In the UTGs: Has industrial wind worn out its welcome?

UTG webby Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle 11-13-2013

ISLAND POND — Seneca Mountain wind developers stuck their head in the lion’s den here Monday night, and the lion roared back.

Eolian Renewable Energy is proposing a 20-turbine project for Seneca Mountain that would be sited exclusively in the town of Ferdinand, a small, sprawling community and a member of the Unified Towns and Gores (UTG). Continue reading

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Rifle season for white-tailed deer opens November 16

deer menard web

The weekend before rifle season is set aside for youth hunters. Noah Menard of Barton poses proudly with the spikehorn he shot Sunday, November 10, in Barton. He and his father, Nathan, stopped by the Chronicle for a photo before having the deer weighed, but his first buck, taken at a distance of 55 yards, was big enough to put a smile on the eight-year-old’s face. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle 11-13-2013

Why do deer hunters enjoy less success in the Northeast Kingdom than they do elsewhere?

The 2013 deer rifle season opens Saturday, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife is projecting a harvest similar to 2012 when rifle hunters took 6,159 buck over the 16-day season.

Adam Murkowski, the department’s top deer biologist, said he expects that 16 percent of the state’s deer population will be harvested.  He estimated the herd’s present population at roughly 130,000, and noted that the harvest rate has been stable for the last few years. Continue reading

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Vermont history through the eyes of a lawyer

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paul gillies book webUncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History, by Paul Gillies.  Published by the Vermont Historical Society. 2013.  414 pages with index. $24.95.

Reviewed by Paul Lefebvre

People who major in history in college often find themselves going to law school once they graduate.  More often, anyway, than those who major in physics or biology.  Ironically, Paul Gillies, who has a master’s degree in English from the University of Vermont, reversed that familiar transition by becoming a historian after he first became a lawyer.

Fortunately, for anyone interested in Vermont history, it’s been a seamless transition.  As a lawyer with a flair for writing, Gillies has given us a book that is quirky, original and highly entertaining as a study of Vermont’s past.

What’s original about Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History, is how revealing our laws reflects our history.  Not just the laws as they were passed 200 years ago, but as recent as the Ancient Road Law that was passed by the Legislature in 2006.

The key question underlying ancient roads, say Gillies, writing as an attorney, is:  “What happens when the town announces it intends to develop the public road that runs through your property that nobody has traveled for several centuries?”

The question requires a legal resolution, but Gillies the historian frames its importance in a much larger context.  The lasting value in finding ancient roads — those having “no nexus to the current highway map” — is to show how a town evolved, or “how the hill farms were abandoned, the villages developed, and the land subdivided.”

Politically, a republic is a country governed by laws.  And to read Gillies is to see how laws mirror a country or state’s historical development.

Following the American Revolution, the country as well as Vermont did away with the British custom of judges wearing scarlet and ermine robes in court.  The tradition of judges wearing robes, however, remained.

By wearing a robe, explains Gillies, “the person is covered up and the office made manifest by the costume.”  And while individual judges may retire, “the robe comes back every day.”

Not to be outdone by members of the judicial branch, Vermont legislators even went one step further in 1789 by allowing members to “sit with their heads covered, except when they address the Speaker.”

Gillies, himself, appears to have little patience with some of the practices still at work today when a Latin phrase is used instead of an English one.  For while it may elevate a proceeding, he says, it also has a downside for the layman who has come to court.

“Latin can be so powerful, until you have to translate it, and then it falls flat, like explaining a joke to someone who doesn’t get it.”

Property laws or those regulating trade and commerce often come in reaction to something that is causing a conflict.  Gillies lays out an number of case histories on point, including those stemming from an eighteenth-century enterprise that every spring churned the waters of the Connecticut River until the early nineteen-hundreds:  the log drives.

“Like the law, log driving took balance, judgment, and quickness,” he writes in verve that is typical of his style.

In 1785 the Legislature passed a law that gave an owner nine months to remove his logs from a drive that had become snared by the river.  Similar laws ruled that the logs could be no longer than 20 feet and had to be marked for identification by the owner.

Throughout the decades there were laws passed that regulated log diameters and set deadlines for driving logs from one point to another.

“The present law is a museum of regulations of the log driving industry,” write Gillies.  And they still remain on the books.

Selectmen determine the location of the boom in rivers and streams to hold back the logs, “and no boom may be anchored until the fees are paid,” Gillies writes.

“Should log drives come back, the law awaits them.”

Packed into this big book — which can easily be read as an anthology — is a chapter on what Gillies understandably calls “Luminaries,” former Supreme Court Justices.  As profiles they run the gambit from Nathaniel Chipman — who in 1786 at 33 years old was elected to serve on the Supreme Court — to Justice F. Ray Keyser, who joined the Court in 1964.

Justice Chipman was Vermont’s foremost legal scholar, but what he contributed to the state’s legal foundation is, in Gillies’ view, the lynchpin to what we have become today as a society.

In his Sketches of the Principles of Government, written in 1793, Justice Chipman took a very benign and, at the time, radical view of human nature.  People do not need a government to protect themselves from each other, because they have a natural “relish for society.”

In other words, writes Gillies, “human beings in Chipman’s view were drawn intuitively to society, order, and organization as a fulfillment of their quest for happiness and social improvement.”

Among his peers, Gillies says, Chipman was a lawyer who liked to play in deep waters but had difficulty when it came to sustaining a lawyer-client relationship.

The profiles make up a hefty third of the book, which may explain why Gillies offered a writer’s disclaimer before forging ahead.

“Each essay is a violation against the law of practicing psychology without a license, but the perfume of the temptation is irresistible against the possible odor of the risk,” he writes.

Gillies concluded his book with a lengthy examination of Act 250, whose significance for Vermont he underscores by writing:

“In 1969, there was Woodstock, Vietnam, the moon landing, the Manson murders, and Act 250.”

He credits Governor Deane Davis for seeing the need and the 1970 Legislature for following through to pursue “a public interest in traditionally private matters when it comes to land and how it is used.”

Gillies says that Act 250 has reached maturity, and traces its evolution over four decades.  The results over the first ten years were mixed, or constitute what the author calls a difficult childhood.  By 1980, he says the Act “had found its bearings,” after the Legislature eliminated the “ten-acre loophole,” which took away lot size as an exemption from Act 250 review.

The third decade, “its most difficult,” saw wrangles with the Legislature over membership on the Environmental Board.  An Environmental Court was created.  Accusations proliferated that the Act 250 process was too unwieldy.  Gillies called it a time for retrenchment.

Throughout its fourth decade, which began in 2000, Act 250’s power to regulate was diminished by the Legislature and the High Court, according to Gillies.

Speaking of the Act as a process, the author writes:  “It has been revised almost as often as educational theory.  What other law has had to be saved so often?”

As a lawyer, Gillies has made his mark by representing towns.  Before ancient roads became such a hot political issue, he may have been municipal government’s first road warrior.  To that end, he is also the first historian to study the state’s past by looking at its routes of travel.

“The developing road network is a revelation of several centuries of community evolution,” he writes.

“This is the beginning of the golden age of Vermont highway law.”

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@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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Moose harvest lagging at mid-season

Barry Adams of Lyndonville hunting with his father, Dave, shot this 442-pound cow in Wheelock Monday morning.  Photo courtesy of Cedric Alexander

Barry Adams of Lyndonville hunting with his father, Dave, shot this 442-pound cow in Wheelock Monday morning. Photo courtesy of Cedric Alexander

by Paul Lefebvre

BARTON — Halfway through the 2013 season and the moose harvest is running about 40 percent behind last year’s figures at this time, according to biologist Cedric Alexander of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department.

Early estimates suggest that 115 moose had been taken as of Monday night, said Mr. Alexander, the department’s moose biologist who was at the Barton reporting station Tuesday.

Mr. Alexander attributed the trailing harvest to a reduction in permits — about 30 fewer than were issued a year ago.

A hunter not included in the mid-season report was Chris Manges of West Burke, who shot a 622-pound cow Tuesday in Craftsbury.

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Passenger train might come to Island Pond

Kato's Railroad

copyright the Chronicle, October 9, 2013

by Paul Lefebvre

ISLAND POND — For two private developers who would like to start a nighttime rail passenger service between Montreal and Portland, slow is beautiful.

The working name for the project is train-hotel, and in a special meeting here Tuesday with Brighton Selectmen, Francois Rebello of Montreal and Richard Bennett of Biddeford, Maine, laid out a business proposal that would warm the heart of nearly everyone in a town that the railroad put on the map.

Essentially, the pair want to put evening passenger trains on three different routes, all linking Montreal to New York.  Initially, the trains would run for three months, starting in the summer.

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In Island Pond: Quebec maple firm seeks syrup factory

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IP maple web

The REM building in Island Pond. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

by Paul Lefebvre

ISLAND POND — A Quebec maple company may be setting up shop in an empty factory here that failed to gain traction as a woodworking facility and create jobs after the Ethan Allen plant shut down in 2000.

The empty factory, known as the REM building on Meadow Street and owned by the town, could have a tenant as early as the middle of the month, according to Brighton Administrative Assistant Joel Cope.

A representative from Bernards Maple of Saint-Victor, Quebec, talked to Brighton’s selectmen late last month, and on Tuesday confirmed that the company is interested in leasing the building and more.

“It’s not a building we’re looking at, it’s an industry,” said Jacques Letourneau, who is negotiating with the town on behalf of the company.

Mr. Letourneau, who spoke guardedly during a brief telephone interview, said negotiations over leasing the building with an option to buy are still at a very preliminary stage, and he preferred “not to divulge anything until everything is in place.”

According to the minutes of the August 27 selectman’s meeting, the company would like to move in by September 16 and have environmental permits in place by the end of October.

“We’re happy to help them with that and move through the process,” said Mr. Cope, speaking in an interview last Thursday.

Still uncertain is what the deal would mean in terms of jobs.  Best estimates suggest that only a few jobs would be created at the outset, with as many as 30 to 40 to “maintain the operation” and three or four permanent jobs at the plant.  Yet the potential has the power to excite town officials.

“We think it’s a very exciting opportunity and is exactly what this community needs,” said Melinda Gervais-Lamoureux, chairman of the Brighton selectmen.

She said the company is considering a two-phase development over four to five years, “and that’s where the jobs will come from.”

The deal offered by the town last week would be to lease the factory for $15,000 — $1 per square foot — with the annual lease payment going toward a $250,000 purchase price.

Tentatively, the company plans to make maple syrup in the building with sap trucked in from maple bushes in the area that it seeks to lease.  To that end, it has already begun talks with Plum Creek, the large timber company that owns more than 86,000 acres in northern Essex County.

Mr. Cope said the company would like to collect sap from roughly 100,000 taps, and expand up to one million.

“If they can find the land and the trees,” he added.

Mr. Letourneau said the company knows the trees are there, having done its research before approaching the town.  Realtor Mick Conley of Derby, who is serving as the company’s agent in Vermont, said Essex County has the third highest number of maple trees in the state.

Mark Doty, a public affairs agent with Plum Creek, would only confirm Tuesday that the Canadian company has expressed an interest.  “It’s still very, very preliminary,” he said.  “Nothing to report.”

The town put the REM building on the market about a year ago, according to Mr. Cope.  It derives its name from the previous owner, Robert E. Miller of South Burlington, who gave the building to the town after its previous tenants — the Island Pond Woodworkers, an employee-owned woodworking factory — failed to make a go of it.  Mr. Cope estimated the town has owned the building since 2010.

Located in Saint-Victor, about an hour south of Quebec City and 125 miles north of Island Pond, Bernards Maple is a fifth-generation-owned company that “has been making maple syrup for over 200 years,” said Mr. Letourneau.

As a company it is involved in every aspect of the maple industry, from tapping the trees to distributing the final product.

“We’re about as close to the consumer as you can get without putting it in the refrigerator,” he said.

The company plans to start off slow and expand.  It wants assurances from the town that it will be able to put on a 5,000-square-foot addition to the building without running into any regulatory delays.

Located in a light industrial zone, the building already has an Act 250 permit.  On Tuesday Steve Paterson, who heads the regional planning agency, the Northeastern Vermont Development Association (NVDA), said his group is looking at what additional permits may be required.

According to the minutes of the selectmen’s meeting last month, the company could be running as many as ten big trucks a day into Meadow Street at certain times of the year.  The REM building appears to be well situated to overcome any permitting obstacles.

“None seem to be insurmountable to me,” said Mr. Cope.

If the company comes to town, one change that will occur quickly is that the building will change its name to the Island Pond Maple Factory.

Mr. Letourneau said Tuesday that, as an old family company in Quebec, Bernards Maple wants the community to be involved.  He told selectmen that the company wants to make sure that the residents of Meadow Street are not disturbed by the heightened traffic on their street.  And on Tuesday, he spoke of the need for community support for the project.

Presumably, that support will grow as jobs become available.  But as Ms. Gervais-Lamoureux noted, the potential for jobs will increase only if the factory is occupied.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks 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 Barton: Chronicle reporter watches car get stolen

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by Bethany M. Dunbar

BARTON — A veteran reporter for the Chronicle had his car stolen from the office as he was working inside on Tuesday.  But about three hours later, the vehicle was found in Orleans, and the person who took it was caught.

About 3:30 p.m., Assistant Editor Natalie Hormilla Gordon arrived for her evening shift job and noticed a young man in a hooded sweatshirt sitting in Paul Lefebvre’s car, holding the steering wheel.

She did not recognize him, thought it was odd, and when she went inside, she told Mr. Lefebvre, who went outside to take a look.  By then the car was being driven from the scene, badly.  It’s a Honda CRV with standard shift, and the driver was stalling as he made his getaway, down Water Street and north on Route 5, as Mr. Lefebvre watched.

Thinking he might be able to head it off on foot, Mr. Lefebvre cut through the schoolyard at a run to try to get his car back.

The attempt proved unfruitful, so he came back to the office where he called the State Police to report the theft.  Chronicle staffers also decided to post the car’s theft on Facebook.  Trooper Erika Liss came to the Chronicle office and interviewed Mr. Lefebvre and Ms. Gordon, who had got a good look at the robber.  She described him as a white male in his twenties, average size, with blue eyes, wearing a Navy blue hoodie.

“He had his hands on the wheel, looking kind of intense,” she said.  “He was just sitting there, and I thought, maybe he knows Paul.”

Mr. Lefebvre said his first thought was, “How am I going to get home tonight?”

His car had been in an accident about a week and a half before, and the back window was smashed out and covered with a green tarp and duct tape.  It also had problems with the door, created in the accident.

Mr. Lefebvre said it has not been a very lucky car for him, as he has had to put in a new motor, water pump, and clutch.

“I think that car has a hex on it,” he said.

But Mr. Lefebvre’s luck was apparently turning a few hours later, when people started calling the office to say they had seen the car in Orleans Village.  They were aware of the theft due to the Facebook post.  Mr. Lefebvre called the police back to say the car had been spotted in Orleans, and Lieutenant Kirk Cooper went to the village, spotted the car and found out the driver was in the bathroom at the Sunoco station.  The driver, who said he is from Enosburg and had no wallet with him, was cited after he came out of the bathroom.

Mr. Lefebvre had his car back, and nothing seemed to be missing from the vehicle.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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

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Hoagland novel tells tales of human courage

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hoagland review-1Children are Diamonds, by Edward Hoagland.  Published by Arcade Publishing, New York, New York, 2013.  213 pages. $23.95.

Reviewed by Paul Lefebvre 

What to think of a 30-something-year-old schoolteacher who got fired from his job in New Hampshire, absconded from a sinking ship with his company’s money, and went on the lam into central Africa, where he became a jack-of-all-trades, bringing food and medicine into a ravaged war zone where boy soldiers cut the intestines out of their dead victims and wear them around their necks like a necklace?

Or a woman in her early fifties, a relief worker with Protestants Against Famine, manning an outpost in the bush overrun by refugees speaking many tribal tongues, where she mothers orphans, treats diseases, war wounds, and all the myriad health complications that go with malnutrition and starvation without cutting any slack for herself?

“You have to believe in heaven, and I don’t know if I do,” she says at one point.

Ruth and Hickey are the two riveting characters in Edward Hoagland’s admirable novel, Children are Diamonds.  Each is flawed in ways both morally and spiritually, and each bring to Africa a different kind of American than we are used to seeing, either in other works of fiction or in the history of Western imperialism or colonization.

When it comes to novels set in faraway places few can match what Hoagland achieves in a story that unflinchingly comes to grips with the courage it takes to be human in the face of a time when there is so little to gain.  That it’s a story set in what was once called the “Dark Continent” makes it all the more daunting.

The Africa that Hoagland sets his novel in is the Africa where war and hunger have become the norm of daily life.  It’s the Africa of Idi Amin, whose brutal rule of Uganda has been replaced by tribal warlords who run outfits like the Lord’s Resistance Army, which kidnaps children during village raids and turns them into soldiers by a gruesome ritual that forces them to eat the organs of their murdered parents.  It’s an Africa where the people have been uprooted and displaced, strafed by Russian MiGs in service to the same Arabs who hire blacks from Darfur to do their fighting in the bush.  And it’s an Africa where there are no second chances.

“In Africa, everything is an emergency,” Hoagland writes in the first line of the novel.  “Your radiator blows out and as you solder a repair job, Lango kids emerge from the bush, belonging to a village that you’ll never see, reachable by a path you hadn’t noticed.”

Although one is armed with a Kalashnikov, they are not depicted as threatening, only hungry.  Survival for a white man like Hickey depends on his ability to keep a balance between “friendliness and mystery.”

As a writer, Hoagland cut his teeth on essays and travel pieces, with a novel tossed in every now and then, like the fisherman who fishes in streams for brook trout and occasionally tries his hand spin-casting for bass in still waters, using what he has learned about fish and his own ability to catch them.  In Children are Diamonds, Hoagland combines the wisdom of a seasoned traveler with a novelist’s imagination in writing a book that takes us through a country few of us have seen, through emotions we have seldom if ever felt, and delivers us into a troubled land where unspeakable atrocities suddenly explode.

What better setting could there be for a rolling stone character like Hickey, who moves back and forth between guiding tourists and bedding airplane stewardesses to trucking food into relief camps, “pussyfooting slowly through Lord’s Resistance Army rebel territory in northern Uganda?”  Hickey may be a likeable survivor — the kind you might enjoy talking to over a beer in a bar — but he becomes endearingly heroic when he throws caution to the wind for a woman, a hard-nosed relief worker, who could be his older sister.

Courage is often what we think of when someone risks life and limb for some greater good or noble purpose.  Hoagland tell us that you don’t have to be a doctor to hand out aspirin or Kaopectate, and that it takes very little to be human or brave in the eyes of those looking for a shred of hope.

“The old stone-and-concrete ruins of a Catholic chapel that had been forgotten since the colonial powers had left could be reoccupied, if you chased the leopards and the cobras out and joy, I think, is, like photosynthesis for plants, an evidence of God,” he writes.

Against his belief that the laws of survival are poised to turn against him, Hickey goes into the bush where doom is about to descent on Ruth and her outpost.  A temporary truce in the fighting has ended.  Two white Norwegian doctors and a nurse already have been killed, and everyone who can flee — from aid workers to refugees — is fleeing, except Ruth.

She is the novel’s Mother Courage.  “She shouldn’t be stranded,” says an accomplice of Hickey, who may or may not be a CIA spook.  In one of their early encounters, Hickey watches her as she mixes powdered milk while a toddler clings to her — a malnourished toddler with a “head disproportionately large because skulls can’t shrink.”  Leo, named after a missionary priest, becomes her African diamond.

So into the fray Hickey goes.  The fact that he and Ruth are both white may or may not be a plus.  There is the spearman who warns the fleeing whites of mines in the road, but refuses to guide them.

“He’s telling you you people have the atom bomb so what do you need him for?” says one of the African assistants who, though loyal to Ruth, has no love for the West.

As the opposing armies close on one another, those in the know seek a solitary escape route as “they slid into the forest like fish wiggling into a reef.”  But for Hickey and Ruth there is no looking out for themselves first.  Their jeep is loaded with crippled passengers, and leading the way are the healthy children ready to warn any guerrillas waiting in ambush that the vehicle behind them contains white people who are “not to be casually shot.”

In the end there may be no possibility of escape for Ruth and Hickey who defined themselves by “where we were.”  And they are in Africa, where “everything is an emergency,” which is something each appears to desire and need.

Aside from being a novel about courage and morality, Children are Diamonds is a novel about landscape — a landscape of rivers and their feeder streams, of mountains and valleys that Hoagland renders with the deft touch of a cartographer and the imagination of an artist.  If you want to visit Africa close and up front and don’t have the wherewithal to get there, reading this novel may be your best option.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

For an interview with Mr. Hoagland, click here.

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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Edward Hoagland: 23 books and still going

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Edward Hoagland stopped in at the Chronicle office to do an interview.  Photo by Paul Lefebvre

Edward Hoagland stopped in at the Chronicle office to do an interview. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

by Paul Lefebvre 

When writer Edward “Ted” Hoagland turned 80 in December, he had 22 books under his belt.  Today, he has one more and is working on another.  Of course there’s an essay in the works, from the man writer John Updike called “the best essayist of my generation.”  And then there’s a journal he’s been keeping that will be published posthumously.

Some people who come to the Northeast Kingdom think there is nothing to do.  Not Hoagland.  He bought a house on Wheeler Mountain in the early ’60s, and has been living there ever since as a summer resident.

To the extent it is in the boonies, the Northeast Kingdom has undoubtedly contributed to his impressive literary output.

“I’m doing very well on what is my sixth novel because, well there is no phone, no electricity, which is fine at this time of year,” says Hoagland, who sat for a taped interview at the Chronicle’s office last week.  “I don’t use all the daylight there is; I fall asleep before it’s dark.”

Hoagland came to Vermont to buy a house and land when he was about 35.  He had been introduced to the state by a college friend whose father, the eminent historian Henry Steele Commanger, had a house in Newfane.  Hoagland says the house was “crammed with books” and rural enough to take walks on dirt roads and see tracks from wildlife, “which, of course, I loved.”

A love of wildlife and wilderness landed Hoagland in southern California as a young, hotshot firefighter in the early ’50s.  Poking through the country on his off hours, he became so intrigued by mountain lions that he traveled to far-away places, such as the mountains of Alberta, Canada, to see one.  This obsession may account for his willingness to risk life and limb when he became a caretaker for MGM’s signature lions, who appeared to produce a loud roar at the beginning of every picture the movie company made.

The company had a retirement home in California for all the lions it had employed since the ’40s.  It was also keeping “a very sweet female mountain lion,” which happened to be in heat when Hoagland was there.  He says he would often sit next to her cage when no one else was around.  Until one day when he was struck with “the impulse to crawl into her cage.

“She was very surprised, and she went to the back of her cage, turned around and sprang at me,” he says.

But as she went to strike him in the face with a paw, she withdrew her claws.

“It was a love tap,” Hoagland says.

Hoagland doesn’t say whether the experience taught him to conquer his fears.  But to this day he strikes a fearless posture in the face of adversity.

“If I saw a black bear in the woods, I would say, ‘You are not a grizzly.’  I love animals.  I am not going to make you unhappy, but you are not going to scare me.”

Or when he encountered a potential mugger on the street he would say, “You are not a tiger,” and continue on his way.

When Hoagland came to Vermont looking for a place, he was living in New York City, a connection that appears to have helped him find what became his heart’s house.  From Avis Harper he got passed on to Em Hebard, who had lived in New York, Greenwich Village, Hoagland’s old neighborhood.  And together they found the place on Wheeler Mountain.

“I loved the house to start with,” he says.  “I knew it as soon as I saw it.  And it wasn’t just the house, it was also the cliffs.”

He figures he’s spent a third of his life there.

“When people ask me about it, I say I’m going to my heart’s home.”

Hoagland says he came to Vermont rather than Maine, New Hampshire, or the Adirondacks because of the people.  Prior to Hoagland’s purchase, the man who had lived in the house made corn whiskey and brewed bathtub beer.

“For a long time after I bought the house, old customers would periodically drive up and would be disappointed there was no white lightning,” he say.

From living in Barton, he got to know Phil Brooks, a taxidermist, and Paul Brochu, who owned an exceptionally clever hound dog.

“Paul could call the dog and point to the fox, and the dog would stop chasing the coon and follow the fox. And if they happen to come onto a bobcat track, which is much more valuable, the dog would just pick up the bobcat track.”

The state shared physical characteristics that he had seen elsewhere in his travels.  But there was something else.  The people.  And not just those who shared his interest in mountain lions or wildlife.

“Vermont combined the landscape of the West, I mean it looked like Idaho,” he says.  “But the people of the East I have always loved.  I’ve been to Alaska and British Columbia, too, nine times.  But I don’t like the people who live there as much as Vermont.”

Vermonters, he says, have “more of a sense of conservation.”

At the time he bought the house, he had written three books and was working on his fourth.  Although he’s a prolific writer, Hoagland writes with the concentration of a monk. He says it takes him three or four months to write an essay, and four to five years to write a book.  He routinely goes from fiction to non-fiction with the facility of a Northeast Kingdom native who can switch from English to speaking French.

If he becomes stymied while writing a novel, he picks up where he left off writing an essay.  And often, working on the essay, he figures out the next conversation or scene to use in the novel.

Since Hoagland only spends summers in Vermont, he had never written a book from beginning to end while residing in Barton.  But, perhaps not surprisingly, he was in residence at Wheeler Mountain when he wrote the essay, “Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion,” which was published in 1971 by The New Yorker.

Other essays of Vermont origin include “Of Cows and Cambodia,” and the “War in the Woods,” after an outing with houndsman Paul Doyle.  During the ’70s, Hoagland also wrote “The Moose on the Wall,” which took its title from a head mount inside the Howard Bank and featured his taxidermist pal, Mr. Brooks.

But among Kingdom readers with long memories, Hoagland may best be known for the essay he wrote about the girlie shows at the fair, which caused the uproar that led to their early and premature demise.

“Unfortunately,” says Hoagland.  “It was not my intention.”

The shows continued for three or four years elsewhere before they were banned.  Hoagland says his essay took the church-going people of Barton by storm.  “Of course they stay away from that so didn’t know what happened inside until I wrote about it,” he says.  “But they found out why boys went to the fair as boys and came back men, which they had never known before.”

After his spate of Vermont essays, Hoagland traveled to Africa.  He went twice during the ’70s; once in 1976 and again in 1977.  He went during a time when there was a lull in the fighting.  On his return, he wrote African Calliope: A Trip to the Sudan, first published in 1979.

War had returned to central Africa and the Sudan — “that I love so much” — when Hoagland made a second round of visits, once in 1993 and again in 1995.  The war caused widespread famine and Hoagland says he had to be there.  Strafed by MiGs and living in a church compound close to the war zone, his experience this time around resulted in what some critics believe is his best book, Children are Diamonds.

“It took me 20 years to produce this novel because the experiences are based on my own experiences,” he says.  “I did do a couple of pieces for The Nation, but I couldn’t exorcize them through those pieces.”

Hoagland was working as a freelance journalist when he accompanied a transport of food into a relief workers’ compound where thousands and thousands of starving refugees had gathered.  It was the first shipment of food since the killing of four UN aid workers four months ago.  The scene beggars description.

“They had eaten all the insects, all the grasshoppers, all the song birds,” Hoagland says.  “All the area smelled of smoke for in order to smoke out the insects and the rodents, they had burned everything off.”

There were 58 trucks in the transport, carrying corn.  He recalls watching children running alongside the lorries, gathering spilled kernels that they would bring to their mothers after acquiring a handful.

It was that moment, he says, that he had the most powerful experience of his life.  Hoagland was in his sixties at the time and his hair had turned prematurely white.  The women and children equated white with power, and in Hoagland they saw someone they believed to be their deliverer.

“So, they asked me if I was the head of the United Nations,” says Hoagland, who after all these years still chokes up with the memory.

“Are we forgiven?” they asked him.

Hoagland told them he had just arrived from America, and he says they looked at his boots and asked if he had walked.

The most powerful emotion he experienced came moments later when he heard the mothers tell their children: “That white man can save your life.”

And, just like that, he remembers it happened.  “These wobbling, staggering children with huge bellies came up and touched me.”

Throughout his career, Hoagland focused on being the best American essayist he could be.  But it’s an attitude he’s extended to the very craft of writing, and one that leaves no regrets.  Every book he has written, he says, “was the very best I could do at the time.”

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

For a review of Mr. Hoagland’s newest book, Children are Diamonds, click here.

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Book review: A requiem for Rocky

review crossing webReviewed by Garret Keizer

Crossing Jack Brook:  Love and Death in the Woods, by Paul Lefebvre.  Published by Beck Pond Books.  169 pages.   Paperback.  $20.

Your odds of finding a four-leaf clover on your first try are roughly on a par with those of being injured by a toilet seat, about one in 10,000.  You have at least a seven times better chance of becoming President of the United States than winning at Powerball with your first ticket, though in the former case multiple variables come into play, such as whether and where you went to college and in which rest room, ladies’ or gents’, you’re entitled to test your luck with a toilet seat.

However you choose to place your bets, few factors reliably alter the odds of surviving the love of your life.  No matter where you live, how many minutes a day you exercise, or whether your beloved is a Methodist, a lesbian, or a canary, those odds are essentially the same.  One in two.

For that reason, books about grieving a dear companion’s death — Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and, closer to home, Edie Clark’s The Place He Made and Donald Hall’s Without — are among the most useful on the shelves.  That doesn’t mean they’re always the most readable or will all deserve to be called beautiful.  Chronicle reporter and columnist Paul Lefebvre’s Crossing Jack Brook is both.

It’s also three captivating stories for the price of one.  The most prominent is about the sickness and death of the artist Elin K. Paulson, Lefebvre’s long-time partner, which he tells without a trace of morbidity.  Nicknamed “Rocky” for her passion for collecting rocks, Paulson comes across as a fascinatingly complex character:  “a bohemian woman” who did not like to be called a hippie, a nature-lover who did not care to grow a garden, a pacifist who loved John Brown.  We can wonder about all of that, but we never wonder why Lefebvre loved Paulson.  After only a few pages, we’re pretty fond of her too.

In the symbolism of their love affair, Lefebvre fleshes out his second big story:  the initial clash and ultimate fusion of two tribes that occurred when the migratory counterculture of the 1960s met the indigenous counterculture of the Northeast Kingdom.  Lefebvre and Paulson come across as representative, if highly individualized, members of their respective tribes:

he an Island Pond native of French Canadian extraction with railway men and loggers in his family and roots in the Kingdom that go back as far as 1799; she the down-country daughter of a Catholic-Worker couple, artisans and homesteaders devoted to a movement that was talking about peace, love, and communal living before there were television sets and atom bombs.

Mixing these diverse elements, Lefebvre gives us a darker, more viscous narrative than that fancy-grade syrup that often gets poured over things “Vermont.”  He also introduces us to a motley cast of characters:  the Count and the Commissioner, “the girls of Lost Nation,” and the denizens of Mad Brook Farm, will-o’-the-wisp hermits and stoned entrepreneurs, gun-packing truckers and the activist priest Bob Castle, aka “Reverend Slick.”  At Lefebvre’s hunting camp we hear “anthems to those who have prepared liver and onions on a cookstove, brought bottles of whiskey to Thanksgiving Day dinner, and left the air charged with the pungent odor of Hoppes #9 oil from cleaning their guns at the kitchen table.”  Well, many of us have been to a hunting camp, but few of us could describe it like Lefebvre.

So we are not surprised that the third main story of Crossing Jack Brook is about becoming a writer, not only as a way of making a living but also as a way of fighting for one’s life.  The theme is clear from his first paragraph:

“When the woman I lived with became ill with cancer in 2005, I began writing about it in a column I had been writing for a weekly newspaper in northern Vermont.  When she died about nine months later, I continued to write about her because it was the only thing I could do.  I am not a religious man or a deeply spiritual one, but for years I have earned a living as a reporter and have come to rely on the power of words.”

Lefebvre’s columns about Paulson, their adventures together, and other features of their shared life in the Kingdom are interspersed throughout the book, dated and titled as they were when they debuted in the Chronicle.  Some readers might wish that Lefebvre had taken apart these pieces and reworked the material into one seamless whole.  I happen not to be one of them.  The juxtaposition of what Lefebvre wrote in his columns and what he writes in Crossing Jack Brook adds much to the texture — and pleasure — of his narrative.  In a book that is nothing if not a memoir, the technique works like memory itself, moving us backwards and forward in time.

We move easily because he keeps things clear.  Lefebvre is an unpretentious stylist, a straight shooter, never sentimental but unafraid of revealing his heart.  Like the best prose writers in what William Carlos Williams called “the American grain,” he knows about real stuff:  how to pitch a tent, fell a tree, build a deck.  He also knows the stuff of history:  You will learn about how ice used to be harvested on Island Pond and the etiquette of old logging camps.  You will even learn a thing or two about the Civil War.

And you will hear some funny stories.  Perhaps my favorite has to do with a chimney fire that erupts at the ramshackle house of one of the author’s drinking buddies just as they’re about to leave for a night at the bar.  “The fire will either burn out or the place will burn down,” his friend says.  “We’ll find out later.”  So off they go.

The result of Lefebvre’s use of lore and laughter is that we experience none of the claustrophobia that we’d expect from a book informed by a terminal illness.  (Nor, I’m relieved to say, is Lefebvre the type of eulogist who uses humor in an attempt to make mortality sound cute.)  Much of this expansiveness is achieved through the deft characterization of Paulson herself.  She is never less than a lively presence.  The writer Dorothy Parker’s famous retort to the news that Calvin Coolidge had died — “How can they tell?” — could never apply to Elin Paulson.

I never knew her, by the way, and except for reading some of Lefebvre’s columns and buying fresh fish from him in Newport many years ago (only lately did I realize that the wordsmith and the fishmonger were the same guy), I don’t know him either.  But his account of their life together reminds me of men and women I met when I first arrived in the Kingdom — too late, I’m afraid, and too conventional to know their world well, but impressed by it from a distance and, more lately, saddened by a sense of  its passing.  For Lefebvre that sense is even stronger.

“[H]ome for the past year was beginning to resemble more and more a place where my friends were dying.  More and more a place I feared I no longer knew.  The Kingdom I knew was shrinking.  Land on both sides of the road to my house had been posted against trespassing.  A chain had been strung and locked across the road to hunting camp.”  It’s much to the author’s credit that he is able to convey a profound sense of loss even as he restores our awareness of what hasn’t yet and needn’t ever be lost completely.

The artwork accompanying Lefebvre’s text lends a hand in this.  The striking cover image of  Elizabeth Nelson’s painting of a rutted Kingdom road in early spring opens onto a gallery of color photographs, some of Lefebvre’s and Paulson’s family and friends, many of her magical paintings and picture poems (reminiscent of Kenneth Patchen and Paul Klee), a closing shot of her decorated grave.  Stained glass by Paulson’s father, Carl, and portraits of her by the painter Peter Miles (along with a photo of Miles himself) make for a fitting artist’s memorial.  This is not a coffee table book by any stretch, but for a while after I’d finished reading it, I kept it close to where I drink my coffee, because I liked waking up with the pictures.

Needless to say (at least for anyone who knows Lefebvre or his previous writings), Crossing Jack Brook is not a how-to manual about surviving grief.  When I called it useful before, I didn’t mean that it aimed to be.  It aims to be true, nothing less or more, and we trust it because the truth it discovers is complicated.  At one point during his bereavement, the gregarious Lefebvre exhorts himself to greater self-reliance:

“Usually I go to town on Sunday mornings, get coffee and a doughnut, pick up a paper, and begin a round of visiting friends.  Some Sundays we take rides through the woods or to camp or sometimes we do nothing at all except sit around, drink beer and talk.  It is nearly always enjoyable and it fills in the time.  But this morning I pulled up short.  Look to yourself for a change, I said.  Stop running away.”

Yet, in looking to himself “for a change,” he also finds a deeper sense of human solidarity and purpose, including the courage to call wisdom by its rightful name.

“Thankfully, not all wisdom comes with great loss — who could endure it if it were so? — yet there is a wisdom that death demands as its own.  And while grief may fling us into loneliness, it seems equally true that it welds us to a common lot.  Time is short, I tell myself.  Honor the dead by the life you lead.”

In Lefebvre’s case, “the life you lead” includes the words you write.  In a column he wrote in 2007, and includes near the end of Crossing Jack Brook, he says, “For the first few months, I carried Rocky’s death with me at nearly every step.  Anything short of that raised the fear I might lose her.  Now nearly 18 months later, I know she will never be lost to me.  I know where she resides.”

Thanks to Lefebvre’s stirring tribute, she also resides a little in us, and the odds of our forgetting her are close to none.

Garret Keizer’s most recent book is Privacy (2012).

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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