The Bridge of Flowers

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A unique attraction blooms in the northwest corner of Massachusetts.

You can get there from here, via I-91 or the Mohawk Trail section of Route 2, but back roads are best for traveling to Shelburne Falls and Buckland, western Massachusetts towns that bracket the beautiful Deerfield River. The secondary roads, the “blue highways” that William Least Moon paid tribute to in his memorable book, and the older, more rustic byways (backer? backier? roads) are especially lovely in fall.

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They weave through shadowy, golden-leafed forests, then bring you out into wide open views of fields and color-saturated hills and valleys.

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Once you reach one of the two towns, you have another choice: Cross the river by the picturesque girder bridge or, far better, stroll across the Bridge of Flowers.

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Built in 1908 to carry trolleys and freight cars, the 400-foot-long bridge now supports a garden and a steady stream of visitors during the growing season.

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Even in October, the show goes on. Lots of dahlias, big, beautiful ones, have come into their own, along with other perennials that peak toward the end of the flowering season—ruddy sedum, pale pink Japanese anemones, purple asters—as well as hydrangea and beautyberry shrubs (the color of the latter’s tiny, round berries are what Crayola called “orchid,” when I was a kid).

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Luminescent blue-lavender ageratum, Asian garden celosia (above), and fellow summer-blooming annuals are still performing, while the ferns shading to pale yellow extend the wide span of colors and textures and add a wistful, romantic note.

 

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Almost as remarkable as the garden itself is the fact that it’s been growing for 91 years. Two gardeners and dozens of volunteers—the “Blossom Brigade”—plant, prune, trim, weed, deadhead, and otherwise encourage things along from April 1 to October 30. In a video on its website, a volunteer says, “Nobody knows how much work goes into it,” but anyone who gardens surely knows a lot of work goes into it. There’s also a Bridge of Flowers committee, which oversees the organization that oversees the garden, and a number of local businesses, potters and lawyers, landscapers and banks, contribute funds and services. On the day I visited, even butterflies, bees, and other pollinators were doing their part.

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One could say it takes two villages to maintain such a wonderful attraction as the Bridge of Flowers, but I suspect it’s a two-way street: the bridge is a source of pride and community spirit and good for business. The downtowns of both Shelburne Falls and Buckland are charming. Year-round, they offer plenty of appealing places to eat, drink, have coffee, buy crafts, browse books, and otherwise entertain yourself.

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The Skinner Museum and the Collector Behind It

What possesses someone to acquire thousands of possessions?

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Joseph Allen Skinner (1862–1946) was an omnivorous collector. Over the course of a life that began during the Civil War and ended after World War II, he acquired thousands of things. Fossils, seashells, pewter, woodenware, suits of armor, carpentry tools, Native American artifacts, birds’ eggs, furniture, clocks, musical instruments, a blunderbuss, a carving of Father Time, a dugout canoe, a meteorite, and a coco de mer (an unusual coconut variety) all found their way to him, or, rather, he found his way to them.

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He even saved a piece of his wedding cake from 1887, which, along with the articles mentioned above and hundreds more, is on display at the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

 

A lifetime resident of western Massachusetts, Skinner was a benefactor of Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, and the Skinner Museum, housed in a former church just down the street, is operated by the college’s art museum.

The church was collected, too. The classic 19th-century Congregational meeting house originally stood in Prescott, 20 miles away. Skinner had it taken down piece by piece and moved before the town was razed to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir in 1929.

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The Skinner is a well-maintained, orderly place, but its high-ceilinged, open, unfinished interior and the seemingly miscellaneous contents reminded me of those mostly bygone businesses in coastal Maine and other parts of rural New England, barns stocked with antiques, almost antiques, and postcards, paintings, garden ornaments, old signs…

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I like museums like the Skinner just because of the disparate, idiosyncratic nature of their contents. Cheek by jowl are the specimens of a treasure hunt, and aside from enjoying the treasures themselves, I wonder what quality—charm, grace, historical significance—deemed them collectable? And I wondered who Skinner was and what possessed him to acquire so many possessions; altogether the collection includes nearly 7,000 objects. So this story shifted from being about my fascination with cabinets of curiosity to being about the curiosity behind them.

 

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By Googling, I collected basic facts about Skinner. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale in 1883, which suggests he had an inquiring intellect. Yet although that course of studies could be rigorous, it was also considered preparation for a commercial manufacturing career, which Skinner duly embarked upon as the son of an industrialist who made a fortune weaving silk into satin. (A Skinner fabric sample is in that monumental cabinet of curiosities, the Smithsonian.)

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His older brother, William, served as company president and ran the New York sales headquarters; Joseph A. stayed close to home as “active manager of the mill at Holyoke,” according to a 1911 story in the trade publication Silk. The article stated the factory occupied more than five acres of floor space: “the largest silk mill in the world.”  Documentary photographer Lewis Hine, whose earlier, wrenching portraits of child workers led to labor-law reform, took the 1936 picture of the vast factory, above, for the WPA.

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At age 24, Joseph married Martha Clement Hubbard, a Phi Beta Kappa Vassar graduate, and they had four children. He was superintendent of the Grace Church Sunday school for 20 years and donated land for a state park. With his daughter Elizabeth he traveled extensively—there are pictures of him astride an elephant in India and a camel in Egypt—collecting as he went.

 

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In photographs of the Skinner factory, the workplace appears immaculate, the workers full-grown, well-dressed, well-fed. No doubt things were gussied up before the shoots, but these are not typical, poignant Lewis Hine pictures. (To get his damning shots, Hine often had to use subterfuge.)

According to the New England Travels blog, “During the Depression, Joseph Skinner donated fresh milk from his South Hadley dairy farm to the Holyoke center for welfare distribution, and produce from the farm was sold at cost to his employees. A worker would place his order at the mill, and on the next day a truck would deliver fresh milk and vegetables to his door.”

 

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The profile that emerged, then, was of a son of an emigrant Englishman and self-made man, a wealthy New England capitalist in his own right, a benevolent person from a family inclined to benevolent acts. (After World War I, his sister Belle, one of his six siblings, financed the rebuilding of a destroyed French village.)

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IMG_8511After accumulating these bits and pieces, I still felt I was just skirting the edges of his personality. My search reminded me how difficult it is to know anyone’s motivations, much less those of somebody dead for nearly three quarters of a century. Then I looked once again at photographs of the Mill River flood and had a flash of insight.

 

On May 16, 1874, just a few days before Joseph Skinner’s 12th birthday, the Mill River dam broke, sending a raging, towering wave of water downstream, that in an hour destroyed the village of Skinnerville, including Skinner père’s first mill, in Haydenville, Massachusetts.

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Detail, Knowlton Brothers, “Wm. Skinner’s House,” Forbes Library Digital Gallery
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Detail, “Mill River Disaster, Haydenville,” Forbes Library Digital Gallery.

The flood killed 139 people. Skinner’s family escaped. Their house was damaged but salvagable. Joseph’s father relocated it, his business, and his family to Holyoke.

 

I went looking for letters. In the archives at Wistariahurst, once the Skinner family home and now a museum, I found them. On May 10, six days before the flood, Joseph had written one in his careful, childish hand that talked about making a “prety may basket.” Although there were numerous manila folders holding more of his letters, none talked about the disaster that scattered houses like toy blocks, brought his father to near bankruptcy, sent his family fleeing to high ground, and tore apart his world.

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But the next year, in two (rather sparsely punctuated) notes to William, he wrote: “Our class is studying mineralogy and I am getting a collection and I want to know if I can take yours that you got on Mount Holyoke.” And: “I don’t think I have ever told you how many minerals I have I have about 42 that is quite  good for just starting I think, don’t you?” He was “just starting” upon what would be his lifelong pursuit.

So he started, and so he went on. As a young man touring Europe with his brother, Joseph sent home scrupulous reports about what they saw: “a splendid collection of antiquities… Roman relics… old clocks and watches…” The brothers were dutifully following the well-trodden tourist route of the time, yet Joseph comes across as a thoughtful and enthusiastic observer.

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His letters reveal a twenty-something training his eye, honing his taste (the paintings in the National Gallery in London didn’t interest him)­, expanding his store of knowledge—in short, collecting impressions, information, ideas.

Back home, he settled down to being a businessman, family man, pillar of his church. He continued growing his collection. (Five years before his death, he wrote, “I bought some Aztec relics from Aaron Bagg who informs me they were brought out of Mexico, fifty of more years ago. There were eight pieces which look much like Indian pieces, bowls & pitchers.”)

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In doing so, he was like many of his affluent contemporaries who filled their houses with paintings, antiquities, and ancient artifacts.* But I suspect his inner boy had something to do with it, too. He knew how the material world could be swept away like that. It’s tempting to think that the flood he witnessed as a boy was the source of his passion for preserving (including saving a church from inundation) and acquiring a storehouse of old, fragile, homely, elegant, offbeat, and splendid objects.

*Collecting in a Consumer Society, by Russell W. Belk, has fascinating information about the phenomenon of acquiring objects; preview here.

 

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The Joseph Allen Skinner Museum is open May through October, Wednesdays & Sundays, 2-5 p.m., and by appointment year-round.

As part of its mission, Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, Massachusetts, maintains the Archive, a storehouse of information about the family, the city, and the times. It has a wonderful collection of Joseph’s letters, some of which are shown and quoted  here. Wistariahurst also offers tours, lectures, and other activities.

 

 

 

 

Woodstock & Woodstock

The stories of a mega-festival and a tiny cartoon character come together 

He speaks in ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘, with an occasional ?, *, or ♥ thrown in— in fact, he used emojis long before there were cell phones. For a small bird, he has a lot of tall tales and a storied history, having appeared in scores of strips since his debut in 1967.

With his disheveled ‘do, his free-form, high-flying antics, and Zen smile, Woodstock is truly a child of the Sixties, right down to the fact that he’s named for the legendary music festival that drew “half a million strong,” as Joni Mitchell put it, August 15-18, 1969.

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The mellow-yellow fellow in the Peanuts comic strip is the headliner of a yearlong exhibition celebrating both the festival’s 50th and the bird’s christening in 1970 at the Charles M. Schulz Museum (below) in Santa Rosa, California.

 

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On display through March 8, 2020, Peace, Love, and Woodstock is a clever mashup of “Peanuts” comic strips and Woodstock memorabilia, including the famous “Three Days of Peace & Music” poster featuring a another bird—a white dove—perched on the neck of a guitar.

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The designer, Arnold Skolnick, has said that it’s not a true dove. When he was asked to create the poster, he was perched on Shelter Island and drawing local Dumetella carolinensis—gray catbirdsand so the poster avian is a hybrid. In doing some background reading to write about this show, I was surprised to discover that Skolnick lives in Massachusetts, in the next town over from me. I’ve even seen his artwork in local galleries but never tumbled to the fact that he was the artist behind the iconic image. 

 

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But the real star of the show is Woodstock, whose life and times are amply represented in cartoon drawings. He can be seen weathering snowstorms, chilling with Linus, and, of course, hanging with Snoopy.

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According to a post on the museum’s Facebook page, “Charles Schulz employed Snoopy and Woodstock to showcase the complexities of friendship.”

They certainly have a nuanced relationship. Snoopy may be the bird’s BFF (and Beagle Scout leader), but he seems bemused sometimes by Woodstock’s behavior.

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Most of us, though, are just amused.

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In this show and in general, the beautiful Charles M. Schulz Museum does a great job of showcasing the cartoonist’s genius and engaging its visitors. (An Atlantic article quotes Schulz as saying, “A cartoonist is someone who has to draw the same thing every day without repeating himself.”)

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Through simple, deft drawings of kids and a beagle and a bird and accompanying captions, he made rather profound statements. The museum reveals him to be as thoughtful as you would expect. This is how he described the character of Woodstock: “He knows he is very small and inconsequential indeed. It’s a problem we all have. The universe boggles us … Only a certain maturity will make us able to cope.”

Maturity and the human comedy revealed in the humble medium of the comic strip.

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There’s much to see and do in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. In an earlier post, I offered some suggestions of accommodations, restaurants, and attractions.

Peace, Love, and Woodstock runs through March 8, 2020. On August 25, the museum holds Summer of Woodstock Free Day, with free admission, live music, crafts, and more. You can read about it here.

And here’s Joni Mitchell singing “Woodstock.”

 

 

 

 

 

Ferried Away in Scotland

 

What is it about boat crossings that is so transporting?

Scotland is famous for its islands: the Orkneys, the Shetlands, the Faroes, the Inner Hebrides, the Outer Hebrides … with names variously evocative, odd, lilting, charming: Arran, Harris, Bute, Barra, Tiree, Muck, Mull, Mousa, Skye, Shapinsay, Big Scare, Little Scares, Great Cumbrae, Hastur, Koltur, Papa Stour, Eilean Donan, Benbucula. Anyone who likes words will roll these over their tongue like a peaty Scotch whisky, savoring the smoke, the kick, the mouthfeel.

To get to many of them, you take one of my favorite means of travel: the ferry.

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Ferries bring together the breezily romantic and the hard-nosed mechanical. First, the romantic: There you are, submitting to the elements, leaving the land behind, moving out and away and toward all at once, with the proverbial wind in your hair and sun on your face. It’s the stirring stuff of a John Masefield poem: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”

I suppose for people who take a ferry every day, the experience becomes as mundane as any commute, but on holiday, a feeling of escape and freedom comes over you. Look around and you see the shades of emotion, from contentment to exhilaration, that color the expressions of fellow passengers.

 

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On the other hand/the starboard side, ferries are sturdy workhorses, machines made for the long haul. Their engineering is front and center, their surfaces cold, unyielding, durable, impermeable, their inner workings making themselves known as throb underfoot and steady thrust forward. Black, white, green, red: even the colors of ferries tend to be no-nonsense. Maybe in the tropics, there’s a pastel pink version.

And in their own businesslike way, they deliver the romance, transporting you in more ways than one. On a smiling day, you can claim a bare-bones plastic seat on deck and be enveloped and lifted up by pure, glistening, unalloyed light, light that sweeps straight down from the top of the sky, light that polishes the sea’s surface, light that touches the water only to be sent right back up, light refracted by the infinite, infinitesimal drops that pervade coastal air.

The air is a delicious salty broth. The prow slices the waves into lace and crotcheted tendrils of froth fan out behind the stern marking for a moment the route taken.

 

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I don’t know how many times I’ve traveled by ferry from one place to another. I’ve gone from Dieppe, France, to New Haven, England, from San Francisco to Sausalito, from Weehawken, New Jersey, to Manhattan, from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and from Port Clyde, Maine, to the tiny island of Monhegan, among other passages. Sometime I’ll make a list. The pictures above were taken leaving Monhegan and on the Hudson; the one below was taken years ago on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.

 

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My most recent ferry rides were to the Isle of Mull and to Iona, on Scotland’s west coast. We went to Mull from Oban, home of a distillery that makes a highly praised, (not-so) peaty Scotch.

That bright morning, Oban had a bustling air, as if to say, let’s move along, we’ve got a boat to catch. In that atmosphere mingled the briny, musty aromas of fresh lobsters and mussels steaming in what New Englanders call a clam shack. In Oban, it’s the Oban Seafood Hut, down by the ferry dock.

Oban Seafood Hut photo by Faye Wolfe

 

 

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Oban, Scottish Gaelic for “little bay,” also had those big skies and those sharp contrasts of shadow and sunshine that characterize seaside towns.

 

IMG_8110When it was time, big guys in yellow vests started waving cars into the belly of the ferry. If you’re at the head of the line, you can park, head to the deck above, and watch the rest of the queue process, one by one, like sheep into a barn, into the hold. Then the ship’s ramp swings up, the horn blasts, the engines rev up, the waters churn, and like that, the shore is shrinking behind you–one of the great little illusions of travel.

 

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On the Isle of Mull or An t-Eilean Muileach (Isle of Mull in Gaelic), everything was bright, clean, scrubbed—shipshape. Maintaining a ship has to be one of the most demanding forms of housekeeping. As we sailed across the mouth of Loch Linnhe, a member of the crew was painting railings.

 

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On the 45-minute crossing from Oban to Craignure on Mull, people did the things one does on a ferry: sat and stared into space, lifted their faces, eyes closed, to the sun, lifted their cameras, as we steamed past castle ruins and a lighthouse and a four-story rock with saplings growing out of its head like a mop of green hair. Lightly penciled in along the horizon were mountains, including Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest.

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A man calmed his skittish dog. Couples leaned into each other. Lone travelers hung over the railing and watched the water rush up to the side of the boat and fall away.

Unlike most means of travel, on a ferry, you’re able to move around, outside, unless the weather’s very inclement. So that sense of freedom is not just an effect of light and air, it’s real, palpable, and it’s amplified by forward motion through open space, with limitless space above you…

 

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From Tobermory on Mull, we took a winding country road with long “single-track,” or one-lane, stretches to reach the ferry to Iona. The drivers we met showed uncommon courtesy, instantly steering their cars aside when they were nearer the “pull-over place.”

The road ends at the ferry slip in Fionnphort. In the course of checking my facts, I came across a thrillingly indignant letter to The Oban Times that complained about the “absolutely shambolic state of the free car park” there, but the most unorganized sight I saw in Fionnphort was a bunch of sheep moving in stately fashion across the beach.

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DSC01083The Iona crossing was a shorter ride on a smaller boat, but the pleasures were as great. There was time to look behind and ahead and admire the verdigris-colored water.

The shore came toward us in a smooth glide. The sound of the engines faded, the car ramp was lowered to the slipway.

 

This is how transportation by a smaller ferry ends. From the upper deck, you rattle down the steep steel stairs and walk off the boat, feeling sort of the way you do exiting a dark theater into the daylight. Or it could be how it feels to have been a volunteer in a magic show, the one who goes into a big box, disappears, and reappears—or to return from a brief time-traveling jaunt. (Maybe your cross-centuries trip has just begun: Iona has several historic religious sites, including a restored Benedictine abbey, the ruins of a nunnery, and an ancient burial ground.)

Or to put it simply, leaving a ferry, you leave behind your sea legs and come down to earth.

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To read the rest of Masefield’s “Sea Fever,” click here. And See the Sea for an amazing list of terms, many of which you might never guess had nautical origins, including touch and go, rise and shine, hasn’t got a clue, and slush fund).

Santa Rosa Dreamin’

After a long wet spring in New England, I revel in the light and warmth of green Sonoma County.

My last trip to California was a long while ago, and the farthest I went beyond San Francisco was Point Reyes, which is so memorably beautiful, you might feel happy to go no farther. But just up aways is Santa Rosa, in the heart of Sonoma County, well-known for its wineries and natural beauty.

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My route to Santa Rosa took me over the Golden Gate Bridge and through Marin County. I love its bare hills, very green this time of year, especially so because California experienced record rainfall in February.

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In Santa Rosa, I stayed at the Flamingo Resort, the chosen destination for Hollywood names in the Fifties, when Midcentury Modern was just… modern. I really appreciated its low profile and understated design that seemed intended to blend in rather than stick out: two-story buildings partly faced with stone, arranged around an L-shaped pool. Not just for toe-dipping, the pool was enormous.

Minutes away from downtown, the hotel was a peaceful little bucolic enclave, even when children were floating and splashing in the warm water—did I mention the pool was heated?—as a couple in the deeper end practiced their salsa moves. (The photograph below was taken very early in the morning, before the fog had lifted, a time when serious swimmers get in their laps.)

 

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The pool in turn is ringed by lavishly blooming roses, topiary evergreens, and stately, mature trees. My kind of place.

Like so many east-coast gardeners, I am in awe of the lushness and profusion of plants in California, the wild flowers carpeting median strips, birds of paradise sprouting like weeds, geraniums as tall as me, and the palms, of course.

 

I didn’t realize, either, how beautiful the wineries are. If I thought about it at all, I assumed that visiting a winery was all about the wine. As much as I enjoy a fine vintage and learning about the art and the craft of wine-making, I’m no oenophile. (Well, the fact is, I can make a glass of wine last for hours.)

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My foolish. I found out differently on my visit to the  Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens (the name is sort of a tipoff). It not only gives a good pour, but its setting is exquisite.

 

 

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Located in Fulton, just a short drive north of Santa Rosa, the winery has lovely formal plantings immediately surrounding the chateau-like main building.

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Wisteria arbors, rose standards, manicured hedges, a fountain, and more of those booming, stout plants that people in colder climates fuss and fret over to get to grow at all.

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Stretching beyond are row upon row of vines that more or less bracket seven garden areas, including beds with herbs and vegetables, fruit trees, a chicken coop, a beehive, bird boxes (and one for bats), a hops teepee.

Produce grown on the premises often ends up in one of its open-air farm-to-table dinners hosted through the summer. You can sit right next to the source of the figs in your salad. How great is that? Heirloom varieties of tomatoes and beets might crop up in one of the vineyard’s food-and-wine pairings. The gardens supply restaurants in San Francisco, too.

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Kendall-Jackson’s sustainability programs seem very Californian to me, even though I come from a corner of the world 3,000 miles away with farms, restaurants, and consumers that have a similar commitment. Being able to consume good wine and at the same time support a company showing sensitivity to the environment seems like having my cake/wine and eating/drinking it, too.

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It may have to wait until I get back from Scotland, but I plan to write more about Santa Rosa and environs in another blog post.

So. Vermont.

This small natural history museum in the Green Mountains is a rare find.

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On a late winter day, I make my way up twisty-turny Route 9 to the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum in Marlboro, Vermont. Its setting is spectacular: just below the Hogback Mountain peak, perched on the edge of a vertiginous drop.

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The museum entrance is through the Hogback Mountain Gift Shop, past the blueberry jam, maple syrup, and Vermont cheddar—pay your $5 admission at the fudge counter—and down a flight of stairs.

 

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The “hundred-mile view,” as it is known, stretches out beyond the picture windows that run along one side of a sloping hall. Lining the other wall are cases filled with fossils and minerals: dolomite, kaliophilite, chrysoprase, petrified wood, brachiopods…

 

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The museum houses the collection of Luman Ranger Nelson (1874-1966). At various times a barber, Chevrolet salesman, state legislator, and chairman of the New Hampshire State Fish and Game Commission, Nelson pursued his avocation as a taxidermist in his barn in Winchester, New Hampshire.

There were few limits on hunting wild animals when Nelson was collecting specimens, including owls, shorebirds, squirrels, foxes, a boar and a bear, nearly 250 species native to the Northeast in all.

 

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It’s not just stuffed bears: The museum also serves as a home away from home for living creatures. A petite saw-whet owl, a giant snapping turtle, a pair of bald eagles, and a white California king snake are among the inhabitants.

 

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Some were hit by cars or otherwise injured and brought to the museum for rehabilitation. Others were taken from the wild and kept as pets until the novelty faded or the upkeep overwhelmed. None could ever live on its own again.

 

 

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The day I visited the museum, the frozen landscape vibrant with light complemented the frozen-in-time atmosphere. You-can-see-forever vistas outside, artifacts inviting close scrutiny inside.

 

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Varnished wooden display cases and cabinets with a nick here and there, creaky wood floors, and hand-lettered labels lend small, older museums a charm that spectacular newer institutions don’t have and don’t want. (In fact, the Southern Vermont Natural History Museum is quite young; it opened in 1996. But the Nelson collection dates mostly from the 1920s and ’30s, and its almost Victorian quality, combined with the homey setting, makes the place seem of another time.)

 

 

Old-school museums’ mix of modesty, eccentricity, earnestness, innocence, creepiness, and decrepitude disarms me, but aside from what they contain, I also respond to what they signify. De facto “museums of museums,” they represent what earlier generations of curators, collectors, and benefactors thought worthy of preservation and display.

 

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Like some of the creatures on display, these repositories of curiosities are an endangered species, succumbing to contemporary visions of what natural history museums should be. (Amherst College’s Pratt Museum, for instance, located in a Victorian gymnasium, became extinct a few years ago. I love its replacement, the sleek, sparkling Beneski Museum, but I miss the bygone Pratt.)

Newer iterations can be self-consciously outgoing, eagerly interactive, but here, contemporary marketing concepts and strategies for boosting “audience engagement” haven’t penetrated. Fine by me.

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Hand-written labels. Simple explanatory placards. It feels personal, human, guileless.

At the same time, in this type of museum, there’s a touch of the grotesque and the gothic that, frankly, I can’t get enough of.

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The displays exude both innocence and the macabre. Animals that look so nearly alive are at the same time so dead: enclosed, seized-up, starkly lit or lurking in the shadows, posed against a painted backdrop of a bucolic valley with a red barn.

650px-Luman_Ranger_Nelson.JPGIt made me ponder Nelson’s intent. Did he hope to capture the feral spirit of the creatures, or was his aim more didactic, of the “this is a red squirrel” variety? From what I’ve read, he loved the outdoors, nature, animals (and hunting) and gave lectures on the subject of bird migration and the life cycle of mammals. So, both, I think. 

 

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As well as conserving the collections of an earlier time and ethos, the museum is quietly but determinedly making a case for the environment. The Thursday afternoon that I spent at the museum, a friendly, knowledgable docent greeted and talked with kids, parents, and other visitors in a down-to-earth way about the exhibits.

The museum seems to be applying a pretty basic formula that includes a dash of hope: Give people a chance to observe animals close up (dead and alive) and they will appreciate them and care about protecting them.

 

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There’s something a little sad about wild animals in enclosures, even when it saves their lives and serves such a good cause. For me the birds of prey were most poignant. Protected, fed, cared for, loved, even—and treated to a magnificent view of wilderness (such as wilderness is today) that they can never experience beyond the chain link.

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But maybe I’m being sentimental. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Perhaps their attitude is, “Thank God I’m in here and not out there, risking my life every day to catch a measly mouse.” And no question, the six-year-old boy exploring the museum with his parents was tickled to see bald eagles Molly Stark and Stormy.

If I lived nearby, I’d volunteer to tend the pair of ravens, whose look-you-in-the-eye curiosity (probably of the “Do you have something for me to eat?” variety), won my heart immediately.

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Teetering again on the verge of sentimentality, I’d hazard that the Southern Vermont Museum of Natural History encapsulates something very Vermontian. The air of welcome, the lack of pretense, the appreciation of the environment, and the sincere and solid effort that keeps it going all seem in keeping with the innate nature of the state.

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Come summer, I’ll go back to hike the museum’s trails through more than 600 acres of protected land—and for a pint at the Bear Naked Brewery  just above the museum (with a plan to head down that swervy road before dark and definitely under the limit). I’ve heard the potato pancakes by Andrzej’s Polish Kitchen, which also serves kielbasa and galumpkis from a food truck on the brewery premises, are delicious. But after face-to-face encounters with beasts and birds within and possibly beyond the museum’s walls, I might pass on Andrzej’s bigos, translated as “hunter’s stew.”

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