Seeing the forest, finding the verse
BRATTLEBORO >> Your table. Your book. Your newspaper. Your shelves. All have a hidden history pressed into them.
We were once trees, and we came to you by way of workers in the woods.
Painter Kathleen Kolb and poet Verandah Porche unearthed that history by happenstance. Kolb was sketching in a sawmill when wood chips blew across her sketchpad.
"The wind was blowing wood chips across my page," she remembers. "I was drawing with charcoal, which is burnt wood, onto paper, which is wood pulp, and I thought, 'this is an integrated experience.'"
That revelation led to a series of passionate, sensuous, unsentimental works on lumber workers and the forest. Porche saw a few of the early paintings (the two are longtime friends and colleagues through the Governor's Institute for the Arts) and was moved to write in response to them.
Their collaboration yielded "Shedding Light on the Working Forest," the exhibit of paintings and poems now premiering at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center. It will be open until January 3, 2016.
"I decided the paintings needed a voice," Porche says. "When we'd raised enough money to move forward, I traveled up to the Bristol-Lincoln area where Kathleen worked and began to meet the loggers, truckers, and others."
Porche wanted to give the paintings the voice of the workers. She specializes in visiting communities that aren't prone to poetry and helping them "find the verse in conversation," as she puts it. She has worked with residents in nursing homes, with citizens of a small New Hampshire town and in hospitals, factories, and crisis centers, among other places.
She talked with the workers for several months. What does it feels like to work before dawn? she asked them. Why did you choose this line of work? How do you feel about climate change?
Out of the answers, she crafted humble, full-blooded poems.
In one from Chris Olsen, a Middlebury Forester, the subject turns from the legacy of Olsen's dairy farming grandfather to the magnificent, indifferent power of the forest
Somewhere within a mile of here
is a five-hundred-year-old white oak. Multiply that
by ten of those trees, that's five thousand years.
Just ten trees: ten generations of trees,
and ten acorns falling out of the sky.
So, we're not very far removed from a mile of ice.
Porche's poems and Kolb's painting heighten each other. They match the rip of a chainsaw and the tenderness of a master logger, someone who knows how to read the light and lilt of a forest and treat it like a friend.
At the same time, Porche and Kolb treat their subjects with equal kindness and reverence. "Entering someone's life is a befriending process, a joy and a solace, and it is an honor to broadcast their voices," says Porche.
The workers' words also helped Porche through the death of her husband, Richard Coutant. "Nights when his medications finally wrapped him up, I edited the interview," she says. "Their voices steadied me. And they were so kind to us during our ordeal."
This sense of respectful kinship makes the exhibit a kind of ecosystem. Each element — watercolor, rhythm, log grapple, boot, hawk, hand — feeds and is fed by the rest, until all touch exultation.
But the crisp reality of the woods, the rough nature of the work, keep the exhibit earthbound. It is not a romantic vision of this world, but an honest one.
Porche and Kolb hope that this tough, beautiful truth in the work inspires bigger conversations.
"The work matters because everyone depends on the forest," writes Kolb on her website. "For oxygen, clean water, wildlife habitat, soil stability, timber, fuel, recreation, and for inspiration."
As people view the exhibit, "it will provoke conversations about how we care for our home places and our community," she writes. And that is work of the forest that everyone can do.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.