Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Dad's recent article regarding the lost art of listening helped me enjoy a morning run in foggy San Francisco more than I otherwise would have. I actually don't listen to music while running but I'm certainly guilty of looking at my watch more than my surroundings. I actually took my iPhone on the short 7-miler and took the time to enjoy what the city has to offer. A beautiful old sailing ship and the obligatory shot of Alcatraz across the bay. I also saw a magnificent old pelican but wasn't quick enough on the draw to capture the image. Thanks for the inspiration Dad....life is short.

Monday, July 27, 2009


In his 1970 landmark book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler described life in the coming 21st century with such depressing terms as the concept of transience, the throwaway society, the hurry-up welcome and the economics of impermanence. He predicted that change itself would become the greatest challenge to the personal sense of well-being on which most of us base that thing we call happiness. With this in mind, it’s not hard to explain why many of us take refuge in objects, rituals, old photo albums, and places . . . especially places, that become touchstones with our past while reassuring us that not everything has to change in the twinkling of a mega-byte.
Part of my personal love affair with much of rural and coastal New England, lies in the perception that there, change is not quite as rampant, nor as discordant as elsewhere; there I can walk on wide board floors laid three centuries ago, and kneel in lovingly-kept cemeteries where Revolutionary war veterans sleep beside sea captains whose billowing sails plied still-uncharted oceans; where stone walls were laid by the great, great, great, great grandfathers of those who still tend them, and even the white picket fences are mended and painted by the legatees of a present generation who have walked on the moon.
Even within this setting, I weep inwardly to see old barns surrendering to gravity, and paving machines burying the history of road-builders long dead. And so I cherish most those outposts of continuity which remain outside the heavy hand of change. I especially love to walk beside the flowing waters of Furnace Brook, which passes by our annual destination site on the ancient graded dirt road whose name is eponymous with that of the waterway. First, a little history.
Vermont is not about counties, although it has fourteen of those. Vermont is all about towns, and it has 237 of those (plus 9 cities and 4 gores). The town of Chittenden is one of the largest in land area, and has a very long pioneer history. Even before the Civil War, (and certainly during it), the region’s dense forests, plentiful water sources, and limestone and manganese deposits fed the iron foundries of an era when cannons and equipment fostered a family of industries. The forging of iron spawned a need for charcoal, and charcoal furnaces and kilns grew up close to the very resources which enriched an otherwise agricultural area. The famous Pittsford Furnace gave identity to the brook I love and the road which parallels it.
For nearly forty years, I have sought the peace and solace found along Furnace Brook at the end of each annual sojourn. Even if our arrival is in the dark of night or in the course of a rain shower, it is usually no more than minutes before I have changed shoes, donned a wind breaker if necessary, snagged my favorite walking stick, and left Toffler’s world behind me. With this groundwork having been laid, perhaps it will be easier to understand the thoughts provoked by the simple experience which prompts this column.
It was early on a cool October morning, the air still a pearly white from the last of the night’s dew fall, the beckoning autumn-tinged foliage draping the empty road ahead of me as I strolled upstream. A lone jogger came into view, approaching from the opposite direction at a steady but relaxed pace, both arms swinging rhythmically at her side. As she got closer I noted the wires leading from one jacket pocket to the ear phones plugged securely into both ears. “Beethoven, Bach or Bluegrass” I wondered as we silently passed each other. Only a slight wave of one hand indicated that my presence registered. “Dedicated runner”, I thought. Allowing for the fact that I knew nothing about her motivations, I allowed myself the indulgence of wondering at how much she was missing. And so I began to listen intently as I built a mental list. Furnace Brook itself dominated the aural scale as it passed over rocky rills, lengthy riffles, occasional rapids, and long stretches muffled by a few extra meters of distance from the road. The Doppler effect of a varying geography changed the rhythm and decibel level by the moment, from a mesmeric murmur to a crashing exclamation point, diminished by the intrusion of a small bridge it passed under, and reawakened by a stone weir which once empowered a long-ago mill race.
There were other sounds, just as much a part of the morning: a white throat sparrow called its hear sweet Canada, Canada, Canada pronouncement from the top of a lightning-struck spruce, far above the humble chickadees which sprinted from branch to branch right overhead amid their always-cheerful chatter. Pausing to admire a grove of new maples, I heard the bleat of a lamb farther downstream somewhere, as well as the complaining raucousness of eastern blue jays. A red squirrel announced his noisy presence while surveying the riches of this year’s beechnut harvest. Bending to examine the exquisite symmetry of a thistle bloom, my ears registered the hum of honey bees exploring its pollen potential against the complaining of crows holding a convention in a nearby pasture. From deep in the surrounding hardwood forest, I caught the glissading song of a hermit thrush, perhaps my favorite of all back-country sounds, its notes capable of resurrecting an endless procession of boyhood memories.
Many other notes were added to my early-morning musical collage: The crowing of somebody’s rooster, the distant clatter of a chainsaw starting up; the cry of a red tail hawk high up on one hilltop, and the common-day contribution of a barking farm dog, and a screen door being slammed.
Often today, when at home or afield, I picture the stranger and her ear plugs, and I think about the neglected art of listening.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Scattered across the rolling green countryside of Somerset, in England’s southwest, are farming communities with names like Lower Weare, Compton Bishop, Lulsgate Bottom and Rodney Stokes. It is in this land of ancient fences, flowing brooks and old pastures, that the village of Cheddar lies. It was in this region, probably 600 years ago, that a tradition was born. The “genesis” of all cheddar cultures came from nearby caves where early farmhouse cheeses were taken to cure. The term cheddar denominates not only the place of its birth, but the type of cheese itself, and the method by which it continues to be made today in other countries and places. Of all the world’s hard and semi-hard cheeses, cheddar is by far the most widely recognized. Its unchallenged popularity arises in large part from its versatility, and the wide range of possibilities it brings to even the most humble table. In future columns, we will visit other great cheese families, but it makes the greatest sense to begin such a journey with the cheese that came to our own shores with the earliest English settlers. Originally, all cheddar was made on the farm, and was a true hand-crafted dairy product. Today, most cheddar is produced in a factory environment, with cow’s milk accumulated from multiple sources before being blended, pasteurized, and subjected to the three basic steps which make use of heating, culturing and curd management to produce cheese ready for pressing and finishing. It takes about ten pounds of milk to make one pound of cheddar in a process which preserves 96% of the protein and a high concentration of the milk’s vitamins and minerals, in a compact form with a long shelf life and multiple layers of flavor. The supermarket cheese buyer can be forgiven for believing that cheddar cheese comes in rectangular orange chunks that are marked mild, medium and sharp, and are otherwise all pretty much alike. In fact, real cheddar is a creamy-white in color, starts out- in most cases – in various size round wheels, and can be as distinctly different in sharpness and flavor as a random array of varietal wines. What causes the color confusion is the practice of American factory producers of artificially coloring their product to conform to a market expectation of what cheese should look like. A cheddar aficionado would probably not give the time of day to a product in which a manufacturer-added color can cover up a multitude of negative signals, especially when so many great U.S. cheddars are readily available, among them a number which consistently take “best of show” and “grand master” awards in national and world competition every year. As one who grew up on a small dairy farm, and who made his first home-crafted cheddar at the age of 14, my own preferences reflect the subjectivity of a life-long devotee. While I enjoy a wide range of cheeses from around the world, with cheddar at the top of the stack, I have some clear-cut views on what constitutes a real winner. Here is a breakdown of what I would look for: A true farmstead cheddar, made preferably from raw whole milk from an evening and a morning milking, in small batches, from a single herd of cows pastured and fed on a consistent regimen, in a farm-family setting; aged and managed for at least 18 months- but hopefully longer – in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment, and cut to my specifications from the original wheel as I watch. Among my favorites are: Grafton Village (3 yrs old) - Shelburne Farmhouse – Crowley-
Cabot Private Stock – Cloth-bound Cabot and – Tillamook Vintage White (2 Yrs old)
The first five choices are all from Vermont (reflecting a prejudice born of many personal visits, and hands-on familiarity), while choice number six represents a considered exception to most of my rules. (Despite the fact that Tillamook is a huge “factory-like” operation, their Vintage White is both very good, and quite available throughout our region.) The question of pasteurization is worth some explanation, since only Shelburne Farmhouse is true to the raw milk standard mentioned. Most pasteurization in the American dairy industry involves heating the milk to 160 degrees F. for 30 seconds – it’s quick and cheap, but changes the flavor for cheese-making. The alternate method is to raise the temperature only to 140 degrees, but for 30 minutes. The second method involves time and cost, but protects flavor. Mention is made of a new arrival on the scene ­– Clothbound Cabot - mostly because of the significance of the story behind it; at nearly $20.00 per pound, not too many of our readers are apt to place it high on their shopping list. It involves an institution common in Europe, but new to America: the role of the affineur. Making cheese is relatively simple and straight-forward once you have the bacterial culture, equipment, a source of milk and some experience. But 60% of the flavor of the finished product is all tied up with what happens after the cheese is pressed into the final form; the process known as “aging” or “curing”. It also represents the major part of a cheese-maker’s investment, because it means he has to protect, finish and inventory his product for many months – or even years – before it becomes income. (That’s why you pay more for a fine aged cheese !) Enter the affineur; practitioner of the fine art of affinage. The person who literally becomes the foster parent of the selected wheels of well-made cheese, positions them at exactly the right shelf-location in the aging cave, regularly rotates and turns them, cleans and brushes them, and guides them one-by-one through the long and demanding mentoring period. Clothbound Cabot describes a cheddar which is the product of a partnership of Cabot Creamery and Jasper Hill Farm. Cabot makes the cheese, and Jasper Hill Farm guides each 38 lb. wheel through the months of attentive handling and aging in their three million square foot cheese cave built into a hillside in Greensboro, Vermont. In an upcoming column, we will share some suggestions for enjoying all kinds of cheese, and introduce some new culinary masterpieces coming from a small Utah creamery.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Searching for Sammy

When the Korean War broke out on June 25th, 1950, the first American service men to find themselves engulfed in that unique conflict were drawn from the ranks of occupation forces already stationed in Japan. As “peace keepers”, they faced a traumatic transition to an unremitting combat environment, for which they were largely untrained and grossly unequipped. That they fought so well and literally “saved the day” for the gathering phalanx who would follow only adds to the measure of their contribution to a cause whose dimensions were still unforseen and unforeseeable.
For the 1,800,000 American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who would follow that vanguard, the transition was no less challenging, especially since they had experienced no prior introduction to the people of East Asia. The Korean culture is vastly different, even from that of the Japanese, and their distinct history and language reach back tens of centuries. The typical G.I. had neither the time nor much opportunity to bridge that knowledge gap, and besides, they were locked in a daily struggle just to stay alive in a harsh and very unfriendly piece of real estate.
The closest most American servicemen came to “rubbing shoulders” regularly with South Korean civilians, was through a uniquely US/Korean wartime institution known as “the houseboy”.
Once some stability in battle lines was established, most of us became residents of well-worn, WW II canvas squad tents, each housing ten or twelve men. If we were fortunate enough to stay in one place long enough, we might even lay a makeshift floor of old crating material, and install a kerosene-fueled stove. (It is a characteristic of American fighting men that given the chance, they will quickly convert whatever shelter they have at hand into a replica of the home they left behind.)
The typical houseboy was a young teenager, not old enough to be in the ROK Army, but often mature beyond his years, and probably the principle or lone bread winner for his war-ravaged family. To earn his keep he performed all the house-keeping chores for residents of at least one tent ful of G.I.s, airing sleeping bags, filling water basins and personal canteens, cleaning and polishing boots, emptying the ever-present cigarette butt cans, running errands, arranging for laundry duties with villagers, and guarding the property of that handful of gum-chewing visitors from a foreign land he quickly adopted as “big brothers”. All of this for a carton or two of cigarettes - the universal currency - or Korean whan paper money of questionable and varying worth. The most sought-after “boys” were also accomplished “scroungers”; expert in locating whatever odd thing was needed, no questions asked. (Rolls of bathroom tissue, the occasional light bulb, and bottles of real Coca Cola were of particular value.)
Perhaps even more important, and less appreciated was the bridge between cultures and language represented by this humble ambassador of good will dedicated to serving others, and willing to forgive the unintended indifference and lofty hubris of those they cared for with such loyalty.
For me, that unforgettable companion and mentor of all things “Korean” was a thirteen-year-old boy known to us as “Sammy”. His real name was Ho jin Ko, and he lived in the nearby village of Chi Hyang ri. For nearly a year, he saw to it that my jump boots were the spiffiest, my sleeping area the neatest, and the field jeep I sometimes used, far cleaner than any other in the unit. His attentiveness was indefatigable, and I tried always to show my deep appreciation.
When asked by the documentary film crew from Korean National Television who accompanied our group of Utah Veterans on our 2009 revisit if there was someone from the past I might like to locate, I told them about Sammy. But such a reunion seemed so unlikely, even impossible given the passage of so much time and the vagaries of wartime memory that I held no real expectation of success. In fact I was more amused than anything by the enthusiastic effort being made by my Korean hosts in their persistent search for Sammy.
I was still doubtful when, on May 30th we drove south from Seoul to the distant city of Deagu where the researchers at KNTV claimed they had located Ho jin Ko, now in declining health and impaired memory in a care facility. Even as the wheelchair-bound patient, with his younger sister at his side was pushed from an elevator into the room where our small party waited, I was uncertain; time had indeed taken its toll on the young boy I had once known. As we talked and friends interpreted, his memory began to come back, and his recollection of small details brought a smile to his face and a glow to his countenance. My own son who had just flown to Korea to be with me managed to snap on unplanned picture with his cell phone as I once again shared a hug with a friend from out of the past. The search for ”Sammy”had come to an end.