Neuron Culture

Renz.JPG

my fiddle, trying to get atop a Beethoven Trio

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The last month or so I’ve been pondering what to photograph, as I walk around town, to convey the disturbing wierdness of the weather we’ve had these last months in Vermont. I live in Montpelier, which is the nation’s smallest state capital and generally one of its coldest. (Also the only one without a MacDonald’s). It’s should be damn cold here by now — it should have been cold weeks ago — but we’ve had four months of autumn. Too many ways to count it. Take your pick:

• First frost usually falls September 1. This year it came well into October, and we’ve have few deep ones since.

• December highs usually run teens to mid-20s. All but a few have run into the 30s or 40s, and we’ve had no day where it didn’t break 20.

• Soil here is usually too hard to dig by November and typically freezes 3 to 4 feet deep by February. Today, December 17th, I easily dug in my yard to move a few stepping stones around.

• By this time of year we’ve usually had one to three major snowstorms and stand knee-deep in town, rib-deep in the mountains. My lawn is green. The only snow in the mountains is what the ski areas are blowing. Total snowfall for November atop Mansfield, our highest peak, was a half-inch. The previous low, way back, was 7 inches.

• No white Christmas this year! The forecast for the next week says 30s and 40s, with some rain.

It’s pleasant but awful. At first people liked it. By mid-November it started to seem wierd. Now it’s scary. Not right, people say. Or kind of creepy, or This is not good, or T’ain’t normal (a “real,” i.e., native, Vermonter) or This is fucked up, Dad. We ever gonna get to ski again? (my 16-year-old son).

I imagine there are people who would caution me against assuming this is global warming. I’m having none of it. A week of mild weather in November or December, fine. Can happen. But a November and a December that look like October? (And April looked like May. Late May.) Nope. This is the real deal here. The game has started, here, at least, there’s no fooling yourself otherwise. It’s as if nighttime came and it didn’t’ get dark.

A hopeful glimmer came a week ago, when it snowed pretty fair one day and then off and on through the night. Next morning, I knew before I pulled the shade, from the light coming around its edges, that we had snow, and I felt the pleasure right through me when indeed it was there; snow on the ground, chickadees at the feeder.

That was a Thursday. The snow held till Saturday, when I drove with my wife and the two younger kids, 4 and 2, to Middlebury for the day, a 75-minute trip down along the eastern flank of the Green Mountains and then up the Appalachia Gap, a steep, snaky route, to notch the Greens and go down the west side to Middlebury. The mountains up toward the Gap held a couple feet, pure in its whiteness, pasted and piled on the gnarled trees up there. Everything had that good wild frozen look. Lke you’d pay, mister — you could die — if you made a mistake up there.

I’d never been so happy to see winter. As if I’d been away a long long time and come back and here was not just the landscape I loved but, soon, old friends.

At least I thought it had come. It left the next day and hasn’t returned and shows no signs of doing so unless you count the word January on the next calendar page. It’ll come then, I suppose; no way we getting through January without freezing ass. But my joy at seeing this landscape wintryfied — the deep wildness of those snowblasted trees, the steep severity of the high passes, the blackness of the streams where they cut through the snow — made clear that a change that some insist even now is subtle, theoretical, or even nonexistent has indeed come, and that it is destroying places and relations and even whole cultures that I love.

How to enumerate these coming losses? Where to start?

Start with the Vermont winter — a singular beauty, a cleansing, racking torture (I get woefully depressed every February), a purity otherwise unattained, ‘least in my life.

Add the Northern Forest, these woods of maple and fir, spruce and birch, oak and hemlock, and the shockingly vibrant, horridly overlooked society and culture there, which I came to know and love while writing a book more than a decade ago, in a time when we thought that the whole beautiful landscape was doomed by other, more proximate and reversible forms of stupidity.

Add the ocean, another fantastically enmeshed world of nature and people that I came to love by writing about it, now doomed, if we give credence (I do) to Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent New Yorker article, to a slow, sure poisoning that will destroy the ocean life we know far more thoroughly and completely from the bottom up than will the top-down overfishing that another recent report said would wipe out all seafood by 2050.

Strange that the mildest fall and early winter I’ve ever known here, so pleasant to walk and work in — What am I doing doing yard work in December? — forces this loss upon me. I go to the garden shed to get my shovel and garden rake. The going through the shed is easy, for I moved the bikes to the basement weeks ago — a mid-November ritual, that — but I see in dismay, like a tool from an old vocation, the skis I brought up to take their place, leaning now unused in a corner.

All this explains, somehow, this picture of my violin. It’s not a particularly distinguished instrument. It had suffered a few dings and mars before I got it, which perhaps made it affordable, and it’s made by an obscure maker named Walter Renz. But it’s old, and it’s from a good music town (Leipzig, 1892, says Renz’s yellowed label inside the f-hole), and I like its warm, robust sound and the way it sings on the high notes if you bow it just so.

Finally, I like especially that this, like almost all fiddles, was constructed — cut, planed, shaved, bent, gouged, scraped, notched, purfled, glued, varnished — primarily from two woods that dominate the forests of New England as well as of Scandinavia. Maple for the back, spruce for the belly. Guarneri and Stradivarius inherited that formula old.

I learned it just as I was coming to love both the violin and the northern New England forest and its culture, and learning it, I see now, forever entwined the two loves. Was a logger who pointed it out to me — Larry Moffatt, an overzealous harvester whom I came to know when he’d gotten bady overextended and gone bankrupt. We talked at his kitchen table in far northern Vermont just as he was, as he described, climbing out of a depression that followed his banktrupcy. He made coffee, and as we sat down to talk he punched a button on a cassette player on the kitchen table that had been playing Waylon Jennings. Watching his forefinger stab the button, I noticed next to the cassette player a biography of Stradivarius.

“Interesting guy,” Larry said, when I asked about it, and went on to tell me how interested he himself was to find that Stradivarius and the other Cremona greats used the same woods, roughly, that Larry spent much of his time cutting down in Vermont, and that were in the Vermont-made fiddles he himself had learned on growing up.

Larry’s still around; he’s done a couple more less radical boom-bust cycles since then. The woods, despite Larry’s efforts and the deadlier, more lasting assaults made by the vacation-home industry, are still here, too, beat up but vital, not so unlike Larry himself.

They won’t be around much longer. Was a time I thought Larry and second-homers would do them in. But it’s clear they won’t have too. When I gave talks on these forests I used to warn that if we didn’t curtail cutting and construction we’d soon make Vermont look like Connecticut. Hasn’t happened yet, but we’ll soon be living in some bastardized mutation of Connecticut weather, or New Jersey’s. I’ve been those places, and they’re not so bad, but they’re not here. They will be. Where they’ll put Larry, the spruce, the maple, and the black streams that run through snow, I’ve no idea.

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Comments

  1. #1 cleek
    December 18, 2006

    black streams, chickadees at the feeder, knee-deep snow. ah… great images.

    i’m originally from the Glens Falls (NY) area, so i know that weather very well. for the last ten years, though, i’ve been in NC. and, while 70+ deg in December is nice for driving around in the convertible, deep down it feels wrong. i miss the snow, and i can count the days where it’s snowed and stuck, in the last ten years, on one hand. we’re setting records down here for high temperatures, these days… as i suppose you are, up there.

  2. #2 Katherine Sharpe
    December 19, 2006

    Hear, hear. I’m in New York City, of course, and I grew up in Northern Virginia, far from the rarefied north woods. Still, it’s really, disturbingly warm here, and it’s on everybody’s mind. I hear strangers conversing about it while I walk down the street: “it just feels wrong,” they say. I think back to my childhood and what this time of year felt like, and while it rarely snowed before Christmas while I was growing up, there were things then that I feel I haven’t experienced in a while, like the hard texture of the ground when frozen, or, as you reminded me, chickadees at the feeder. My roommate keeps saying that at least it isn’t cold out, she doesn’t like the cold, and I get her, it’s convenient for tooling around town and doing the Christmas shopping and all that, but I think you put it best: “It’s pleasant but awful.” Thank you.

  3. #3 Sarah
    December 22, 2006

    The running joke in Reno, as we wandered around last week in short-sleeved shirts, was “Boy, good thing global warming is a myth.”