MIDDLEBURY, Vt. -- Woody Jackson knows cows. ``Every Holstein is unique," he says. ``The black- and- white pattern is like a fingerprint."
Few people have studied those patterns so carefully. Jackson started painting cows in 1972, and in the interim he has managed to elevate a pictorial domestic bovine into an icon of the Green Mountain State. His images practically jump off the walls at Holy Cow Inc., his shop on Main Street in this town embedded in the rolling dairy land of west-central Vermont.
After his graduation from Middlebury College in 1970, Jackson and ``a bunch of friends" bought a rundown farm on the west slope of Snake Mountain in nearby Addison. The local farmers might have frowned on the communard lifestyle, but they recognized cheap labor when they saw it. Jackson rhapsodizes about raking hay for Avery Carl, a dairy farmer.
``The cows would be grazing in the next pasture," he recalls, ``and I'd watch the black and white become abstract shapes against the colors of the alfalfa and mustard and hay fields -- all the different layers stretching back to the blue slopes of the Adirondacks across Lake Champlain."
In the sweat of summer haying, an artistic vision was born.
``I started out making prints -- very graphic," says Jackson, pointing to some of the early silkscreens hanging high on the walls of Holy Cow. ``Cows are great models. They're very curious and interested in you." He makes a sweeping gesture to a series of barnyard and pasture scenes on watercolor paper and canvas. ``Cows have allowed me to learn watercolor and oil painting," he jokes. His renderings of Holsteins include the trademark cows of Ben & Jerry's ice cream that are plastered all over cartons, delivery trucks, freezer bins, and assorted merchandise. (``I like their chocolate a lot," Jackson says.)
This friend of farmers, lover of hay bales and old barns, and connoisseur of chocolate milk, Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op chocolate chip cookies, and kiddie-size ``creemees" (as Vermonters call soft-serve ice cream) is a fixture in town like his cows are on the landscape.
``My images are visually very arresting, both modern and old at the same time," Jackson muses. ``They represent a way of life that people imagine as simpler but more honest. There's a bit of nostalgia at work."
But as Jackson's skills and career have grown, the world he depicts has shrunk.
``When I started, everyone was a dairy farmer. Cows were the economic force of this area of Vermont," he says. Now pastures and hay fields are becoming house lots as farmers with small herds throw in the towel.
Yet the world of Woody Jackson's art persists in the intimate landscapes west of Middlebury, where no large cheese plants or ice cream factories upstage the ordered geometry of fields and distant mountains. Gnarled sugar maples still line the side roads, silos rise like silver barrels around each bend, and barn red remains as iconic as the vision of a herd of Holsteins grazing in electric green clover. The nose-tickling caramel scent of new hay and the sweet reek of freshly spread manure still hover over the rolling lands of Addison, Shoreham, and Bridport along the southern narrows of Lake Champlain.
You probably won't run into Jackson himself -- he works in a studio from photographs, memory, and imagination -- but you will find yourself alert for black- and- white blobs on a distant hillside that suddenly look like old friends. ``I think I've created a way of looking at these scenes," Jackson says. ``People drive by and say, `Look! There's Woody's cows!' "
The quickest road to Woody's world is Route 23, which begins on Middlebury's campus as Weybridge Street. Three miles out of town, six roads converge at Weybridge Hill. It's easily recognizable by a pasture of cows, a church, the march of gray gravestones inside a white rail fence, and the barn-red expanse of Monument Farms Dairy processing and bottling plant.
Third-generation family-run Monument Farms milks about 375 cows and processes the milk the same day. Sometimes it's even delivered to mom-and-pop stores in the lower Champlain Valley before nightfall. The freshest yet can be found in the cooler at the office of the processing plant, where the dairy also sells other Vermont products. Jackson considers Monument Farms chocolate milk ``the best in the world." The James family uses milk exclusively from its own herd, making it an anachronism in an age of conglomeration.
One of the farm's many cow barns sits beside Route 23 as the road continues north to end at Route 17 near a canoe launch spot on Otter Creek. Two miles west on Route 17, Mountain Road goes left into the heart of dairy country. Jackson's commune occupied the old white clapboard farmhouse with a red-brick foundation at 2211 Mountain Road.
A small parking lot for hikers who want to explore the Snake Mountain Wildlife Management Area is less than a half mile up the road. The mountain rises abruptly from the valley floor, making it one of the more prominent geographic features between the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west. A carriage road reduced by overgrowth to a hiking trail leads to the 1,287-foot summit, where a glacial peat bog abounds with carnivorous pitcher plants. Peregrine falcons nest along the west-facing cliffs and the mountain is a prime viewing spot for the fall hawk migrations.
Slightly more than a mile farther south, just over the town line into Bridport, is the farmland where Jackson drew inspiration in the employ of Carl. Just as Jackson describes it, horizontal bands of fields draw the eye down to Route 22A, then to Champlain's distant waters. The sinuous rounded peaks of the Adirondacks complete the tableau. No cows wander these pastures now, and the red milking barn visible in some early Jackson prints is gone. When Carl died, his will specified that the barn be torn down, lest his sons be tempted to continue dairy farming.
Mountain Road ends at Route 125, where a right turn swiftly connects to Route 22A, the main north-south road paralleling Champlain's lower reaches. Both sides of the highway are lined with working dairy farms. South of Route 125, C.J.'s Snack Bar (which serves creemees to the local farm families) is open pretty much by whim or chance, but worth a visit to applaud the masterful paint job that transformed a trailer in the middle of a cow pasture into a reasonable facsimile of a Holstein.
If you crave a creemee, your best bet is probably to backtrack east on Route 125 and order one from the window of the Middlebury Market and Cafe. You might well run into Woody Jackson doing the same.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers based in Cambridge, are co-authors with Sue McLaughlin of ``The Meaning of Food." Contact them at email@example.com.