Category Archives: Vermont

My First Town Meetin’

This week I went to my very first town meeting. It might not sound like much, but it turns out that town meetings play a very important role in Vermont, and it has been that way for more than 200 years.

The town of Orange has about 950-ish residents, and I believe somewhere between 75-100 showed up for the meeting. Just like a scene out of a movie, the town hall swelled with the laughter and voices of people exchanging hellos and catching up with each other. I’m sure I stood out a little bit, not knowing anyone, but I was happy to grab a seat and take it all in. The meeting started with the crack of a gavel, and the town-appointed moderator called everyone to order.

Unlike in Maryland, where the schools and the operating budget are maintained on a countywide level with relatively little democratic involvement by the community, in Vermont these matters remain within the firm grasp of each township.

In our case, the county we live in currently has a budget of about $830,000 dollars, most of which goes towards the Sheriff’s department and maintaining the courthouses. The town of Orange, on the other hand, approved a $2.8 million dollar school budget, and another $800,000 or so for town operations. And that’s just for a wee town of 950-something people!

There are different styles for Vermont town meetings, too. Some use traditional floor voting with the crowd voicing ayes or nays to each issue. Others use what’s known as an “Australian Ballot” which is where the voting is done through polls and you can either vote for or against an issue, but unlike the traditional voting, there’s no wiggle room for amending or changing the proposal you’re voting on. Some towns blend both voting systems. Except Brattleboro, which is the only town in Vermont that uses a representative system where only elected representatives (known as “Town Meeting Members” ) are allowed to vote at the town meeting.

At our meeting, every issue raised is subject to approval by the body attending (us) and also subject to amendment and extensive debate. I quickly learned who were my most outspoken and opinionated neighbors! If the ayes and nays were “too close” a paper ballot was called and the group would submit their vote on a little piece of paper that was collected and counted by the Town Clerk.

The meeting started around 6:30 pm and ended at 9:00 pm on the dot. A success, you could say, considering that in years past the contentious discussion on the school budget has pushed the meeting as late as midnight. And while some moments were tense, the meeting was largely productive and civil; a true testament to the democratic process.

Winter Has Arrived

There’s a certain magic in the way time flies after Thanksgiving. Perhaps its the constellation of holidays that gives you a bright star to look forward to on that first Monday back in the office. Or, perhaps, its the return of Christmas music, in all of its cheerful sleigh-bell glory, which we binge on until New Years Day. There’s a certain timelessness, too, in the rituals we keep during the holiday season, be it decorating the house, hosting a dinner, or watching George C. Scott’s A Christmas Carol.

Scooter, the beloved family Shi Tzu, helps trim the tree

Scooter, the beloved family Shi Tzu, helps trim the tree

Here at our house on the hillside, the sun broke on bare, brown hills on Christmas morning. An unusual thing, according to the locals. And a sad one, to some,  although no one seemed to mind the mild 40 degree weather either! Until recently, snow came only in fits and spurts and never stayed around for more than a day or so.

And then the cold came.

And BOY IS IT COLD!

What does Vermont cold feel like, you ask? It’s when the high of the day is a single digit, and if it gets into the low 20s, it feels like Florida. Or when you put wet cat food outside, and it freezes before the cat can wolf it all down. It’s so cold your ears go numb in your hat, and your feet go numb under two layers of socks and a set of boots. For us, it means that our wardrobes still need to be Vermont-ified, when it comes to this beastly winter weather.

Tree trimming is tough work! Time for a nap.

Tree trimming is tough work! Time for a nap.

It’s beautiful, too, make no mistake about that. Forests full of evergreens laden with snow are picture-perfect, and the long nights make for quiet evenings by the wood stove and a good night’s sleep.  I even tried out the snow shoes today in our woods! And I’m trying to learn the different animal tracks so I can see what’s roaming around in the snow.  (Mastery level currently comprises of the squirrel)

I’d like to say that with all of this wintery time, I would be churning up blogs left and right and imparting bushels of stories and photographs. But alas, I’m currently juggling work as a telecommuting attorney, a law clerk at a local Vermont firm, and studying for the Vermont Bar in February. It will be a very busy two months. Perhaps I’d best heed my own advice and take time to enjoy a quiet winter evening so as not to lose my mind!

The Fiasco of Car Registration in Vermont

Moving to a new state is complicated. Moving to a new state where you don’t know anything about how the state works is the fudge sauce and cherry on top of complicated.

I tried desperately to find a blog explaining the car registration process in normal-person terms before moving to Vermont, but no luck!  So I waded though it by trial and error.

As an insurance defense attorney, I am unabashedly persnickety about the banals of car insurance. In this particular instance, I knew that if the insurance company didn’t know I had moved, they could deny coverage if I got into an accident here. So after I moved in September, I did right by my insurance company and updated my mailing address. Click, click, click and it was done. Easy enough.

Then it was time for us to get driver’s licenses and register the cars. This took me three trips; the first time because we went with the intention of registering Travis’ car but were encouraged to come back with extra documents to avoid paying taxes; the second time to come back to pay taxes on Travis’ car because they couldn’t be avoided; and the third time to register my own car. Each time, I took the car being registered to the DMV because the employees will do the required VIN inspection right there in the parking lot.

Once the cars were registered, they have to be inspected within 14 days. And once I got the new tags, I needed to immediately mail back my Maryland plates to the MVA and cancel the Maryland registration. So the tags were sent, and the inspections were done.

All is well, right?

Wrong.

Two weeks ago, my Dad got a nastygram from the MVA regarding insurance non-compliance and an accompanying $150 fine. Thank god he was the co-owner of my car or I would never have known at all! The letter was only sent to him at our old address. Scary.

It turns out, when I updated my mailing address with my insurance company, the powers that be turned this innocent administrative update into an insurance cancellation with the Maryland MVA. For both of our cars. In other words, I was really looking at a $300 fine for the two week gap between when I updated my insurance and when the plates were received by the MVA. Yikes!

Fortunately, my insurance company, my Dad, and Travis, all helped me cobble together the documents that I needed to prove to the MVA that our cars had been continuously insured throughout the period in question. On Friday, I checked in and learned that my case was closed.

PHEW!

Just when you think you have all of your bases covered, life loves to throw a curveball.

Appreciating Presence on a Walk in the Woods

We’ve been enjoying some unseasonably warm weather these past few days, and last week I took the opportunity to go for a hike in the nearby Groton State Forest.  It’s actually a constellation of multiple state parks and different lakes and ponds, and spans more than 26,000 acres, making it the second largest contiguous land holding of the State of Vermont. It’s really beautiful. For this off-season hike, I chose Kettle Pond State Park.

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Boat launch at Kettle Pond

Geared up and ready to go, as I set off on the trail, I couldn’t help but notice how much noise was still with me. My footsteps were noisy; my bag was noisy; my mind was noisy. I wondered to myself, “how can I be out in this pristine landscape and still feel like there is a TV on in the background?” My car was the only one in the parking lot, so I couldn’t point the finger at anyone but me.

I plowed on in this manner for another quarter mile or so until I finally stopped and paused for a moment. Only then, in my stillness, could I hear the quiet.

And what does quiet sound like,  you might ask?

It’s like taking all of your thoughts and sending them skyward in a celestial lantern.  Or like hitting the pause button on your feet and muting the sounds of your body in motion. It’s realizing that if something happened to you, it could be quite a while before help arrives, and it’s the space between the sounds of footsteps and the melodies of songbirds.

IMG_6225For me, I can sustain that level of presence for about 30 seconds before I see something that I want to photograph. I still have a lot of practice to do when it comes to being present. But on my walk that day, in my stillness and presence, I was rewarded with a scene featuring a brilliantly colored woodpecker inspecting a nearby tree.

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Sooty Hygrophorous – A beacon of late fall

I realized that I would not have heard him if I had kept marching on, given that I sounded like Big Foot traipsing through the forest, nor would I have enjoyed his woodland debut if I had spent that time fumbling in my bag to get my camera and hustling for a photograph. Instead, I embraced the serenity of the moment.

The Lessen Learned from a Walk in the Woods

The lessen learned is that being present is really quite challenging, and until you are completely enveloped in quiet, you’ll never appreciate how much noise you carry around in your head, either.  When you slow down, you have time and opportunity to notice more, and you can dedicate your energy to being present.

IMG_6239Take this rock for instance. Cruising by, you might catch it in your peripheral vision and write it off as another mossy stone. But when you slow down, you’ll see that it’s not just a single layer of green on that stone, but a whole community of mosses and lichens, each with their own unique shades and textures that make up a velvety fabric across the rock’s surface.

There’s a fascinating study by Harvard-affiliated researchers that found that participants who took an average of 27 minutes a day to practice meditation and mindfulness exercises showed discernible changes in their brain structure after an 8-week period. Magnetic resonance imaging (“MRI”) studies showed an increased grey matter in the hippocampus (which manages self-awareness, compassion, and introspection) and decreased grey matter density in the amygdala (which manages anxiety and stress).

The key here is practice. It takes time and effort to develop the brain matter that we need to be still and present. It takes effort to mitigate the lingering effects of stress and anxiety.   Fortunately, it’s never too late to get started!

Kettle Pond Forest

Game on in Vermont

Vermonters are serious about their game. We’re in the midst of turkey season and bow season for deer just ended. Next weekend heralds the 16-day rifle season for deer. According to Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Service, more bucks are killed per square mile in Vermont than anywhere else in New England.

What I find most interesting about the hunting culture here is the reverence its given. Most folks that I’ve met have been hunting since they were little kids. Ask anyone who hunts, and they’ll get a little more quiet, a little more serious, and tell you how much they love being out in the woods this time of year.

In Howard County, on any given day we would see anywhere from ten to twenty deer mowing down our lawn and eating the ornamentals. However,  since moving here, we’ve seen just one white-tail on our 17-ish acres of woods. Yep, you read that right. One. Even with our apple orchards laden with overripe fruit, I have yet to catch a single Bambi in the yard. I find this incredible.

Vermonters taste for game goes beyond the hunting season though — and this is where it gets really interesting.

Vermont is one of the few states that has a “pavement to plate” policy. Roadkill that’s deemed salvageable is picked up by the game warden and delivered to a local resident who has indicated an interest in receiving and processing the carcass. The independent paper, Seven Days, recently did a nice write-up about the role of local wardens in this less-than-glamorous operation.  As it goes, once you’re on the warden’s list, you’re bound to end up with a deer, bear or moose carcass on your doorstep at some point down the road (no pun intended).

In celebration of this roadkill cuisine and the hunting traditions of the state, the Hotel Vermont in Burlington is throwing a dinner this weekend, aptly themed “Wild About Vermont” which will feature a wide variety of… you guessed it… roadkill!

I’m sure they’ll sear off the skidmarks before serving anything….

I digress. The anticipated roadkill / wild  game menu sounds fantastic: moose ragout with wild mushrooms, black bear sausage with crabapple jus, grilled venison, and slow-roasted turkey with elderberry gravy. I’m sure it will be a dinner well worth the $75 meal ticket.

As it goes, our own little town is hosting an annual hunter’s breakfast next week and you can bet dollars to donuts that I’ll be there if I can! Scrambled eggs isn’t the same as moose ragout, but I’ll be happy to show my support nonetheless.

CSA Food Photography

Food photography is not easy. Between the unappetizing haze of overhead kitchen lights, the hazmat orange glow of the camera flash, and the fact that every photo seems to include your cat, your dog, or  your clutter in the background, there is just way more going on than simply snapping a quick picture.

Now that we are completely inundated with vegetables from our Community Supported Agriculture (“CSA”) share from Pete’s Greens, I’ve found that I have some of the most beautiful food subjects to practice with and I thought I would share some of my practice photos!

Sweet "lunchbox peppers"

Sweet “lunchbox peppers”

Perhaps one day I will become proficient enough to do a how-to. For now though, I am still figuring out how to turn on the camera’s external flash. I have no idea how to actually use it!

Last week’s share included the most adorable little bell peppers you ever did see. They’re called “lunchbox peppers” because they’re small enough to fit in one, and they’re super sweet. Bright as a school bus too! We’ve enjoyed them with breakfast eggs.

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Celebration squash

These are “Celebration Squash” which are a lot like acorn squashes, I think, though I haven’t cooked them yet so I can’t say for sure. They’re really fun — green stripes and orange freckles. The photo doesn’t quite do them justice. 
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And then we have the greens! O, the greens. Each week we have received a baggie of beautiful, spicy mesclun mix and a head of lettuce. This week’s was a real stunner — I love the red edging on the leaves.

Green and potatoesAnd this photo was one of my first tries with the external flash that comes with the camera.  There’s a lot of potential there! But the background is a little chaotic and I haven’t quite figured out the trifecta of shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

Side note — those cute little ‘taters were from our CSA share too. I also can’t believe Halloween is right around the corner!

Well, of course I can. I ate an entire bag of candy corn last night.

… totally worth it.

But really, I hope everyone has a fun and safe Halloweekend! And I hope you enjoy vegging out with me as I try to improve my food photography skills! Suggestions  and feedback are always welcome.

Hooray! We’ve rounded the final bend of this mini-series and what a joy it has been. We were blessed to have the most incredible foliage season here, though it arrived much later than usual, but at its peak, the brilliance of oranges, reds and yellows made the mountains look like they were set on fire. If you have two minutes to spare, this video of Vermont foliage in the Northeast Kingdom is fantastic.

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Vermont foliage

Amazing to me is how quickly the foliage arrives, and how quickly it goes. Like a fire, the first few days are just flickers of color. Day by day it gathers momentum until one day you realize that the hills are ablaze in color and it stops you in your tracks. You gawk. You admire. You snap a few photos.  But before you know it, the colors are sizzling and sputtering like the coals of a waning campfire and the leaves are fluttering down one by one.

Sight Fall Foliage

Sight Fall FoliageIt’s truly a sight to behold. And we’re not the only ones taking it all in! “Foliage season” brings tourists by the busload (literally). With enough leaf-peepers out and about, on a drive to Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury Center, Vermont we actually got stuck in some traffic! We encountered similar madness at the King Arthur Flour visitor’s center — packed!

As we ease into winter, the leaves are settling and the hills are somber. It’s a quiet aftermath that we’re experiencing now; a palette of neutrals; an unveiling of views. All in all, we were quite lucky to enjoy such a beautiful transition our first year here. The challenge of capturing it in all five senses made it all the more fun!

The Five Senses of Fall, Part IV: Smell

Continuing upwards and onwards with my sensational stories of the changing season here at our little house on the hillside, this chapter sniffs its way through the olfactory elements, better known as our sense of smell!

I must preface this with a great irony that by the time I get to Part V — Sight, almost all of the leaves and colors that prompted these posts in the first place will be gone! Case in point: In less than two weeks the view from my office window has evolved from an explosion of gilded foliage to the stoic bones of birch trees.

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At any rate, in pondering the perfumes of autumn, it dawned on me that a chapter on the smells of Fall is almost inextricably intertwined with the tastes of fall because our of sense of smell is such a huge component of how we enjoy the flavors of food. As author Eric Schlosser noted in his study of the modern french-fry in  Fast Food Nation, an estimated 90% of our perception of flavor is attributed to smell.

Vermont sunset

Just as the flavors of Fall are very nostalgic, so too are the smells that we come to love and associate with memories of family and food. In my kitchen, something about the cooler whether spurs me into baking, and I love the way the house fills with the sweet-yet-sour scent of freshly baked bread or the carmel notes of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven.

Outside, the fragrance of the Fall season is more nuanced. If you pause for a spell on a cold day, you’ll catch the acrid undertones of smoke from a wood burning stove. Walking in the woods, a good whiff returns traces of loam and earthen decomposition. Floral aromas are no more, as the last of the perennial flowers have fizzled away to sticks and seed heads.

Vermont farm equipment

Because Fall is also the season to finish chopping and preparing next year’s woodpile, the smells of the season would not be complete without that of freshly cut wood. Cherry logs are bright and sweet, and maple trees have a masculine spiciness that always pulls me back for a second sniff. As we clear away boughs of pine and hemlock, the strong, tangy aroma of evergreens surrounds us before vanishing into the air. Oh how I love the smell of wood!

First Snow of the Season

Chairs after the snow stormI absolutely love this photograph. It was late afternoon on Saturday and the first snowstorm of the season had just passed through. The light of the setting sun was UH-mazing.

Ominous snow clouds hovered in the valley to the west, veiling the sun with their silvery shadows. As the winds blew the last of the storm across the sky, luminous rays began to glow through the snowy sheets of grey.

For just a few precious minutes this soft, golden light pooled across our yard. Flurries were still swirling about as I ran into the house to grab the camera.

I was transfixed by the aureate, dreamlike quality of the moment and only managed to get a few shots in before the crystalline snowflakes had melted into the diffuse light of the sunset.

Snow on the parsley plant I felt very lucky to be given the opportunity to capture the play between light and shadow, sun and snow! It seems to be part of the essence of this seasonal transition.

The Five Senses of Fall, Part III: Touch

Woodland HammockPicking up where we last left off, this post touches on the tangible side of the Fall season in Vermont (I love a good pun).

I think tactile sensations are often taken for granted. We use the sense of touch so routinely that our awareness of the sensation patinas to a vapid utility.

“What does Fall in Vermont feel like?” I asked myself.

At first blush, I drew a complete blank to the question.

So, I contemplated the matter from my woodland hammock…

For me, Fall in Vermont is the feeling of bare feet surprised by cold floors. Unlike in Maryland, where Fall means the warmth of summer without the humidity of summer, in Vermont, you go to bed on a warm night and wake up to a cold morning and before you know it you’re hopping around on the bathmats because the floor is just so darn cold! No “gentle transition” here — changing seasons is serious business on this hillside.

Fall here is also the feeling of smooth, waxy tulip bulbs feathered in papery shards that flutter away in the wind and the cool, crumbly winter quarters that we’ve dug for each bulb.

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It’s the soft, springy blankets of aster flowers that spill over planters in waves of color and the tender and delicate frills of ornamental kale and cabbage, radiating outwards with brilliant veins of color.

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Some trees are bejeweled with small, hard berries; others with soft ripening fruit too stubborn to let go. Fall is felt in the sun-kissed curves of pumpkins with their gritty vine toupees that love to catch on your sleeves and the smooth, taught skins of apples nearly bursting at the seams with sweet juice.

It’s the interplay of itchy scratchy wool and silky soft cashmere; of buttery leather boots; and the cloud-like warmth of a fleece-lined jacket.

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Fall in Vermont is a soft and swiftly-lain carpet of a thousand shades of orange. And it’s the feeling of dry leaves between my fingertips as I pull out little hitchhikers from my ponytail after I’ve gone for a walk!

For hunters, it’s the heft of their rifle in their hands; for gatherers, it’s velvety smooth clusters of maitake mushrooms.  For me, it’s the radiant warmth of cradling a cup of hot cider in my hands.

As we’ve just experienced this evening, it’s also the feeling of snow flurries raining down on the mountainside, delicately dusting the golden foliage.

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