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Slayton: Rugged Beauty

Image: Late afternoon light slants across the forested hills and the loaded log truck. Three men stand beside the truck, talking.

Image: At dawn, a grappler’s huge, prehistoric-looking arm and claw lifts a massive log from a snow-covered pile and stacks it neatly in the waiting truck.

Image: Deep in the tangled beauty of the winter forest, amidst the snow’s blue shadows, a crouched figure in a red plaid jacket wields a chainsaw. He’s dwarfed by the huge tree he has notched. It’s about to fall.

These views of sustainable logging in Vermont, are a small part of the important painting-and-poetry show, “Shedding Light on the Working Forest,” on exhibit through the end of April at the Vermont Folklife Center. Later this year, the show will move to other parts of New England. Next year it can be seen in various Central Vermont venues.

In this exhibit, which began its statewide journey in Brattleboro last fall, Kathleen Kolb’s paintings are augmented with words collected by Verandah Porche, in a series of her poems inspired by the rugged beauty of the timber harvest.

It’s a powerful combination that asks us to take a fresh look at the much-loved Vermont countryside. Kolb and Porche redirect our attention from the farmer’s fields and barns to the woodsman’s forests. Further, they show us that Vermont’s landscapes owe as much to human labor as to nature’s generosity.

It’s easy to forget that forests – which now cover about three-fourths of Vermont – are working landscapes also. It’s a truth that Kolb and Porche, artist and poet, don’t want us to overlook.

And so there are paintings of huge yellow skidders, looming log trucks and grapples – and the men who tend them, sharpen their chainsaws, and harvest the trees. It’s evident from the interviews and poems that accompany the paintings that these loggers are proud of their work and the care they take to harvest timber sustainably. The tight financial bind they continually work against is also evident.

This show is at heart a hymn of praise to Vermont’s working culture. It’s a world of work that’s shaped our landscape, our literature, and our history.

Lately, I wonder whether Vermont’s rural values and culture can survive the influx of suburban values and suburban culture that economic prosperity is bringing to us - which is precisely why I think this exhibit is so important. It honors that hard-working world that is the soul of Vermont.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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