Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween!

I've heard every argument against Halloween: it's organised begging, it's the devil's work, it's giving candy to children already overdosing on sugar.

Actually - you know what? It doesn't matter. Halloween is really just dress up day - and it's FUN!

The build up to Halloween here seems to take about a month, and intensifies in the week leading up to Halloween.  Jill and Emma arrived from Sussex a week ago, and a few hours later we bundled them up into heavy duty coats, and set off into the night for the Williston Haunted Forest. This is a famous (in Vermont) annual event. It must take months of preparation and planning.
Volunteers working on the jack o' lanterns
Hundreds and hundreds of jack o' lanterns, each lit with a single candle, all carved into different patterns, sparkle through the woodland path.

You walk through the dark forest, along the glimmering path, to little tableaux, while ghouls follow you and leap out in the darkness. We took Lizzy's friend, Tori, with us, and she had a handy way of disconcerting the ghouls: "Welcome to Canada!" she said in her bright, piping voice, every time someone leaped out from behind a tree or tried in any way to scare her.

In the weekend, everywhere seemed to be having a Halloween parade or Halloween event. We headed down to Saratoga, where trick or treating was in full swing.

Everyone wanted to join in the pumpkin rolling competitions!
There were jugglers on stilts, and ballerinas, dogs in fancy dress, and mounted police, amongst all the children dashing around the shops with their loot bags. And the decorations in some houses had to be seen to be believed:

So, today was Halloween. School closed at lunch time and our girls headed off with their costumes, wigs, make-up in bags to dress up with their friends and attend various parties. It was pretty quiet down by the lake, since there are no other kids down here. But when we went to pick up Lizzy, she'd had a glorious time, culminating in a ride through the neighbourhood on a hay wagon pulled by a tractor, and then fireworks on the lawn. I stood out in the night chill with the other mothers, while they laughed about seeing Halloween through Lizzy's eyes, and volunteered to adopt either of my daughters for a term next year. Emily came home a couple of hours later, almost asleep, and deeply happy.

It's all so over the top, so utterly crazy, such delightful fun. I love how everyone seems to embrace it, and the wholeheartedness of people's engagement, their lack of - what is it? - inhibition, self-consciousness around it. I've listened in on professors discussing their costumes ("No, no, I went as a disco queen for the last two years") and watched middle-aged male shop assistants straighten up their Roman helmet in the mirror, without seeming to feel that their masculinity was under threat. I love that it was Pumpkin Sunday at Trinity church last week - and parishioners brought their hand carved jack o' lanterns which were lit up and placed all around the sanctuary.

I keep coming back to this: why don't we do more of this in New Zealand? Why don't we have more community fun? Can you think of a single festival or celebration  that everyone engages with? The only one I can think of is Anzac day - which is important in all sorts of ways, but possibly doesn't come under the heading of fun. Please can we have Dress up Day in New Zealand!?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Journey to Dog Mountain

According to Vermont folklore,  if you really want to escape civilization, the place to go is not the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, but the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. People say that this, the most rural and remote part of Vermont, is practically an independent state - it's a place where you're not considered a true Vermonter unless your family have lived here for the past four generations. Everyone else is "from away". This is where the saying "Welcome to Vermont - now go home!' comes from.

This isn't our experience of Vermonters, of course, but see this post on Vermonters natural reserve

I've been longing to visit the Northeast Kingdom. So since we were taking Jill and Emma, our friends from England, to Stowe this weekend, I saw an opportunity to venture a little further north. We would visit Dog Mountain.

Stowe is pretty even now the colour has all gone from the leaves, even with snow lying on the ski fields, but when you head north east, the feeling of Vermont changes. We drove for an hour through sleepy deserted villages - we saw almost no-one - where beautiful churches lined the streets.

The houses and buildings in the small towns were often grand and forbidding:

But in the countryside, the small houses and huge barns that nestled in among the mountains and bare forests were often in a state of semi-collapse. This was no polished countryside: my overwhelming feeling was that a hard life was chiseled out here. This was an environment that seemed to have stepped back several decades. In winter, it seemed, you might never go further than the general store, never see anyone but your immediate neighbours. It was beautiful - oh yes! But harder,and much older than the pretty Champlain Valley.

Just past St Johnsbury, we arrived at Dog Mountain. Dog Mountain is a privately owned mountain, bought by Stephen and Gwendolyn Huneck almost 20 years ago. Stephen Huneck was an artist - a wood cutter - who, after a serious illness and near death experience was inspired by a vision to create this unique dog haven. Its hiking trails and ponds are always open to the public, and each year they hold special Dog Parties and a Dog Fest.

We expected something a little odd. But instead we found something that was remarkably poignant, full of both sorrow and love. The tiny Dog chapel is a work of love, exquisitely designed in every detail.

On every centimeter of every wall there were layers of photographs and notes from visitors to the chapel, recording memories and words of love for their dogs (and some cats) who had died.

We left notes for Benny, our springer spaniel, and Paddy, my one and only cat, and for Maxwell and Jude.

The Gallery next door was full of Stephen's woodcutting and whimsical work.

There were plenty of real dogs around to cuddle

Even the bathroom had a dog theme:

The dog on the basin was the tap - you pulled the dog's tail and the water came out!

Stephen Huneck lost his battle for life in 2010, and his wife and friends are struggling to keep Dog Mountain open, with help from volunteers, donations, and sales of Stephen's work. Bruce said, as we drove away, "who else can say they left behind a life's work quite like this". I'm not sure if these photos can in any way convey the feeling of this place. But this is a day I will not forget.

For more about Dog Mountain and Stephen Huneck's work, see here

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Following the Fall

The view from Mt Philo Road
We are at the end of the Fall now. This weekend the trees that shone red last week have faded to a burnished gold.

Yet the views are still lovely, and the small towns nestling in the mountains, still celebrate this season.

Wherever we go, beautiful churches stand amongst the golden trees.
this is the Congregational Church at Charlotte

And this is the view of Lake Champlain from the church
One of our best discoveries of being here has been geocaching (thank you, Susanmarie and Sofia!). It is a great way to get the family out into places you might not find by yourself. Ask my girls if they would like to spend two hours hiking, climbing up muddy slopes and burrowing in the undergrowth, and they'd act like you'd asked them to eat poisonous spiders. Ask them if they'd like to go geocaching and they're already pulling on their boots or walking shoes before you finish the sentence.

These are the Shelburne Falls. What makes them stunning is that the river bed is a single piece of rock, worn by the water.

Then we head off through the forest in search of our first treasure
There's always the excitement of what you might find. We always try to leave something with a kiwi flavour

Then off into deep woods to find a second treasure.

Finding treasure, no matter how small, always feels like a celebration.

Speaking of celebrations, we are gearing up for Halloween. The girls are planning at least a full week of Halloween activities (including a trip to a Haunted Wood!). Here is a sneak preview of one costume....

But there has been one note of sadness: today we said farewell to Grandma and Grandad as they set off on the long trip home.

Safe travels - we will miss you! Thank you for taking this long journey to visit us. We hope you will carry home happy memories of Fall in Vermont. And you left at the right time - the temperatures are dropping tonight.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

My morning walk: Fall

Normally, Bruce takes the girls to the school bus. But today he wasn't feeling well and went back to bed. So I accompanied the girls on the little walk through the woods. Em is off on a sleep-out - have fun, Em!

In the summer, I took you for a walk around Long Point, so today I thought I'd take you along a similar walk on a misty Fall morning.

 I don't know if it's living in the country or living in Vermont, but one of the things I love most about being here is watching the changes every day and throughout the day. These fields were lush green when we arrived, but now the hay is mown and stacked for winter feed - and in the mornings shrouded in mist.

Most of the boats have been taken off the lake now, ready for the ice to come,

Yesterday Bruce and the girls saw deer here as they walked to the bus, but there were none today as I rustled through the leaves. 

In some places the leaves have all but gone. 

There are little creatures accompanying me on this walk. This is a little red squirrel - we don't see them so often here. Most of the squirrels are the big grey squirrels with fluffy tails. the red squirrels are skittery and hard to photograph.

People are leaving Long Point. Only 10 households remain here over the winter. One of the year-round residents tells us they cheer as each summer visitor packs up their boat and heads away.

And so I head back to the house, which we have decorated for the fall.

I feed the birds and the chipmunks.

A new resident in our garden - the American robin
We thought the blue jays were so pretty when we arrived, but locals shook their heads and said they were bullies and thieves. Now we tend to agree - they steal the chipmunks' food and terrorise the other birds

There are many kinds of sparrows here - this is a white crowned sparrow.

And then settle down with my books for the day.