Tuesday, June 28, 2011

fourth of july in canada

I'm heading to the San Juan Islands for the Fourth of July, to visit Adam. This is where I was last Fourth of July: base camp, near the summit of Mount Edziza, BC (with two of my favorite people in the world, might I add -- and nine other beautiful young women).


easter, 2010

adam sits on the edge
of a giant piece of old industrial
driftwood a beer
between his knees
please recycle, it says,
though it will be crushed
and tossed into the plastic
ben with his white fang teeth
flashing in the sun,
john on the sidelines
with an absurdly oversized camera
around his neck,
beer cans and a banjo,
books and sunglasses.
i pick up pieces of seaglass
and lay them on the weathered boards.
long shadows
stretch back toward the woods
where we pee
or crouched in the crushed pine needles
steaming warm earth rising
up toward the branches,
the ferry in the distance,
shawn and cat walking north
in the april sunshine--
we feel we're such good friends
through we've been so for two weeks, only,
and on this holiday, on the rocky beach,
after brunch and a plastic egg hunt and ham and
sweet cinnamon rolls
we feel like long lost relatives.

Go Ahead - Get Lost

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News. May not be reproduced or distributed. Photos by me.

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer

I always get lost driving to the Bookmill. This time, I take a wrong
turn and wind up on a leafy dead end street dominated by what could
pass for a castle: a brightly painted Victorian home surrounded by a
whimsical wooden fence and what appears to be either a lipsticked
mannequin or a blow-up sex doll peering down from a turret window.

Back on track, I pass a half-dozen roadside stands hawking
strawberries and asparagus, a Colonial cemetery, a trout hatchery
bearing my mother's maiden name (Bitzer) and at least two more
Victorian-era homes “desecrated” by fabulous magenta and turquoise
paint, prayer flags flying, stately porches sagging, yards taken over
by summer vines and overgrown crab apple trees. Then I round a corner
and pull into the parking lot, relieved.

“Books you don't need in a place you can't find,” is the Montague
Bookmill's slogan, and I find it true on both counts. Within 10
minutes of finding myself no longer geographically lost, I'm mentally
lost instead, wandering dazed through room upon room, shelf upon shelf
of books in this 1834 gristmill-turned-book-lover’s paradise.

Before I can even get my bearings, I've spent $50 on a new journal, a
thesaurus, an iced coffee, a book about Alaska's Inside Passage and a
stack of one-of-a-kind greeting cards that I couldn't pass up. All of
which I was perfectly content to live without before I got here, but
which will make my life on the way home feel just a little more full.
There's also a hammock in my trunk, and I know exactly where I’m going
to hang it when I get home. I envision warm Sunday afternoons in the
hammock, lounging in the shade, sipping a mojito with mint leaves from
my garden and devouring a new book that takes me out of this humid
Vermont summer and back to the cool wilds of Alaska.

This is what the Bookmill does. It evokes dreams. It invites you to
lose yourself.

The Bookmill, in Montague, Mass., has been around in its current
incarnation for almost 25 years. It's been featured in The New York
Times and the Los Angeles Times (which recently called it “the world's
finest bookstore”), and it’s found its way onto the “thank you” pages
of books by authors such as John Hodgman of The Daily Show. Writers,
successful and not, are drawn to this place. They return day after day
to craft their words in front of the industrial-sized windows, tapping
a foot on the worn wooden floorboards while searching for the right
phrase, thoughtfully chewing their lip, gazing at the waterfall that
tumbles outside. Yet despite all the attention, the best part of going
to the Bookmill is the feeling that you've stumbled upon a secret.

A half dozen other businesses have hung their shingles at the Montague
Mill complex as well, rounding out the experience. There's the Lady
Killigrew Cafe, which serves reasonably priced, locally sourced food
and beverages. It's as likely to attract a local carpenter on his way
to work (for a coffee) or from work (for a beer) as it is budding
literary types who start a tab, plug in their Macs and sit for hours
listening to Bob Dylan or banjo music on the speakers. Or the cyclists
passing by on the Franklin County Bikeway; students from the nearby
five-college area who come to study; bikers who pause their Harleys
for a bite to eat.

There's Turn It Up!, a used music and movie store boasting
knowledgeable employees (who might double as DJs at the local
independent radio station, 93.9) who will gladly tell you, if you ask,
how the afro beat music on the Fela Kuti CD you're holding sprang from
political discontent in Nigeria and was the inspiration for a recent
Tony-award-winning Broadway show.

Then there's the Louise Minks Art Studio and Sawmill River Arts, and
The Night Kitchen, with its beautiful outdoor deck in the summer and a
cozy candle-lit dining room in the winter. There you can order things
like Grand Marnier and Honey Glazed Quail, Tarragon-Stuffed Pan Seared
Trout or Spring Carrot, Green Apple and Ginger Soup to unwind after a
long day of people watching. Reservations are recommended, and bring
your credit card; if you eat at just one fancy restaurant a year, this
one's a good choice.

The real attraction, though -- the venue around which the others have
sprung up -- is undoubtedly the Bookmill. In the business of
publishing and selling books, it's widely accepted that independent
bookstores are simply not viable business models these days. The
onslaught against such places has come in stages: first, the threat of
big-box stores like Barnes and Noble, then online sellers such as, followed by e-Books and Kindles. Bookstores all over the
country have crumbled in the wake of this tri-pronged attack.

But the Bookmill seems not to have paid attention to discouraging
national trends. Tucked away in a cluster of oaks and cottonwoods on a
forgotten backroad, perched on the steep banks of the Sawmill River,
it looks as successful now as it did when I first came here a decade

“We've become a sort of destination,” said screenwriter Susan
Shilliday (Legends of the Fall), who's owned the Bookmill for
three-and-a-half years and regularly mans the cash register. “It's
partly that, partly the great relationship we have with the Lady
Killigrew and the Night Kitchen, and we have very loyal locals as

Shilliday was first introduced to the Bookmill on a trip from
California, and she fell in love. There's an indefinable quality to
the place, she says, something about the books, the cafe, the river,
“being out in the middle of nowhere.” So when the business went up for
sale, she decided to buy it.

“This is my first business endeavor of any kind,” she said with a
laugh. “It's been great fun … I'm sort of figuring it out as I go.”

Selling about 90 percent used books and the rest half-priced
overstocks, the Bookmill doesn't just seem to be thriving to the eyes
of an outsider -- it actually is.

“Nobody's going to make a bundle doing this,” Shilliday said. “But it
is viable. It's a lot easier for a used book store in this economy,
because if book lovers have to cut back and need to save a little
money, they buy used books.”

The mesh of businesses that have found their niche in this magnificent
old building also helps keep the bookstore alive. As does the fact
that it attracts both travelers and locals from every walk of life.
And that it hosts live concerts in the summer, movie nights in the
winter, author readings and the like. And finally, that the Bookmill
seems content to remain a hidden treasure. Despite its lofty status
among bibliophiles, there's little promotion besides word of mouth. So
even people who have lived within its radius for years can still have
the pleasure of discovering the Mill.

One of those people is Kurtis Graf, of Brattleboro. “I've lived in
Brattleboro for eight years,” said a wide-eyed, smiling Graf, “and I
never knew this was here!”

“I like it very much,” he continued, peeking over my shoulder at the
Lady Killigrew menu. “I like the idea of the combination of the
bookstore, the little cafe and the river. I was hooked by the idea
before I even got here, and now I'm enthralled.”

Even for those who have visited before, there are delights around
every corner, from the newspaper articles and ripped-out journal pages
plastering the bathroom walls to the intriguing network of narrow
hallways and twisting stairwells. There are clever signs, cozy nooks,
intriguing architecture. “Don't look for our catalogue online; we're
not that bookstore,” says, eschewing the
trend even among small booksellers to stay in business by offering
their wares over the Internet. “But if we can’t find the book you’re
looking for, we’ll find you a better one you didn’t know you wanted.”

In today's convenient world, where you can order anything and
everything online at any hour of day, maybe this is what people yearn
for: the pleasure of browsing, exploring, not knowing what you'll
find. Not all people, but those who love books and small towns; those
who are fond of history and discovery; people who want to feel the
smoothness of a printed page on their fingertips, breathe in that
library-smell, and then wedge the volume firmly in a bookshelf and
remember the morning at the Bookmill when they bought it for $6.50.

For families, there's a vibrant kids' section, but the cascading falls
and clear pools of the Sawmill River provide all the summer fun a kid
could ask for. Natural rockslides, grassy islands and shady overhangs
offer hours of swimming, creature hunting and make-believe.

This is not a place to stop for an hour while on your way somewhere
else. The Montague Mill is its own destination, well worth the
hour-and-a-half drive from the Upper Valley, and if you decide to make
a weekend of it, all the better.

There are plenty of options, indoors or out, for an overnight stay in
the area (indoor pick: the Hotel Northampton; outdoor: Barton Cove
campground). Other places to check out in the area include the Magic
Wings Butterfly Conservatory, Yankee Candle factory store (which, if
you've never been, is much more than a store that sells candles), the
Smith College greenhouse and botanical garden, and plenty of funky
little towns to explore.


Krista Langlois can be reached at or 603-727-3305.

Friday, June 24, 2011

At Dartmouth, Erdrich Talks About Rewriting 'The Antelope Wife'

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News. May not be reproduced or distributed. Photo courtesy of Richard Stamelman.

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer 

   Walking out of Dartmouth's Cook Auditorium into a gray drizzle last Wednesday, a woman who had just listened to Louise Erdrich reading her yet-unpublished story, The Ojibwe Week, blinked a few times.
   "I hardly knew whether it would be day or night out here," she said to no one in particular, seemingly shaking the vivid images out of her head before tugging up the hood of her rain jacket and walking off briskly.
   As is often the case for Erdrich's fans, many of the 200 or so people who gathered in Hanover to hear her read were transported, feeling later as if they'd just emerged from a movie theater and were slightly disconcerted to find themselves still in New Hampshire and not, in fact, carried off to some other place. Though colored with dreams and folklore, the world Erdrich creates again and again in her writing is perfectly recognizable, even ordinary. But it's so well imagined that when we put the book down -- or when Erdrich's unhurried, melodic voice stops reading from it -- we see our own reality in a slightly different light.
   "Her books are haunting," said Dartmouth senior Phoebe Gardener after the reading. "One summer, the summer I was reading The Antelope Wife, I literally had to stop reading it for a while and come back to it because it was too real for me."
   It was a story from The Antelope Wife that Erdrich chose for a public reading as part of her week-long fellowship at Dartmouth -- but not from the book she published under that name in 1998. Instead, in a nod to oral storytelling traditions, Erdrich is in the middle of rewriting the acclaimed book from a different angle. The Ojibwe Week is a story from that effort; it will be published in Granta magazine.
   "Stories are like seeds that the rest of the book can grow out of," Erdrich said. She said she liked the story The Antelope Wife began as, but didn't care for the way the characters' stories unfolded. So she's rewriting, using the original story as a germ from which to retell the greater tale.
   "It's still called The Antelope Wife," Erdrich said during an interview later in the day. "It's the same story but goes off in a different direction than the original book."
   A 1976 Dartmouth graduate and author of dozens of novels, books of poetry, children's books and non-fiction, Erdrich has returned to the school many times, most recently to serve as a Montgomery fellow from April 30 to May 8.
   "I really feel this profound connection to the beauty here," she said. "I've returned over and over and over so that I really have friendships that go back for many, many years with people (in the Upper Valley)."
   Much has changed over the years; when Erdrich graduated in 1976, her class was the first to have matriculated women.
   "It's more diverse in every way (now)," Erdrich said. "I think that the most lasting and most wonderful change is that I see a lot more ease and fellowship and intellectual companionship. ... When I was here that was somewhat true, but there was a great deal to get through in that changeover. I feel now that I was very lucky to be a part of it."
   The Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Endowment brings Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize, Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winners to Dartmouth to meet with undergraduates and sit in on classes, offering one-on-one interactions that can be as rewarding for the fellow as for the students.
   "I feel I have hundreds of names and faces in my head," Erdrich said. "There are gatherings every day where students -- mainly undergraduates -- get together with the fellow and ask questions and exchange thoughts and information and, really, sparks fly. It's a wonderful idea, this idea that you bring someone in -- not particularly me -- but this person comes parachuting into Dartmouth College and students get to come and ask any question they want."

   It would take some digging to find a critic who actually criticizes Erdrich, with The New York Times reviews over the years calling her work "masterful" and "emotionally resonant" and literary great Toni Morrison writing that its "beauty ... saves us from being devastated by its power."
   As an author, Erdrich is frequently categorized: she's called a Native American writer (one of the first to transcend the genre to appeal to a broad audience, a claim she humbly shrugs off); a feminist author (she creates strong, almost ferocious female characters imbued with intuition and sexuality); and a writer about minorities and the oppressed who's equally embraced by critics, professors and book club readers. But like most people, she dislikes the labels.
   "Literature lives on if it has something in it that's immediate to all human beings no matter what your background," she said after her reading. "I think that the human thirst for narrative is insatiable. We yearn for that story."
   Her success may also lie in her background, which has given her a wealth of practical experiences to draw upon as well as an emotional aptitude that manifests itself in her achingly flawed characters.
   "It's hard to write comedy into books where your characters are also heartbreaking," she said. "But I hope to God there's humor in (my) books."
   Likewise, it's difficult to write about Erdrich's literary success without also referencing her own somewhat heartbreaking personal life; though she writes mostly fiction, the two go hand in hand. Erdrich's resilience, the guarded, composed face she puts on in public coupled with the raw emotion and poignant humanity her own experiences have lent to her characters affords readers a sense of intimacy with her, an adoration that goes beyond her talent as a writer.
   Born in 1954 to parents of Ojibwe (or Chippewa), French and German ancestry, Erdrich grew up in North Dakota, where her parents taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. Her grandfather, who lived on a nearby reservation, told her Ojibwe stories. Her deep connection to the Great Plains is apparent in her stories, in which the land is always an important character.
   After Dartmouth, Erdrich worked a variety of blue collar jobs, from traffic flagger to truck stop waitress.
   "I learned so much from those jobs," she said. "When you've got a job that you think is going nowhere and you're really tired of the people around you driving you crazy, just take notes. Every conversation you hear is unrepeatable."
   Later, after getting a Masters of Arts from Johns Hopkins University, Erdrich returned to Dartmouth as a writer-in-residence. She began to collaborate with her future husband, the late writer Michael Dorris, who was chair of the Native American Studies program there, and the two began gaining recognition for their work together.
   Erdrich and Dorris became a creative power couple, beloved in the literary world but bound for tragedy in their personal lives. After collaborating on The Broken Cord, a book exposing the prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in native populations, their adopted son Abel, who was born with FAS, was hit by a car and died at the age of 23.
   When asked if giving a voice to the people affected by FAS has helped alleviate the problem in the past two decades, Erdrich said it's hard for her to know.
   "I think it's unquestionably raised awareness," she said. "The knowledge of what happens during pregnancy has come a very long way from what it was 30 years ago. So yes, I think that book made the story very human."
   Erdrich and Dorris divorced in 1995; in 1997, Dorris committed suicide. The following year, Erdrich published The Antelope Wife.
   If the decision to rewrite a book first imagined in a time of such grief was taxing for Erdrich, the audience last week didn't see it. Indeed, with three of her daughters in the audience (including Aza Erdrich Dorris, who will graduate from Dartmouth next month), Erdrich seemed as pleased to be reading her story as the audience was to be listening to it.
   Many watched with fond half-smiles, delighting at Erdrich's occasional jokes and the grace with which she gestured with one hand, like an orchestra conductor, while holding her manuscript in the other.
   Erdrich began the evening by welcoming the crowd in Ojibwan, which she said she is "a very poor but enduring speaker of." Then she launched into the reading. Told from several perspectives -- a trend in Erdrich's writing -- the story follows the familiar characters of Klaus, Richard Whiteheart Beads, Rozin and Sweetheart Calico through a week in contemporary Minneapolis.
   Like much of Erdrich's work, the story takes on a feeling of magical realism, with the stuff of everyday life -- stopping by a bakery for a treat while bringing the kids to school, grabbing a beer after a day's work -- seamlessly intertwined with ancient dreams and the echoes of Ojibwe myths.
   Montgomery Endowment director Richard Stamelman, in his introduction before the reading, described Erdrich as a writer who "emerges from her native background and the region and history of her people" with a unique style that blends the "magical past and hardscrabble present" through an intimate "knowledge of land and its deep roots in dreams and myth."
   In vivid imagery, Erdrich recalls the character of Sweetheart Calico, wearing a T-shirt that could belong to anyone in their low-income housing development (black, with an airbrushed eagle, wolf and buffalo charging under a sky filled with lightening against the backdrop of an American flag); a silent woman who disappears without a trace and leaves antelope tracks instead of human ones.
   The story is partly about this seductive, mysterious woman -- the antelope wife -- but more than that it's a nuanced record of the lives of six people living together in a cheap apartment in Minneapolis, joined by a shared past. And it's about language: "how the Ojibwe language has been invaded in some ways by European concepts like the industrial work week," Erdrich said.
   Other images jump out from the story: a dog described as "secondhand ... a used, thrift store dog;" and a vision of Richard Whiteheart Beads and Klaus covertly stacking rolls of environmentally hazardous carpet from an shopping mall in an abandoned barn.
   Though most people in the audience had never seen a barn standing alone on the desecrated prairie, filled from floor to ceiling with rolls of carpeting, the image came to mind without difficulty: the two men gingerly putting the last roll into place on a Friday afternoon, trying to avoid a "carpet quake" so that they could pocket their paycheck and go get a beer.
   The Ojibwe Week is not a traditional story with a beginning and an end, a plot that carries the characters, but a series of illustrations, a parade of detailed observations of scenes from everyday life. After 45 minutes, Erdrich, standing tall and serene with her auburn hair pulled back into a beaded barrette, finished the story. She clasped her hands and smiled a close-lipped smile.
   Today, Erdrich lives in Minneapolis, caring for her youngest daughters, writing while they're at school and helping run a bookstore, Birchbark Books -- a venture she said is "not a viable business if you want to become a wealthy person at all."
   "But when people want to be in a bookstore, they really want to really be in a bookstore," she continued. "And the thing that I think people really love about small, independent bookstores is you never know what to expect. They're eccentric, and every single one is different."
   Erdrich says she understands why people order from Amazon. "When you need a book and it's winter up here and you don't want to leave, you order it online," she said, though she noted that one can order online from a small bookseller as easily as one can from Amazon.
   "Amazon does not hold readings. Amazon does not support literacy in the community. Amazon does not have a physical place or presence where you can congregate in order to talk about books," she said.
   It's the culture that orders from Amazon and gets its stories from nationally syndicated media that Erdrich rebels against in her books. If there is something that characterizes her writing beyond a certain lyrical style or a predilection to write about Native American characters in the modern world, it is her insistence that landscape and history and culture derive from a specific place, and that we must somehow find a way to hold onto that.
   "I think people cling to their differences and those things won't ever be erased entirely," she said.
   Krista Langlois can be reached at or 603-727-3305

Thursday, June 23, 2011

I think I wrote these poems in 2009. No one has ever seen them. Isn't this a thrilling first?

Yesterday there was a tsunami.
I saw it on the news
Three-inch tall, wind-whipped palm trees
Suddenly sprouted on my TV screen
Or maybe those were from the hurricane
Last week.
I can’t remember.
Today I walked to the jewelry seller
On the corner, by the subway stairs,
And I bought a wooden bracelet
from the woman there
For four dollars.
I said,
Maybe this will help your brother
with the hollow eyes
But I never spoke those words.
Instead I thought how nicely
The bracelet dangled on my wristbone.
I stayed out a long time
Even though it was cold, and raw.
I took the subway all around the world.
I walked through the neighborhoods
And got lost,
Avoiding the train that would take me home:
There were uprooted trees
And hollow eyes
In my apartment.
Whew. Sharing poetry is tough. Glad I got that first one out of the way. These photos are from the same time period; it's a miracle they survived the Great Computer Theft of 2010.

I cannot let myself think
About work
Outside of work
Nor about my life outside of work
When I'm here.
They are two separate me's.
At home, rocking in front of the stove,
Chopping an onion in the kitchen,
Standing dripping in the shower
Or easing into bed with hair still damp,
I do not think of absent bosses
Of my low status
Or of the articles to read and letters to write
At least,
I try not to.
And at work, talking about the weather
While I wait for coffee to trickle into my mug,
Sitting under ugly lighting,
Picking at my cuticles
And listening to the irregular clicking
Of eight hands on four keyboards
The occasional tapping foot
Or muffled cough,
I do not think about you,
Needing to borrow my car once again,
And will you put gas in the tank
And will the dishes be done when I get home
Or must I do them myself, again,
After I bring up wood
Stamp away the wet snow
Let the dog out
And back in again.
Taxes wait in a file on the glowing laptop screen
And our future rests
In glances, words, the slightest gestures;
Is rubbing your back as you sit, forehead buried in your palms, right
Or wrong?
These are questions I do not ponder at work,
Or at least,
I try not to.

One more? Shall we?

There is a crusty muffin
Several days old
Sitting in of the cabinet
That I tell myself I will eat.
But really, it will be fed to the birds.
There is spoiled tomato soup
In the back of the fridge
Behind the ginger ale;
Hair balls under the couch;
And a pair of dirty underwear
Scrunched up at the foot of the bed
Along with the sheet
Pushed there by hot, impatient feet.
There’s a mostly empty bottle of shampoo
That outlived the conditioner,
And clothes I no longer wear
But think I might, someday.
There is a picture that makes me cry
Slid behind another that doesn’t.
There is a stain you cannot see on the floor,
And a toilet scrubber that I handle only very, very gingerly.

These were all written when I was 24 and living a life meant for someone three times my age. That's how it felt, anyway -- I couldn't wait to break free. And I did.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Darkness Descending: Fungus Continues to Devastate Bats

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News. Not to be reproduced or distributed. Photo courtesy of Scott Darling.

By Krista Langlois
 Valley News Staff Writer

   Norwich -- Eight years ago, Russell Coney built a bat box outside of his home in Unity.
   "I've got quite a bit of standing water," he said. "So I've got a big mosquito problem."
   The solution seemed simple enough: build a wooden box, hang it about 12 feet off the ground and wait for bats -- which famously eat half their body weight in insects every night -- to move in and take care of business.
   But in eight years, the bats never came: "Not a single one," Coney said, shaking his head.
   Coney's mosquito problem might become more widespread if white nose syndrome, which has been swiftly decimating the Northeast's cave-dwelling bat populations since 2007, continues its devastating sweep across Vermont and New Hampshire. To date, anywhere from 76 percent to 99 percent of little brown bat and northern long-eared bat populations have been wiped out in Vermont, said state wildlife biologist Scott Darling, and the problem is comparable in New Hampshire.
   Ginny Kiely has witnessed the decline firsthand. She used to see bats swooping from the sky outside her rural home in Quechee every night in the summer. But now? "We just don't have them anymore," she said.
   "We're wondering what's going to happen with the insect population," chimed in Kiely's friend, Jeanette Veverka. "That's the big question."
   Darling agrees. "Everyone wants to know the biological consequences of (white nose syndrome), including me, but we don't," he said in a talk in Norwich on Monday night called Bats in the Balance.
   "It's probably going to be a factor for us with insect issues."
   After 11 years of studying bats, Darling says he and other biologists don't yet understand what the repercussions will be if the little brown bat goes extinct, as might occur in only 15 years, experts warn. The little brown bat was once the most common of Vermont's nine species.
   Even without white nose syndrome, it's difficult for bats to survive in northern latitudes, Darling explained. Some New England species migrate south in winter, but for species that overwinter in caves here, "if you only weigh three pennies, how do you do that?" Darling asks. "They're already living on the edge up here. Food disappears mid-November and doesn't come back until mid-April."
   And because their reproduction rate is relatively low (one pup a year), declines in bat populations are particularly hard to recover from.
   "If mice or rabbits were to get white nose syndrome, we'd have a problem on our hands, but we'd be able to reproduce them," said Darling, who has studied many animals during his 30 years as a wildlife biologist. But for bats, the problem is more dire.

   Just a few years ago, South Strafford's Elizabeth Mine was the second-largest bat hibernacula, or overwintering cave, in New England.
   Using a special net at the cave's exit, Darling has studied the population of bats in Elizabeth Mine over the past decade. In 2002, an average of 58 bats were trapped exiting the cave there every hour. In 2006, that number peaked at 163. But after white nose syndrome became prevalent, the numbers plummeted.
   In 2008, there were 25 bats per hour. In 2009: zero.
   "The Elizabeth Mine (population) has collapsed," Darling said. "We were able to observe the kind of mortality that has not been seen anywhere else in the country."
   Other population studies have shown similar declines. And though the disease struck New York and Vermont first, Darling says he's identified 25 species of bats nationwide that could be susceptible.
   "There are huge fears of it going to Carlsbad Cavern," where tremendous bat populations exist and the result could be devastating, Darling said.
  As Darling and his colleagues went to work three years ago studying the white powdery substance found on the noses of the dying bats, they began making discoveries that could one day help prevent the disease's spread south and west.
   First, they discovered the white substance was a cold-loving fungus, later named Geomyces destructans.
   "(The bat) is almost an animal that was made for fungal infection. ... It meets lots of other bats (to easily spread the fungal spores) and then hibernates in dark, damp areas (where the spores thrive)," Darling said. "Generally a fungus does not kill its host," but somehow, this one does. It does not affect humans.
   Nobody knows how the fungus found its way into the caves; some hypothesize it came in on human caving gear, or that it was carried on a bat from Europe to the United States. Bats in northern European countries have been found to have the same fungus, but it doesn't kill them there, though the populations are much lower to begin with. Or did they decrease long ago, due to the fungus? Biologists don't know.
   But when strands of the European fungus were introduced in the lab to New England bats, the bats died quickly.
   Similarly, Darling and his colleagues brought a group of healthy, uninfected little brown bats from Wisconsin and released them in an empty Vermont cave. The Wisconsin bats developed the fungus while hibernating and died within a few weeks, Darling said, suggesting the fungus is spread from the cave environment, not only from one bat to another.
   While scientists have yet to find a treatment for white nose syndrome, they're experimenting with a number of potential solutions, including moving hibernating bats to fungus-free underground military bunkers and closing off hibernacula to determine how long the fungus lasts without its host. They've considered other ideas, such as fumigating the caves, but have decided against such potentially harmful measures for the moment.
   And the little brown bat and the northern long-eared bat will soon be on the Vermont state endangered species list as well, if Darling's efforts are successful.
   "While it's been a crisis, it's also been almost a blessing because people's awareness and appreciation of bats has really changed in three years time," he said.
   Meanwhile, Darling says, homeowners might take several steps to help, including managing land to include large dead and dying trees for non-cave-dwelling bats to roost in, and "putting the tennis rackets away," referring to the anti-bat implement of choice.
   You can also build a bat house for animals recently banished from an attic, so they don't just relocate to your less-sympathetic neighbor's house.
   Darling also said that when excluding bats from your home, calling a professional who can install one-way doors is a good option, but wait until after August to do so -- from May to August, bats are having pups, and sealing them off may further harm the population. The best time to seal off entrances is in the winter, if no bats are present; or from September to October if they are.
   Darling is not currently looking for volunteers at this time, though he may be in the future. Already, groups of trappers, Boy Scouts and public service employees have embarked on bat house building campaigns after hearing Darling speak, and he said that such efforts are welcome and very useful.
   "That's the kind of response Vermonters are giving, and that's what helps me get up every morning and go at it every day," he said.
   Krista Langlois can be reached at or 603-727-3305.
   On the Web
   * Bat Conservation International:
   * Vermont Fish and Wildlife:

Thursday, June 16, 2011

industrial gardening.

Here is the beginning of a perfect afternoon. It's early June and my two housemates and I have big plans. GIS maps that identify good soil locations consistently highlight the Connecticut River floodplain, and now we find ourselves living on it, renovating a rambling house with two narrow acres stretching all the way back to the river. It should be on prime agricultural soil, and we're planting a garden, not just for this year but for years to come. We're putting in blueberry bushes and nitrogen fixers and fruit-bearing trees.

“The Connecticut River valley produces the best sweet corn in the world,” my friend's mother once said, sliding another cob onto the plate of a visitor from Minnesota. He believed – ignorantly, of course – that he had tasted good corn from his home state.

But it's early June, and we don't have our garden in yet. Drawn by bright skies and the promise of dropping a palmful of seeds one by one into the earth, friends come over to help. We drink from a jar of cold water infused with lemon balm and mint. Our bare legs grow brown with dirt and warm with sun, shins covered in bug bites and scratches.

“This is the kind of garden I've always dreamed of,” Elizabeth says, pausing for a moment to lean on her pitchfork like a scene from a movie.

I'm digging holes for currant bushes when I strike I different kind of soil. At first it looks like clay, and I think of sharing it with the kids who are chasing each other in the field. I remember being eight and finding a cache of clay in the riverbank, painting it on my body and baking in the sun, then walking around with my arms held out straight in front of me, like Frankenstein peering out through raccoon eye holes.

But it's not clay. It's... what? It's heavy, that's for sure. It's very silvery, gooey. Kind of pretty, almost. It smells... I cough. It smells like turpentine. I show a shovelful of the stuff to Rich and he says it looks like roofing paint, seeping through the dirt.

We've found pieces of rebar in the soil here, rusted railroad ties, disintegrating black trash bags. Hunks of unidentifiable metal dumped long ago. This is not farmland. White River Junction, Vermont has long been a transportation hub, where factories, industry and railroads meet. The tracks still go right by this house, and the windows rattle when the trains pass at 5 a.m.

We feel like we're doing good, returning this land to itself. It's been a dumping ground for years. Birdie, our neighbor, tells stories of drug dealers living in our house, homeless people camping by the river, and others following the river trail to dump their trash into a convenient tangle of celandine, honeysuckle, sumac and weeds as they'd done for decades.

In the fall, weeds died back and fell on top of the trash. Snows and rain fell, and the dead weeds began to decompose. Then more leaves and stems and seedpods fell on top, more rain, and eventually the plants became a layer of soil on top of the junk. Year after year this happened, while the adjacent houses rose and fell; people moved in, worked and had babies then moved away or died. The bannisters in these houses are built so coffins can maneuver the tight stairwells.

This is how the years pass. The world slowly makes soil and buries itself while we scurry over it in fast-forward speed, barely skimming the surface. In my mind I see time-lapse photos of the earth slowly being buried, tombs and cities and artifacts erased like a footprint in the sand.

I need a heavy duty trashbag and a mask to dig this gooey silver mass out of the soil. It burns my nostrils. When I'm finished, sweating, the bag must weigh 40 pounds and the dirt around the hole I've dug still shimmers unnaturally. We put an X over the hole and do not plant in that area.

This house was bought cheap. There's a community of artists drawn to the old industrial buildings and low prices here, the way the late afternoon sun makes long shadows on the bricks. We hardly notice the rumbling of trains. The dealers, hopefully, have moved elsewhere. We stop locking our doors.

Not far from here, there are bucolic hills where cows and sheep graze in the hazy evening air. The land up in the hills, mostly used for farming, was somewhat spared, and I'm drawn to those places. But they'll never feel as familiar as this time-worn valley. Everyone has a river of their birth, and mine is not a rushing trout-filled beauty tumbling down from the Rocky Mountains but the sluggish, brown Connecticut. Untold logs sliced from the northern forest were floated down this river to be made into reams of paper at the Holyoke mills. People along the banks lived and died by the log drive every spring. Now, at the edge of the current with a defunct smokestack rising in the distance, the humid river air wafts up through reedy plants and as it hits my nose, my shoulders drop, my jaw unclenches. I never wanted to admit it, but this is home.

I grew up in this river valley. I remember kneeling in the dirt next to my mother, planting marigolds and finding pieces of pottery, old glass bottles, marbles. These treasures were half the fun of gardening. So when my perfect afternoon is interrupted by a reminder that I'm not up in the hills, where land is expensive and dreams are more easily realized, I'm not discouraged. I put on a face mask and keep digging while my friends plant organic seeds. 


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Around 2:30 in the morning, the sky pales to a starless dusky purple. This isn't a change I witness. At 2:30 a.m. I'm soundly asleep, though I unconsciously hide from the rising sun, draw my head deeper into my warm sleeping bag, creating a layer of condensation that smells like morning breath. But after a solid week of rain, a bad smell has to be particularly potent to get noticed.

When I thrust my head out of my sleeping bag, there are no tent walls between me and this drenched forest dripping with moisture and birdsong, the drumming of grouse echoing through ravines, the presence of the vast northern ocean just over a hummock. 

Amazingly, it's not raining. Sunlight filters through the trees, through my translucent tarp strung between cedars. I'm nestled between these great towering trees and the trunks of those that have fallen, my face inches from a massive, mossy log smelling of dirt. I've slept cradled against it as it slowly crumbles back into the ground and new saplings send shoots off its loamy remains. I'm surrounded by generations of trees, below and above, some growing and some decaying.

If fecundity has a smell, it is the smell of the morning air here. My face is inches from the ground, inches from a thick carpet of moss littered with twigs and sprigs of cedar. There is something wonderful about sleeping on this springy ground without a tent and waking with my face so close to the earth. Staying in my fetid sleeping bag just a minute longer, I inhale not its scent but that of the moss draped over everything in this oversized forest. Moss that has absorbed centuries of rain and salty marine air. It is saturated, steaming, sending the moisture back up again. I awake, and I am immediately part of this primordial land – like everything else that has fallen into it, it has absorbed me. 

tonight it stopped raining
for the first time in three days.
streetlight bounced off pools
on the sidewalks,
shattered by my boot.
be gentle,
he said
as i left.
i'm fragile.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

for real.

I just read Robin Hemley's beautiful story about authenticity in Orion magazine. In addition being absorbed in his writing, I felt strangely vindicated. I've been thinking about authenticity too, ever since Adam and I took our Easter-weekend trip to the Maine coast. I wanted to get as far north as we would conceivably drive; Adam wanted to put in just outside Portland to give us more time on the water and less in the car. Because I'd been difficult to live with the week leading up to our trip, I acquiesced, and we decided to park outside of Yarmouth, load our kayaks and paddle to a primitive campsite on the Maine Island Trail called Little Chebeague Island. After poring over a nautical chart, we decided it looked like a good spot. But a map doesn't really tell you much about a place, does it?

Adam had never been to Maine before, and he may or may not have expected the unwavering line of lobster cage- and colorful buoy-plastered docks that you see in Audobon or Yankee magazine. I'm not sure. I'd been to Maine, and knew that the farther north – the farther “down east” we got – the more “authentic” our experience would be – if you correlate authenticity with lobster cages, brightly painted buoys and salty fishermen. If you stay on the southern coast, the most likely you are to run into a fisherman is on your menu at the Red Lobster. In fairness, I didn't really tell Adam this.

Our long weekend of kayaking was to take place in mid-April, before we parted ways for the summer. Such is the life of a transient seasonal worker. Along with not having health insurance or a mailing address, you say goodbye to your partner for months at a time. But I digress. Adam and I planned our trip early in the season in hopes of avoiding every “real” traveler's nightmare, the dreaded “crowds.” When we left Vermont, it was snowing hard. When we arrived in Freeport it was raining even harder, and everything except LL Bean was closed. Crowds were non-existent. We ended up staying in an Econolodge for the night.

The next morning we put in beneath a four-lane cement bridge with an active smokestack, perhaps from a coal-burning power plant, rising majestically behind it. And I do not say “majestically” with sarcasm. The sheer dominance of the edifice, it's towering presence over a very bland, flat, blue-and-brown landscape was in fact something akin to majestic.

Our plan was an easy paddle halfway around Big Chebeague Island to Little Chebeague, where we'd camp. I envisioned a rocky beach strewn with bubble weed and hemmed in by dripping walls of hemlock. But when we hit Little Cheabague at 3:00 p.m., we decided to just keep on going. We'd circumnavigate the bigger island and camp on the mainland; anything to get away from this place. It was that bad. We could see the belching smokestack from the post-winter, tide-littered lifeless campsite.

It wasn't just that, though. Our whole paddle that day was eerie. We passed one huge, featureless vacation home after another, and each one was strangely silent and empty, closed up for the season. Both of us fresh out of the open West, we commiserated what Adam called “the eviction of the American public from its land.” There were no places here to just pull over and camp. We were restricted to the one designated site with its fine view of the power plant. Although, if we'd popped a tent and lit a campfire in someone's back yard we probably wouldn't have been bothered. Paddling around Chebeague Island was like sneaking through the backyards of a perfectly preserved, post-apocalyptic wealthy Maine island community. Except it was cold and windy, and tall brown grasses whipped at the shore.

We did end up driving further north, camped in the dunes on a lonely beach, and had a great trip. But while I pulled my paddle again and again through the North Atlantic that weekend, I thought a lot about authenticity, mostly in terms of working landscapes. The reason Chebeague Island hadn't appealed to me – had disconcerted me even – was because it was devoid of the people who, upon working a place, leave their thumbprint firmly upon it. Lobster traps and buoys may be no better a gauge for authenticity than Walmarts and gas stations – or, for that matter, than vacation homes and yacht clubs – but they are decisively indicative of an industry that engages with the place from which it and it alone has emerged.

On the Maine or Alaskan coast, maybe this means fishing. Wrangell, Alaska was at first an ugly place to me filled with ugly buildings. But then it became a real place, filled of people who tip their bartenders with crab legs and tell Tlingit stories to get through the winters and drink cheap beer on their boats in the neverending summer nights. When I got to the town of Sitka later on, it seemed so prettified as to not fit in with the logging-scarred, fishy-smelling landscape I'd come to know.

I had the opposite experience in Vermont. Moving back here after several years away, I first thought my chosen town of Norwich had rural character, with its quiet town green and front porches and vestiges of agricultural charm. Then I lived there for five weeks and realized it's all a front, a bunch of rich people who bought up the pieces of what they imagine a small town used to be like, and fought hard in local government to keep it that way. With some exceptions, it's a place that looks rural and charming but is missing the cow shit, calloused hands and squinty eyes often found on people who work the land for real. The people who live in Norwich mostly work at nearby Dartmouth College or Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, and hire gardeners to keep that quaint lilac blooming by their front door.

“Stepping out into the parking lot,” Hemley writes, “I find myself thinking about how often our idea of what's real differs from what's actually there. And about how certain concepts persist in our consciousness long after they've disappeared.”

In the margin, I scrawl, “I'm as guilty as anyone. I like to travel, and when I travel, I want to see something that makes the time and expense worth it: I want to see something 'real.' So, maybe, I have this image in my head of what a 'real' place looks like – based on history, books, movies or stereotypes – and this concept persists, coloring what I choose to see, where I focus my camera lens. Does that eventually make the other stuff I see fake? And if so, do I end up blocking it out, putting on blinkers, creating my own myopic version of reality?”

Whatever your place is – suburban, post-industrial, post-apocalyptic, blue-collar, white-collar, bike-riders or pickup-drivers – my only suggestion is that you live there. Actually be there. There's no such thing as a community without people, and every person, no matter how uninteresting on the surface, has some indefinable quality that makes them a human and makes them interesting and through them, gives a sense of authenticity to the place they live. Which is, it seems, what we're all after these days. 

the beginning.

Here's my goal for this blog: write and post a minimum of 600 thoughtfully crafted words at least once a week, and also post photos, projects, ideas, snippets and other enticing bits more frequently. Maybe if I write this goal down and put it out to the world it'll be more likely to happen.

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