Wednesday, December 5, 2018

My Love of Landscape - Part 5

Part 5 of My Love of Landscape: Rambling as a Young Adult in Vermont

Beneath the Bridge 9x12 Oil
Not painted during my time living in Middlebury,
but many years later, from life

As I look back on my life and my love of landscape—and as I bring my readers along on this journey—I ask myself the question, as I’m sure my readers will:  Why did I not continue painting the landscape for so many years after leaving college?

Painting the landscape is just one manifestation of my love of landscape.  I also read, write and think about it.  I walk within it and photograph it.  I enjoy other artists’ depiction of it.  I watch films with one eye keen on the landscape as the hero moves through it.  In short, my yearning for a deep relationship with the landscape can be satisfied in many ways.  Sometimes, I’m the maker and, other times, I take what the maker makes.

So it’s no surprise to me that there were periods in my life when I didn’t paint the landscape.  In fact, between my time as an undergraduate in Georgia and when I left Vermont for New Mexico—more than twenty years—I did very little painting at all.  Yet my immersion in the landscape during that time was rich and fulfilling.

Although the Bread Loaf School of English was a five-summer program (to which you had to be invited back each summer and, no, not everyone was), I completed my degree in four summers.  I did it, however, over six years, taking one summer off.  To do it in four summers, I worked on an independent study one year, for which I researched and wrote my thesis on Auden, and took a couple of extra seminars one summer.

During those years, I returned once to Georgia to work, but I remember little of it.  (Inspired by Thoreau, I have kept a journal since I was 17; it now occupies 37 hardbound notebooks, crammed with tiny marks that constitute my handwriting, so I leave it to some future biographer to parse through it and determine exactly where I was when.)  Mostly,  I stayed in Middlebury and worked at the Rosebud Cafe.

Middlebury Falls, during a spring thaw

One of my logos designed for the Rosebud Cafe

I didn’t have a car for many years, so I always lived a short stroll from Main Street, except for a brief time when I lived a few miles south in another village.  In Middlebury, I first shared an upstairs apartment with a fellow Bread Loafer from Colorado who tended bar at the Rosebud.  I later shared an apartment with a Midd grad who tended bar at the historic Dogteam Tavern.  And for a few months, I shared a farmhouse in Orwell, where I borrowed a friend’s Volkswagen so I could get to work.  (Yes, another bartender, who worked at a local dive, the Alibi; when you work in restaurants, your friends tend to work in the same field.)  Night driving was not fun, because the car's headlights emitted about as little light as a couple of fireflies.  But mostly, I lived in Middlebury so I could walk.

The Rosebud Cafe, which gave me both employment and a social life, sat at the intersection of Main Street, just a few shops down from the bridge that spanned the falls of Otter Creek, and Frog Hollow, where the Vermont Craft Center and the Alibi were located.  Although many alumni of the college probably remember the “‘Bud” as being a popular bar, it was also a restaurant that had two levels; it served a sort of Middle Eastern cuisine (think humus, pita bread and tabouli) on the upper Main Street level but pizza on the lower Frog Hollow level.

A small ad I created

At the end of my first summer at Bread Loaf, I vowed to stay in Vermont.  I got a ride from a fellow student down the Mountain (as we called it) to Middlebury, where I was dropped off to look for a job and a place to stay.  The Rosebud was the first place I walked into.  The bartender flagged down the manager for me, who hired me as a sandwich maker without experience.  (I later would learn the difference between mayonnaise, which my family had never used, and Miracle Whip, which had been a staple in our kitchen, when an annoyed customer sent back a tuna salad sandwich that I had made with the latter.  We had run out of mayonnaise, so I’d been sent out to get some but had come back with Miracle Whip, not knowing any better.)  As for lodging, I found a boarding house up the street and near to campus, where I stayed a couple of weeks before finding an apartment to share.

There are many stories I might tell about my days at the Rosebud, but I’ll save those for another time.  For me, the years in Middlebury were a time of personal exploration.  I discovered that I contained an interior landscape that was as new to me as was the physical, exterior one I had moved to.  I began to write seriously, mostly poetry.  In addition to my prose journal, I kept a poetry journal,  and I spent a great deal of postage on sending manuscripts out.  I was encouraged by Robert Pack, the poet who first taught at and later served as director of Bread Loaf, after hearing my work at a reading I gave.  Some poems got published, most did not.

Middlebury College and the town itself are inextricably entwined, like arteries and muscle, both geographically, financially, culturally and politically.  They might be considered to comprise a single organism.  Middlebury today has a population of 8500—only a thousand more than when I lived there—and most people consider it still quaint.  Part of its charm, besides the small-town-look, is what’s around it.

Surrounding Middlebury are many square miles of farmland—cornfields, dairy farms, woodlots of maple, pine and hickory—and through it all runs Otter Creek.  Otter Creek, the longest, northern-flowing river in the US, wanders lazily from Rutland, through Pittsford and Brandon, then under the Main Street bridge in Middlebury where it cascades over an 18-foot drop, only to continue on through Weybridge and Vergennes, and finally Fort Cassin, where it merges with Lake Champlain.  I explored as much of these fields and woodlots as I could, on foot.

Although the town itself offered many pleasant walks along its tree-lined streets, I preferred the wilder places.  I explored muddy Otter Creek, starting at the covered bridge off Seymour Street, and hiking over banks and rocks.  I walked every country road that allowed me to do a loop, and sometimes I found a trail that went off into the woods.  Chipman Hill, the highest point in town, was a favorite.  Between these walks and my expeditions for getting groceries at Stan’s Meat Market and trucking laundry back and forth in a backpack to the laundromat, I got in a lot of walking.

Middlebury had an office supply store.  It also sold art supplies.  As a writer and artist, I felt doubly blessed.  It was here I discovered the Rapidograph pen.  I bought several.  Although I didn’t paint during this time, I began to do freelance graphic design:  newspaper ads, menus, brochures.   Many were for the Rosebud, but also for some other businesses.  I loved how that little, needle-like point floated so effortlessly over my paper, creating beautiful marks.  Over time, I began to incorporate markers and colored pencils into my work.  This was something I continued doing, long after I left Middlebury.

Cat doodles

But the moments walking were what really satisfied my soul.  Blue chicory and white queen-anne’s-lace doing their late summer dance along the roadside.  In the fall, when the leaves in valley were still golden, catching a glimpse of snow-covered Camel’s Hump, thirty miles away, a harbinger of winter.  Walking home at 2 a.m. from work, with the snowflakes gently spinning down under yellow streetlights and the drifts whispering beneath my boots.  Then in early spring, the peepers singing, filling the night with promise.

When I finished my last summer at Bread Loaf, one of my sisters and her husband came all the way from Georgia to see the graduation ceremony at the Little Theater.  Afterward, I still had my job waiting for me at the Rosebud—but the ownership there had changed, and I felt it was time to move on.  Still, I would spend the next twenty years in Vermont.  (To be continued.)

Another doodle, 12x12

A small test design, which became...
The Ultimate Chaos Behind Order
9.75 x 8.25 colored pencil, ink

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