I left Vermont in an old Volvo station wagon that had been driven across the country and back several times. My dog, Moshe, sat beside me. In back, I carried all that I owned, including large rolls of canvas and a French easel that threatened to keep the back from latching. For the past year, I had been living alone in the woods outside Brattleboro, Vermont, in a small cottage. Not far away, on the same dirt road, was the house and studio of well-known landscape painter, Wolf Kahn. Years before, while studying art at Cornell, I became friendly with his brother, Peter, who taught courses on art history and historical art technique. Wolf, however, made his living painting landscapes in a contemporary art world interested in everything but landscape painting. Because I was also making contemporary landscape paintings, the fact that Wolf Kahn lived a mile down the same dirt road seemed fortuitous. At first, I had imagined that he and I might find ourselves painting in the same field accidentally. I also imagined, of course, that he would become my friend and mentor. That never happened. Instead, I worked in restaurants, played softball, and got divorced. Years later, long after leaving my Vermont cottage in the woods, I did meet Wolf Kahn through my art dealer, Bridget Moore. When we met I mentioned that his brother, Peter, had been an inspiring teacher to me. I did not say, however, that we had once been neighbors.
I drove west, leaving Vermont for the Finger Lakes on a road that followed a riverbed. Great boulders and evergreens loomed at the edge of the highway and the water in the river beyond looked dark and swift. My dog stared out the window and as I talked to her - telling her she was a good dog – strains of a poem also followed along.
The morning lights whiteness that has touched the world perfectly as air. In the whitened country under the still fall of the snow, only the river like a brown earth, taking all falling darkly into itself, moves. –Wendell Berry
Kim was living in an old farmhouse – the Hyland House – across the road from the Myer Farm where he worked. The Hyland House had recently been purchased by a dairy farmer living in Flemington, NJ for his adult son who didn’t want it. Kim lived in one side of the house and the Zajacks in the other whenever they visited from New Jersey. Albert Zajack and his wife, Helen, were probably the last farmers in Flemington. They had come from Poland originally and were as old as our parents if not older – it was hard to tell. As for being the last to sell to developers, Albert liked to laugh and brag that he no longer had to pay for fence. He neighbors took care of that for him in the interest of keeping his cows from grazing on their manicured lawns. He used the same philosophy when driving, as he overlooked traffic signals saying, “What – nobody wants trouble!” Though Albert and Helen had come from the same Polish village, if you asked Albert about this, he would declare, “I’m Polish but my wife is orthodox.”
On a sunny afternoon in July, just after I moved to the Hyland House from Vermont, Helen wanted to pick wild cherries from the hedgerow. Albert drove his Minneapolis Moline tractor and parked beneath the cherry trees so that we could all pick with ease by standing on the tractor fenders and seat. Helen always wore a babushka handkerchief and cotton apron over varying layers of clothing. On this July day, she wore her apron over a light print dress, with fingers and mouth stained red from the wild fruit. That evening after dinner, Kim and I went to their side of Hyland House and drank tumblers full of vodka that Albert called, “Russian whiskey.” Seeing our glasses filled with nothing but vodka, Helen said, “Albert – they can’t drink it like that!” and went to the kitchen for ice cubes. While we drank, Albert played his handmade violins, all twelve of them. He liked us to listen to each of them separately and tell him which violin sounded the best. Later, when Kim and I planned our wedding – a barn dance at our new residence, the farmhouse by Bloomer Creek - Albert promised to play his violins for us – “The gypsy music and the polka.” Sadly, the week before our wedding celebration Helen Zajck had a heart attack and died. We never saw Albert again. We did hear, however, that years later Albert went back to their village in Poland and married Helen’s sister.
When I first moved into Hyland House, I took long walks with my dog while Kim worked on the Myer Farm. Moshe and I roamed in fields that stretched all the way to the lake. Once, I narrowly missed stepping on a newborn fawn, hidden in a cradle of tall grass. The fawn was so young she didn’t move and, luckily, must have had no scent, since Moshe showed no interest in her. While on these walks, I soon learned that the surrounding fields could suddenly drop off into gullies and ravines. Moshe and I slid down steep banks of leaf litter to the shale creek bed below and walked for miles. I looked for salamanders and crayfish beneath rocks, lost for hours in this way. Once, I unexpectedly had the sensation that I was being watched. When I lifted my head to look, I saw - in a tall tree with spreading branches above me – a gathering of raccoons. They were all shapes and sizes, perhaps 20 of them, and all stared down at me. Large raccoons held baby raccoons in their arms. Smaller raccoons hugged one another. All were silent and, if I had to say, seemed astonished to see me. I was also astonished and soon left because I didn’t want to disturb them.