Thursday, December 6, 2018

My Love of Landscape - Part 4

Part 4 of My Love of Landscape: Graduate School in Vermont

The Bread Loaf Inn, before Bread Loaf
(Photo: Middlebury College)


Just after I finished college, my best friend committed suicide.  There’s no need to go into details.  I was devastated.

Before that but soon after graduation, our tight group of creatives parted.  For me, the suicide was the final cut.  (It would be decades before I would reach out to those friends again.)  Some powerful impulse, an impulse I still can’t rationalize or define, made me break away completely—I couldn’t even force myself go to the funeral.  And, as much as I had enjoyed my time in Athens, I’d already made plans to escape the South.

I had applied to and been accepted at Middlebury College’s graduate program, the Bread Loaf School of English, in Vermont.

Robert Frost in his cabin near Bread Loaf
(Photo: Middlebury College)
The Frost Cabin
(Photo: Aiken1986 [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)],
from Wikimedia Commons)

I’d always admired Robert Frost’s work, and his poetic descriptions of the landscapes of New England painted a romantic view that enchanted me:  stone fences, snowy pastures, gentle hills edged with maple trees.  It reminded me of New Jersey, where I remember more snow than I probably actually experienced there, and it made me quite homesick.  Frost had taught at Bread Loaf in the school’s early days.  I felt that his spirit, which surely still looked down upon those pastures and stone fences, would inspire me in some way.

Bread Loaf is different from most graduate programs.  Designed for school teachers, who ordinarily teach from late summer through spring, it runs only in the summertime.  A master’s degree through the school takes five summers.  Even though I had a tuition scholarship each summer, I was grateful for having the rest of the year off, as this would allow me to make a living.  My intention was to stay in Vermont and survive.

I had, at the time, no clue what that living would be.  My work experience was very limited, since I didn’t have a job during high school, and I got my B.A. in three years by attending college year-round.  But, over the years, I’d pushed wheelchairs in a hospital, planted azaleas for a nursery, and washed glassware and cleaned out rabbit barns for a laboratory that made medical diagnostics.  In Middlebury, however, when not at Bread Loaf, I worked at the Rosebud Cafe.  Of course, I wanted to be an artist and a writer, and I believe that many creatives take lowly jobs to secure peace of mind so they can pursue their heart’s desire in the after hours.  These jobs, which didn't require any energy or attention outside of the work day, seemed fitting.

But more about making a living later.  Right now, I want to tell you about my time at Bread Loaf.

Me, settled into Cherry Cottage

Bread Loaf has been described, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as a “summer camp for adults.”  In fact, the campus indeed was once a resort, built by wealthy philanthropist Joseph Battell back in the 1860s.  It occupies a bucolic parcel of hayfields and spruce forest along the Middlebury River with a view of Bread Loaf Mountain.  In Battell’s day, carriages journeyed there regularly over a single-track dirt road.  (Once cars were invented, Battell refused to let them travel on “his” road to the resort, insisting on letting only horses through.)   Today, a twisty paved road takes you there from Middlebury in the Champlain Valley and up into the woods that surround the hill town of Ripton, where just past town the trees give way to Bread Loaf and its centerpiece, the Bread Loaf Inn, which is a rambling, Second Empire structure.  Several other buildings, including the Barn, where classes are held, line the road.  I had the pleasure of living in tiny Cherry Cottage during the summers.  It has a shady, wrap-around porch with wicker-backed rocking chairs and, when I was there, thickets of sweet-smelling fern a yard deep edging the porch.

As for Bread Loaf being a summer camp, I will say that the students not only work hard but also play hard.  Faculty, all cream-of-the-crop at their home institutions, come from Princeton, Harvard, Oxford and other top-notch schools, so you can imagine how rigorous the coursework must be.  But the classes are held mostly in the mornings, leaving the afternoons and evenings free.  In my time, each student brought a typewriter, and the campus echoed with a perpetual clacking; you’d think a plague of locusts had descended.  Besides studies, though, there was softball, volleyball and soccer; theater practice and performances; poetry readings in the Blue Parlor; and evening lectures.  There was also the Fourth of July Parade, in which I took part each summer, donning a Revolutionary War costume from the theater department.  The parade lasted about fifteen minutes and consisted of walking first one direction on the only street in Ripton, and then reversing .  Ripton is a very small place.

For me, Bread Loaf was all about the landscape.  (My master's thesis, by the way, was on W.H. Auden's use of landscape in his poetry.)   I remember walking the pebbly, slippery bottom of the river in sneakers, with golden pools of sunlight illuminating the water, and green fir and spruce edging the boulder-clad stream.   I remember the northern lights one Independence Day, the long, slowly-twisting colors like breeze-rippled banners high overhead, while I sat in an Adirondack chair in a hayfield.  I remember a sweltering day when I hiked along the narrow ribbon of pavement that cuts the campus in half and headed off into the woods on a gravel forest road and found a trailhead hidden among the cool ferns.  I remember another hot day, after a trip to town, the long, twisting drive back up the mountain from the flats, over stream and through woods, feeling the air cool down, one degree at a time, in each mile.

I didn't paint during those years.  Instead, I drew and sketched.  One summer, my roommate wasn't a student but on staff, a stage carpenter who built sets for the plays that would be performed at the Little Theater.  He found a long roll of kraft paper, which we taped to the wall of our room, and we spent the summer creating a landscape on it that included bits and pieces of Bread Loaf moments.  At the summer's end, we rolled up our mural and hid it in the library as a sort of time capsule.  (It may be there still.)   I also drew covers for The Crumb, the newsletter that was stuck between the salt and pepper shakers on the dining tables at lunch, as well as covers for some of the play programs.  Mostly, however, I walked and wrote and steeped myself in the landscape.

It was in my Rosebud Cafe days that I did most of my drawn or painted landscape explorations. (To be continued.)

My program design for "Heat" by William Hauptman

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