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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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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