Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lake and Islands in October Light

Island Studies, 3,1,2 ( paintings by Kevin Macneil Brown, watercolor on paper)

Three fast sketches made from the beach wall at Mark's Bay in South Burlington, VT, near sunset , October 11, 2008.
The idea was to capture energy rather than detail: the pulse of water, sunlight, sky, and landforms.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Evening Shore

Evening Shore- (Painting by Kevin Macneil Brown,
acrylic on canvas, April 2009)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Dawn Shore

Dawn Shore- (painting by Kevin Macneil Brown,
watercolor on paper, April, 2009)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Two Poems About Samuel de Champlain

(Mark's Bay, Lake Champlain- Painting by Kevin Macneil Brown,
acrylic on canvas, 2008)

Samuel De Champlain

Astrolabe, lead line
lineaments of ungratified...
desire: 29 voyages 1599 to 1633

Master mariner, marriage
perhaps unconsummated ?;
childless but for
three adopted Indian daughters,
Faith, Hope, Charity,
later lost to politics.

But found so much land and
water between fog and clear sailing!

Observation, involvement,
engagement- chose sides in battle.
(but, in all fairness, a man of
moderation, the
middle path: witness his
distaste for torture, his
essential human kindness).

The Good Catholic,
tolerant of others, Protestants and
Indian souls to be saved
(this succeeded only with sick native
baptized at death’s door)

Did he take offense
at metrical Psalms sung
loudly from Protestant, Huguenot
ships- a quarantined “church” in the harbor?

Years later, Helene, his wife,
takes orders in an Ursuline convent.

His grave unknown,
an astrolabe his only
surviving object,

Place names and a
rich topography,

Rivers and bays,
a monumental silence.

Rich and fecund river mouth
islands of nine or seven summits,
spruce and birch, white pine, beech

Champlain saw:
"ospreys, heron, curlews
others in infinite numbers
that come in their seasons..."

Lists among the
hawks and falcons:
"Less common than those named, one
with gray plumage on back
and white on the belly, as
large and fat as a hen,
with one foot like the talon
of a bird of prey, with which
it catches fish; the other

like that of a duck.
The latter serves
for swimming in the water when he dives for fish.

This bird is not
supposed to be found, except in
New France. "

Is there a continuous line
from Norumbega to here and now?

migration assume another
dimension across
boundaries that don’t exist?

-Kevin Macneil Brown

Available at Bear Pond Books, Monpelier, Vermont
or here:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Passage- Painting by Kevin Macneil Brown,
watercolor on paper, 2009

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Departure Map

(Kevin Macneil Brown, mixed media, 2009)

This link will lead you to some soundworks I composed and recorded in 2006, inspired by explorations of the lake and shorelines:

Champlain and the Power of New England Time and Space

(VIEW FROM ISLE LA MOTTE- Painting by Kevin Macneil Brown,
acrylic on canvas, 2008)


By Kevin Macneil Brown

One need only read Samuel de Champlain’s 1632 treatise on seamanship to know that the French explorer was not only a master mariner, but also a man of good humor and deep, careful thought. And it should come as no surprise to learn that, after long and difficult voyages, Champlain could always find the best harbors, the safest anchorages. After all, such an ability, along with courage and clear thinking, is part of the mariner’s—-and the adventurer’s –-art.
So why would I be surprised to find that, in northern New England, when I come across a place of particular power, where water and land intersect and interchange, Champlain would have been there—-with all his senses and faculties wide open and engaged-- before me, before any of us, 400 years ago.

I learned about Champlain when I was eight years old. I was spending one of many summers in the seaport, fishing city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, the place both my parents came from. Beauport was the name Champlain gave to that beautiful long harbor with its enclosing arms of land to the east and west, when, after a brief offshore visit in 1605, he thought well enough of the place to return and explore it in 1606.
That long-ago summer my grandfather showed me a tarnished-to-green copper plaque -—I think it was in East Gloucester, somewhere among all the little art galleries, the jumble of boats at dock or pulled up and resting on dry land that seemed to fill every available open space. On the plaque was an inscription honoring Champlain’s arrival.
Champlain had anchored offshore, landing his party with the usual flotilla of small boats. He eventually made a beautiful and accurate map of the region, one that showed the location and architecture of Native American villages, and he wrote in careful detail in his journal, describing flora and fauna, the shapes of land and water.
Thanks to Champlain I could--and still do--imagine that time and place. And to this day, when I return to Gloucester, I cannot look out beyond the surf of Good Harbor Beach or the white breakers on dark Bass Rocks without seeing French ships out there, riding at anchor in line with what are named now Straitsmouth and Thacher’s, those long, low islands just ahead of the horizon.


Though I spent summers in Gloucester, I grew up in New Hampshire, in the foothills of the White Mountains. New Hampshire’s seacoast is, of course, contiguous with those of Maine and Massachusetts, and on the 1605 voyage, Champlain and his men, sailing in the waters of what is now Casco Bay, caught sight of those mountains looming granite-gray some 60 miles inland.
In New Hampshire, even a hundred miles from the shore, it seems that you always know the ocean is there; that big rivers like the Connecticut and the Merrimac are never far from being subsumed in their estuaries and, at last, the open Atlantic.
In land-locked Vermont it’s a different story. Yet even here the closest thing to a coastline bears the name—-and thus the presence—-of Samuel de Champlain.


When I came to live in Vermont more than 20 years ago, I found out the hard way that I missed the ocean with all my being. My love for the mountains, the hills, the forests, farms, and villages was never in doubt. But there was also a craving for salt air and long, open horizons; a craving that actually hurt my heart—-a palpable presence of yearning deep inside me.
Over the course of a few years I read about Champlain’s 1609 voyage down from New France to the waters of the big lake with Indian guides and escorts; his involvement in Indian battles, leading to what were likely the first warlike European gunshots fired within sight and sound of the big lake; his optimistic--and, to our minds, perhaps, misguided--belief that New France could welcome the new world’s native people into a peaceful, plentiful Christian assembly. Following that foreshadowing, I learned about the lake’s later history as both a corridor of trade and a pathway for war and invasion.
I also learned about the lake’s sacred and central place in Western Abenaki cosmology and religion. Bitagw, they called it: land and water in layers, alternating. With all these things in mind, I let my imagination follow its own voyage as I went for long, scenic runs alongside the shoreline in Burlington, Charlotte, and Shelburne, loving the views of blue water and dark pines and not-so-distant mountains. I even began to get a small taste of my beloved ocean from Lake Champlain, even if it was a taste noticeably lacking in salt.
But none of this prepared me for the power of time and place I would find one day at Champlain’s ancient anchorage --and the likely locus of his landing-- on the western shore of what we now call Isle la Motte.


In Vermont’s Champlain islands, crossings are at the heart of travel: bridges, causeways; the sandbars they are built upon. And one is never far from the way blue and silver-streaked water reflects the light of sky and sun, the mantled blue haze of mountains. In October there is a russet glow on hayed meadows and on the reeds and rushes in shallow waters, a lush smell of late apples on the trees in failing afternoon light. And again, almost always, a streak of lake water on some horizon.
At the Fisk Quarry on Isle La Motte, not far from the northwestern shore, are the remains of the ancient Chazy Reef formation that formed when this place was beneath the long-gone Iapetus Ocean. (I use the word “place”; but exactly what does that mean when this physical evidence itself has been in motion; when, before the continents reached their current location, those ancient events actually took place close to the Equator, near what is present-day Zimbabwe?)
At Fisk Quarry, layers of limestone—-like frozen, silenced time-- are open to our sight and other senses. Striated and sculptured blocks of stone rise over pools of still water, and fossilized remains of Ordovician Period creatures sit right there on the surface of the rock, where rain and snow and sun can find them now, some 450 million years after they lived.
Finding the shoreline from here and following it Northwest leads to the site of an event much more recent in ancient history: the place where Champlain made a landing in 1609, marveling in his journal at the length of this island and its forests. On this shore is the site of what became the French Fort Saint Anne in 1666-- the short-lived first European Settlement in what was later to be Vermont. The ideals Champlain had held were part of the past. These soldiers and Jesuits said what was likely the first Mass heard on Vermont shores, and then garrisoned themselves against Indian attacks. One can imagine the intensity of living in that tiny island community, nearby to those waters in all seasons-- from sultry summer to wind-swept, snow-covered winter; with the cold autumn fog rising from open water to warming sky in the morning; in the winter an iced-in wilderness outpost made up of soldiers living packed together in isolation and a state of alert, far from what they thought of as home.
The gray-brown beach is there today. There’s a long view across water to the New York shore and the looming Adirondacks: serried, and dark except for the places where rent clouds pour out autumn sun to silver the bare, rocky summits.
On the rolling land that overlooks this scene are spread the grottoes and chapels, the statues and luminaries, of The Shrine of Saint Anne De Beaupre. It’s a place for prayer, built on the remains of the abandoned French military fort by Vermont Catholics at the end of the 1800s. Up against the hillside stands a stunning and and colossal golden statue of Our Lady of Lourdes.(In the early 20th century she watched over a cathedral in Burlington, and was rescued from a fire in 1972.) Crowned now with electric light bulbs, in season she sends her light out above the Stations of the Cross and over the waters.
Champlain might well have approved. He was a devout Catholic, even adopting three orphaned Indian girls and naming them Faith, Hope, and Charity. After his death, his wife Helene took orders and entered an Ursuline convent in France.
Champlain’s bones most likely rest in Quebec-- what was once the New France he helped found. The whereabouts of his body are not known for sure, but his astrolabe, the tool with which he measured the positions of celestial bodies to find his place on the ocean, remains as a relic. It was found in 1867 by a 14-year-old farm boy at the site of a rough Ontario portage, right where Champlain dropped it in 1613.


Inland, in Montpelier, on the same morning that I began to read Champlain’s journals and Samuel Eliot Morison’s wonderful biography of the explorer, I walked into town to work. Along US Route 2-(which itself was once an Indian path) in the breakdown lane above the Winooski River bank, lay the ripped and wind-scattered pages of an old, discarded world atlas: sun-faded, mud-smeared maps spread at random intervals for a half-mile or so along my way. It seemed strangely appropriate; in tune with the moment.
A few years later, on my first trip to Isle La Motte, I ran on the beach. Little waves broke against the shore, and I made sure to put my feet in the water, even though it was late October, cold, gray and overcast. Moving in that water and under the pale sky, I could feel, in an instant, the long stretch of time and space—-of history, myth, and geology; of human hopes and fears and prayers-- that arrived at the here and now.
The copper sun shone through for a moment, a burnished pale disc in the afternoon sky. Its light made a streak of silver across the water. That light might have marked—-for just a moment-- the line those Indian and French boats followed, leading them to what they found.

(This piece was originally published, in slightly different form, in THE MONTPELIER BRIDGE.)