The free academy and an art museum

Helped by the style of its Second Empire mansard roof, the high ceilings of the parlor and halls are an opportunity to do justice to large landscape prints in my ca 1862 home in Stafford Springs. (see previous post) That’s an appropriate time frame too for I like my art to be wide open in understanding its precedents, especially the Hudson River School, America’s home-grown visual definition of a unique heritage. Amidst the portrayal of a sublime wilderness we see a pasture, cows, a cabin, a mill, perhaps the turret of a Victorian mansion. From the watershed at the Massachusetts state line, the Middle River becomes the Willimantic in the center of town, and recently I had occasion to leisurely drive state road #32 south along the river, further where it joins the Natchaug to form the Shetucket, continuing and then over a height of land to the Nantic River only to again meet up with the Shetucket at the headwaters of the Thames River, an estuary to Long Island Sound. Norwich Free Academy was founded in 1854 as privately endowed to be independent of political pressure and including the betterment of youth from the surrounding towns. The associated 1886 Slater Memorial Museum, a gift from a resident scion of  “The Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution”, now the historic site in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, also provides art classes. A new multi-story glass atrium allows close eyeball of the magnificent Richardsonian Romanesque building. I was there to deliver a couple framed prints for consideration in their 72nd Annual Connecticut Artists Exhibition. But the really special treat I found in one of the upper galleries, wonderful works by a second generation local member of that esteemed School of artists, John Denison Crocker. I did not know him. Mills fit comfortably within a bucolic panorama of the port and rolling hillsides. Especially enthralling was The Capture of Miantonomo, painted in 1847, and a bequest of William A. Slater.

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Slater Memorial Museum

The Thames had been known as the Pequot River, but after the 1636 war, the defeated remnant of the tribe no longer had control as frictions rose between the now neighboring Narragansett and Mohegan. Both enemies of the dominant Pequots they had allied in that war with the English in Boston. But the Puritans had been welcomed to some Mohegan lands along the Connecticut, whereas the Narragansett had friendly relations with Roger Williams of Providence Plantations whose beliefs in religious tolerance and Native rights were an anathema. In July of 1643, when the Sachem Uncas got word of Sachem Miantonomo’s secret approach on the Mohegan Fort Shantok he met him instead on the “Sachem Plains” west of the Shetucket. A surprise attack split the Narragansetts, some escaped by immediately forging the river, while others including Miantonomo were first pursued west toward Nantic Falls gorge. Now, while how and whoever actually leapt over the gorge, or fell, depends on the version of the story being told, the chase continued, Miantonomo was captured and brought to Hartford to await the disposition of the English. It happened that the United Colonies of New England, excluding Providence, were actually holding their first meeting, and without any examination of the allegations precipitating the confrontation, the decision was that Uncas could not be safe with Miantonomo alive so they ordered that he be killed on Mohegan lands, also ensuring the two powerful tribes would never unite against them. Miantonomo was buried on Sachem’s Plain at the place traditionally where he had been captured.

Today there’s a small monument erected in 1841 to Mianomoto almost lost on Elijah Street near the Shetucket in the middle of a small mid-twentieth century neighborhood perhaps near to where he is buried, but not far from what is now Unca’s Leap at the Yantic Falls and a more impressive obelisk to Uncas found nearby on Sachem Street. Here at the head of the estuary Norwich is seeking proposals funded by a state brownfield initiative for environmental and archeological study of the falls, the leap, and some granite and brick mills from their gilded age. The Mohegan Sun Casino is a few miles south on the Thames with the Mashantucket Pequot’s Foxwoods not far to the east. The CT/RI state line follows roughly the former extent of the Narragansett domain.

I hope those with a larger stake can appreciate this novice attempt at relevance, and thank you Slater for including Goldenrod from my Reimagine New England suite in the Connecticut exhibition. The museum truly is “a local gem” with an ambiance of Victorian sensibilities.

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Parlor Gallery

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And here we are, across Furnace Brook from downtown then a couple blocks, very soon Westford Avenue will turn to woods and country as you climb out of the valley. The house was built in 1864. The tree trimmer for the power company tells me the elm appears quite healthy. The print studio will participate in Artists’ Open Studios of Northeast CT (oasct.org) on November 27, 28, 29 and December 5, 6 along with 91 others in the Quiet Corner, including five in Stafford Springs alone. Welcome.

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View of Stafford Springs

staffordsprings

lithograph by O.H. Bailey & Co. Boston 1878

Oakley Hoopes Bailey was one of the most prolific artists producing “bird’s-eye views” following the Civil War and into the early 20th century, their popularity testament to a civic pride of confidence in industry and urbanization. The optimism of era shows too in the increasing intricacy and frill of the detail in its Victorian architecture whether mill builder’s mansion, the manager’s duplex, or a worker’s boarding house, and the propriety of a Main Street business with the owner’s substantial home all within a walking distance. The scene is active, with riders, carriages, and pedestrians on what appears to be streets and avenues recently lined with young elm trees.

This town in very real ways is still much as you see. Some buildings have been replaced, and things have filled in, some may have lost much of their detail, but an eye opening number have not, and although usage has changed some, overwhelmingly the feeling is residential. Some mills remain active manufacturers, and one continues to produce a fine woolen cloth. It’s not all pretty, there’s unused and underutilized space, yet a number of newer businesses set aside some of their space to show art. Now that’s pretty!

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The Olde Connecticut Path

In 1633 John Oldham with his adventurers went to Wethersfield. In 1635 Rev. John Wareham led his Dorchester congregation to Windsor. In 1636, Rev. Thomas Hooker and the Newtown (Cambridge) congregation migrated to Hartford at the invitation of local tribes. The attraction was the fertile meadowes of the Connecticut River, and beaver. Locals hoped to find safety in alliance against their enemies in the disruptions following Anglo and Dutch settlement.

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today the northeastern “Quiet Corner”- Connecticut Society of Colonial Dames pub. 1930

Interior settlement had only followed rivers at this time and there was genuine fear of the dense wilderness of rugged hills with frequent water encumbrances. Likely with guides they would have followed a flexible network of Native trails to accommodate the season, weather and topography, as well as the nature of the traveling party. Only after the defeat of King Phillips War did pioneers slowly find their opportunity here, and stay – a beaver meadow, a mill seat, timber, clearing farmland. Yet before many decades passed, with further westward migration, railroads and industry a draw to the large valleys, and especially after the Civil War, population began to decline, the forests returned, and the Olde Path faded into memory. Parts became today’s roads. Farms that remained didn’t grow large, more they adapt.

And so, here in my explorations of the borderlands, I’m surprised to see so many small landscapes of mature hardwood forest as fine as anywhere in New England. Seems too there’s appreciation for the value of a renewable resource. So close to the cities.

Wildlands and Woodlands

MassConn Sustainable Forest Partnership

Yale School Forests Woodland Partnership

Hull Forest Products Woodland Conservation

 

 

Jason Newton’s YouTube video “Old Connecticut Path: Crossing the Great Wall of Westford & Mt. Hope Valley – Ashford/Westford” shows the line in the center of this satellite shot is a massive stone perhaps bridal path of the Olde Path built upon what could have been a beaver dam. His extensive on the ground research is reflective of his family history.

Now seems I could have made that olde journey too, even possibly a path by way of Hopatcong NJ! But that would take 15 years or more to travel.

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The Last Green Valley

Tonight I sit under a starry sky and lose myself. It’s quiet. The awe of scale and distance. How long has it been since I felt this human, here, in the midst of the coastal megalopolis? Vaguely, the near dim ridge marks a boundary for the Last Green Valley  –  a small global dark spot between Boston/Providence and Hartford/New York.

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The Last Green Valley is a National Heritage Corridor for the Quinebog and Shetucket Rivers with the abrupt hills of their watersheds. Two and a half million people live closer than a three hour drive. Below me I can hear Baker Brook still fresh with spring run-off that’ll join the Willimantic just down the street to enhance the health of Long Island Sound.

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About Place Journal

Irish poet Seamus Cashman, founder of the literary publishing house Wolfhound Press, has included a selection of images and poems from Reimagine New England in “Peaks & Valleys”, the latest issue of About Place Journal, online magazine of the Black Earth Institute.

“Until recent times, art expressed grander values than commerce and celebrity. Delphic oracle, Celtic bard, African griot, aboriginal orator: all used word and movement, color and craft, to bring wisdom from the spiritual realm to their communities. All expressed connection between humanity and something beyond humanity, through their art…

Black Earth Institute supports the artist as prophet and visionary who helps create a society attuned to earth’s rhythms and to the rights of all people.”

I’d like to thank Seamus for his kindnesses, I greatly appreciate the inclusion, and happily support Black Earth’s important contribution toward a healthier planet.

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Sandy and the Blocked High

“In the moment of place, time is both a past remembered and the future’s constant becoming. With immersion, the sun’s a clock, so too when photographing New England I avoided the suffocation of placing four room corners around my head each night. It’s an instinctive way to decide where to go and what to look for, and even as that strangely became more difficult, I could feel a first intimidation of climate change.”

And that was more than 15 years ago.

Now that Associate v. – the Gallery at Lake Hopatcong is up and running again it’s no longer a mere intimidation. And that the four corners held is appreciated.

Inuit

Oh, some thirty years ago I decided to retrace the Vikings’ trail north from my home near Cape Cod. A ferry here, a ferry there, then a week-long coastal steamer delivering supplies up the coast to Nain provided a platform to photograph an endless parade of icebergs floating south on the cold Labrador current. The coast more resembled the alpine zone of Mt. Washington. Appalachian terminus. Cool. Inuit people added to the sense of enduring place. As there was no way to continue without private charter I stayed a while in an exposed camp a respectful distance from the settlement with limitless view of sea and peak, until the colors, waves, and folds of an aurora filled the entire sky to warn that winter comes quickly. And then a not so coincidental visit from an elder who with small English allowed me to volunteer just what I had in mind.

Northern hemisphere weather and storms are shaped by the fluctuations of the jet stream’s ridges and troughs. In the region of that camp formation of the Greenland high is usual. What may be unusual is that in October of this year a giant high pressure ridge stubbornly parked itself there instead of moving along. Research by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers indicates that may be related to the unprecedented Arctic sea ice loss this year – half the size of the U.S. As solar heat absorbing open water instead of the reflective white helps draw the jet stream north increased amplitude slows the waves down. Have you noticed that bad weather seems to hang on for days now, rather than the old if you don’t like it just wait a minute? I believe the research.

Not long after the trip to Labrador I decided to go to Hudson’s Bay to see where the dangerous deep freeze that follows a winter front comes from to blast the northwest elevations of the Presidentials. A train, another, and even the Polar Bear Express over the black spruce taiga of the vast low Canadian shield to Moosonee, Great Muskeg of the Cree, then a rented canoe down the Moose River provided a James Bay view north to the Hudson. If you like, click the Baie James Bay link to the right.

Sandy

The jet stream can farther steer that Hudson cold to a Florida citrus frost. Climate change is about extremes. A fall tropical depression is not unusual but the energy of warm seas can help draw its strength northward. Sea temperatures off the East Coast were the highest on record this year. When I saw a map showing a thin band in red nine degrees warmer off the Jersey shore, I thought uh-oh. We saw the lowest pressure ever recorded and a storm approaching a thousand miles wide! And that Greenland high just sat there blocking the usual escape to wither somewhere over the Atlantic on the way to England. Now add the energy of the Arctic air jet stream dip to the west, an early season nor’easter, and the new hybrid storm hooked a wicked left to cream the coast. Pretty perfect from Sandy’s point of view.

Lake Hopatcong

The Highlands are well-rounded remnants of an ancient range, even older than the Appalachians. Lake Hopatcong, once “Jewel of the Highlands” is the state’s largest lake. At an elevation of nearly 1000 feet it had once served as a water source for the Morris Canal linking the Hudson to the Delaware. Hotel grounds of the turn of the twentieth century were developed into the camps now homes in the twenty-first. A wind rising hundreds of miles offshore coming up the Atlantic piedmont would gather a bit again over the lake to run smack into Brooklin Mountain crowding its west shore. We did pretty well until about 7 PM. After hours of the roaring whoosh there seemed almost a pause followed by an impact you could more feel than hear beneath the din. Perhaps a slight change in wind direction. The lights went out. We benefit in the summer shade of a mature canopy and the next day’s inspection showed most trees had fallen in the same direction. The contours rising from the lake often funneled a swath of destruction. A lot of oak down but the ash seemed particularly vulnerable. The thin soils of the ledge don’t help, but too often more a small rootball was revealed rather than the raised platform. Salt? Trunks of near two foot diameter violently broken might reveal a hollow rotten core. Our streets are densely packed, in fact they’re named Trails, and the 50 year old, now over-loaded utility poles easily snap. The wind hit like a bomb. I would estimate up to 25% tree loss and close to that for the poles. With wires the streets were all impassable, sometimes the skeletons of cross-barred pole tops suspended just above the road. It was remarkable that more of the trees had not fallen on houses. Thankfully, there were no deaths locally. And the 85 foot Norway spruce in the back yard, a probable gift of the hotel era, survived if with major thinning.

The deep pull of arctic air to the west yet managed to bring in a few inches of snow to add to the cold misery. But as you understand, neighbors helped each other out, a lot, and with the comfort of my wood stove too, we got through the rest. Get used to it? A new normal? A Halloween snowstorm last year before trees lost their foliage brought power outage. A shattering ice storm crash behind the house took out 5 poles October a couple years before that. No, this is only the beginning. Tornados, floods, the drought, forest fires around the country this year too. Damage estimates for Sandy maybe $50 billion.

So how do you like your global warming now?

Reimagine.

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