Vandalism strikes Middlebury’s TAM

WHEN A RUNNER saw widespread graffiti, like the painting on the rock above, she realized that someone had invaded a “happy place” cherished by many. Photo by Laura Turner

Who would do this?
This is so wrong.
Those were the thoughts that went through Laura Weylman Turner’s head Friday evening when during a run through the woods along the Trail Around Middlebury (TAM) and came upon a massive display of graffiti spray painted in fluorescent colors on trees, boulders and rocks along the edge of Otter Creek.
Fortunately some of the painted faces, flowers and undecipherable symbols could be scraped off by a volunteer from the Middlebury Area Land Trust, or MALT, which manages the TAM. But the incident reminded some that we live in a community where natural beauty is a precious resource that needs to be protected while it is also shared in common.
MALT board member Claire Tebbs observed that in appropriate places, graffiti is considered public art, but she noted this was not appropriate.
“Obviously, this circumstance is clearly unwanted, disrespectful vandalism,” she said.
Weylman Turner recounted her experience encountering the vandalism in a letter to MALT officials and to the Addison Independent. Here is a slightly edited version of the letter:
“I was running this evening along the TAM near the Belden bridge.
It was a steamy hot evening, but despite that I always know the TAM trails will bring me coolness and peace along the shaded trails.
My dogs and I trotted along the leaf-sodden trails, surrounded by tall pines, the sound of rushing water from the Otter Creek, a slight breeze, chipmunks chirping, the smell of pine, and not a soul in sight.
I always find peace here and no matter how slow or fast I go on the trail, I always finish feeling better, happier, rejuvenated.
Tonight as I ran along the river I suddenly saw a bright color up ahead on the rock — at first I thought it was a fluorescent lamp, like one you use while camping. As I got closer, I realized it was not a light at all, but a neon green flower and hot pink sun on a large rock in the middle of the trail. 
At first I thought, oh — cute a flower, huh….
As I passed over it, I looked to the right and saw (a cartoonish pink frog spay painted on a log).
Now initially this looks cool, artistic, but as I take it in and keep running its effect sinks in…
Grafitti …. grafitti in Vermont, in the woods, on the TAM — breaking the peace, serenity, beauty of this place.
Invading my “happy place” — everyone’s “happy place.”
I began to feel mad, invaded, sad.
I keep running through the pine-scented rolling trail … to a beautiful spot where I take a deep breath and take it all in.
But then I see (lots of graffiti — faces and monsters in florescent spray paint on rocks right up to the water’s edge. Symbols that appear to be signatures).
Who would do this ?
This is so wrong.
This is graffiti.  This is not easily erased.
This is destruction of “Vermont’s property.” This is so thoughtless. 
This ruins a very peaceful place for many, many people.
I am frustrated, mad, and not sure what can be done.”
Fortunately, MALT was able to send out John Derick, the keeper of the TAM, to do some initial cleaning. He said a wire brush or paint thinner might do the trick on some of the paint.
But such vandalism is never welcome in such a place of natural beauty.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said that graffiti seems to occur randomly in the Middlebury area.
“Some years ago we experienced a streak of gang-tagging — like graffiti on utility boxes, mail collection boxes, and following that some copycat graffiti, and then it stopped,” he said.
He said he doesn’t remember any spates of graffiti in out-of-the-way places on trails, rocks or trees. And he said this incident is also somewhat unusual in that it is not clear who the vandal had in mind as their ideal viewer.
“Here we have a person(s) bringing paint with them. It’s not an impulsive act,” he said. “And it’s out of the way — very untypical.”
Although vandalism generally is not reported as often as it was 20 years ago, Hanley said, his department has seen a spike in the past few weeks. He pointed to recent incidents in which someone broke the glass in the Town Hall Theater marquee, and broke or removed decorative flower pots in downtown Middlebury.
“We’ve seen an increase in transients during this time with a variety of mental health/social/substance abuse issues that appears more than coincidental,” Hanley said.
Stopping graffiti, whether it is in a city or a rural community, can be tricky.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Hanley said. “Anything that looks like tagging is not considered free expression or art.”
Aside from education, he said that a good way to stop future incidents of graffiti is to report it and remove it when you see it.
“The biggest deterrent to this sort of marking is removal when the ‘tagger’s’ message or work isn’t being seen,” Hanley said.

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