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review: The Outside Story
by Stephen Morris
Northern New England was the western frontier 200 years ago. The images and lessons of how this place has weathered two centuries of human habitation should hold lessons for places everywhere.
Local is large these days. "Place" is a hip concept. A new compilation from the editors of Northern Woodlands magazine underscores how privileged we are to live in a beautiful and unique corner of the world.
Northern Woodlands Magazine, published from offices in Corinth, Vermont since 1998, produces a bi-monthly blend of deft writing, stunning natural imagery, and muddy-boots practical information on land and forest management. It's one of the few magazines to span the worlds of the logger and poet. I routinely find more to read in a single issue than a year's worth of Newsweeks.
Northern Woodlands, the parent organization, is a non-profit whose mission is to "encourage a culture of forest stewardship in the Northeast by increasing understanding of and appreciation for the natural wonders, economic productivity, and ecological integrity of the region's forests."
The Outside Story is compiled by associate editor Chuck Wooster, who has worked alongside co-founders Stephen Long and Virginia Barlow since the first days of the publication. He has elected a straightforwardly elegant approach to organizing the material: 12 months (starting with January), 6 essays per month, each chapter introduced by the weekly calendar of the natural world from of the pen of Virginia Barlow. Here's a sample of what one can experience in the third week in February (Listen closely):
Acrobatic aerial courtship displays by ravens are underway. Rolling, tumbling, and soaring are accompanied by the loud territorial cal, a resonating "quork." Maple sugar makers are on alert. Sap will start flowing in earnest anytime now. On warm days, snow fleas climb from the ground to the surface of the snow along tree trunks. They look like a sprinkling of pepper - except that they hop. Single male pileated woodpeckers drum frequently. Their loud drumming diminishes at the end.
We know these things, at least we think we do, but Barlow's skill in juxtaposing the events of the natural world makes it seem like an orchestrated dance, all the more magnificent.
The writers are the stars of this show. (None of those distracting color photos or pesky ads that are necessary to pay the rent!) The roster of authors is a Who's Who of local writers. In addition to Wooster, Long, and Barlow, there's Ted Levin (winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal, and Michael Caduto, author of 15 books, and Michael Snyder, a forester whose bio states simple "His bag is mixed."
The design and illustrations parallel the writing. The design (by Jenna Dixon) is clean and inviting, allowing the inclusion of more than 70 essays without ever seeming crowded or rushed. The chapters are tabbed by a gray box at the edge, a technique used in reference books, making it convenient to flip month to month. It's a nice, subtle touch that adds immeasurably to the book's value.
Nearly every page is graced by a pencil sketch by Adelaide Tyrol, giving a graphic unity to the text that helps this volume avoid the usual anthology trap of wandering without purpose. There's also a evocative introduction by Willem Lange who borrows from Robert Frost when he says of his love of the local landscape "I don't know where it's likely to go better." Lange is in top form as he hand feeds a gorbie (also know as a moose bird, whiskey jack, camp robber, Canada jay or Perisoeus canadensis) before he sets off on a tranquil pond in his small canoe to outwit and early season trout with a fly called a Crystal Bugger. The backdrop is stone walls, chirring red-wing blackbirds, and the bleating of spring lambs. And we live here!
It's vintage Lange, vintage Frost, and vintage New England. And therein lies the rub. This land worth loving, worth celebrating, worth protecting, and worth sharing. Certainly rural New England has no monopoly on heritage or beauty, but in the northern woodlands we are mostly spared the strip malls, parking lots, and bleak vistas that characterize much of the American landscape. Read this and you will feel even more strongly about keeping it that way.
But this book rises above local boosterism. Vermont is the original American frontier. Settlers came, they plundered, and they moved on. Now, slowly, inexorably, and quietly nature has crept back and resumed if not dominance, at least an equal footing. If there's an encouraging message for the parts of the world careening towards the precipice, it is the balance that has been achieved in the northern forest. This sense of place has been lovingly captured in The Outside Story.
Stephen Morris is a writer who lives in Randolph. He is the editor and publisher of Green Journal and the founder of The Public Press.
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