Getting Started on 1,000 Acres

For the past year I've been working with the Vermont Land Trust on planning a collaboration with visual artists called "Eyes on the Land". Our idea is to pair painters, sculptors, photographers, and conceptual artists with conserved forests and farms, give them four seasons to explore the land, and see what they come up with. The results will be exhibited at Shelburne Museum in October, 2015.

The economic and social benefits of land conservation are vital and well-documented. But what about the more subjective and emotional impact of the natural and working landscape? How does preserved land affect us spiritually and creatively?  "Eyes on the Land" will explore those questions, and yesterday I got a start on trying to figure out my own response.

For my Eyes on the Land series, I selected the Johnson Farm, a Vermont Land Trust conserved dairy farm two hours from my home, way up in the Northeast Kingdom near the Canadian and New Hampshire borders.

It's approximately 600 acres of cropland and pasture bordered by 400 acres of wetlands and river. That's a daunting amount of area to explore with a French easel, and my first goal was just to have the snow melt enough that I could get up and take a look.

Yesterday it actually felt like spring, and we were off on our field trip!  My guides were Sharon Plumb and Bruce Urie of the Vermont Land Trust. We spent six hours exploring the pastures, crop land, wetlands, and barns of this beautiful working landscape.

Sharon and Bruce walking towards wetlands

Sharon and Bruce walking towards wetlands

Sharon and Bruce at the dairy barn

Like all Vermont farms, this place has a long and interesting history. You can read the very inspiring story of how this unique property came to be protected from development here.

Part of what makes this place so special, and so vital for protection, is its very unusual mix of natural and working landscape. Thanks to the Land Trust, partner conservation organizations, and the property owners, wetland habitats and tilled acres can coexist.

Wetlands and croplands on the Johnson farm

Entrance to the Wildlife Management Area that's adjacent to cropland

Red wing blackbird in the Wildlife Management Area near hay fields

I'm planning on painting through the four coming seasons here, and that's a primarily visual and emotional activity that doesn't really require a verbal explanation of the fields, trees, water and mountains I'll be trying to get down on canvas.

But still, I want to understand more about the meaning of what I'm seeing around me, and figure out some answers to all the questions that come to mind as I walk around these acres. What animals and plants live in these wetlands? How is the farmer utilizing these fields? How does the natural and agricultural land, so close to each other, co-exist? And what about the cows, and the milk they produce, who provide the center for this place? Learning more about what I'm seeing here will give the paintings more context for me, and perhaps create a richer subtext for the viewer.

Talking to Bruce and a forest project manager about tree planting that's buffering the wetlands.

Tree planting in the wetlands buffer

Meanwhile, it was a beautiful spring day in the Northeast Kingdom, albeit with a little nip in the wind. We were all happy to be out of doors, sharing the sun with flocks of geese resting on the river's spring overflow. We felt some sympathy for the domesticated white goose  who wandered down from a neighboring farm, and was looking with mingled curiosity and longing at her liberated brethren (or so we humans speculated.)

Farm geese look at wild geese...

Wild geese float by beaver lodge

I left the Johnson Farm feeling lucky that I could explore this beautiful, complicated place with my paintings over the coming year. I'll look forward to sharing with you the ins and outs, as well as ups and downs, over the next four seasons!