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Archive for January, 2011

Woodchuckery, Anyone?

The time has come to change Groundhog Day to Woodchuck Day, which is celebrated every year on February 2. The popular myth is that if the woodchuck sees its shadow on the second, warm, sunny days will follow. And if the woodchuck does not see its shadow, it will freeze to death. Should have stayed put, hibernating.

The first version of this story appeared in the Stowe Reporter and in my book, Nothing Ever Happens in Colbyville, Vermont

A woodchuck, in the original meaning of the word, is a rodent; marmota monax is its Latin classification. It is also known as a groundhog, marmot and a whistle-pig.

The Vermont woodchuck, animal species, has reddish brown hair, lives in pastures, whistles at the approach of strangers and is a good digger. It lives in dens at the end of tunnels. The woodchuck, a native Vermonter, hibernates from late November to late March and never, in Vermont, appears on Groundhog Day.

A woodchuck can eat a quarter ton of hay a year and that is one reason farmers are prejudiced against the animal. Cows also can break a leg in the woodchuck’s hidey-hole (a woodchuck’s escape route, hidden in the grass. No pile of dirt surrounds the hole.).

The late Boots Cornell of Cabot, Vermont, was the greatest woodchuck hunter the world has ever seen. In his lifetime he killed over 15,000 woodchucks and should be in the Guinness Book of Records. Farmers loved him. He kept a notebook in which he recorded his annual kills.

The Vermont woodchuck, human species, has some similar traits. It prefers to live away from people and would hibernate if it could. The definition, in the past, for a Vermont woodchuck, was a person born in Vermont and it was a term of pride.

The term has been sullied in recent years by flatlanders who have imported themselves into the state with an attitude. They think of woodchucks as rednecks, which displays their ignorance of semantic nuances. A redneck does not have the wit, intelligence, or humor of a woodchuck, and although there are certainly rednecks living in Vermont, many of them are from out-of-state.

There are sub-species of the Vermont woodchuck

Wood Charles are flatlanders with a trust fund or Ivy League education and an affinity for environmentalism. There are also native-born Vermonters who went to the right schools and never worked with their hands and are politically correct. They are referred to as Wood Charley’s.

A glitterchuck is a native Vermonter who is obsessed with money and has a self-entitlement ego. Usually they are real estate agents, developers, contractors or financial advisors who cater to the Wood Charles, who always overspend for land or houses.

A glitterchuck can also be an out-of-stater who dresses like a Vermont woodchuck and is very aggressive in extracting as much money as possible from whoever they come in contact with. They wish they had a trust fund.

There are many women who are glitterchucks but that have always been the case.

The days of woodchuckery are rapidly passing, for the state began mandating Wood Charlesism. For instance, a true woodchuck owned a woodchuckmobile, a vehicle bought for a couple hundred bucks from a junkyard and held together with duct tape until it no longer ran, when it was recycled back to the junkyard for a similar vehicle.

Then auto junkyards were forced to hide their vehicles from the public and state officials, prodded by glitterchucks who ran car dealerships. Wood Charles who became legislators mandated that duct-taped cars could not pass inspection. They did this at about the same time that they outlawed the town dump.

To “woodchuck it” was an honorable way of repairing something so that it worked as long as it did not look pretty. Again duct tape was usually the anecdote to repair lamps that were falling apart, to hold together loose gunstocks, to wrap on heels to prevent blisters with new boots, to close holes around doors and windows.

In many Vermont resort towns, a more aggressive animal has replaced the woodchuck. It is the fisher cat, which feeds on hedgehogs (porcupines), which they eviscerate and eat inside out. They also have a fondness for woodchucks and pet cats. The human species of the fisher cat often runs for local office to manipulate the laws and regulations, particularly in zoning, planning and education. This nasty animal is replacing the woodchuck, esteemed for years as a friendly neighbor who likes to whistle on a fine summer afternoon. So goes the neighborhood.

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The Hing Boys’ Jeep Club Oath

I come from Vermont, I do what I want

I won’t mow my lawn, and you won’t complain

I’ll go fishin’ at night, and walk in the rain

You can call me a woodchuck, I won’t be offended

If my pants have a rip, they will some day be mended

My friends all drive Jeeps and four-wheel drive rigs

They all have long hair and chew on grass twigs

We spend our spare time just driving’ the ground

From here until there, then turn back around

I might chew tobacco or drink a few beers

I really am harmless, don’t have any fears
So give me a wave when you pass by

I’ll probably wave back, I’m that kinda guy

Poem by

Randolph C. Phelps

St. Johnsbury Center, Vermont

Published in Nothing Ever Happens in Colbyville, Vermont

and in the Green Mountain Trading Post

 

 

 

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Steve was our local veterinarian. He lived on the Woodard Farm on Woodard Road, a 100-yard stretch of dirt that ends at the milk house. Waterbury has always been his home.

Steve Woodard’s memorial service was held at Harwood high school’s auditorium. The 600 seats were full and there was standing room only in the back and along the walls. On the left wall, facing the stage, were members of the Harwood hockey team. They had on their game jerseys and listened to their coach David Morse reminisce about Steve’s passion for hockey. Interspersed here and there, in standing room only, were a smattering of  locals, many of them dressed as I was—in wool pants, a raggedy down jacket soiled from outdoor work,  an old pair of Sorel boots with liners, a capilene hood pulled down over my neck. The temperature that Saturday moseyed up and down between 10 and 15 before it dropped to below zero in the evening. Seated were many older couples—the town people. They were shop owners, insurance agents, bankers, craftsmen and some worked for the State of Vermont. Their faces were pale from too much time spent inside, behind a desk or a counter. The farmers, and there are not many left, dressed in black suits and wore skinny ties from a passed era.  Their wives looked as they always do when going out in the public—neat, a bit prim, respectable and with that indescribable aura of women who share farm work with their husbands.  The men’s faces were ruddy, the woman’s were rosy. There were others, in elegant more gentrified clothes, earth color jackets , grey sweaters or well fitted suits. Some had the relaxed dignity of retired folk who had moved from out of state. A few have already traded in their SUVs for eco cars with a hefty price tag. All in all, it was a pluralistic crowd, so typical of this region of Vermont.

Steve was an empirical veterinarian, but he also taught himself homeopathic medicine, using the cows on the family farm to test his prescriptions. The Woodard farm and several others he converted to organic.  He was ahead of his time.

Will Steve be best remembered as a caring vet, or because of passion for hockey? He was a formidable goalie.  He helped create the town’s hockey rink. He coached his children and their friends. To give a youngster a passion to play hockey, to learn to skate, handle the puck, to become part of a team, and to understand strategy and responsibility, to always improve, to give them a top notch rink to play in, my, that is a wonderful gift to pass on.

A foursome of country musicians, friends to the brothers Woodard, played with the purity of clover in bloom. Nancy McDowell sang with such a pure voice. Her last  song was  Bringing The Heifers Back Home.

In closing the minister, David Peterson, hoped that Steve’s life would give all of us more compassion and understanding for one another.

That night I went to bed early and picked up the book I am reading, The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins, a New York Times foreign correspondent.  It is a painful collection of short stories about what happened to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, to American soldiers, and to our countries after we invaded Iraq.  Filkins is a modern day Hemingway, but the stories are factual, the people are real, and the explosions, the killing, the fear, terror, hatred, retribution, destruction, the amorality, the uselessness of it all, the squeezing dry of morality­—it is not fiction. It happened.

I think of Steve, and the cows he treated on our hillside farms…of haying, and of Steve’s brother George, one of the three dairy farmers left in town, and of  Ella and Dee and Val, dogs that were friends of mine which Steve helped, and of the gentle life we have here… Filkins’ stories crush a mass of guilt  on me and my pleasant Vermont life.

Are we a Doctor Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde country?  I pass to a troubled sleep.

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I recently purchased 20 pounds of  True Value Wild Bird Seed. It was inexpensive, about $4.50 a bag. The mix is mostly the color of corn, with small seeds, yellow chips and a scattering of  sunflower.  It is fortified with calcium carbonate, vitamin A and D3 supplement.

The bag states that the product is 8% protein, 3% fat, 6% crude fiber and 12% moisture.

My birds won’t feed on it. I understand that my chickadees prefer black sunflower seeds but in the middle of winter and during this awful recession, you take what’s offered and do a dozy-do.

The bird feeder with the True Value mix has been up for two weeks and is still full. I did spread some seed on the deck for the resident red squirrel and he or she also disdained the offering, and also gave me a scolding.

I have no idea why my friends show such disdain for my food kitchen special.

 

 

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I hear that often and I think that sometimes people are wondering whether I am pulling a General MacArthur. Remember his speech to Congress in 1951 after President Truman canned him?

….”Old soldiers never die, they just fade away…”  He was quoting from an old ballad, and referring to the end of his career.

Well I am faded, a bit.  I’m at home in my garret in Colbyville, this winter trying to stay warm.  Fuel oil and propane are so expensive I keep the thermostats way down. If those who manipulate the fuel prices keep this up, they’ll either break the country (they don’t care), or set off a revolution.

I work 7 days a week and this is what I do or intend to do.

Number one on the agenda is to scan, caption and keyword my photograph database, and then put them online. We (my young assistant Kyle, who is the resident technocrat and also a post modern (or is it conceptual?) photographer, estimates we have  5,000 color transparencies and maybe, with strong editing, 2,000 black and whites.

Why do this? As I already mentioned in this blog, it is the duty of  photojournalists to communicate. My photographs should be seen by this and future generations as a record of  our era…Governor Dean in a tuck skiing like a demon; my rural portraits of farm women and men from Vermont and the Great Plains; the simplicity and candor in the faces of the workers in a wine harvest in Margaux, France; my beautiful Trade Tower photographs from the 1980’s, when we were proud and happy, oh, photos of skiing, hunting, city life, sand storms and Atacama mummies, dead deer and placid cows, the list goes on and on. I hope I can afford to complete it.

But what about books?

Vermont People, is my now classic book on rural Vermonters. I updated it once and through the years sold 15,000 copies and now I am sold out.  I plan to do another edition of the book, with 16 more stories and photographs of  Vermonters. The question is who will buy it and where do I find the money to print it? From time to time I will be placing these portraits and stories on this blog.

Robert Frost’s Vermont. This has been on the back burner for the last 10 years.  I have photographed about a dozen of  his poems—my visual translations of them, of course. And I will write an intro about my experiences following his footsteps in Vermont.

The Vermont Way. Lessons from the rural hillside Vermonters, who have all those qualities our country is losing.

Memorable Photographs. The story behind some of my photographs…that awful night in Portsmouth photographing and talking to women who just lost their husbands when the submarine Thresher went down in 1963; Joe and Fred Tuttle, who I first met and photographed in 1989, before Fred became that off-beat movie star;  my mentor, Yousuf Karsh and Pablo Picasso; a maple tree;  a Vermont farmer cradling his cat (the story involves a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe) and so on.

I’ll put a couple of these photographs and the background text on this blog and ask you all to comment… thumbs up or down?

Money is short for my projects, so I am borrowing on my house to finish the archiving and work on book ideas. As John Wayne said,

“A Man has got to do what a man has to do.”

You think he said that? He didn’t. What he said in the film Stagecoach was…

“Well, there’s some things a man just can’t run away from.”

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How to Make Soup

The era of skinny wallets is demanding many of us cook alone at home. I do, and because of that thin wallet and my fat middle, I stir  up slimming  stews and soups. My style of cooking is sort of … ummm…creative.  The end product depends upon what is, and is not, in the refrigerator or cupboard.

Soup was my latest failure, and success. I cannot name this creation because I don’t know exactly what it became. Here’s the recipe, as I recall.

I had a hankering for potato and leek soup, a vichyssoise, you know, and I was well stocked with leeks, onions and potatoes. I boiled a pot of not too much water and into it I plopped some Ox Bow chicken bouillon cubes and added quartered Yukon gold potatoes which had their skins hacked off  with my old Opinel (French folding knife with a wooden handle. They are made with a metal that rusts easily but can also be sharpened to the quick. I bought it in Chamonix 25 years ago). Also I dumped in a quartered yellow onion and two fat leeks, which, after I cut them up, reminded me of toy white wheels. I shook in Costco’s multiple seasoning, something like Dash, too much Oregano and the last of dried basil. Ground pepper of course.  The soup looked so bland in the pot, just before it bubbled, that, rashly, I threw in the last of the Portobello mushrooms that were on sale for $2.99. Maybe I should raise mushrooms for surely there is more return in that endeavor than photography.

After the leeks and potatoes were soft and mushy, I poured them into the blender, flailed the bejimmies out of it, and dumped it back in the pot.

Tasted it. Awful. It looked awful too. So back into the fridge  I went and pulled out a green bell pepper, cut it to smithereens and put that in the pot. Taste and color was still flat. I had a packet of achiote and cilantro that is a very good seasoning and distributed by Goya, the Spanish company.  I tore open two packets and emptied them into the soup and stirred. The soup was now the color of powdered ferricyanide, or spring thaw road mud tinctured by a vein of leaking iron deposits. More oregano and salt, which I try to use sparingly.

The taste improved but it was still on the blah side. I added spring onions, some smashed garlic, sliced wilted celery which had been in a large glass in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. The soup was up a step in taste but thin and watery. I added cornstarch. Geezus! I thought it was cornmeal! It turned the soup into sludge. Now what? I was a little desperate; on the counter where I massacred the vegetables was a jumble of macerated  skins that had the look of the detritus from a autopsy performed by an absent minded scalpel wielder.

The soup was a failure? Where oh where did the vichyoisse disappear?  So I added a can of Goya Canelloni beans, to give it some heft, poured in a half cup of water and watched it almost boil.  It still had a lackluster taste and sheen. I had one lemon. I reamed out the liquid with a wooden bore that looked like a small version of what Lisbeth Salander used to get back at her rapist in the film  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I messed with it using a wooden spoon I bought  a few weeks before  and tasted it. Better but it still looked like it was crying for help as it contemplated suicide.

I found in the cupboard a large can of plum tomatoes that I bought at Shaw’s, the supermarket I love to hate for its sneaky pricing. I dumped the tomatoes and sauce into a larger pot, let it boil shaking mad and then put it on simmer and used a potato masher to flatten it out. I was squirted in the face with hot tomato sauce. No matter. It was a desperate time.

I dumped the original concoction into the pot with the tomatoes (there wasn’t enough space in the first pot). The color improved to a light burgundy color and the taste? Hmm, passable, as one of A J. Liebling’s girl friends once described the sexual activity of a partner.

I turned off the stove. I threw in some fresh oregano and rosemary that I stripped from the two pots I moved off the deck this past fall, just before the first freeze.

My kitchen is very cold at night as I turn off the heat; propane went up from $1.38 last year to $2.56 a gallon. Those bastards in New York and Texas are still manipulating the futures. So for economy sake, my kitchen, during the night, serves as a cool root cellar and I left the soup on the stove and went to bed. The kitchen looked like a battlefield.

The next morning I checked the outside temperature, which was hovering at 2 degrees. The kitchen was at 50 degrees. I turned up the propane heater and tasted the cold soup. To my surprise, it was not bad.

My assistant Kyle, who is always broke and undernourished, came up and tasted a wooden spoonful. Then he ladled out a bowl, put it in the nuker for a quick zap and slurped it down.

“Peter,” he said, “I think that is the best soup you have ever made!” He calls me a gonzo cook.

“It’s a tomato soup?”

Don’t write for the secret ingredients or what portions to use. I didn’t mention the unmentionables hidden under the surface and what do you mean by portions?

 

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Playing Out the 18th Hole

Today, January 6, 2011, is my 77th birthday. I was born in the Doctor’s Hospital in New York City at 1:45 AM — a Capricorn with Scorpio rising and the moon in Pluto.  I don’t know what to say about astrology now that Pluto has been downgraded to a dwarf planet. I assume that means I too am slightly downgraded.

Like a condemned man with two weeks before the execution, my birthday concentrates the mind. I looked up some statistics in a sense of augury.

If I were Japanese, my average life span is 76.2 years but for a Yank, mine is 72.2 years. The stats say this old guy should be dead by now but, since I made it to age 65, I can expect to live to be 80.3, so I read in the tables. A little more research and I found a reprieve in a Social Security study. As I am now 77, I have been allocated 9.34 years so I will live to the middle of  March, 2021­—I will be extinguished in the 86th year of my life.

I’ve beat the odds, since by father died when he was 51 but then again, he drank himself to oblivion.  However, I too have some problems. The electrical circuits in my heart are screwed up and I have to take rat poison every day to thin my blood. I have a pace maker so that old engine in my chest doesn’t sputter along at one beat for five seconds. And I have a stent that was put in the widow’s artery when it was 95% blocked. I’m lucky in these problems and in surviving close calls. I have a very good guardian angel.

Let’s talk about the economy of my golden years. I have social security that, after medical deductions, comes to  $689 a month. That is my only pension. I own no stocks or bonds, I have no savings, no trust fund, no rich wife and my mother died when she was 82 with $200 in her bank account. She’s a good model to follow.

How do I live? Off my wits. I am a freelance photographer and writer. I have written seven books that can be viewed on my website www.petermillerimages.com. I have thousands of photographs that photo stock agencies have licensed in the past, but new business models and the destruction of the world economy by Wall Street and their banker friends have dropped that income over 60%. Book sales, through stores, have tumbled to a dribble and the chains have killed off many of the independent bookstores and now they are eating each other.

Assignments?  The country is filled with very competent writers and photographers who have been let go by magazines and newspapers. The Congressional Record was looking for a foreign affairs editor and had over 400 applications from very qualified journalists in this field.

I started to sell fine art photographs, or wall art, as it is often called. Two years ago I sold $20,000 of photographs from the Peter Miller Photography Gallery in my Vermont home next to Ben & Jerry’s. This past year it was about $5,000.

And I have over 50 years of photographs I have taken: Paris street scenes and Margaux wine harvest from the 1950’s; 200 Kodachromes of the Word Trade Towers shot from every vantage point in New York  during the 1980’s; the black and white photographs from the now classic coffee table book Vermont People, Vermont Farm Women,  and People of the Great Plains. In the files are color and black and white scenes from the Atacama Desert in Peru to a sand storm in the Sahara and skiing the Haute Route.

How do I reinvent myself? I have created this year two new websites. On www.petermillerimages.com appear  my books and my archives, which have to be scanned, keyworded and put on the web. My portfolio of photographs is on www.petermillerphotography.com. One portfolio mixes text and photographs of Dachau on its 40th year of liberation, a rainy day I spent there that will never be forgotten.

Portions of my book projects and my essays, observations and rants will be on the Peter Miller Vermont blog.

I have a young assistant working full time on this project (“Peter,” said Kyle, “You have three years left to live. We have to finish this work this year!”). And I will need someone to keyword and I too will be captioning, scanning and keywording.            The website is my store, for selling books and photographs, for creating propaganda about myself and to make money. I hope.

To create this archive, I will borrow against my house and assets. Within two years I hope this work is finished and I can sell my house, auction my personal belongs, and leave Vermont that has some of the highest costs in taxes and living expenses in the country.  I might just get in my Air Stream and, with one camera system and a laptop, travel the country.

And is that really my goal? No. At my death I want to leave a complete archive of what I have lived through, so that future generations can understand the culture of our times. My job, all my life, is to communicate through my camera and the written word. My standards were, and are, to be honest and direct.

This is why I am on this planet. I love my children dearly and I have loved women, but in truth, my first love is this intangible ability I have to record life— what I see in a face, what I distill in words from what I see, hear and read. I have minor talent, but I am proud that I used it.

Peter Miller

 

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No doubt about it, 2010 was a hangdog of a depressing year for myself and friends (I don’t know any hedge fund managers or bail-out executives) but this fall I encountered a scenario that gave me hope for our future and spread a happy smile on my face.

I and Kyle, my assistant.  were in Burlington at the Best Buy store, pricing monitors which would display our database of images to clients who visited  the Peter Miller Gallery.  As we headed to the television displays, I saw, coming towards us, a woman with a determined stride and purposeful set to her mouth. In her right hand she held a notebook. She was neither tall nor short. Her eyes were blue and her hair fashioned neatly in a no nonsense style — a dirty blond in her early forties, I would say.  Slightly behind her was a young woman, again with short hair, but fairer. Her face was flushed by the late summer sun and freckles bridged her nose and cheeks. She still had her baby fat.  Obviously, this was mother and daughter. Trailing behind the two was a boy, gangly as a growing teenager of about 14 is, with a slumped-shoulder gait that says to everyone,  “I’m bored out of my skull.” Maybe he was also miffed because, on this day, his sister played the lead.

The young woman was pushing a handcart on which sat a boxed, compact refrigerator, similar to one I had bought earlier for our office. Her eyes were closed, and a very special smile lit up her face. I knew in an instant the destination of that refrigerator; that smile and countenance of her young and pretty face said it all—­She was on her way to college.  No Mom, no Dad, no brother, no groundings.  She’s cutting loose, and oh is she looking forward to it! A curriculum to choose, and so many subjects to learn. Clubs to join, sports to play and boys to kiss.  A room miles from home. A new routine, or no routine and new best friends — a campus brimming with people her age. And parties.

Most of all, this young lady will control her life. She just can’t wait to cross the bridge that will, in all probability, set the course of her destiny. How exciting! She glowed with happiness as she faced her future with that new refrigerator and my spirits and smile soared with her.

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