Shedding Light on the Working Forest

Taut Hitch, Lincoln 2007, Charcoal on paper 30" x 22"

We did a Google image search of the phrase “Vermont art,” and our computer monitor filled up with paintings of barns, cows, and church steeples. Most were lovely – clearly the work of very talented people – but the whole exercise was a little unsettling, as well. There were two humans, total, in the first 50 search results – one a skier’s silhouette, the other a cartoon farmer riding in a boat that was being rowed by a pig. There were 35 barns, nestled amidst hay fields and woodlots, in the same 50 pictures. The whole exercise felt a little post-apocalyptic in that amongst all these scenes of pastoral working landscapes there were practically no humans anywhere, let alone humans working the land. Subsequent searches for “Maine art” and “Adirondack art” yielded essentially the same results, only instead of barns there were unmanned lighthouses in Maine and lodges on lakes in the ADKs. We scanned the first 1,200 images that came up, and there was exactly one painting of a human working the land: a logger, riding a hitch of logs behind a team of horses, straight out of 1815.

Art that celebrates beautiful landscapes is great, but what about immortalizing the working landscape and the people doing that work? Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a very talented artist who liked to paint loggers? Not archetypal loggers out of storybooks, but flesh and blood people – our friends and neighbors who help manage our forests. And wouldn’t it be cool if the artist teamed up with a very talented poet, who helped the loggers in the paintings put their work experiences into words? Meet Kathleen Kolb, the painter, and Verandah Porche, the poet. Kolb lives in Lincoln, Vermont; she’s been painting the Vermont landscape for the last 38 years and loggers and logging scenes for the past 20. Porche lives in Guilford and has spent the last four decades painting with words in an attempt to document rural life. The two teamed up this year for a project, entitled “Shedding Light on the Working Forest.” The traveling exhibit features 20 years’ worth of Kolb’s logging paintings, paired with Porche’s custom prose.

Shedding Light on the Working Forest Image

Kathleen Kolb and Verandah Proche.
Photo by Debbie Hagan.

This traveling exhibit opened at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in early October, and we were there for the reception. Picture a gallery room full of artists and patrons of the arts and art students rubbing shoulders with log buyers and loggers and timber company heads and foresters. There was beer and wine and plenty of conversation about the woods and woods work. It was a beautiful scene of inclusion – “hands across the water,” as Porche might say. It represented everything we try to do with this magazine.

On the following pages, you’ll find a taste of the work. See the whole show in person at the Brattleboro Museum through January 3, then at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, Vermont, from January 15 through April 30. In August and September 2016, the show will head south to the Great Mountain Forest region of Connecticut for an exhibition at the Norfolk Library, then it’s back to Vermont for a show at the Supreme Court building in Montpelier, which will run October through December.

Shedding Light on the Working Forest Image

Log to Lumber, Oil on panel 12” x 18”, Collection of the Vermont Folklife Center.

Stephen Taylor, 54, woodsman, sawyer, woodworker, Lincoln, Vermont

After childhood summers, bonding with neighbors, and building on his family land, Taylor made a “conscious decision” as a young man to settle there and carve out a livelihood. In foliage season, Robert Frost preferred this ridge as his “balcony.”

Logs to Lumber

The school down in the village was growing
their fledgling gardening program for second graders.
They had a little greenhouse and needed a storage shed.
I worked with them to design it and volunteered
to provide the lumber.

I took the whole class on a field trip into my woods.
I showed my design and talked about what lumber we needed.
So these logs you see in the painting were selected by me
and the kids in the woods as live trees, standing timber.
I showed them how I cut a tree, and how I pull it out.
Some had been in the woods with their dad, or grandfather,
or mother, but for most it was quite novel.

                       •

There’s a rhythm to sawing. The log comes up.
First, you square it off: that can take some time
to get the surfaces flat. That feels like work.
Then the boards come off, and you feel you’re on
the downhill slope. And then you start all over.

That rhythm is interspersed with other rhythms:
maintaining the saw, moving logs, sorting logs.
I might spend half an hour, two or three times a day,
just getting the right ones lined up.
What shall I make with this log?
Is it too knotty to be structural lumber?
Should I make a beam?
Should I make siding boards?

You never know how each log opens up.
Sometimes it’s a wonderful surprise,
the quality and character of the lumber.
Sometimes, there’s internal checking, cracks and splits
you couldn’t detect from the outside.
Hardwood logs, it’s the grain, or the color, or texture.
Those can be wonderfully exciting, or not.
The flow occurs when there’s adequate time
and right mind, meaning every little task required
is a part of the whole, not some obstacle or annoyance.

                         •

Morning shadows. Hasn’t warmed up yet.
Ground’s probably frozen solid, just like today.
The peavey’s not in deep.
It’s spacious. You can see in the woods
forever and ever. In the sunlight,
I’d be turning back and forth, like a rotisserie.

I’m in the pristine air and brilliant light
and in my flow, and it’s April. We made it.

Shedding Light on the Working Forest Image

Loggers at Sunrise, 2006, Oil on panel 12” x 16”, Collection of Herb and Simin Allison.

Joe Gilkerson, 47, human resources, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Decades gone from the header, or logging landing, and the family business, Gilkerson portrays his father, the twelve-to-eighteen-hours-a-day logging contractor, Bruce V. Gilkerson, who taught him to grapple with life.

Loggers at Sunrise

When I first saw this I got a lump in my throat
because that’s my dad’s spitting image.
The guy in the green hard hat: that’s my dad.
A little white speck in his hand, that’s a Camel.

The gentleman with his back to us
is sharpening the saws.
From the look of the smoke,
they probably just gave the truck a shot of ether.

Those early cold mornings—
I’ve been to twenty-two different countries.
I’ll tell you, to this day,
when it’s cold out and I smell that
diesel exhaust, immediately, I feel that
I’m back on the header again.

Shedding Light on the Working Forest Image

Harvesting Red Osier, 2015, Oil on panel 12” x 18”

Judy Dow, 61, Abenaki ethno-botanist, artisan, educator, Essex, Vermont

Weaving together the skills and stories of her ancestors, their intimacy with the gifts of the land, and their oppression in the name of “social improvement,” Dow educates new generations.

Harvesting Red Osier

When the sap is running in the maples,
harvest red osier and it retains the color.
Before gathering, I always leave
tobacco to thank the plant.
My fingers have memories.
My fingers are used to handling plants
and being on the land.
When I’m trying to figure out
what to use for a basket—
I want each one to be different—
the only way is to touch the plant,
to hold it, to use it.

Native people weave two baskets
and bury one as a gift to the red osier.
All the little shoots will eventually grow
into another plant to harvest
when you return.

Red osier makes beautiful dream catchers.
You can bend and shape it anyway you want.
Hang one over your bed or your baby’s crib.
The night air is full of dreams.
The webbing catches all of them.
Bad dreams fly away with the morning sun
and the good dreams flow down through
the feather at the center to the sleeper below.

In the woods, you’re walking through
communities. You want to stop and visit
the berries or mushrooms
on the way to the ash or the willow.

I love how the chickadees lead
and follow you. At first, there are dees
sending the message for danger,
and then they are curious and they play.
They flit ahead of you.
They are good medicine birds.
They make you laugh.

Shedding Light on the Working Forest Image

Wood Chip Power Plant, 2009, Oil on panel 12” x 21.5”, Collection of Eadie and Chuck Templin.

Chris Olson, 53, forester, father, husband

Middlebury, Vermont As a child growing up in the “concrete canyons” of Detroit and Rochester, New York, Olson found his calling during free-range summers among his grandparents’ friends in the woods of rural Wisconsin.

Chip Delivery

At the biomass plant in Middlebury, they know
how many B.T.U.s they need to run that school.
They can count the barrels, the tens of thousands
of gallons they displace every year.

I picture, Justin and Jason Lathrop, for instance,
at the stump with either this Dr. Seuss-like machine,
or with a chainsaw, making decisions about whether
this organism, this plant, a hundred-fifty, ninety,
forty years old, whatever, is going to end up being
cut to making a B.T.U.

I hope and want to believe that not going to Iraq
to get another barrel of number six crude,
or to the tar sands of Alberta, and instead,
to go from some dorm room, backwards
to that biomass plant, then out down the road
with a truck driven by a kid who went to high school
right around here, back to a woodlot up in Lincoln,
to me, I am hopeful that it’s a really good idea,
compared to the alternative.

I think people working in woods
who tip trees over are architects of this structure
that has come from way before them,
and they are building something.
They may have no idea what the outcome might be,
because of the timeframe.

You can count on this bunch of people to be practical.
If I had to choose in dire emergencies, I would be around
people who can function under duress, because
if you spend time in the cab of that feller-buncher,
six hours, longer maybe, making decisions every split second,
with these huge trees attached to the ground,
and he’s going to set them free,
that’s the kind of person I want to be around
when things go awry.

They’re practical. They have solutions.
They solve problems all the time: broken parts,
sick employees, the list goes on and on and on.

If those guys win megabucks, think they’re going to stop?
They’ll get some new equipment, maybe repaint the kitchen.
You have to be a very special person to carry on.

When was the last time a sawmill opened
in a new location by a new person?
Who would do that?

                         ♦♦♦

Can’t see the show in person? The full color, 72-page show catalogue includes reproductions of 20 paintings and drawings by Kathleen Kolb, nine narratives and three poems by Verandah Porche, and essays by Dave Mance III and Debbie Hagan. You can purchase a copy through the artists’ website, or through the Northern Woodlands shop.

 
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