Tag Archive | Vermont

Scarlet runner beans and Fred Webster


It had been a strange day. I looked with no success for scarlet runner bean seeds at Agway. They used to grow to 12 feet in the children’s garden at the Old Stone House, where they sported red flowers and enormous pods with multicolored seeds. Somebody whose name was Billy Currington was singing a country song: “Jesus is great, beer is good, people are crazy.” Now that’s a lyric. I’d stopped by the Old Stone House for the first time in months and someone said that Fred Webster (see my post of May 3, 2010) needed a pacemaker, and that, at age 91, he was thinking about selling everything for $200,000. And it was worth a lot more than that.

I hadn’t seen Fred for a very long time. Now he was 91 years and thinking about selling everything! The report was scary.

The next day I drove to Fred’s farm on a high hill. Clouds were lifting, the world was shining the way it will after spring rains. The Phish stage Fred had saved a few years earlier from the last Phish concert, stood like some fanciful castle on wheels, directly past a scribbled sign a neighbor had put up: “Who shot my turkey?”  Why would anyone shoot the man’s turkey, I wondered, and left with no answers, dismissed the sign’s conundrum. The huge barns, showing a few more years of wear, still standing despite themselves, with a monumental history of farming spilling out the doors, were where they’d always been. The farmhouse looked as it always had, worn, and a little haphazard.


I pulled in and went to the door. On the other side of a screen door turned dark with shadows, Fred was sitting at the kitchen table eating a Reese’s peanut butter cup. His wife, Vivian, was napping in the living room, he explained, giving me one of his sweet hugs. I guess he looked older, but not by much, and not as if he needed a pacemaker. His hair was standing straight up as it sometimes does. Hearing that it was me—she’s always liked me, I think, because she likes anyone who likes Fred a lot—Vivian suggested we all sit in the living room, where a clutter of old things was spread across the walls and all over the floor, and where “Murder, She Wrote” played soundlessly on the TV screen. What’s this about a pacemaker, I asked, as I coped with one of the Reese’s cups  Fred handed me. Apparently, there was no rush, and Fred wasn’t sure he’d ever go for something like that. “But I am going to die someday,” he said. “No. I won’t allow it,” Vivian declared. She explained that a couple of years ago, after a whole rash of tests, the doctor had said to Fred, “As far as I can see, you’re good to go for another twenty years.” She was holding the old man to it.



And, contrary to the alarming report of the day before, the guy who had offered to buy everything for $200,000 and take it all down to Plainfield for another and, I presume, neater agriculture museum, hadn’t shown up the day before. Fred was just as glad because he didn’t want to sell. “Am I wrong?” he asked. “I don’t want to sell anything. It’s not the money. I just can’t do it.”

What Fred really wanted to talk about was a typed manuscript from Jack Lazor, an organic farmer well-known in Vermont. It was a hunk of white paper full of detail about his farming methods and to Fred it was all a delight. A year before Fred had been inducted into the Vermont Agriculture Hall of Fame, and he thought Lazor should be next. Most of all, he wanted to talk about the tine weeder that the man described, because he had a tine weeder. He could show him an old one. I’d never in my life given a thought to tines, so he and Vivian slipped on jackets and we went to see Fred’s tine weeder, dodging muddy puddles, tripping across thresholds, wooden wheels, machinery made lame by time, parts spilling out into the aisles. The metal roof rattled; the walls groaned. The tine weeder was missing a leg, but the tines all seemed to be there. Vivian took a picture of it, then another, with Fred smiling and pointing.

Now, he said, he wanted to show us something else. Vivian and I followed him down one aisle and up another to a veritable patchwork of tines. “Do you see what these are?” he asked, grinning. “They have tines,” I said. Vivian agreed. “Tines.” “These are all hay forks,” he said. Vivian set about taking photographs of hay forks. I didn’t quite get the point, but I was pretty sure Jack Lazor would when he saw them.


We navigated the muddy banks of several ditches that Fred, his son and whoever had dug to divert water from one place to another. A man, his wife and a barking dog had taken over a bit of trailer that had served as a tool shed, and electric wires had been jerry rigged to turn it into a temporary home. I didn’t get the story, but I always come away from Fred’s with more questions than answers. He’s been reading Bacon’s “Vicissitudes,” he said. That’s the kind of writing he really likes to do, not just words about one generation’s tools and then another’s, not just careful descriptions of the evolution of everything from milking stools to tine weeders. He likes wise words about life, especially when they’re funny, and in Fred’s life there are many of those.

I left then. I didn’t stay for tea. I never got around to eating the second Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but it was good to know that Fred Webster’s life is as full to overflowing as ever.

It filled the Hall and pushed the walls out into the night and lifted the ceiling up to the night sky.

Two weeks ago I was listening to music that sounded something like this picture.

I was in the Glover Town Hall with maybe 150 other people at a benefit for a woman whose house burned to the ground not long after the New Year. Glover isn’t quite like other Vermont towns because Bread and Puppet, a politically left puppet theater, has been in residence here since the 1960s. In the beginning and for some years, the theater and much of the community were at odds, but today Bread and Puppet is pretty much just another neighbor. Because the victim of the fire had been active in the theater troupe, the show that night was especially rife with talent, but as much or more came from the town: a very old fiddler, a very young fiddler and her guitar-playing little brother, some very funny skits, the singing proprietor of the general store…..

It was one of those nights. Kids ran up and down the aisles; people hugged; they shared homemade doughnuts, cookies and stories. But the most remarkable event for me was the singing of the Sacred Harp.
Twenty years ago, when I first came to this part of the world, I heard my first Sacred Harp music. Not many years later I noticed that a few young people had joined Vermont singing groups and the music had begun to spread. But only begun. A few more years and a dozen or more people had joined Elka Schumann at Bread and Puppet and were singing together every month. But now, suddenly, on a snowy night in Town Hall, half of Glover seemed to be in the front of the room, singing full out, mouths wide open, Elka Schumann, the mother of Bread and Puppet, beating out the rhythm. It was a powerful, throbbing, raw sound. It was amazing.

America’s Sacred Harp music began in the churches of New England more than two centuries ago. Four-part, it is a cappella. Not even a pitch pipe is used. The only instrument is the “Sacred Harp”—the human voice. The singers read a music that consists in “shape notes.” The circles, triangles, rectangles and diamonds correspond with the notes of the scale. They provide visual cues to help everyone sing the intervals between notes.

The music began in England, and the first shape note music in this country was written and taught by teachers of singing schools. They had marvelous names like Supply Belcher (Maine), Ebeneezer Child (Vermont), Timothy Swan (Massachusetts), Justin Morgan (Vermont)…..  They were also shopkeepers, school teachers, local government functionaries, farmers—Justin Morgan, for example, is better known as the man who bred the Morgan horse. Not surprisingly, most of the music has a religious bent and was sung in churches.
Sacred Harp music disappeared in New England as another smoother, more formal and mostly more sentimental music replaced it. But it soon took root in the rural South, and by 1900, it thrived there.  By the 1920s and ’30s, folklorists began to notice it, and in the 1960s, New Englanders, and especially Vermonters, rediscovered it. Today, it has become popular across the country and singing conventions take place from Seattle to Boston to South Carolina.

In the Glover Town Hall, the music was driving, vital, very physical, very emotional. It filled the room and pushed the walls out into the night and lifted the ceiling up to the night sky.

In the March/April 2011 issue of Vermont Magazine, there are some wonderful comments from singers and listeners of Sacred Harp. Here are a few.

“When I first heard [Sacred Harp], it was like someone hitting me over the head with a frying pan. The four-part harmony just does something in your head.” After he (Paul Gauthier) traveled to a National Convention in Alabama: “It was a real revelation to sing with the old barrel-chested guys who have been singing all their life. It was like being in a pipe organ.”

“It’s very emotive, even cathartic—particularly with a number of people, their voices washing through me while I am singing. It’s a fantastic feeling.” (Ian Smiley)

“Singing loud and high—it’s a moving experience… it’s about life, eternity, the big questions–joy and grief.” (Chelsea Rose Sargent)

You can hear Sacred Harp singing on YouTube. Most of the performances are poorly recorded, but you’ll begin to understand it. And next thing you’ll be singing it.

Sacred Harp music from the songbook Northern Harmony

I’m back….

It’s been a few months now since I stopped blogging. I don’t know that I’m refreshed or afire with ideas for new posts, but I still seem to have things to say. I keep thinking that I should have something new and exciting to contribute in light of what’s been happening in the world while I’ve not been here. But, look around! Really. The confusion, the eeriness, the world gone mad!

Every day I find my e-mail full of political and economic description and analysis, so much of it important, even vital, and still I don’t really understand what’s happening to the world. Surely, somewhere in all those words there must be an answer to my bewilderment. Where did these so-called Tea Party people come from? These odd people who are so certain government is the enemy that they’ll do anything to bring it down? Why didn’t I know they were out there in these numbers?

Anyway, more on that another time.

While I’ve been away, summer has come and gone, and given way to brilliant color and beautiful light. Late summer brought flooding to Vermont and I felt proud of this little state. No doubt about it, it’s a gutsy place. Summer droughts hurt millions of other people. The floods and drought may have to do with global warming. Probably. Still, the people who want less government won’t agree to try to do something about it. They’d rather let corporations make it worse. Hard to take in.

Despite all, things are looking up with “Occupy” which, for me, is all about hope.

I finished writing a book, a light entertainment that I’ll push on this blog in a few weeks time. Don’t worry. I’ll try not to be obnoxious about it.

I played my rather tenuous piano with Tom and Genna, he on the viola da gamba, she on the recorder. If Handel could have heard us, if  Telemann had tuned in—oh, the pity of it!  Oh, well. Maybe later.

I spent some time in California which meant hikes to the sea and Picasso.

Pablo Picasso. Two Women Running on the Beach.

The Picasso show at San Francisco’s De Young Museum was an exhibit of work that the artist never sold. On his death, it was placed in the Picasso Museum in Paris. The Museum is being renovated this year, hence the traveling exhibit. It was an exuberant and passionate look at the twentieth century and its art.

In the meantime, Doris, in New York City, sent back a book she borrowed from me thirty-something years ago. I had no idea where it had got to. The pages of the little gray paperback are yellowing, the binding is coming apart. Entitled “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,” it’s full of powerful words from the young Rainier Maria Rilke.

Over the years, on occasional rambles through used book stores, I’ve looked for another copy, but to no avail. Now I can look again at what moved me so deeply when I was young. And see if it still does.

The bad luck of “Sissy,” an artist in Hardwick

Recently, in a book about aging, I noticed that the author seemed almost obsessed by the notion that luck determines whether or not an artist becomes an artist, much less an old one. I have no argument with his point, which is well taken. Luck always plays a role. The composer and conductor, Jean-Baptiste Lully, for example, was beating time by banging a long staff (a precursor to the bâton) against the floor, a common practice at the time, when he struck his toe during a Te Deum in honor of Louis XIV.  He died of gangrene two and a half months later. In our own time, Bob Marley suffered the same fate from a toe infection. Bad luck in both instances—although Lully did get into his 50s. Marley died at age 36.

The author of the tome on aging artists worried that many people don’t succeed at all because of bad luck. Being born one place rather than another, of one kind of parents than another, in poverty instead of wealth. I heard a heartbreaking story recently about that sort of luck and it’s bothered me ever since. It was told by an excellent storyteller and much of its power as a story was in the telling. I may have to fictionalize it a bit since I don’t remember the details that well.

The story teller was only six or seven years old and living in Hardwick, Vermont, a village that, at the time, called itself the “Granite Capital of the World.” The industry was beginning to wind down by then, sometime in the 30s or late 20s, but the village was still a thriving place with a large immigrant population of mostly Italian granite workers. Pam, my storyteller, would get up each morning and take a walk around town, visiting a baker, a butcher—oh, I don’t know because I’ve forgotten exactly who— but wandering cheerfully about on her daily itinerary. The streets, I presume, were soft with morning light and that peculiar kind of freshness that happens when the day is just beginning. I say a baker because I’m sure that there the smell of fresh-baked bread filled the street. A butcher. I don’t know, but I’m certain Pam would have known him. She finally came to the house where a dear friend of hers lived, an elderly woman who inhabited half a house. In the other half lived “Sissy,” the painter. That wasn’t his real name, of course. He was called it behind his back because…. well, you can guess: there, in this macho granite town, lived a gay man. He’d grown up in the town. and was its tailor as well as a resident artist whose portraits of townspeople were very popular—moreso, certainly, than the man himself.

Hardwick, around 1911.

On this particular day, Pam took it into her head, the way a child would, to run up to him and, tugging at his sleeve, call out, “Sissy, Sissy, Sissy! Make a picture of me.”
He took her hand and led her into the room where he made his art, and did a sketch of her. She kept it for years after. It’s since disappeared and, in fact, the man’s paintings all seem to have gone, along with him. “There must be some around still,” she says.

Her parents had something to say to her about calling the artist “Sissy” to his face, and she never did again.

So that’s the sad and I think haunting story, or at least sketch of it, of an artist with bad luck—but an artist nevertheless. I like to think that living alone and maligned in that small town for all the years of his life, however many there were, he had moments of sheer joy from the making of his art.

If anyone from Hardwick, Vermont reads this story and has a painting to sell, I’d gladly buy it.

And all the time living quietly in the Northeast Kingdom

For as long as I lived in the Northeast Kingdom and since I returned, I’ve heard about two potters, a little older than I am, who lived somewhere in the vicinity of Morgan and not far from the Canadian border, where everything looks even more northerly than in Glover. One of the two women, at least, was famous somewhere, certainly not here and not everywhere, but somewhere. Karen Karnes was considered a genius. That much I knew.

Now, in its latest issue, the Chronicle, the local newspaper, has published an article about Karnes and her partner, Ann Stannard, in a review by Bethany Dunbar of a new book, A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes. A collection of essays, the publication also features dozens of photos. I hope to buy it sometime soon, but in the meantime, quotations from Karne’s reflections on her life and work stirred my imagination and I wanted to share them here.

In 1998, the potter’s house and kiln shed burned to the ground in a fire that started in the kiln. Wrote Karnes:

…. A group of potters came and took down the big wood kiln—I felt that I no longer wanted to work with a wood kiln.

It took over a year before I was able to work in clay again. It was the first time that my work had been interrupted for such a long time, and my new direction was hard to find. The work became smaller, lighter, and not like the larger vessels I had been making. I made pieces that clung together, that had a gentleness and affection that was new. It was a direction that grew directly from the trauma of the fire, and it was a welcome one.

I remember the aftermaths of fires: they represent a special kind of death. Blackened rubble framed by wooden stanchions riddled with holes. Pots must have been destroyed. Did their remains look like rancid mushrooms sprung from a subterranean lair? Or was nothing left but grungy bits of ceramic like pieces of a puzzle with no solution. And all the paraphernalia of daily living, burned, then soaked by the firehose, hollowed out, turned to sponge. Worst of all the pervasive smell of damp smoke.

And yet, from that carnage, something new emerged. Not easily, perhaps. But beautifully. It seems to me that lives in art are often filled with surprises.

 The other striking quotation is also from Karen Karnes herself.
I moved to Vermont at just the right time. The isolation suits me. I still go to New York once or twice a year and have a wonderful time for a couple of days zipping around to galleries and museums. But that’s enough. I don’t need to see lots of other work anymore. I work from my own impulse. I always have.

What a splendid life in art!

P.S. The book about Karen Karnes will accompany a traveling show of her work. Look for her at the ASU Ceramics Research Center in Arizona; Asheville, North Carolina; Manchester, New Hampshire and, eventually, points west in Wisconsin and California.

Seeing what’s really there

I’m not sure when this post will get up. In California, AT&T pulled the plug on my broadband too early. In Vermont, the painter painted us out of the office with the computer, and it will be  another two or three days before I can get to it. So it goes between the vicissitudes of travel and beautiful blue-gray floors but sticky. I had hoped that while I wasn’t writing I’d think about the blog and come up with something new and better, but no such luck. So, at least for the future, I’ll continue to fly by the seat of my pants—so to speak.


Before I left California, I had lunch with Asa, the potter, who described events of seeing in his life that suggested to him we rarely, almost never, see what’s really there. And, of course, that’s true. I mean, what we see is shaped by us—by our aesthetic sensibilities and intelligences and, above all, by our memories. I became especially aware of that as I watched my mother’s Alzheimers progress. As her memories went, so did her ability to see the world around her. I don’t mean that she started stumbling into chairs—nothing like that—but colors, for example, were either absent, or might as well have been.


So, I ask, what’s “really” there, besides whirling atoms with their component parts? I don’t know, and I’m sure the question must seem absurd, except perhaps to the physics professors among us. What is apparent to me, a non-physicist, is that the day-to-day real” is not something utterly other than us. It’s part of us. We help make it. In both our seeing and our doing.


What’s also apparent to me is that some things we see are “more us” than others. That the New England countryside, for instance, is much more the result of my seeing it than the New Mexico. Vermont has been “futzed-over.” The land is soaked through with the efforts of human beings. Most of New Mexico’s landscape is “exotic,” that is “foreign, not native, strange or different in a way that is striking or fascinating” (Webster). It’s “other” in the same way the vultures and cormorants of my last post are. There is less human memory connected with it, less that was, or is, shaped by our aesthetics or intelligence.


Unless, of course, we are Georgia O’Keefe finding the shape of  a woman in the hills of New Mexico or the interior of one of its exotic blooms.

Another kind of artist, another kind of person — June Young.

I was trying to think what to write about today, and all I could think about was the death of my friend, June Young. Esepcially after I saw grandson Sam’s tribute to her on Facebook:

June Young 1920-2010.  Rest in Peace Grandma.  

There really wasn’t much else to say. They’d said it all to her over the last few months of her life. 

I mentioned June in an August 21 post — People Quitting Art. June was one of the people who quit. What I hadn’t realized was that she sketched and painted off and on for most of her life, though I doubt very much she ever considered herself an artist. She briefly worked with GRACE (see one of my very early posts), and she was featured in one of their brochures. Asked how she knew when a painting was finished, she answered that her heart beat faster.


Anyway, June painted and then at some point she quit. At least while I knew her, I never saw her put a brush to paper. 

An early painting of the beaver dam.

But I don’t want to talk about June, the artist. I’m not even sure what to say about the few paintings that are still around except that they’re wonderful. They were a small part of a long life. For this post, I’d rather talk about the person. 

 And that, even though I know rather little about the life. I won’t try to recall stories of the fire that impoverished her family when she was a child. I honestly don’t recall them. What I do know is that she spent most of her life on the farm, she and Robbie, raising children, dairy cattle and incidental turkeys, hogs and dogs. 

Waiting for the first snow.

 I met her at about the time she was turning 70. I was a new member of the family, and not one I think who would normally have been welcomed into a farm family in rural Vermont—the companion of her oldest daughter—and I know when she realized what that meant, it was hard for her. Earlier in her life—I heard about it, we never talked about it—she had struggled spiritually and finally settled into a very basic New England Christianity, one that I and some of her children and grandchildren could never accept. One of the things I realized early about June is that she took Jesus’ words “Judge not, that ye be not judged” very seriously. She didn’t judge. She might frown for a minute when a granddaughter brought a bottle of wine to her table, or a grandson got into trouble with the law. Frown, and worry. I’m sure she prayed long and hard. But she never said a condemnatory word. 

There were many tea times in her kitchen, with Mickey the dog who looked rakish with his one floppy ear, her daughter, whoever else happened to be passing. The maple sugar cans on the counter. The clock that chirped like a different bird every hour on the hour. She knew her birds, especially their songs. 

June never talked a lot. June was the quiet place in every family gathering, the center that held the whole together. 

June and most of the family. The young man next to her is grandson Sam.

I don’t mean quiet like the still center of a hurricane, and there was never anything Zen about her. She was a self conscious, physically awkward person, characteristics she and I shared. That was always there. She didn’t fit easily into life; she had to work at it, even in the last few years. But she loved her family—all those adorable great grandchildren brightened her face into a wonderful smile. 


The living was hard, but she was always there—caring, worrying, loving. Trying, because she was that kind of person. As Tracey, one of her granddaughters said, how like her to choose to die in the fall so that no one would be inconvenienced by the winter weather. 

Tracey and her grandmother

 June was another kind of artist. Another kind of person.