Bread Loaf

Flying Downstream

Ajax and I went on a little bushwhack today, out into the Bread Loaf wilderness and the upper South Branch of the Middlebury River.

We left the trodden trail and walked along the river’s edge, down on the sandy bank where possible, and where the bank was too steep, we cut up on the deer runs that parallel the river.

Early on, Ajax startled up a profusion of butterflies on a rocky shoal, and suddenly there were wings everywhere, all around us, in that quiet cathedral with nothing but the tall, damp pines stretching up and the clear river rushing.

It was a Sunday, after all, and good dogs go to church.

The butterflies settled back down amicably enough, almost as if they weren’t much bothered by an exuberant young dog. Their thirst for the startlingly clear waters of the river seemed to win out over any apprehension about a puppy’s paws, though by this time he had run and swum his way down the river a little ways, perhaps in search of a few trout or of a Solitary Sandpiper.

The butterfly on the left is a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail. The one lowest in the picture is the same species as the picture above, a White Admiral.  

The top butterfly is the same species as the White Admiral, but there are subspecies that may or may not provide useful categories. He’s a Red-spotted Purple or some hybrid of subspecies.

Interestingly enough, the White Admiral and the Red-spotted Purple are dramatically different in color, so they do look like two species, but structurally, in terms of their size and wing shape, they’re identical.

Ajax certainly didn’t care too much about species as he romped around a meadow we found in our travels, only halfheartedly trying to catch the fleeing butterflies.

I’m surprised he didn’t inhale one, running around with his mouth open, full of wind. You can even see a butterfly making its escape stage right.

I think Jax was far more interested in scaring up another flock of turkeys, since upon our arrival in the meadow, a mother turkey ponderously exploded out from the tall grass, followed by about a dozen recently-fledged turkeylings the size of crows. It was a shockingly prehistoric moment as they all took flight.

Alas, as I was completely unprepared for pterodactylic utterances from the grass, I did not have the camera out.

The photographic evidence demonstrates that if Jax were interested in a big mouthful of Swallowtail, he could have had it. The butterfly in this picture has had no chance to even let go of his flower, and Jax is already halfway past him.

Birds abound in the Vermont mountain meadows. Here, a Red-winged Blackbird heads in for a landing on some grass after swooping over our heads, chiding us, presumably for straying too close to its nest in the grass.

Though the picture quality isn’t stellar, I thought it important to include this photo of a male Bobolink, a rarer bird, though one increasingly more common in Vermont fields due to some protection efforts. Currently, hay farmers can receive a per-acre payment for haying a little on the early side and then leaving the field fallow a little longer than normal. This minor change in the typical haying cycle allows the Bobolink to raise its offspring uninterrupted.

At home in a river of clear water or in a sea of leaves of grass, Jax is a great dog for hunting upland birds. Of course, we don’t shoot them in the more traditional sense, and he never retrieves anything I’ve shot. Think of it more like a catch and release system for the birds.

Together we catch just that one moment of flight or that brief stillness on a perch. Like butterflies, we uncurl our tongues and take a brief, lepidopterous sip at the water’s edge, and then we let time resume its flight downstream.

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College Washout

Today I tried to leave Bread Loaf, but Nature herself conspired against me. The Bread Loaf campus is nestled halfway up a mountain range about ten miles southeast of Middlebury College. Route 7 winds southward out of town, and Route 125 goes east up through Ripton and over the mountains, paralleling a small river most of the way. This morning, the very last morning of classes, I and my two roommates, Jamie and Zach, headed up for our 8:45AM class.

It’s been a particularly rainy summer, and this past week had alternated downpours and thunderstorms with very few breaks. This morning, a steady, overnight rain meant that on our way up, we saw the river at a rather scary height. It was a brown, churning flood, rather than the clear, sedate winder we were used to greeting each morning. In places, the road itself had a couple of inches of standing water, and it was clear that the banks weren’t quite containing the river. Nonetheless, the road was completely passable, and we went to our class without much trepidation.

By the time we tried to leave at 10AM, the buzz on campus was claiming a total closure of Route 125 on both sides of Bread Loaf. Zach, Jamie, and I all needed to get back to the house, so we jumped in my intrepid Jeep and went to see for ourselves.

The first thing we noticed was that the Frost Road, a dirt road which heads uphill, straight as an arrow, north off of 125, had largely washed into 125. That meant rocks from the size of pebbles up to cobblestones, along with enough dirt to surface a road were all sitting on the pavement. We passed this with a few nervous comments but no trouble.

A little further down the road, though, just before the town of Ripton, we were greeted with a number of stopped cars, just beyond which was this scene.

In the ninety minutes we spent learning about Chaucer (or in Jamie and Zach’s case, “Imagination”), the river had jumped its banks and gone running down the road—not just a few inches of standing water anymore. What you see in this photo are rapids several feet deep running down the road itself. I’m estimating the depth based on that black Ford Focus that’s been pushed off into the ditch.

Obviously, we weren’t getting down this way.

We backtracked and turned off down the Goshen/Ripton Road, a dirt road that the atlas showed as an alternate route off the mountain, but about a quarter mile down we came to a section that had been half carved away by a tributary of the flooding river.

While the road was still just wide enough for the Jeep to pass, all three of us suffered through the mental image of the carved edge giving way under the tire and dumping us all sideways down into a roaring waterway.

At this point, Jamie and Zach decided the best bet for them was to go back to the campus and wait for better, safer conditions. I dropped them off, but I was rather desperate to get down, and with more rain on the radar, it seemed as if any more delay could strand me at Bread Loaf for days. I had vacation plans, and I wasn’t about to get held up.

I knew the road to the east of campus was far worse and had washed out earlier, and I knew going up over the mountains and down to the other side was probably impossible in addition to being impractical (it would have taken hours to drive around back to Middlebury). However, to the north of 125 are a series of dirt roads, beginning with Maiden Lane, which eventually wind down to Lincoln, a town to the northeast of Middlebury.

So, I pulled the atlas back out (for those of you wondering why I wasn’t on the iPhone plotting routes with satellite imagery, let me remind you that there is no cell service in these Green Mountain Wilderness areas), and looked for routes down.

My first thought was to take the dirt roads around the washout we had seen. My assumption was that the paved road (125) was still the most likely safe, direct route if I could just get around the one place it was impassable. I successfully got around the pictured washout and all the way to the town of Ripton, which is about the halfway point down the mountain from Bread Loaf. However, just down from Ripton were far more severe washouts, which I never saw, since emergency services had managed to get as far as Ripton to close the downward road.

So I turned around and headed back up the ridge to the north. Every dirt road that turned westward toward Middlebury was washed out or otherwise impassable, and after three fresh dead ends, I finally ended up going due north for almost an hour before I was able to cut over to Route 116 on Notch Road. It isn’t labeled on this map, but it’s west of South Lincoln. 116 brought me down to the end of 125 where it joins up with Route 7 to Middlebury itself.

I got to the house to find another roommate, Liz, who had tried to go up the mountain at about 10AM for her class and simply couldn’t.

Frankly, the weather was more reminiscent of my class last year (Theories of the Sublime in Romatic Poetry by Men and Women), but certain passages in “The Miller’s Tale” from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales also resounded with the idea of a flood, if not as specifically with the terrifying power of natural forces.

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In the Barn

Classes at Bread Loaf all take place in the Barn, a literally-named place a few hundred yards behind the inn which itself sits almost on Route 125. The western third of the Barn has been converted into two stories of classrooms.

My stories class (Fiction Writing) takes place on the second floor, in the back of the Barn, and the room is graced with a fire escape, a great place to spend the fifteen-minute break in the middle of class.

Some Barn Swallows were undisturbed by our presence, so I snapped a few pictures of them with my camera, which I had brought with me to class.

Two of them, presumably a nesting pair, were unruffled and docile, about ten feet away from the fire escape, and I was able to catch them giving me a calm if wary eye. Male and female Barn Swallows have identical (or nearly identical) plumage, so I can’t tell which is which.

In flight, they’re beautiful, agile birds, and the only local swallows to have the forked swallowtail. They’re a voracious and welcome presence on a buggy campus. In a typical barn, they’d nest inside and out, and would perform their valuable exterminatory services in exchange for nothing more than unmolested lodging. The current configuration of this barn, however, means the only real nesting areas are outside. Fortunately, most of the Bread Loaf campus has been maintained in an architectural style with plenty of eaves and gables, so they seem to do just fine.

This bird has stumped both my father and me. It appears to be a sparrow, and could be a Vesper Sparrow, but the stripe over the eye is much too pronounced. It’s possible that it’s some kind of immature plumage.

Or, it’s an entirely new kind of bird and I can retire once the internet takes notice of this photo. Either way.

It’s apparently quite easy to find Indigo Buntings on this campus. It seems I just hadn’t noticed them at all last summer. This summer, I couldn’t walk around without bumping into them. Unfortunately, they’re a little too shy for my 75x300 telephoto, so I can’t seem to get a better picture than this. Alas.

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Back at the Loaf

I’m back up at the Bread Loaf School of English outside of Middlebury Vermont, but this time I’m armed with that telephoto.

I had never seen one of these before, but I had wandered to the back of the Bread Loaf main grounds looking to sharpen my photography skills by trying to photograph swallows. I wandered back to a stream and a dirt road, and lo and behold: an Indigo Bunting. I had heard of the bird before, but I hadn’t realized they were indigenous to New England, and I was taken aback.

I had thought the only birds with significant blue plumage in the area were the jays and the Eastern Bluebirds, but it was my extraordinary joy to find this brilliant little guy singing his heart out.

He was very skittish and retreated to his bush (above) whenever I got close enough for a decent photo, but if I moved far enough away and was still, he came back to the wire to keep declaring his territory.
I did also manage to catch some swallows, though all my in-flight pictures were consistently poor. This is a female Tree Swallow taking a break on the Bread Loaf volleyball net before heading back out for another snack.
Having a really nice camera makes even the most ordinary of subjects jump out. The sun today made for some incredible colors.
Inside the barn, I found my old friend, the Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda).
I couldn’t believe this little guy could still fly, but he somehow managed it. I don’t know if he was hit by a vehicle on the road, torn up by a bird or some other predator, or simply caught out in a nasty storm, but life struggles on as long as it can no matter what the damage.

(Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus)

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Toads About and Moths Redeemed

Warning, toads on the porch may seem larger than they appear. This handsome, warty fellow is the plain old Eastern American Toad (Bufo americanus americanus), apparently in his "red" phase. Very patriotic fellow, both in name and color. And the stripe, frankly.

Here he adopts an attack posture. OK, OK, so he sat there while I took a dozen pictures, and only moved when I got up after I was done. Damn vain amphibians.

All my slanderous, libelous comments about moths must be retracted. During the last week, we've been sent some of Vermont's finest, most beautiful Heterocerids. The fact that this Harnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata) appears to be trying to get into the house will be ignored in light of its pattern. Looks like a toy, almost.

I want to know how two moths of the same kind find each other. There must be dozens and dozens of species flitting about the lamp each night or hiding from the rain in the awning. How do they know which other moth in the melee is compatible? I tell you, finding a match is hard enough when you can talk; you still learn to hold on really tight. I am thankful we do not have to find each other in a storm of colors and smells and bats quite like moths do.

I was absolutely struck by this tiny guy hiding from the rain as I was reaching for the door handle the other day. I didn't know moths did beautiful colors, and I still don't understand what purpose they serve.

This guy is a Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda). I had already given the file the name "rosymoth.jpg" before I even identified him. Johan Christian Fabricius identified this guy in 1793 (well, probably not this particular moth), and he clearly has good taste in moth names.

Thanks to my dad for identifying these guys for me, and for helping to retroactively identify some of the moths from earlier journal entries.

Last night, David Huddle, my "Contemporary American Short Stories" professor read some of his poems to a rather large, rather rapt audience in the Barn. When it let out, we headed over to the Treman house porch for a little bit of libation and conversation, and I decided to photograph the last glimmer of the setting sun, rather than the pink and gold symphony that had gone on a few minutes before. I know the camera failed, but don't they always fail? I thought, though, it captured just enough of the color and the sense that it was all fading away, and that was certainly what was important about the moment.

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