1.1.17: Time to Press Reset

New Year's Eve Morning 2016
Perfect Light, New Year’s Eve Morning 2016

Some people claim they don’t need a special calendar day or a personal milestone to turn a new leaf, they can do it any time. I don’t possess the self-discipline for that: positive change comes to me on occasional birthdays or after emotionally significant events, mainly. For the time being New Year’s Day will do.

A friend and I once stood in the kitchen of her big, old Southern home with one eye on our boy toddlers as they scurried around and fired finger weapons at each other. She asked what I planned to do after mine no longer demanded every waking moment of my day. “I’m taking up golf,” she quipped. I could not tell whether she was serious or joking: this particular friend did not strike me as the kind of person who’d choose golf as a post-mommying avocation. She had a beautiful new baby grand sitting in her living room; it might have been for show as so many are, except she was also an accomplished pianist in another life. “You should take up the piano,” I said, only half joking. She grinned.

Our unspoken words went something like, it’s funny how much of ourselves we’ve given up for the privilege of full-time parenting these children.

I could not have known at that moment how in a few short years events in my life would reconnect me with my own performing arts past, how life would hand me rich and varied and terrifying and wonderful and tragic and deprived and fulfilled chapters, still in the make.

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When I moved to Vermont just over four years ago I didn’t have an inkling how bad things would get for me, and soon after for my beloved Clarence-the-Canine, but remained as optimistic as my character would allow. I knew winters would be rough, had no idea how rough, and discovered over the course of four of them I’m not really up for the challenge. I also discovered how many privileges I’d taken for granted when I lived down South. And I didn’t realize how difficult it’d be to find connections. Nor how simple to find the most important one of all. I discovered people here are the same as the people there, with a couple of caveats.

I also underestimated my own grit and determination.

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The Most Important Connections

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Last year was difficult, although I don’t need to tear out my hair and thrash and wail about it. I was grumpy and will keep on being grumpy ‘til a few promising new sentences unfold. At least give me my grumpiness in the winter. I’m still hopeful for 2017.

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I feel about as bad physically as I ever have; it’s time for sanctions. I’m a little worn down emotionally, too: being bitten in the face by an anxious shepherd was harder to process than I imagined. I want to feel better in 2017, starting now.

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I’ve missed spending time outside, a thing every dog demands. Thank the universe for Scout-the-Lab, a good dog with a remarkable disposition, who’s already blown that whistle: more heart-thumping time outside in 2017.

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Superhero

I’ve written more in the last year than ever; some of it was good, some not so much. I want 2017 to be the best year of writing thus far, with new outlets for writing.

Time, resources, and circumstances have made it difficult to assuage my culinary passions, as silly as that sounds coming from somebody who lives with a chef. I want to reconnect to the kitchen in 2017.

I feel called to help somebody who needs it; I hope Scout and I will undertake this together in 2017.

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I’ve found beauty through the lens of my camera; I want 2017 to show me more.

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I enjoyed an unexpected and happy reconnection recently with a beloved mentor I haven’t seen in a couple of years. I want to stay connected with people important to me in 2017.

I also want to practice civility in 2017, and hope the rest of the world will too, but most especially my fellow Americans. We can’t afford not to be civil to one another, especially now.

Come on, winter: let’s get it done. Let’s turn over a new leaf in 2017.

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Photo Essay: Grey Day on the Battenkill

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Flag Flies on Birch over the Battenkill

Ain’t no sunshine in Vermont (cue the Bill Withers). And thus far today seems a carbon copy of yesterday—solid grey as far as the eye can see, the distinct chill in the air nudging you to put something warm on your back. Makes me whiney. Autumn in New England is spectacular at the height of leaf season, but we’re not there yet, not quite. The peepers will arrive in droves next Friday for the long Columbus Day weekend and they may be surprised (nay, disappointed) to find an abundance of green still clinging to our mountains in these parts, as our state’s nickname attests. Meanwhile the locals are excited about pumpkins and corn mazes and maple-glazed apple cider donuts, as they should be. I like all this fine, loved it more down South. Allow me my Eeyore-like sensibilities: I know what’s coming in a few weeks.

Yesterday I walked just under four miles along the Battenkill River, the same pathway I routinely run or ride on other days. I found beauty through my lens but had to work for it a little. There are places on this road where the tree canopy on each side of it meets overhead, hemming in the traveler; those spots evoke quaint memories of childhood tomes, a little unsettling to me. The river passes very near to the road along some stretches, disappears behind a distant tree line in others. The woods occasionally give way to broad meadows, and once in a while reveal a breathaking vista.

Rusty spots dot the yellowing leaves on the trees abutting the road; Handsome Chef Boyfriend explained salting in the winter does this to them. (I for one am grateful there’s a way to deal with winter travel so life can continue more or less uninterrupted in spite of nature’s impassive plans, rusty leaves notwithstanding.) This will be my fifth Vermont winter; I greet it the same way I have the last four, with fear and trepidation. I know it’s irrational, but keeps me honest on the daily commute when the atmosphere misbehaves as it so often does. Don’t quote me any Frost, or insist a landscape blanketed with snow is quiet and beautiful: that is for the person who has no cause to bargain with it. I just want to get through winter touched by it only gently.

Until then it’s fall: we anticipate genuine beauty in Vermont, and maybe a little excitement on the horizon for HCB and myself, about which more soon.

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U.S.S. North Carolina: Jewel of Wilmington

U.S.S. North Carolina, from Wilmington's downtown waterfront
Wilmington’s U.S.S. North Carolina, photo bombed by tropical storm Julia

Nothing like wandering around in the bowels of a lovingly restored battleship to open your eyes to the daunting threat America faced on the eve of the Second World War. Destined to be sold for scrap after her decommissioning, the U.S.S. North Carolina now floats proudly in her moorings on the Cape Fear River opposite downtown Wilmington’s peaceful waterfront, a labor of love kept afloat by North Carolina and the generosity of charitable donors. The ship’s website suggests two hours for the self-guided tour to see the ship; it is not enough, friends. In two hours’ time the three of us—Handsome Chef Boyfriend, the 23-year-old who cleverly suggested this outing in the first place, and I—navigated through only a fraction of what’s currently on exhibit in the ship.

The tour is physically demanding, emphatically not for the elderly or the very young. There is no easy way out to find a toilet or take a break: once you start, you’re fully committed. And if you find tight spaces bothersome, best to stay outside on the main deck and enjoy the engineering marvel that is this magnificent floating city. Imagine her 2,000-plus troops engaged in the toils of war every hour of every day, if you can; I cannot. Piped-in music of the day, 1940s photos shot from the very spot where you now stand, human cutouts to help provide scale where you can’t go—all of these conspire to interpret daily life aboard the ship; hat tip to the U.S.S. North Carolina. We will visit again.

Shooting without a flash in low light remains a challenge for me, what with my old-ish Nikon, novice sensibilities, and unsteady hand; I get a little better with each exercise. Add to these challenges the tourists queued behind you while you’re trying to set up a shot, and the consequence for me is sloppy work. I don’t need fancier equipment ‘til I improve my hand with what I possess at the moment. I’m not a lifelong photographer, but in other pursuits I know this truth: producing a high-quality result should not depend on special equipment, but once you have it at your disposal, you spend less time “fighting” to get the results you want. I’d be thrilled for other photographers to weigh in on this in the comments.

Things I’m learning about myself as I explore photography: my eye is drawn to beautiful lines, to thoughtful industrial design, and to timeless materials (brass and copper, for example) used copiously in an era when manufacturers took the same care with the creation of a name plate as they did with engineering the “thing” itself. None of these is in short supply on the U.S.S. North Carolina, an appealing new example around every corner. And HCB could not have been more thrilled to find the ship’s many galleys fully restored, stocked with equipment cleaned and polished to a fare-thee-well and looking for all the world like it could be fired up again tomorrow. He explained to us the purpose for every appliance and fixture; many have changed little through time, some look superior to what we use nowadays.

A few geeky factoids about the ship:

  • Launched June 13, 1940
  • Commissioned April 9, 1941
  • Built in New York Navy Yard
  • 729 feet in length
  • 108-foot beam
  • Maximum speed 28 knots
  • 141 officers
  • 2,115 enlisted men
  • 85 marines
  • 15 battle stars earned
  • Decommissioned June 27, 1947
  • Moved to Wilmington October 2, 1961
  • Dedicated April 29, 1962

All told I shot nearly a hundred images, edited about 50 and threw out as many; here are the best. Steal ’em and you’ll be walkin’ the plank, though; aaarrggh. Welcome aboard.

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Wilmington Lifts Her Skirts, Just a Little

Downtown Wilmington, still coming into focus
Downtown Wilmington, still coming into focus

Yesterday I had the 23-y-o all to myself for several indulgent hours while Handsome Chef Boyfriend played golf, something he does exceedingly well but has far too little time to do. And wouldn’t you know the instant my son and I pulled out of the golf course we met a jeep in traffic whose driver spotted our plates, said he was from Rutland, and wondered where in Vermont we were from. Betcha we found the only Vermonter in all of Wilmington. What were the odds?

Then last night the three of us struck out for The Pilot House, a celebrated restaurant in a historic downtown structure. Sadly, we could not celebrate the pricey, pedestrian food and lackluster service that eclipsed the charm of the place, but still enjoyed our nighttime walk afterwards in downtown Wilmington.

Today our city touring continued after a brief howdy and bakery dropoff for my colleagues at the Wilmington offices of one EightOhTwo Digital Marketing (NineOneOh Digital Marketing here, say the snazzy new coffee mugs), my employer back home in Vermont. We had late lunch at a downtown dive called The Dixie Grill, less expensive by a mile and far superior to our dinner last night. We walked and walked and my lens found no shortage of the vernacular historic architecture I love so much. I need several more weeks on the ground here.

Nightlife thrives in downtown Wilmington, the city’s main thoroughfares teeming with just about any kind of watering hole a person could want, live music and canned spilling out onto sidewalks everywhere you walk, sometimes on the sidewalks themselves—even on a Wednesday night. I could tell the young man with us was coveting a little social action he is not likely to get in the company of HCB and his mama. (Not to worry, we’re headed to this spot tomorrow night.) Wilmington is quirky, interesting; the city possesses much beauty, some of it shiny and new, some gritty and ancient, with a healthy dose of kitsch thrown in for good measure. The people in Wilmington seem friendly and pleasant, the economy strong: her vitals appear healthy.

We also toured the battleship USS North Carolina today, a long and physical foray into American history that tired us out thoroughly and impressed us profoundly. It deserves its own post, as soon as I have a while to parse through and edit the scores of pictures I shot. For now, I give you eine kleine nighttime, and some daytime too, in downtown Wilmington, NC.

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Sunday Photo Essay: New Skete Monastery, Spiritual Connections

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New Skete German Shepherd Dog

There has been a German Shepherd-shaped hole in my heart since I lost my beloved Clarence-the-Canine to Degenerative Myelopathy in January of 2014; the intervening years have marked the longest dogless period in my adult life. Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyrfriend and I attended the annual pilgrimage at the New Skete monastery in nearby Cambridge, NY. The monks are renowned for their German Shepherd breeding and training programs, among other works and projects; the New Skete nuns are as celebrated for their exquisite cheesecake, made right down the road. New Skete is celebrating fifty years.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is one of the oldest in the world, a branch of the Catholic church steeped in rich liturgical tradition. I especially love the spiritual connection these monks in particular have drawn with their German Shepherd Dogs, one that began with the first dog, Kyr, whose passing left a profound spiritual void, inspiring the New Skete GSD program that exists today. That spiritual connection I have always felt—with shepherds and other dogs—though find difficult to articulate. The monk who demonstrated obedience with his GSD at the pilgrimmage spoke frankly about this in a way that resonated so strongly with me.

We finished our New Skete afternoon at the evening vigil and healing service. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, tower bells traditionally call believers to worship with changing and distinctive patterns throughout the day. The three largest bells in the tower at New Skete were cast at a foundry in Troy, NY, the smaller set of twelve tuned bells at the Taylor Bell Company in England during WWII. The numerous wood bell towers in the Carpathian mountains of Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Russia inspired the post and beam tower here. The ringing of the bells is a beautiful and powerful way to make an announcement—they say unequivocally, stop what you’re doing and come.

It has been a long time since I’ve been so moved: liturgy that engages every sense has always felt the most meaningful to me and is why I still appreciate so much in my own Episcopal tradition. Divine music in a space that is acoustically alive, elevated language, engaging and vibrant visual art, incense that draws you right to the moment, but also periods of silence and reflection—all these were there at the New Skete vigil.

Near the end of the service I found myself standing before a priest who imposed the cross on my forehead with a tiny brush dipped in holy oil; as I turned to go he stopped me and asked for each hand, where he marked another cross on the back of each—”so that your hands may do good works,” he said. I have not stopped thinking about those words.

I wish for you the same peace I felt at New Skete yesterday, and may your hands do good works.

New Skete Holy Wisdom Church

New Skete Chapel

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Robert Frost House: Rainy Vermont Summer Saturday

Robert Frost House
Robert Frost House, Shaftsbury, Vermont

Yesterday perfectly illustrated what people must mean when they say there’s a “damp chill” in the air—July in Vermont can feel distinctly like October elsewhere, when rain has elbowed its way in and made itself at home right on top of you for a few days. (Shorts? What was I thinking—hand me my sweater.)

It was not that way at all on a June morning in 1922 when Robert Frost tiptoed downstairs in his Vermont cottage so as not to disturb his sleeping family, sat at the dining table and whipped out Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening—very quickly by his own account, nor was there much fiddling with it before it was done, so he said. He’d meant to work on something bigger when this small poem whose meaning would torment students and scholars alike for most of a century spilled out of his pen instead. He would go on to insist there was no metaphor for death in the poem, as so many believed, at least that was not his conscious intent.

Frost’s Vermont cottage sits almost in the middle of Route 7A in Shaftsbury, undoubtedly less pinched before the highway was widened; now it’s a house museum with seasonal hours. I pass it twice daily most days. Every single time it calls out, hey, why in the world have you not stopped by these here woods? Yesterday was the day.

Poetry eludes me, mostly. In college I feigned interest while professors opined about a couplet, but took copious notes, tried hard, and still missed the point. And when the question was finally put to us, What is the poet saying here? hands shooting up all around the room, I sunk lower in my desk thinking, I got nothing—pretty words, though.

So I am deficient in this awful way, a romantic’s nightmare. But I grew to love two poems Frost wrote—Stopping by Woods after I became a parent and obtained a beautifully illustrated copy meant for children and which I read many, many times to my child when he was young. And After Apple-Picking, for its association with a beloved high school English teacher who so beautifully explained the word hoary, and whose reading of the poem made me want to drop what I was doing and go to New England.

So at long last I’ve arrived here, decades hence, and finally visited Robert Frost’s house in the ‘hood. The thrill in it for me was less about the poet and more about the house itself: I’ll always be a student of historic structures, and the opportunity to get right up next to one and photograph it is nothing less than delectable.

As measured even by forgiving standards, the museum itself is a disappointment. Photography inside is forbidden (I would love to record some of the very early building details that remain), and only the first floor is on exhibit. But the house has undergone so many modifications in its 257 years it’s hard to see it as it once must have been, to say nothing of how it looked when the Frost family lived there (only a few pieces of furniture remain). The self-guided brochure promises “the exhibits will make you feel as if you met Frost.”

They do not. What you get instead is a boatload of memorabilia, news stories, photographs, and some bizarre old-style museum wall displays meant to encapsulate a moment in the writer’s life. In fairness, there is a lovely hallway homage to J. J. Lankes, whose familiar woodcut illustrations appear in two volumes of Frost poetry. Elsewhere there are copious missed opportunities. It’s waiting for a visionary with deep pockets, I think, to do it justice. But ‘til then it’s a fitting way to spend a rainy hour.

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South-Facing Gable
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South-Facing Living Room
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Front Door, Route 7A
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Second Floor Rear Window
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Robert Frost Barn
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Barn Gable End
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After Apple-Picking, by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree 

Toward heaven still, 

And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill 

Beside it, and there may be two or three 

Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough. 

But I am done with apple-picking now. 

Essence of winter sleep is on the night, 

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. 

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight 

I got from looking through a pane of glass 

I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough 

And held against the world of hoary grass. 

It melted, and I let it fall and break. 

But I was well 

Upon my way to sleep before it fell, 

And I could tell 

What form my dreaming was about to take. 

Magnified apples appear and disappear, 

Stem end and blossom end, 

And every fleck of russet showing clear. 

My instep arch not only keeps the ache, 

It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round. 

I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. 

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin 

The rumbling sound 

Of load on load of apples coming in. 

For I have had too much 

Of apple-picking: I am overtired 

Of the great harvest I myself desired. 

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, 

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. 

For all 

That struck the earth, 

No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, 

Went surely to the cider-apple heap 

As of no worth. 

One can see what will trouble 

This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. 

Were he not gone, 

The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his 

Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, 

Or just some human sleep.

Robert Frost House Rear

Providential Weekend: Photo Essay

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How often does the opportunity arise to combine three cherished interests—in my case ballet, architecture, and cuisine—in a single weekend? Almost never, but I just pulled it off. Add to this the intoxicating joy of unfettered time with Handsome Chef Boyfriend and a happy reunion with one Gwynn Root at the end of her second of three performances dancing Swan Lake with Festival Ballet Providence, (and after too, too long without seeing this beautiful young dancer, the progeny of a pair of amazing artists). We also finally got to meet her very handsome and talented boyfriend Trevor-the-jazz-guitarist from Atlanta.

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Gwynn described her post-performance face as too “Kardashian” for her own tastes, which made me giggle; nobody expects a clean-scrubbed and dewey post-performance face at that late hour. With or without stage makeup this young woman is stunning, inside and out. It feels so unfair to have only an hour or two for cramming in several years’-worth of important catchup conversation before everybody turns into a pumpkin; it is assuredly better than no time at all.

It’s been an enriching weekend bumper to bumper. Spring has arrived with more intent in southern New England than it has here in Vermont. Yesterday was stunning, and I still find it incredible that I can photograph things with any acuity at all inside a moving car, but it’s possible: I grabbed a couple of respectable images during our longish, traffic-delayed pass through Worcester, Mass.

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We stayed at a place in Warwick just outside Providence called NYLO: edgy, almost brually modern accomodations in a repurposed factory. It gets high marks for inventive use of space and clever interior design, slightly lower marks for missing a few important details. The building alone was enough to make me happy, but the ruins next to it are delicious: I don’t know the back story but sure as heck hope it has a happy ending.

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Years ago—before child rearing emerged as my full-time occupation—I was headed down a different path in historic preservation. It did not happen, but my passion for architecture (including vernacular and even derelict architecture) has never waned. NYLO got it right; props to a place whose lobby felt more like a book store and where not a single square foot of interior space was wasted. Thoughtful design is a thing of beauty.

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Festival Ballet Providence put its own spin on Swan Lake to make it manageable for a contemporary audience. It was still long, and my favorite part of the score in Act IV was missing. Festival is a small company but managed to make itself look big onstage, no small feat. Handsome Chef Boyfriend this morning had a suggestion for the bigger ballet world when it comes to full-length corps de ballet work where all the dancers look exactly the same (as they should because they are, well, the corps): put numbers on their tutus, he says, like hockey players have on their jerseys, so you can tell who’s who.

This idea probably won’t fly, although I once suggested commercial endorsements on tutus to create cash flow the same way they do for NASCAR racers. Lookalike ballerinas notwithstanding, HCB enjoyed going to the ballet. Theatres are magical, as I have said before; construction for this particular venue—the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Providence—began in the late 1920s but was delayed by the Great Depression and finally completed in 1950. I had only my cell phone for the few photos I made, but still love that it found the sunlight falling across the proscenium as ballet patrons filed in ahead of the performance.

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We finished our weekend in Providence this morning with breakfast at a place recommended by a local;  we found it worth the half-hour wait. HCB analyzed every crumb of it as he is wont to do when we eat out. The kitchen was in full view of the patrons (for HCB this is tantamount to eating dessert first). I had my Nikon out for these and loved capturing the movement that is part and parcel of a very busy commercial kitchen.

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We’ll be back, Providence. (Just as soon as we can get our pants snapped again.)

Snowless Winter: A Walk in the Woods

The woods are lovely, dark and deep—Robert Frost

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Mt. Equinox looms over the Vermont Valley at 3,816 feet, the highest point of the Taconic Range, a finger of the Appalachians, and the oldest mountains in the country: Mother Myrick Mountain lies to its north, and Red Mountain to the South, the place we call home. Everywhere are streams carrying snow melt from the higher elevations, dumping it into the nearby Battenkill River, thence to the Hudson River after twisting across Vermont’s state line a short distance from here, into New York. Like it does elsewhere in the state, the topography in Vermont’s southwestern corner delivers breathtaking vistas—not only from its higher reaches, but also down below, where meandering valleys sit at the bottom of vast, chiseled bowls.

There is not so much as a patch of snow in these parts, save in the highest elevations. This winter’s snowfall has been rare and fleeting, standing in blatant contrast to last winter’s fury. The mountains look for all the world like somebody’s just shaved their nobs, leaving them to shiver ’til spring finds its way here, soon. There is a beauty to the landscape in spite of its nakedness, and maybe because of it; for the time being nature is betraying her fabulous secrets, as if the curtain that concealed them were being held back so we could take an indulgent peek.

It is an ephemeral chance to observe what spring and summer foliage will obscure in a few short weeks, and with no shortage of wonderment:  a pair of pileated woodpeckers have hewn three large holes in a mainly-dead tree standing right at the edge of the road that leads off our mountain, the telltale pile of detritus below it evidence of the best kind of neighborhood construction project. A colossal pine forest nearby reveals its timeworn past in the magnificent trophies that long ago succumbed to the elements, giving the discoverer pause to surmise a course of events. Hand-sized sections of pine bark evoke intricate tortoise shell patterns; the underbellies of felled trees betray evidence of entire ecosystems writ small that once inhabited them (and maybe helped hasten their demise). Ancient moss is iridescent against the wheat-grey hues in the woods, a resplendent cape lain on the shoulders of a massive tree trunk. Even the frigid streams have secrets to reveal: hardy brookies cavort in unimaginably cold water; an ice formation shows sharp teeth as if poised to snap its jaws shut against the bones of its prey; and just upstream a face leers eerily at passersby from below.

I invite you to see and hear Vermont woods in winter; sound byte at the bottom.

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