blacks and women are usually not included unless they participated in a battle or ran for office.”

But people have a need to know where they fit into the American story, she says.  “I am offering this history to change the narrative of Vermont’s past, present and future.”

She says she has tried to focus on the positive, on those who worked to improve the lives of others.

Vermont has often been ahead of the curve in its efforts to afford equal rights to its people, but it’s far from perfect.  For instance, passage of an Equal Rights Amendment for women failed as late as 1986.

In the nineteenth century, often women who died were not even remembered by their names on gravestones.  Widows were referred to as “relicts.”  Ms. Bittinger offers this example:  “Experience.  Relict of Samuel Wellington.  Died Dec. 17, 1838. Age 69.  Her first husband was Elias Bemis.”

The fact that maiden names were sometimes not included on headstones, can make tracing geneologies tough.

She moves rapidly from the grimness of that time for women, recording gains and the stories of some of the remarkable women who helped achieve them.

Ms. Bittinger’s credentials are long and illustrious.  She teaches Vermont history for Community College, she’s a lecturer, she’s a founding member of the Vermont Women’s History Project at the Vermont Historical Society, a commentator on Vermont history for Vermont Public Radio, and was the executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation in Plymouth for 18 years, and her commentaries on Grace Coolidge won the Edward R. Morrow Award.

If you’re looking for a captivating read, this isn’t the book, but it does impart some very useful information about Vermont history and some remarkable people who risked their lives, or at least security and prosperity, to make this state be the leader it remains in civil rights.

Ms. Bittinger has done her homework, and produced an edifying volume of work that outlines not only many of the brave and ethical people who helped push this state forward in its fight for decency and fairness, but also honestly discusses where it’s gone wrong.

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

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

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Anna Baker was a brilliant artist with a comic touch

copyright the Chronicle, August 8, 2012

World of Fantasy, The Life and Art of Anna P. Baker, by Beryl Hutchinson and Roz Hermant.  Self-published.  185 pages in paperback.  $59.95.

Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite

I need to begin this review by confessing my bias.  Anna P. Baker, the subject of this richly illustrated work, was both a close friend and an important contributor in the Chronicle’s early years, when it remained to be seen whether it would sink or swim as a community newspaper.

That it swam, I believe, was due in large measure to one of the most unlikely duos to ever put ink to paper.  Loudon Young was a dairy farmer all his life, and his role in my life as friend, neighbor and mentor in the ways of rural Vermont predated the first Chronicle by four years.  When I asked him if he thought a weekly newspaper in Barton would have a chance of survival he said he didn’t think so.  Given his preference for color in language, he more likely said that such an enterprise would have a snowball’s chance in hell.

So it was a considerable surprise when he volunteered a column for the first issue, and a greater surprise to discover that this highly accomplished talker could also write, and that his writing was very funny, indeed.  His back-page column immediately became a weekly feature in the paper.

We didn’t make Anna Baker’s acquaintance until we were moving the office from a farmhouse in East Albany to an old barbershop on Barton’s Upper Main Street, and she wandered in to find out what the devil her new next-door neighbors were up to.

She found us amusing.  But then Anna found most things in life amusing.  That knack, along with the most exquisite good manners I have encountered in another human being, were pretty much what got Anna through an otherwise challenging life.

Anna told us she was an artist.  But I don’t think she mentioned that she was also a cartoonist.  She was a good enough cartoonist that, as a 16-year-old art student at a London, Ontario, technical school, she was interviewed for a possible career in animation with the Disney Studios.

I didn’t know that last detail until I read this book.  At any rate, it wasn’t long before Anna brought in a cartoon she thought we might like to publish.  Her chosen subject?  None other than the above-mentioned Loudon Young.  Loudon’s profile — a sharp chin often decorated with a bit of a beard, a sharp and substantial nose — was a cartoonist’s dream.  But it was Loudon’s humor that captured Anna, because his ear for what was funny about the most ordinary, everyday situations so exactly matched her eye.

Both of them thought there was something fundamentally funny about the common cow.  Loudon wrote about them constantly.  In her book, Beryl Hutchinson reproduces the first Baker painting she acquired.  Called Pent House Farm, it was executed at that same technical school, which Anna attended in 1944-45.  It’s a whimsical, wonderfully busy urban landscape with people farming on the rooftops of a couple of apartment buildings.  Ms. Hutchinson is careful to point out that it includes, atop one roof, Anna Baker’s first cow, a Holstein.

Anna’s renderings of Loudon and his cows appeared in many Chronicles over the years that followed.  They accompanied the best of Loudon’s columns in the Chronicle’s first book, Off Main Street, West Glover, Vermont, and the dairyman and his Holsteins were featured in a series of calendars she drew for the paper.

A generous selection of these cartoons is included in World of Fantasy.  But there are also many of her “serious” works — whimsical, intensely detailed, richly colored paintings that will delight the fans who have an Anna Baker hanging on the living room wall, and surprise those who know her work only through the Chronicle.

As we grew to know Anna, it became obvious that we were in the presence of an artist of great talent and considerable reputation.  Her works caught the eye of critics and connoisseurs wherever they were displayed.  That her reputation didn’t reach further was to some degree her own fault.  She volunteered once that a friend, a sophisticate in the business of art, had told her she couldn’t find success as an artist if she insisted on living in a backwater like Barton, Vermont.  She needed to be in New York City.  Anna acknowledged the advice as sound, and chose not to take it.  Whatever glue held her to the Northeast Kingdom, we are all the richer for it.

Beryl Hutchinson enjoyed a friendship with Anna Baker that went back to high school.  Her book includes a photo of a schoolgirl softball team named the Eagles with Anna in the front row, Beryl in the back.

Thus Ms. Hutchinson was the ideal person to stitch together this fully illustrated biography of the artist.  She opens with a surprising revelation about Anna’s origins — a surprise best left to her readers — and takes us through the artist’s school days, her formal education at the Art Institute of Chicago, which she entered in 1951, and the early teaching career that led to her friendship with Bunny Hastings, daughter of a prominent Barton physician.  That friendship brought Anna to Barton, and lasted the rest of Bunny’s life.

Anna beat cancer once, but lost the second round and died in 1985, at just 56.

To all of those who still miss her kindness, her wit, and her great talent, this book will serve as long-awaited consolation.

To buy World of Fantasy, go to “contacts” at  www.annabaker.net, or see www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/3334768.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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

 

 

 

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Freeman short stories tell small town tales

copyright the chronicle July 25, 2012

Round Mountain, by Castle Freeman Jr. Published by Concord Free Press, Concord, Massachusetts, 2012; 182 pages, softbound.

Reviewed by Joseph Gresser

Castle Freeman is an economical writer. His characters are stingy with their words and his descriptive passages are spare.

Economical readers, too, will be delighted with Round Mountain, a collection of 12 short stories set in Vermont, not just because it is beautifully written, but because it has an appealing price — free.

Actually, free doesn’t tell the entire story. Although the Concord Free Press does not charge for the book, the reader must promise to donate to a charity and to pass the book on to another reader with the same obligation.

Round Mountain is a book that a reader might well want to share. The stories center on Homer Patch, an unexcitable man of a distinctly practical bent.

The tales give glimpses of Homer’s life and the life of his community. They cover different periods of his life, from boyhood to early middle age.

In Round Mountain, though, the stories are not arranged chronologically. The reader has to reconstruct the sequence of events that, for instance, led to Homer’s complicated marriage to the much-younger Angela.

The couple has a son, Quentin, who, for unknown reasons, does not speak. The boy, who is not obviously disabled, wanders off in the title story. Townspeople join together in a search effort that, in a burst of magic realism, reveals to Homer his town’s real place in the world.

During the course of several stories, Homer serves his town as constable. Like the lawmen in Mr. Freeman’s other recent books Go With Me and All That I Have, Homer is not a by-the-book officer. He is the kind of person others call on when they need help solving a problem.

In “The Women At Holiday’s,” a call to expel a trespasser from a summer person’s shed is handled effectively, but in a way that satisfies neither the property owner nor Homer’s boss.

A more serious problem, in the person of a threatening stranger, appears in “The Montreal Express.” Homer’s instinct, as always, is for inaction and the apparent danger goes as mysteriously as it appeared.

For Northeast Kingdom readers, Mr. Freeman’s Vermont will have a real resonance. Although the stories are apparently set farther south, the community he creates is more typical these days of Orleans or Essex counties.

As in the Kingdom’s small towns, everyone gathers a history that is quietly registered in his neighbors’ memories.

Certainly, people talk about Homer, but also about Makepeace, a city lawyer who finds a place in the community — not without making some hard discoveries along the way.

Two people who find no welcome in Homer’s town are a retired police officer, whose burglary prevention efforts prove too effective, and one of the thieves who see them as a challenge. By the end of “Bandit Poker,” both men have found leaving the area to be the wisest course of action.

In addition to being a cat-and-mouse story, “Bandit Poker,” is a gritty meditation on how society deals with young men whose level of energy far outstrips their judgment.

Round Mountain is worthwhile both as a work of literature and an effort to inspire generosity. Those who wish to participate in both aspects of this project can do so by going to the Concord Free Press’ website at www.concordfreepress.com/roundmountain.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more book reviews, visit the Reviews page.

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Dunbar was uniquely qualified to write Kingdom’s Bounty

Reviewed by David K. Rodgers

Kingdom’s Bounty “A sustainable, eclectic, edible guide to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom,” by Bethany Dunbar, published by Umbrage Editions 2012, soft cover, 128 pages. $25.

Bethany Dunbar of West Glover is uniquely qualified in many significant ways to have written and illustrated her new book, Kingdom’s Bounty, “A sustainable, eclectic, edible guide to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.”  She was raised and went to school in Craftsbury, graduated from Lyndon State College, worked with her ex- husband as a dairy farmer for 11 years, was a reported for the Hardwick Gazette, and then for the last 25 years has been a reporter and co-editor at the Barton Chronicle.  In addition she gives a weekly radio interview about local news stories on WDEV, is a regular contributor to New England Country Folks and is past president of Vermont Press Association, still serving on its board of directors.  A fine photographer, she knows the Northeast Kingdom in great depth and has her finger on the pulse of new trends there, especially those involving food.

Kingdom’s Bounty, just published by Umbrage Editions, goes beyond a simple factual guide to being a real celebration of the people, community and landscapes of the area.  As one of the people profiled in this book (Mrs. Everts of Too Little Far,), susintly summed it up about locally grown food, “It has a story and a name behind it.  It has a person.  It has a place.”  Ms. Dunbar uses her journalistic skills to bring out  the human aide of numerous hardworking entrepreneurs and artisans who are fulfilling their personal vision of a better life and an excellent product, all of whom have put the Northeast Kingdom on the national map as being in the forefront of the local, organic, healthy food movement.  These are people who really care about what they do, who are solidly connected to the land and the cycles of the animal and plant life around them, living in a more biological rhythm as opposed to the omnipresent mechanical (and now electronic) rhythms of our culture.

This guide is generously illustrated and very attractively printed, predominately with Ms. Dunbar’s own well composed evocative photographs, which are always empathetic to the subjects.  The text has 32 profiles and over 200 listings, carefully organized alphabetically by the name of the enterprise and the town where they are located, with helpful cross references, suggested tours, and a good map.  What makes this guide special is that it combines a lot of useful information with an engaging personal narrative.  It is comprehensive in that it includes more than the edible, with entries on museums, inns, bookstores, county fairs and other activities as well as interesting side features on types of cows, barns, and not to mention the history and geology of the region.

Altogether Kingdom’s Bounty is a labor of love for the beauty of the Northeast Kingdom and the richness of its people.  We should carry a copy of it in our car to encourage exploring this amazing place we call home.

Bethany M. Dunbar will share a booth at the Orleans County Fair in Barton with the Chronicle.  The fair is August 15 through 19.  To order a copy of Kingdom’s Bounty at a special discount for Chronicle readers ($20 plus $9 shipping and handling), click here. Kingdom’s Bounty is also available for $25 plus tax at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, the Woodknot Bookshop in Newport, the gift shop at the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington, the MAC Center for the Arts in Newport, Barnes and Noble in Burlington, Hudson News at the Burlington International Airport, and the Craftsbury General Store.

 

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Stand Against the Wind tells wind protesters’ stories

Stand Against the Wind:  Civil Disobedience in the Green Mountain State by Chris Braithwaite, Chronicle Inc., Barton, Vermont.  2012, 110 pages, softcover, $19.95.

Reviewed by Julia Shipley

copyright the chronicle May 23, 2012

No matter where you stand on the issue of installing 21 commercial wind turbines atop the Lowell mountains in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, whether you bristle and grieve or feel triumphant or resigned, whether you live here, in Orleans County, or in Atlanta, Georgia, whether you have been doggedly following news of the mountain occupancy or whether you feel exhausted at the very mention of the word “issue,”— whomever you are, you might find an endangered pleasure in this new book, Stand Against the Wind by the Chronicle’s co-founder and publisher, Chris Braithwaite. Those pleasures include both a textbook example of old school, shoe leather journalism built of substantiated assertions and meticulous reporting and the smithing of that information into about 2,000 utterly gorgeous sentences. One right after the other, his narrative travels in boxcars of strong, clear prose driving each of the book’s 27 chapters, and making a collective portrait of civil disobedience committed by six individuals.

The book begins with a symbolic and actual dividing line on top of Lowell Mountain.  As Braithwaite analyzes what the actual plastic tape-line divides, his litany of things divided, and the disparities presented, culminate in this lovely sentence:  The bright orange tape is a line “between a place that is so high, so cussedly strewn with deadfalls and moose shit that nobody goes there except to hunt and hike, each winter for many years to enjoy the near-wilderness experience of camping in the snow; and a mountain so convenient that a guy can drive his pickup to the top just to check the oil on a multimillion dollar machine.”

This first editorial chapter (originally published in the Chronicle) invites us to “risk feeling that you are being torn in two…up where the blasting will soon begin.”

For those of us who did not accept that invitation, the Chronicle has consistently covered the issue for months, and even years.

Although the book encompasses some key events leading up to the commencement of Green Mountain Power’s project to install industrial wind towers on one of Vermont’s northernmost ridgelines, what Braithwaite calls “a wonderful sort of nowhere, ” the book takes for its subject the actions of some concerned citizens to stop it from happening. Like a club sandwich, the book is not just lettuce and cheese, the names and the dates, the he said, and she said. There are other layers interspersed, and the meat of this feast is really found in the in-depth profiles of a half dozen protestors, whom we meet one at a time, the six people most consistently involved with using “direct action.”

“Who cares?” and “Why do they care?” But more importantly: “How do they care?” — this exploration of what care-in-action looks like, of how to gracefully express distress is certainly pertinent to everyone. For even industrial wind tower proponents surely have, at one time in their life, experienced a feeling of powerlessness against a larger force usurping and/or annihilating, something they love.

Stand Against the Wind introduces us to these complicated, intelligent, thoughtful, people, who resist the paralysis of despair and flex that constitutional right we’ve all been guaranteed: the right to express our dissent.

As we learn in the fourth chapter, this expression is first modeled by Anne Morse, who explains to Braithwaite, “The point isn’t getting arrested. The point is the direct action that leads to the arrest. I think that it highlights the problem… people coming together collectively to highlight something that’s happening that’s wrong.”

Subsequent chapters feature profiles on Dr. Ron Holland, Eric Wallace-Senft, David Rodgers, Suzanna Jones, and Ryan Gillard. These interviews feel intimate, as Braithwaite allows each person to articulate the life circumstances and experiences that informed their actions on the Lowell Mountains. Their testimony is so unadulterated, it’s as if we’ve been given access to the inner thoughts, to their minds shifting, reorganizing, each building to his or her own truth. Whereas David Rodgers comes to his decision to protest thorough an increasing urgency realized in an intuitive way, confessing “It’s not something I did methodically, it was more a sense that I need to take a stand,” for Dr. Ron Holland the route to civil disobedience was incredibly logical. His focus was the policy debate. “It’s my sense if this could be put out in a quantitative kind of way — which it can, and it hasn’t been — it would be fully obvious. ”
Although a full disclosure of the links and liaisons I have to the people within this book would supplant the space needed for this review, one disclosure seems too relevant to omit:  On November 2, 2009, almost three full years before the first dynamite charges were detonated, I sent an e-mail to Mr. Braithwaite (who, by dint of having published the Chronicle for the past 38 years is the dean of my de facto journalism school — meaning: I study his work intensely).  In the e-mail I asked, “How do you train in objectivity? You must have an opinion on some of the things you report because: these things will affect you. The Wind Towers? If you’re feeling strongly do you suppress your opinion when writing the article but blurt it out in a once in a blue moon editorial?

Mr. Braithwaite replied tersely (but gamely) the next day with, “Proposed experiment: Read the page 1 story about Lowell wind [Wind friends, foes focus on Lowell Mt. by Chris Braithwaite November 4, 2009], then decide whether the Chronicle favors or opposes wind power in general. Then read the editorial. Did you get it right?”

I deduced, by analyzing every word, examining ratios of which perspectives got more column inches and observing that wind tower proponents got to have the last word, that probably: “Braithwaite wants big wind.” (Obviously, I won’t be graduating from my self- invented J-school at the top of my class.)

Braithwaite further explained, “the reporter’s job is to understand the interests involved and lay them out coherently, like a good sports writer advancing a world series game. You can’t do that well if you let your misguided affection for the Yankees color your assessment… so you learn not to.”

This occupational hazard is tackled again in his book. Much as the footing up to the mountaintops is moose-shit slick and tricky, so Braithwaite also admits to coming “dangerously close” to slipping over the thin partition and being a protestor. Though he accepts the cup of coffee brewed by some of the mountain occupiers, a steaming cup which he describes as a “shocking luxury” on that chilly morning, he refrains from civil disobedience, realizing he cannot report on the protest if he joins them by bending over to make a cairn of the blasted rubble or carry a handful of soil to a freshly planted sapling. And though he jokes in another chapter about the sacrifices his job demands (in particular, how a bout of extended reporting kept him from fully participating in a deer camp getaway), I feel it necessary to point out that for the readers, having a newspaper like the Chronicle at all is a shocking luxury. And that Braithwaite’s actual sacrifice to forgo his expression of civil disobedience has yielded us his newspaper’s ongoing coverage of the commercial wind project, a true boon being as we live too far beyond the radar to merit extensive coverage from other media outlets.

In the book’s introduction, Braithwaite acknowledges that he is damn glad he has postponed retirement to cover what he calls “one of the best” stories in his nearly 50-year career. However, lest we take something seemingly rock solid, enduring and readily available week after week, year after year, like the familiar silhouette of the Lowells themselves for granted, I [editorial comment approaching] believe this book, along with the coverage the Chronicle has provided, are as welcome and revitalizing as a strong cup of coffee on a cold morning in the newly blasted landscape.

Stand Against the Wind will be available soon at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Green Mountain Books and Prints in Lyndonville, Woodknot Bookshop in Newport, and at the Chronicle office in Barton. The book can be ordered now at: www.createspace.com/3869681.  Julia Shipley is the author of a poetry column about Vermont poems called “It could be Verse,” and she was the 2006 winner of the Ralph Nading Hill Award sponsored by Green Mountain Power, for which she received a cash prize of $1,500. She can be reached at her website:  Writingonthefarm.com.

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An intimate drink with a literate coyote: Perimeter Check II

Perimeter Check II, Tales from Vermont’s Upper Kingdom, by Paul Lefebvre.  Published by Beck Pond Books.  187 pages.  $14.95.
Reviewed by Julia Shipley
copyright the Chronicle February 23, 2011
Fans of Paul Lefebvre’s know how his weekly column for this newspaper, Perimeter Check, is delivered like an intimate mutter, as if you’d dared yourself to climb on the barstool next him as he was ten minutes into his second whisky, and he had deigned to pretend you were a pretty good friend.
First conceived in 1999, Perimeter Check has appeared on a weekly basis in the Chronicle for almost 12 years.  As co-editor of the Chronicle, Bethany Dunbar acknowledged, “He’s always pretty easy to find on Mondays — he’s home writing his column.”
Mr. Lefebvre’s first book of columns, aptly titled, Perimeter Check, debuted in 2008.  This second collection, Perimeter Check II:  Tales from Vermont’s Upper Kingdom, gathers together more of these prize-winning episodes, as his column has won four first-place awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association since 2004.
In offering an explanation for the title and content of these 1,200-word dispatches, Mr. Lefebvre states in the introduction, “No one is sure what he will find by picking at the edges.  But it is at the edges where I have found a life. Small truths sometimes grow into a larger one, and I would like to believe the columns in this collection are keepers of little truths.”
Edges, as ecologists know, are places rich in biological activity; one of my favorite poets, a psychologist by training, asserts that, “Truth appears only at the borders,” and once, seated with a group around a campfire in a wilderness area in Arizona, I watched a coyote skirt our circle, trotting the perimeter where the flickering light of our campfire met the deep blue shadows.  In this manner, Mr. Lefebvre is like a literate coyote, whose beat is the place where two zones converge.
His column of November 21, 2007, takes for its beginning the phenomenon of in-between seasons, “when one season is not quite over and another flirts with beginning.”  His sentences are so unpretentiously smart and beautiful: “Dwellers of the Upper and Lower Kingdom alike will undoubtedly agree that when it comes to the space between winter and fall, all of us are living between a hope and a fantasy — etched indelibly in those lines where the snug hat meets the creases in the brow:  Maybe I’ve got enough wood to last the winter; maybe it’s my year to get that ten-pointer.”
His columns relate stories that are scrounged, befitting of a coyote’s luck and cunning, from his rambles around the state’s least populated counties.  As in his column from October 17, 2007, which describes his willingness to “make do with whatever is at hand.  From wearing a dead man’s clothes to picking up discarded wooden guardrails and splitting them lengthwise to use as bridge planks….” He calls it “back road conservation,” this act of browsing and selecting from the discards and blow-aways of the byways.
It seems this same kind of beachcombing ethic directs the way his column accrues: It can begin with a letter from the State Police about his reported stolen guns.  Or it might start out as a note to self:  “Never trust a car that has sat for two months in the winter without being driven.”  Sometimes a simple change in the length of daylight kicks off a riff that leads to a review of Chief’s horseradish and closes down with a roofing job finished in the chilly rain.
In My Antonia, a classic novel by Willa Cather, the narrator, speaking from the early twentieth century, tells us of his college studies, learning, ‘Primus ego in patriam mecum…deducam Musas means “for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.”  He goes on to explain how his professor clarifies that the word “patria” didn’t mean nation, “but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born.”
This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little “country,” to his father’s fields, “sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.”
When Mr. Lefebvre writes from his little rural neighborhood, telling us of the Great Piano Shootout at Mad Brook, recounting past basketball games as he waits for a truck loaded with firewood to find his driveway, or making another escape to camp, it seems there is a carefully meted out, lonely-proud howl rising out of these pages.
Masters of narrative say there are only two fundamental stories:  A man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Somehow, each week, Paul Lefebvre finds a fusion of those archetypes, sending his readers a letter from a place where the dirt road meets the main road, “between church and religion; between marriage and love; and even between hill and town,” as he says in a column titled, “A People of In-Between.”
In this manner, simultaneously bold and devoutly humble, bent over his computer in Newark, Vermont, on most every Monday, Mr. Lefebvre escorts the Muse as he stands with one paw inside, one paw outside, straddling the perimeter, the rogue poet-King of the Upper Kingdom.
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