I spent much of my early career as a photographer thinking about water in the American West. California had been in the grips of a terrible drought in the 1980s and it made sense to focus my attention there. Ellen and I later started a large-scale collaborative effort called the Water in the West project which was made up of a talented group of photographers who were also interested in the subject. After working on that for ten years, we placed much of our work in the permanent archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Many of us then moved on to other subjects such as my work with libraries.
New England is in the middle of a drought right now. Approximately 25% of Vermont and New Hampshire are heavily affected and a small percentage is in severe drought. It seems weird to me since everything here is so green and humid. The American West was settled by people who brought their habits of a lush eastern US to the West and planted inappropriate, thirsty crops, lawns, and swimming pools in a semi-arid region. The writer Wallace Stegner wrote of the West “The most splendid part of the American habitat, it is also the most fragile. It has been misinterpreted and mistreated because, coming to it from earlier frontiers where conditions were not unlike those of northern Europe, we found it different, daunting, exhilarating, dangerous, and unpredictable, and we entered it carrying habits that were often inappropriate, and expectations that were surely excessive.” Ironically, I find myself coming from the West to the East with my own attitudes about drought and find myself shocked to see a region that should be green turning brown.
While here in the drought-stricken East, I have been re-reading an incredible book by the New York Times writer Timothy Egan called The Worst Hard Times about the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The Farm Security Administration photographers such as Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee and Dorothea Lange created searing documentary photographs of that region that helped shape the visual memory of that era. Here in Vermont, as I watched our pond drying up and the forests stressed by lack of water, I began to make plans to visit the former Dust Bowl in Kansas, Oklahoma, and the panhandle of Texas. While driving back to California, I’d like to see what became of this ravaged, destroyed part of the American West. Egan wrote about “how the greatest grassland in the world was turned inside out, how the crust blew away, raged up in the sky and showered down a suffocating blackness off and on for most of a decade”. I’d like to see if some of the grasslands were restored. What happened to the families and communities that didn’t leave their dusty homes in the dirty 30s? And what happened to the old idea of returning this region to something called “A Buffalo Commons” – restoring parts of the vast prairie grasslands and returning some of it to its Native people and the buffalo? Sadly, I’ve read recently that the remaining grasslands continue to be turned into inappropriate use and the underground Ogallala aquifer continues to be pumped dry. Whether you live in the East or the West, it’s all about water.
One of the great things about our little cabin in the woods in Vermont is bringing new and old friends to spend time in this idyllic place. One friend that first visited in 2019 was Sammy Kwesi from Ghana. Walker first met him in Guatemala when he was attempting to come to the United States as a refugee with a “credible threat” against his life back in his home in Africa. To make a long story short, Sammy finally entered the US and then spent the next 8 months in a private prison in Louisiana waiting his refugee status hearing. He finally moved in with his sister in New England where he lives today. Sometimes people with the most difficult lives tend to be the nicest people, and that is certainly the story with Sammy. Walker and his friend Rosa had arrived just before Sammy, and we spent two wonderful days together enjoying the Farm and Sammy’s delicious home-made African meal. Rosa was originally from Mexico, Sammy from Ghana, and Walker, Ellen, and I from San Francisco. I marveled at this diverse group of people coming together over an African meal cooked in Vermont.
Throughout our month in New England, the Farm functioned as refuge and social hub for a whole range of dear friends and family. We also visited our friends Jacques and Leslie in their beautiful new home that they are building in Woodstock, VT. Of course, on our many travels on the back roads of Vermont we kept our eyes peeled for the endless variety of wildlife in the deep dark woods. We took a great day trip to Northern New Hampshire around Mt. Washington. We ended the day revisiting the fabulous Library/Athenaeum in St. Johnsbury, VT. I had photographed this extraordinary place for my Public Library project in 2001 and found it to be just as beautiful as it was back then.
Montreal is a city in Quebec which is in the wonderful country of Canada. Traveling north from our Farm in Vermont it takes about 2 hours to get to the border and another 1 ½ hours to get to a truly different world. Montreal is interesting because it is a North American city with deep French roots. Most of the signs are French and parts of the city feel like Paris. While gazing out over the city skyline from the high point called Mount Royal, I spotted a huge mural of the local son and musical icon Leonard Cohn. Cities that honor their artists are really inspired.
One of the cultural high points in Montreal was the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Ellen and I showed our American and Global Library albums to one of their curators. We also saw a wonderful exhibit on cultural and landscape design among the Native people of the Arctic in Canada and Europe.
High atop another high point sits the massive building called St. Joseph’s Cathedral. It is an interesting remnant of when the Catholic church used to dominate French Canadian life. Over the last twenty years, church attendance has shrunk among the French Canadians but has been bolstered by the large influx of migrants coming from other Catholic countries. We saw this new diversity in the crowds inside the Cathedral. As I wrote in earlier blogs, one consequence of the emptying pews has been that many churches and religious centers have been abandoned and converted to other uses. Some feel that a public library might be an appropriate use of a formerly religious space. I did photograph two former churches in Montreal that are now libraries.
Finally, one of the subplots to our Canadian travels has been Nanaimo Bars. Some of you may remember the Christopher Guest film A Might Wind where one of the characters wishes that she could have stayed at home and made Nanaimo Bars. When Walker and I were driving back from our trip to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in Canada’s far north last May, we drove by the coastal British Columbian town of Nanaimo. Walker remembered the line from the movie, and we have been on a quest to find them ever since. We were convinced that it must be a western Canadian obsession and we were shocked to find them in Montreal. Of course, after we dropped Walker and Rosa off at the airport, Ellen and I had to buy some on our way back to the Farm.
The last two weeks in Vermont were a whirlwind of gatherings with friends and family, hikes in the woods, more family gatherings, cookouts, reading books and news stories and finally, eating the last of the Nanaimo Bars.
Coming up next week: a trip to Canada’s Maritime Provinces.