In the Cool, Open Air by Nancy Mugele


I am officially announcing that Spring has finally graced us with her presence – evidenced by my evenings spent on the porch this past week and the fact that I have dined outside for the first time since last Fall. It feels wonderful.

Al fresco dining is something I truly love. Jim is not a fan (something about pollen) so it makes for some very interesting negotiations with dinner plates in hand. I think it may be growing on him a bit since we now have a screened-in porch, but that is another story. The phrase al fresco is Italian meaning “in the cool air,” although it is not used to describe eating outdoors in Italy. Al fresco dining is, of course, popular here in the summer and I have greatly enjoyed it at the Fish Whistle the past two summers that I have lived in Chestertown. The auto industry also uses the phrase “al fresco motoring” to describe driving a convertible with the top down, but I like to think I am driving al fresco when I have my sunroof open and one hand up catching the wind.

Being outside in the springtime, in the cool air, breathes life into each of us as we emerge from the long, cold winter. Last weekend’s Paint the Town en plein air painting festival really warmed my heart. I loved seeing artists throughout the town, and even on the Kent School campus, as they painted our beautiful Chestertown. According to Plein air painting is about leaving the four walls of your studio behind and experiencing painting and drawing in the landscape. The practice goes back for centuries but was truly made into an art form by the French Impressionists. Their desire to paint light and its changing, ephemeral qualities, coupled with the creation of transportable paint tubes and the box easel—the precursor to the plein air easels of today—allowed artists the freedom to paint “en plein air,” which is the French expression for “in the open air.”  Merci Claude Monet!

At one time in its hundred-plus-year history, Roland Park Country School (my previous school) left the four walls of the classroom behind and became an Open Air school. Open Air schools were built on the concept that fresh air, good ventilation and exposure to the outside contributed to improved health (Wikipedia). The concept originated in Germany and these schools were designed with movable walls to the outside to prevent tuberculosis before World War II. The concept is a good one in my opinion. One particularly cold day this past winter, when there were numerous absences due to flu at Kent School, I asked all employees to throw open the doors and windows to get some fresh air inside. At a minimum, it made everyone – faculty and students alike – laugh at me, smile, and breathe deeply. Cool, crisp air is definitely restorative.

I am a writer who loves to write outside in the early morning. I wrote this column at dawn on my porch, al fresco and en plein air in my open air “schoolroom.” The slight chill and the breeze inspire me and the call of my ospreys motivates me to keep at it. (The coffee also helps the creative process along!) I think Chestertown needs a Write On The River weekend where authors and poets can take their journals outdoors all over town.

Thinking ahead to the weekend, it is definitely time to clean my grill. I have missed cooking and eating outside. A quick trip to Kingstown Farm, Home & Garden for a wire brush and propane after school is in order today.

Enjoy the cool, open air.

 Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown and a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s.

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