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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, October 26, 2006

Audubon’s words and pictures take wing"A study in contrasts

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — John James Audubon was a walking contradiction. He was a failure, and he was a huge success; he was a flirt, and he was a faithful husband; he was a frontiersman, and he was highly literate. The self-taught artist killed thousands upon thousands of birds, yet today his name is synonymous with conservation.

Saturday, bird lovers, naturalists, scholars, art enthusiasts, and filmmakers came from near and far to celebrate Audubon — his life and his legacy — and to be the first to see the Public Broadcasting Service film, John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature.

After viewing the film, conference attendees shook the auditorium with thunderous applause.

Drawn From Nature, using expert opinions, re-enactments, and Audubon’s personal accounts, sketches Audubon’s dramatic life.

Audubon created The Birds of America — a collection of 435 life-size prints. He published, wrote, and promoted the collection, and he was praised by royalty, and attracted the attention of the kings of France and England. He dined with Andrew Jackson in the White House.

The illegitimate son of a French sea captain, he failed as a merchant, was jailed for bankruptcy, and was black-balled three times by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.

"Audubon died 150 years ago, but I ran into him everywhere," said Larry Hott, one of the film’s two producers.

Hott said that, while filming in Henderson, Ky., he discovered countless businesses named after the famous artist. Hott saw an Audubon gas station, and an Audubon pawn and loan, as well as several other businesses capitalizing on Audubon’s life.

"Everybody wanted to claim Audubon as their own," he said.

Making the film, he said, was a challenge.

Hott, who has been producing documentary films since 1978, said it was difficult to portray a man’s life given such short airtime.

"How do you tell the life of a man, how do you capture him, in 53 minutes"" he asked.

While making the film, Hott said, it was difficult to obtain the necessary permits.

In downtown New York, he said, as soon as the filmmakers pulled up with the permit, ready to shoot, the crew was approached by two cops. Hott explained, they were near the Washington Bridge, a suspected terrorist target.

Many of the buildings Audubon visited and lived in, within the United States, are no longer standing.

Hott also said that it was difficult to decide what should be left in the film and what should be taken out.

Hott said he would have liked to have told more about what happened after Audubon’s death. "What happened to the family"" he asked. "They went belly-up."

The other story that Hott said he wished he’d had time to tell was about George Bird Grinnell, who founded The Audubon Society in 1896.

The society, now with more than 500 chapters in the U.S., is dedicated to preserving animals and their habitats.

Diane Garey, who co-produced the film with Hott, was asked why she and Hott chose Audubon as a subject. She responded, "We’ve always had an interest in the environment."

Garey and Hott have collaborated on many films since 1978, and their most recent film, Niagara Falls, was broadcast nationally on PBS in July 2006.

Drawn From Nature, Hott told The Enterprise, should be released by Bullfrog Films sometime early next year, and it will air on PBS sometime in the spring.

Concerned conference chair

Roswell Eldridge, M.D., the conference chair, said the event "has been a dream for years."

Eldridge, who also provided funding for the film, is deeply concerned with the preservation of Audubon’s work. He said that fewer than 50 double elephant folios remain in the United States.

The double elephant folios are large, four-volume sets, approximately 28 by 39 inches in size, which contain life-size illustrations of Audubon’s Birds of America.

Audubon’s Octavos, the seven-volume sets, of The Birds of America, and the three-volume sets, Quadrupeds of North America, are smaller in size and contain Audubon’s writing.

"As a 12 or 13-year-old, I picked them up and leafed through them"In time, I looked at the observations of each subject," said Eldridge.

Audubon’s affection for his subjects, Eldridge said, "was evident."

The collections, he said, are being broken up, and the illustrations are being sold on eBay.

"You can have a reproduction and preserve the Octavo," Eldridge insisted.

The Octavos, which contain Audubon’s hand-colored prints and Audubon’s personal observations, Eldridge said, are the only place where someone is able to get an impression of Audubon as both an artist and a writer.

"Read one account," he said, "and you’ll see the value." Eldridge added, "It’s hard to imagine them being lost."

Experts chime in

A number of experts were on hand at the conference who cleared up misconceptions about Audubon and paid tribute.

John Chalmers, M.D., traveled farther than anyone to attend.

Chalmers, a retired orthopedic surgeon from Edinburgh, Scotland, author of Audubon in Edinburgh and His Scottish Associates, spoke about his own early interest in birds.

As a young boy, he said, he was on a bird walk near Portland, Ore., and kept an account in his diary of the birds he saw. In the same day, he saw the Audubon Warbler and the MacGillivray warbler.

"This started me off," he said.

Chalmers, interested with Audubon’s Scottish links, spoke about Audubon’s visits to Edinburgh, and his involvement with William MacGillivray, Conservator of the Museum of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

Christoph Irmscher, Ph.D., a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., editor of John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings, lectured on Audubon’s writing.

Irmscher, at the beginning of the lecture, said he was on "a crusade to rehabilitate Audubon as a writer."

Irmscher began by insisting that Audubon is a great American writer, one of vision, with a masterful handling of the English language.

Audubon, Irmscher said, is always talked of as a painter, not as a writer. Audubon’s writing, he added, is thought of as "subsidiary" or a "bonus."

Audubon’s writing, Irmscher said, suffered injustices — censorship and editing, which resulted in the loss of meaning — and Irmscher supported his opening statements by contrasting edited and original Audubon writing.

"The less we miss of the original Audubon writings, the better," Irmscher said.

To accentuate his points, Irmscher read several of Audubon’s accounts and concluded with an observation found in Audubon’s Writings and Drawings:

"Could you, kind reader, cast a momentary glance on the nest of the Humming Bird, and see, as I have seen, the newly hatched pair of young, little larger than bumble-bees, naked, blind, and so feeble as scarcely to be able to raise their little bill to receive food from the parents; and could you see those parents, full of anxiety and fear, passing and repassing within a few inches of your face, alighting on a twig not more than a yard from your body, waiting the result of your unwelcome visit in a state of the utmost despair, — you could not fail to be impressed with the deepest pangs which parental affection feels on the unexpected death of a cherished child," Audubon wrote.

"Audubon lost two children," Irmscher said. "Lucy and Rose."

Audubon used the pronoun "you," he added, to create involvement with the reader.

Audubon also used anthropomorphism, attributing human feelings to things not human, to tell humans to go and mind their own business. He re-read the passage and its conclusion:

"Then how pleasing it is, on your leaving the spot, to see the returning hope of the parents, when, after examining the nest, they find their nurslings untouched! You might then judge how pleasing it is to a mother of another kind, to hear the physician who has attended her sick child assure her that the crisis is over, and that her babe is saved."

Irmscher concluded, "We should be grateful that the watercolors are still here, that the writing is still here, and that the voice is still here, and it speaks to us."

First-grader dropped at wrong stop, school looks for answers

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — A six-year-old child, accidentally dropped off two miles from her home, was given a lift by a passing motorist.

Tara Clickman said she and her husband were angry after her daughter was brought home by Ted Elberts of Reidsville last Tuesday, not a Berne-Knox-Westerlo bus driver.

Clickman’s daughter, Shelby Clickman, a first-grader at BKW, was picked up by Elberts on Cass Hill Road, after Curtis Ingraham, a BKW school bus driver, dropped her off at the incorrect address.

"I can’t describe how angry I was," Clickman told The Enterprise.

Shelby, Clickman said, was very upset and had stomach cramps, but, since last Tuesday’s incident, has been attending school, and is OK. "It could have been much worse," Clickman said.

Superintendent Steven Schrade wrote an Oct. 18 letter that went out to the parents of BKW students, informing them of the incident. He said this week that the school will be reviewing its procedures.

On Tuesdays, Clickman said, her daughter stays for the after-school program to receive extra help. She rides the 3:30 p.m. bus home on that day. The other four days of the school week, she rides the regular 2:30 p.m. route.

"She loves her regular bus driver," she said.

The school assigns its drivers on a rotating basis for the late route, and the kids are never the same, said Alan Zuk, the school’s director of transportation.

Scrade said that students staying after school, who ride the late bus, bring slips with their address, and a copy of the slip is given to teachers’ aides, who give the slips to the drivers.

Clickman is letting her daughter decide whether or not she wants to continue staying after school on Tuesday.

"She might have to talk to a counselor," Clickman said. She added, "We don’t want to penalize her. We want to make sure that she gets the extra help she needs and arrives home safely."

Ingraham, since last Tuesday’s incident, has been on paid leave. He did not return a call from The Enterprise.

"At first," Clickman said, "I wanted the driver fired."

On Friday, Clickman told The Enterprise Ingraham should be suspended with pay, and eventually come back to work. She added, "I think some policies need to be changed."

She had looked at the videotape from the security camera in the bus earlier in the day, and reported that Ingraham did not look at the slip with the Clickman’s address given to him by one of the teacher’s aides.

Schrade told The Enterprise that, since last Tuesday, he’s received some phone calls and an e-mail.

"One father," he said, "has a daughter who rides the bus and doesn’t want the driver to lose his job. One mother," he said, "was concerned, wondering what the school was doing in response, because her child rides that bus."

Schrade said that the e-mail he received was from a mother, which described Ingraham as "dedicated," a "good guy," and said he wouldn’t deliberately do anything to put a child in harm’s way.

"There have been similar incidents in the past of children dropped off at the incorrect address, but they have occurred separately and with space between them," Schrade said. "But I don’t think there’s been a case regarding a child this young."

He said that, given the enormity of the task of making thousands of pick-ups and drop-offs, there’s going to be a mistake. He added, "We don’t expect to make mistakes, but the odds are, there’s going to be one at some point."

Schrade also said that the school understands the seriousness of its role in providing safety to children.

Town attorney under fire

By Tyler Schuling

WESTERLO — Alene Galgay has been the town attorney since 1997, but, after hearing that a group within the town is against her re-appointment and critical of her actions, she said she doesn’t know why she does it anymore.

"It doesn’t matter what you do, someone is always out to get you," she said.

This week, The Enterprise received a letter to the letter, Who elected the town attorney", from Eugene McGrath and Michael Sikule, members of Citizens Against the Reappointment of the Town Attorney.

McGrath said the group, which now has about 20 members, began forming this summer when residents were upset with Galgay’s role in the planning process.

"So who voted for the town attorney"" the letter says. "Because it seems obvious from attending any meeting — town, planning, or zoning — that it is the town attorney who seems to be doing all the talking, interrupting elected and appointed officials at will, correcting them without any sense of protocol or respect to the board chairperson, making comments directly to the audience without having them evaluated by the chairperson, and addressing applicant attorneys without deference to the chairperson." (See opinion pages.)

Galgay said the letter writers attended a few meetings, and were unhappy with the results of the board’s recent decision to grant a special-use permit in September.

She said that all who attended the September planning board meeting voiced their opinions and presented their criticisms. Her role, she said, is to inform the board members and be as professional as possible.

"I don’t vote," Galgay said, and added, "I like to dot all my ‘i’s and cross all my ‘t’s."

The controversial special-use permit Galgay cited was issued to Guy DeGennaro and his family, of DeGennaro Fuel Service, a heating oil company and roll-off trash container business.

Before the board granted the permit, some residents, including Sheila McGrath, said road conditions within the town, combined with the nature of the DeGennaros’ business and its fleet of industrial trucks posed problems.

Some claimed the town’s roads were not wide enough and would be damaged by the DeGennaros’ fleet. Some also said that, given the width of DeGannaros’ trucks and the width of school buses, issuing the permit could possibly endanger children.

"Anybody’s entitled to their opinion," Supervisor Richard Rapp told The Enterprise this week after learning of the Citizens Against the Reappointment of the Town Attorney.

Asked what the role of the town attorney is, Rapp responded, "To advise the board on legal matters, which she does."

Rapp added that Galgay helped with legal matters throughout the formation and completion of the town’s first water district.

"She did a good job," he said. Rapp said that, throughout the project, there were a lot of legalities.

"I didn’t expect so much legal work," he said.

Galgay is earning $18,000 this year. She said, "I did the legal work for the water district with no additional stipends." Rapp earns $13,000.

"It doesn’t matter whether I am on the phone for six hours or six minutes," she said. "I don’t get anything extra."

Asked if her position as the town attorney and her practice within the town cause a conflict of interest, Galgay said she routinely doesn’t accept cases which could be brought before the town’s justices, the planning board, or the zoning board.

"It’s a town law for the position of the town attorney to go to a [practicing] attorney within the town," Galgay said.

Hiring an attorney from out of town, on a consulting basis, she said, is much more expensive than hiring a constituent.

"It would cost $200 per hour to hire someone from Albany, plus travel time," she said.

When asked if it seems, at times, that Galgay oversteps her bounds, Councilman Ed Rash told The Enterprise, "Unfortunately, in some cases, it may seem that way."

"She does what the town pays her to do, which is to advise us on legalities"She’s been good at what she does," Rash said. He added, "Unfortunately, some don’t see it that way."

Rash said that some of the meetings, given the nature of the issues, can become technical, and the board needs her expertise to make an informed decision.

"She doesn’t control the meetings," Rash said.

Galgay’s demeanor, he said, doesn’t sway the board one way or the other. He said the information she provides does.

"We need things explained properly," he said.

Appointment for the town attorney occurs each year in January.

Asked if the board planned to re-appoint Galgay in 2007, Rapp responded, "I can’t speak for everyone on the board."

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