Saturday, April 27, 2013

Interview with Leslie Browning

Recently Homebound Publications Founder and Connecticut native Leslie M. Browning sat down and talked with me about myupcoming book Afoot in Connecticut: Journeys in Natural History.
Leslie: As author of Insider’s Guide to Connecticut, A History of Connecticut Food, A History of Connecticut Wine and two other books about Connecticut, what makes Afoot in Connecticut different from your previous works?
Eric: I love food and wine, and I enjoy writing history, but I came to love Connecticut first through walking the trails and discovering the natural world. So this book is much closer to my heart.
I hope it inspires other people to get out of their cars and take to the trails, because that is the best way, some would say the only way, to know a place. And I think that knowing and understanding where you live is an important part of knowing yourself.
Leslie: If you had to choose a favorite moment or a favorite hideaway in Connecticut what/where would it be?
Eric: Oh boy, there are so many—I’ve included many of those moments and hideaways in the book, of course. If you like to camp then I’d have to say Macedonia Brook State Park outside of Kent is possibly the most beautiful place I’ve spent a night. And if you’re not the sort who likes to sleep on the ground, then the Old Riverton Inn; it will always be close to my heart, because that’s where I was married, in a small ceremony with friends and family in front of a roaring fire on an autumn evening. I guess that’s probably my favorite moment, too.
Leslie: In the book there are many wonderful stories to be savored but there are, of course, those rock-bottom moments. One particular trip that comes to mind is when you and a friend trekked across Connecticut. That trip was grueling; you two ran into many obstacles, everything from bad weather to massive blisters. Did you regret setting out on the trip?
Eric: Absolutely not. As I say in the book, the struggle makes us not only stronger but better people, and I’m much better for going on that walk. That one day, though, when we hiked close to 25 miles, through that rainstorm… That was probably the hardest single day of hiking I’ve ever done, and I’ve hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I’ve never hallucinated because of fatigue like that before or since.
Leslie: You are a professor of Creative Writing at Bridgeport University. At one point in the book, you tell stories of taking students out into the field to learn about the natural history of the Connecticut countryside. During these excursions you did several interesting things with them, everything from pointing out rock formations to rappelling. When reading that section, all I could think was how much I would love to take such a hands-on course. Were you ever able to build a class around that idea?
Eric: Unfortunately not. Apparently there are insurance issues, etc. I was doing all that on the “down low,” as the kids said gleefully. I actually did far more of it than I described in the book, with students at Quinnipiac University, Southern Connecticut State University, and the University of Bridgeport. One of my favorite things to do is take students on what seems to be an ordinary hike in the woods, but with a secret destination—a ruined house foundation, a frog pond, or an abandoned lighthouse.
Leslie: What was the most interesting thing you have discovered about the natural history of Connecticut during your treks?
Eric: I think it was when I saw coyotes here in Connecticut, and realized that they were much larger than the ones I had seen out West. I looked into this phenomenon, and found that some scientists believe that they bred with wolves in Ontario before coming here, and that’s how they got so large. When you’re hiking alone and you happen upon a pack of coyotes that size…suddenly you are no longer in the safe, modern suburban world, even if you are only a couple miles from your house.
Leslie: Two of your most well-known books, A History of Connecticut Food and A History of Connecticut Wine, you co-authored with your wife Amy Nawrocki. In Afoot in Connecticut you tell the story of how you two met. What was it like telling this part of your story? How did she feel about your decision to share this story?
Eric: I had already started writing the book when I met her, and it really became the perfect ending to the story. I had spent seven years on my own in Connecticut before I met her, and had already fallen in love with the state. So, it was great to find someone to share that with, someone who had lived in Connecticut all her life, but had not really paid much attention to the natural history of it. Now she loves Connecticut in the same ways I do.
She has published a number of poems in which I feature prominently, so she can’t complain about appearing in Afoot in Connecticut! Despite a mild embarrassment, she loves the book, especially the themes of discovery and nature.
Leslie: In the book you describe on one of your first dates together with Amy, during which you took her on a hike as a way to share your passion for the wilderness with her. The date ends with her stepping on a bee’s nest. While she seemed to tough her way through, has that deterred you from taking hikes together or is she still your trail companion?
Eric: She is still most definitely my trail companion: we hiked the White Mountains shortly after that experience. She claims that the bees were just doing their duty, and had no problem going out again…after a few days with antihistamines and calamine lotion.
See her poem about the experience here:
Leslie: Glad to hear she didn’t let the experience sour the outdoors for her. Finally, to close things out, what is next for you?
Since I’m very quickly destroying my knees hiking, I think I’ll bike around New England next. Amy and I rode from New Haven to Massachusetts last summer, so that’s a good start.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Monte Cristo Bookshop

Seriously, who are the wonderful people OPENING independent bookstores these days? A rare and noble breed.

In this case, the Monte Cristo Bookshop in New London sells both new and used books, and has a great selection of local titles, as well! They are named for Eugene O'Neill's homestead, which is about a mile away and worth a stop this summer.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Florence Griswold Museum

Stopped at the Florence Griswold Museum the other day to see the Arthur Heming exhibit. But we also returned to the main house.

Once again, I was stunned by the dining room, with its panels painted by various artists, mostly the American Impressionists.

Is there another room like this in America? Please tell me if there is. It is astounding.

The rest of the collection is nice, but if you have not seen the dining room at the Florence Griswold Museum, you are missing one of the most amazing rooms in America, perhaps the world.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Norm's Diner, Groton, CT

Stopped at Groton's classic Norm's Diner recently, and tried "Norm's Pick," the steak on a hard roll. As in a rib-eye steak. Delicious. Find out more in the Insiders' Guide to Connecticut.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Monument of Disappointment

I first experienced Stonehenge when I was sixteen.  I had visited Windsor Castle in the morning and then fallen asleep due to jet lag.  My parents woke me up.  “Eric, we’re here.”  I started awake and looked out the window.  And there it was!  We passed it on the road and pulled into the parking lot.  I shook myself out of sleep.  Surely it couldn’t have just been on the side of the road like that. 

My family eagerly hopped out of the rental car and we followed the other tourists down the macadam slope to a ticketing area.  Then, through a tunnel under the road and out onto the Salisbury plain, home of the mightiest of stone circles.  And my first reaction was one of false joy.  I pretended to be overwhelmed by the mystery and magic of this moment.  After a while, though, I stopped trying to be happy.  The stones themselves were fantastic, but something was wrong.  I glanced around.  An American hot dog stand sold soft pretzels and Coke.  Another vendor sold miniature Stonehenge models.  The worst offenders, though, were the roads that intersected at the monument.  One road was bad enough, but why two?  Stonehenge looked like it was on the median of a highway.
At the time, I felt disquiet with the situation, but was really too young to fully appreciate the mediocrity of it.  Here was one of the world’s great monuments, being treated like a ride at Disneyland.  Actually, without so much fanfare.  An amusement park ride knows its place, as well.  But this had been touted in every book and by every expert as a holy place.  The name reverberates across our childhoods.  Stonehenge!  A relic of the past that deserved recognition with the Pyramids, the Acropolis, the Great Wall.  But this!  This was nothing like that.  The stones looked sad, like a child mistreated.  It was as if someone had built a feeble imitation for show, while the real circle hid just out of sight. 

I visited Stonehenge again recently.  Nothing had changed.  If anything, the tourism had grown worse, more professional.  The stones still towered over the plain, majestic in the way of flowers in the mud.  People swarmed the site, snapping photos.  I was no different.  Some of my pictures magically transformed the site, the weathered stones appearing important and alone.  Unless you had been there, you would never know that it wasn’t in the center of some great park, a perfectly mystical remnant of a bygone age.  In fact, plans for such a park seemed to be in the works, at least in hopeful theory.  But until that day, Stonehenge will remain the most disappointing of great places, a tragedy of tourism, a victim of our incessant need for convenience.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Surprise New London

Driving around New London the other day, I happened across this lovely 19th century street, preserved as a historic district. I had completely missed it last summer and all the other times I've been to New London. These sorts of little gems are so prevalent in Connecticut that it is easy to take them for granted. Whoever you are who lives on this awesome street, I hope you feel the history seeping into your feet every time you come home.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Liv's Oyster Bar

Tried Liv's Oyster Bar in Old Saybrook last week - a fabulous experience all around. And now I'm into Saddle Rock oysters from the Sound.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Beach Donuts in Clinton

This is one of the best places to get donuts (or doughnuts) in Connecticut. The glazed are particularly tempting, and I like the chocolate frosting, as well. The one cookies and cream donut pictured here is almost too decadent! With a place like this, I'm not sure why anyone would go to...what's the name of that chain again?

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Wayfarer Volume 2

Check out volume 2, issue 1 of The Wayfarer for a preview of my upcoming book, Afoot in Connecticut, two poems by my lovely wife, Amy Nawrocki, and a great story about Pleasure Beach by my buddy David Leff.

It's not every day a magazine is so beautifully made, and chock full of all the things that make me want to read it!