Lessons from the Lake: writing for the Pawling Press, mostly text and photos by Jeremy Wolff
On the Lake – an introduction
January 29, 2010
Lessons from the Lake
(or, Thoreau on Ice)
February 19, 2010
Snow Days (Three Degrees of Separation)
March 5, 2010
The Last of Fahnestock
April 2, 2010
April 9, 2010
The Signs to Holmes
(the comet story) May 28, 2010
Zipping at Hunter:
a reminder of joy June 30, 2010
October 8 2010
November 26, 2010
February 11, 2011
That Thai Trip
(Thai Elephant 2 restaurant review) March 2011
Over My Head in Cabarete Bay
: a near-life story May 2011Lightning Strikes
- the fire out on main street June 2011
9/11: Images and the Aftermath
Dylan and 9/11
: Going Back to New York City October 2011
We are accustomed to hear this king
described as a rude and boisterous tyrant; but with the gentleness of a
lover he adorns the tresses of Summer.
--Thoreau, on Winter
That Thai Trip
The events that altered my destiny took place in an old wooden house on
the outskirts of Seattle. This was the 80s, back before Starbucks
and grunge. Friends drove me out to small operation off a
frontage road by the railroad tracks. It looked seedy to me, but
inside was nicely lit and comfortable. I had never tried
this before, but I had done Indian in London, so I knew I could handle
the heat. The bowl I tasted that night was an epiphany.
exaggeration to say that Gaeng Kieu Wan Gai, green curry chicken from
Thailand, changed my life.
I had no idea that food could be transcendent. I never imagined
that the dynamics of flavor and spice, color and texture—coconut milk
and chili peppers, fish sauce and lemon grass--could be experienced as
beauty. It was transporting, complex and intriguing, a
synesthesia of tastes and smells and color. That mouthful was a
gateway, a window on a world I couldn’t imagine. I felt an
unerring pull to its aesthetic.
The next 8 years I took four long trips to Southeast Asia, backpacking
and then working as a freelance writer and photographer. I was
searching for that taste, and the culture it implied: a space for
magnificence and beauty in the commonplace and everyday; the relaxed Buddhist
heart that so contrasted with my buzzing Western brain. You feel
it the minute you land, beating even amidst the sweat and madness of
Bangkok. These are not the smiles of salesmen.
I've had French food in Paris and fine wines I wasn't paying for, but
this was on another level. Travelling in Thailand is the only
place I've felt that reincarnation is real. I seemed to learn the
language very quickly and used it without my usual nervousness; I know
my way around. With the first step, and before I set foot in a
restaurant, I am immersed in the street food of KrungTep, the
City of Angels: the grilled chicken and papaya salad, and the new
epiphany of fresh tropical fruit, papaya, watermelon and pineapple
served with lime and a dash of chili. The food of paradise
was everywhere and it was cheap.
During my travelling years I searched out Thai restaurants worldwide,
chewing lemon grass while eschewing local cuisine from Havana to Vienna. You find the
best Thai food in Ma-and-Pa places where you’d never expect it...like
Phoenix. Now that I’ve settled, I cook it once a week for my
kids, to whom I’ve passed the gene. My son Joe is the only kid at
Pawling Elementary who brings in full-blast green curry in his
Which is the long way round of saying that I know Thai food.
My career in newspaper journalism started here, and has now come full
circle. The first article I wrote for the first issue of the New
York Press (Russ
Smith, editor) was a restaurant review of a place in Queens called
Jaiya, which for the record I didn't like much. I was already by
then a bit of a Thai snob, having travelled, and Jaiya appeared to be,
like a lot of the restaurants in Bangkok, run by Chinese, not Thai.
Two strikes against it--it was too much like Chinese food.
Despite my words back then, Jaiya is still out there, with branches in
Manhattan and Long Island.
Perhaps the single thing we miss most having moved up here from the
city is being able to pick up the phone to order food from any Asian
land delivered to our door. Every time we see a new restaurant
opening in the area, we are hoping against hope that it isn’t another
Italian. We have nothing against Italian, or pizza per se, but it
is Variety, and not just oregano, that is the spice of life.
Magically, a very good Thai restaurant has opened nearby on Route 22 in
Patterson, where the Steak House used to be. It’s called Thai
Elephant 2, and is affiliated with the well-loved original Thai
Elephant in Astoria, Queens. The Harlem Valley continues to
challenge my cynicism in ways I never imagined. (Don’t worry,
I’ll always have the school board.)
By way of a review, I will just say the food is good and so are the
prices. We went for dinner the first Friday they were open and
overwhelmed. People were grumbling about how long the food was
but everyone shut up once it arrived. A few days later they had
staffed up and everything went smoothly. Weekends you should
prepare to be patient. Buddhas are there to help you.
For me, the best Thai food is comfort food, more basic than
fancy. Novice or not, you can’t go wrong with the
standards. All Thai restaurants should be able to make these
well, and Thai Elephant does: Green Curry Chicken or Red Curry,
Beef Salad, Squid Salad, Shrimp Soup and Chicken Coconut Soup.
Start there, then experiment. Get extra rice. The curries
should be eaten over rice, and the soups and salads can be. Mix
more in if it gets too spicy. Beer tastes great with Thai,
adds excellently to the hot-chili buzz, and you can bring your own
until they get their licence.
Thai Elephant 2, 2693 Route 22 in Patterson, is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. (845) 319-6295.
I didn’t get hurt and couldn’t even find a scratch on the car, so in terms of drama, it’s not really much. Just another snow story.
I picture one of those drawings of a head separated into different
areas, lobes and such, that shows what a brain is thinking about.
That’s how I described it to my sisters Friday night in the city.
Up here in the country, about 80% of our brains are devoted to one
thing: SNOW. I talked about how deep it is; how hard it is
to walk out to the compost without cracking through sharp crust and
sinking up to your knees; the kids sledding in the driveway and moaning
when the plow guy comes; cross country skiing, the great season we’ve
been having on the Lake and out at Fahnestock; how any energy left goes
to shoveling off the flat roof, the front door and deck long abandoned
to the elements; the glory and warning of icicles; and the Snow Days,
having to let go of any concept of Schedule. Then I couldn’t
think of anything else to say.
The next morning, Saturday, I’m on my way to Fahnestock Winter Park, a
little more caffeine than usual in my bloodstream due to three hours of
sleep the night before, following the worst-ever after-midnight traffic
back from the city. Snow turns to rain and I have to pull
over and scrape off the ice forming on the windshield, but it doesn’t
register as a warning. So perhaps a little attention deficit,
cruising out to a morning ski, “Reeling in the Years” accompanying me
on the radio.
I have to come out of the closet here and say that I love this
weather. I do my best to participate in the standard wintertime
whining that makes up the grist and jist of converstation among
driveway and supermarket acquaintances, even those who share the bond
of sports. This year, even the cliches are worn through, and all
it takes now is a shared glance, up and slightly northward, to register
the absurding of our latest downfall. But I can’t, or won’t, hide
the fact that I love the winter, I love being able to ski out the door
and onto the lake across the street, Nordic and shoveling keeping me in
shape, raising my mood and getting me out onto the white with the bald
eagles. I am as excited as the kids about the Snow Days, the
thrill of which must be deep-ingrained from my Midwest childhood.
Even though it means another unplanned day stuck at home with the
kids. It’s a lesson in Letting Go. I am one with the
winter, and this morning’s drive to skate ski the groomed trails at
Fahnestock is upside plenty.
Now we reach the moment, going around a turn somewhere on White Pond
Road, where Letting Go becomes the lesson of my four new tires and
four-wheel drive, my forward motion suddenly translated by black ice
into sideways spinning. Either that or the scenery’s slipping, as
Bob Hope says to Bing Crosby in one of their Road
movies. By the time it occurs to me, it’s too
late. Time slows down but that doesn’t help—this is a spin, tap
the brakes? steer into the skid? Action has no effect but my mind
can easily calculate the endpoint, and I know I’m going to hit whatever
is on the other side, 180-degrees and more around the circle, and here
it comes now, the breathed expletive and the big OOF of contact.
A big bounce backwards, the inquiring glance from inside a passing car
a second shy of my trajectory.
No airbag. I can back out. And forward. No
noise. The frozen precip that tooketh away my traction also
gaveth me back the best cushion possible: a five-foot snow bank
that I bounce off harmlessly. Hazard lights, a walk-around, can’t
even find a scratch.
I kept going, was shaky on my skis, nervous around the fast turns, and
drove home via the highways. Exhausted, it came over me how lucky
I was, the worse ways this could have turned out…I won’t go into
it. But boy was I lucky. From our repeated deposits into
the snow-bank, I made a one-time withdrawal of safety.
A few hours later, still under freezing rain, my wife tells me she
barely held on to the turn from Rt. 55 into traffic on 22 near the
village. But that’s not why she’s calling. On the radio
when it happened? “Dirty Work.” More Steely Dan, and from the same album: Can't Buy A Thrill.
Somewhere on White Pond Road there is a smashed mailbox flattened into
the snow; I think that was me, but it’s also possible that a month of
snowplows beat me to it. If it’s yours, and you know who you are,
rest assured you will hear from me and recover the cost of a new
mailbox. Your snow bank saved me. What could have
been an accident--at best a hassle, at worst life-altering–turned
instead into a bumper-car ride. Message received, no damage done.
Are you reeling in the years?
New Photography by Norman McGrath
Norman McGrath is one of the country’s best known architectural photographers;
his book Photographing Buildings Inside and Out is considered the standard on
the subject. He is also an avid nature photographer with his definitive,
large-scale panoramas of the Great Swamp. For his new exhibition at Front
Gallery, he has zoomed in on the unusual natural phenomenon of spore
prints—the unique patterns made by spores when they drop from mushrooms
overnight. McGrath brings his vision, and unsurpassed technical
expertise with high resolution media, to record a delicate, fragile and
High resolution images invite us into a place that is rarely
seen: millions of microscopic spores dropped into fractal
patterns that echo the complex
structure of the mushroom. Look closely and you’ll find
trails left by tiny invisible creatures moving left among the spores.
These images are both natural and otherworldly. McGrath’s microcosms
look macrocosmic: they could be nebula or aurora borealis, aerial
photographs of a
bizarre landscape. Yet all of these samples come from within walking
distance of McGrath’s Patterson, NY, home. Born in London, McGrath was
brought up in Ireland, and took a degree in Engineering at Trinity
College Dublin. He worked as a structural engineer after coming to New
York, and later made the switch to architectural photography. The
Great Swamp is now his favorite subject--he has been documenting it for
the last twenty years.
Mycologists for years have used spore prints as a means of identifying
species; Norman McGrath is discovering in them beautiful landscapes
that lie somewhere between natural science and abstract art. Throughout
folklore, mushrooms have been associated with magic, and these prints
aptly demonstrate the magical qualities of large format photography.
Hallowed Lands October 8
What's the use of a fine house if you
haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?
When I chatted with Louis Pescatore about his new farm stand on Grape
Hollow Road up from Whaley Lake, I failed to ask him an obvious
question. The signs on Route 292 read “Grape Hallow Farm
Stand”—was that “Hallow” a misprint, the misunderstanding of a
first-generation American, or was it intended?
There are wild grapes and apples up on Grape Hollow; I run and bike
there, it’s beautiful and open, so I admit a personal interest in the
fate of the landscape. Celina Davis lived in an old farmhouse
overlooking a stream and small dam; I’d met her years ago pushing my
daughter’s baby jogger. I knew she’d moved and sold her
I assumed that Mr. Pescatore, her neighbor on Depot Hill and the new
owner, would knock down that old house first thing. Instead, he’s
renovating. Has been for years. During that time, I’ve
watched for other signs of development. Brush was cleared, a
garage was built, pipes for perc-tests sprouted. But instead of the
latest Ridgecrest MansionView Estates, I’ve been pleasantly surprised
to see a barn rise, a farm with rough-hewn fenceposts, pastures, and 30
head of cattle with a rich future as grass-fed beef. It
immediately struck me as sensible, and a sign of the times.
Hollow comes from the same root as Hole: empty. Hallow is from
Whole, and related to Holy, Heal and Hello (from “may you be
hale”). Grape hallow, then, could mean to consecrate our favorite
vine, and maybe that’s how an organic farmstand looks at other fruits
and vegetables too.
“We irrigate by gravity from the stream, and because of the beaver
dams, the water is high, rich, and productive. I used to
worry the beavers were encroaching, but now I see they’re
helping.” He laughs, “And I got my kids to do the
Lou’s daughter, Jessica, a makeup artist in the city, and her boyfriend
Jhonny Zapata, drive up from Queens every Saturday at 5AM to work the
stand. “My dad called and said how’d you like to sell vegetables.
I said yes. I’m surprised how much money you can make in
vegetables.” Meeting neighbors and making friends seems as much a
part of it, and they give away plenty as well. Jessica and
Jhonny have the bright eyes of city kids discovering the beauty and
warmth of community up here. They plan is to move into Celina’s old
house when they’re ready to have kids.
But other neighbors are worried. The property is mostly in Beekman, and
there is talk he could put 30 houses on the land. The economy put
the brakes on that, but taxes keep the pressure on to develop.
Louis called the farm’s Agricultural Use Exemption “a double
benefit.” A local farm for us, a tax break for him.
Do you have plans to build now? “No. Once we put the
property under the exemption, now I can just live. I’m not under
pressure to build financially, or even mentally—especially now that I
can see my kids here.”
Louis grew up on a farm in Avellino, Italy, near Pompeii. “We are the
only tribe,” he told me, “to defeat the Romans.” Now it’s better
known as the hometown of the fictional Soprano family. When he
bought his first farm in Patterson, his wife cried, afraid they were
going back to the hard farming life they left behind. That was
not her American Dream.
This farming is different. “If I do some building, if the economy comes
back, I will do something like a cluster of four or five houses.
I am actually glad that the economy has changed. It has made
things much simpler for me. My engineers had plans to go into the
mountains with roads, putting houses on top, and I didn’t realize till
later that this was not the thing to do. Leave them alone,
pristine as they are. For me to leave that to my kids, my
grandchildren--for them to say, my father did this, that is everything.”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard someone say they are glad for the
slowdown--not for the economic pain, but for the chance to take a
breath and get back to basics. A small farm that produces food
and friends is more attractive than a big loan, no matter how low the
mortgage. Perhaps the tide has turned. The Hollow may not remain
whole, but a thriving farm is a healthy sign.
Zipping at Hunter: a reminder of joy
June 30, 2010
There is a wire in my backyard strung between two trees. Grab the
trolly, step off a small platform nailed up at chin height, and you fly
down the wire, grazing over rocks and dirt till you hit the birch
opposite feet first, hopefully. The brand name of this cheap toy is Fun
Ride, and it is--ride it and you will be happier at the other end,
guaranteed. In that little moment of intense experience, you are
a kid again, doing something silly and thrilling and risky. Your
mind is stunned and you actually reinhabit your body, breathing life
into a core self which looks a lot like you, only younger.
All that from wire and gravity? Grow up.
Bradd Morse of Canopy Tours grew up building ziplines, and right now
he’s playing in the woods at 4000 feet on top of Hunter Mountain.
What he’s got planned is the funnest ride ever—the longest, fastest and
highest zipline tour in North America. It will start right here,
stepping off this cliff and soaring the entire valley at
Historically, ziplines were used by mining companies to haul material
out of the mountains. Botanists in Costa Rica used them to study
the rain forest canopy, and that’s where zipline tourism began in the
1990s. Costa Rica still leads the world in ziplining, with over
350 running, a billion dollar business. The US is starting to
catch on. Zips are a relatively cheap and green way to add an
extreme adventure to a tourist destination. Once it’s rigged, all
you need is gravity and guides. At least 24 new zipline tours are
opening in the US this year alone; Hunter Mountain is the first
world-class zipline in the New York area.
The tour starts at the Adventure Tower, right outside the lodge.
It’s an obstacle course that rises 60 feet in the air. Bradd
gestures up, “This isn’t a kiddie ride, it’s all metal and
wood.” Looking up at the Tower, I felt a mixture of thrill
and fear. The closer I got, the better I could imagine the
height, the more fear got the upper hand. Fear used that upper
hand to grab me by the throat, and I choked. My foot
refused to take a step. I chickened out, and it didn’t help watching a
9-year-old girl and a chubby middle-schooler bravely work their way
through the ropes. Bradd’s out there encouraging everyone,
especially the kids. “You can do it!” he says, and they
Bradd let us try some of the smaller zips that are already up, and
pushing off into the air, flying between the branches over a lovely
creek and canyon was a rush. But then he drove us to the top in
his modified moon rover, up trails you ski down at Hunter. He
points across the mountains, “See that cut in the woods across the
valley? It’s a 2.5 mile hike across the valley, 3500 feet as the crow
flies. That’s where the other tower goes.”
He’ll have teams hauling tons of cable across the valley through uncut,
pathless forest. “The bottom of that hill is the closest we can
get with ATVs. From there up to the tower, that’s a 50 minute
hike and you have to carry all your tools in. You get up there
and it’s like—oops I forgot my hammer…and it’s another hike
Building a zipline into a natural environment is more art than science,
and even though they are an experienced team working at a huge scale,
there’s a certain part of the design they have to make up as they go
along. “How do you get a cable across there? How do you
know the exact height? How fast will it be? We don’t
know. I am good at this, but ultimately you just have to
has been building ziplines for 27 years, dividing his time
between resort destination zips in Jamaica and New Hampshire. “This is
not an ‘amusement’ park,” he says, with big quotes, “this is a real
adventure. Look at the waiver we make you sign! We like
being able to say, ‘We cannot guarantee your personal safely.’
That’s why people come and pay. That’s the difference between
this and a video game. There’s nothing soft up
But it is safe. “What we really sell is called ‘Perception
of Risk.’ In fact we are all about safety. Unless you physically
unbuckle yourself there is no danger. The weakest point in the
harness line is 5000 pound test, you could hang your car from it.
The aircraft grade 25,000 pound test cable does not break. That
is a myth. And every bolt is inspected every week. So
you are safe, but you may not feel safe.”
Most tours start with an easy ride to get used to it, but at Hunter
you’ll start with the longest and highest ride. You’ll get
goggles against hitting bugs at 50 mph., 600 feet above the
forest, taking a raptor’s path to the other side. “I know
there will be people who get up to the top and look over the cliff and
say there is no way I’m going off that,” says Morse.
“They’ve paid their money, and learned all about it, but they won’t be
able to take that first step.” He seems to like the idea—that’s
the edge he’s looking for.
Morse expects to finish the Mountain Top Tour early in the fall.
Ultimately, there’s only one way to test it, and that’s to ride it, to
take that big first step. That’s Morse’s job. “I build it,
and I have to ride it. I’ve been doing this a long time, and
that’s one thrill I still get: that first step over the
cliff.” It’s his Fun Ride, and he gets to try it first.
The Signs to
Holmes - the story of the comet
How did I get here?
--Talking Heads, “Once in
Moving from 01002, my hometown in Massachesetts, to 10012, downtown New
York City, seemed natural enough. You hardly have to change the
digits. My grandparents met in NYC and so did my parents.
As it turned out, I found a wife there too. But 12531 I never
would have predicted.
We’d been coming to our house by the lake, for weekends and weeks,
religiously for 8 years. We loved being here, working and
around the house, so the idea of moving was
always rattling around. and couldn’t have come from out of
the blue. But the actual decision seemed to. I’m interested
in that moment when we realized that we
really might do this, and practical reality started creeping
in. The time we starting thinking seriously about How and When,
and what it would mean for the kids. How did we get here?
We gave up our NYC apartment in June 2008. Come September, that’s
my daughter running down the driveway to catch the bus that will take
her away, fill her with snacks and learning, and drop her back off
again seven hours later. (For this all we have to do is pay our
taxes.) But it was on October 23, 2007, that the first real
thought of moving came to me.
know the date because I keep a journal, since I got my first real
computer 15 years ago. It’s all in one huge Word.doc file,
hundreds of pages by now. My handwriting is unreadable and memory
isn’t what it once was, so having this big searchable text database of
my past is very useful. I can look up when the kids started
talking, or how long I was on antibiotics that last time I had
Lyme. In this case, I find that in Oct. 2007, I write about
“cashing out” of the city, and, a few days later, I mention calling my
sisters and parents for their opinions about moving up to Holmes.
They seem to think it’s a good idea, or they’re astute enough to give
me the confirmation I’m looking for.
Once you get to the point of asking, a decision can come fast, and
you’ll realize you were more ready for it than you thought.
Especially with the big questions, you discover that you already had an
answer, if not in mind, then in heart, and as soon as you are ready to
look, you find you knew where things were heading all along.
Big decisions rest heavy, and looking for more support, I also threw
the coins of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination--or
fortune-telling, if you like--which I’ve consulted occasionally over
the years at important times. I once asked the I Ching about a
Final Four basketball game and it came up REVOLUTION, which I took to
mean UPSET--the year Villanova beat Georgetown for the championship.
This time the I Ching came up MODESTY: Modesty creates success. It is the law of
heaven to make fullness empty and to make full what is Modest.
This was easy to read: it’s a good time to get out of the crowded city,
which had reached its economic fullness, and relocate to a town
modestly named Holmes. Thus
the superior man reduces that which is too much (our
rent). And augments that which
is too little (our living space). A good sign.
My journal also shows that I was pondering something that was happening
in the sky. During the course of 24 hours around October 24-25,
2007, a tiny and little-known comet suddenly exploded to more than a
million times its original size and brightness. It went from
being visible only in large telescopes to appearing as a large
star. From being about 2 miles wide to the size of the
Earth. And it was still going. At its brightest, it was
easily seen with the naked eye, a blurry smudge half the size of the
full moon. By November 9, 2007, the comet had dispersed to an
area bigger than the sun, making it the largest object in the solar
Weekends under the stars had rekindled my interest in astronomy, and
this comet was one of the strangest events in my lifetime, like seeing
a total solar ecplise or the Leonid meteor shower of 2002. I’d
had a telescope back in 7th grade and seeing Jupiter’s moons and
Saturn’s rings directly though a tube in my hands had been profound to
me. The big event back then was supposed to be Comet Kohoutek,
hyped as “the comet of the century,” bright enough to cast a
shadow. I remember walking down the hill to our neighbors
for a view over the southwest, and seeing nothing. Kohoutek
turned out to be a dud. I let my subscription to Astronomy
magazine lapse and started getting National Lampoon.
Now I wondered where this comet was heading. I was looking
for it most nights, showing it to friends, taking the kids outside to
see it through binoculars. What would happen if it kept expanding
till it reached our atmosphere? Why isn’t this huge new light in
the heavens front-page news? No one else seemed to be paying
The comet eventually faded, but not before it hit me. Somewhere
in there, while I was struggling over my City-or-Country decision,
asking questions and searching for signs, I realized something I knew
but hadn’t taken in: the name
of this comet. The invisible speck in the sky that had
become a big blurry ball hanging over our yard these nights and
days? Named after the man who first discovered it in 1892, Edwin
Holmes. Comet Holmes.
OK, thanks. Got it now. We’ll move.
Closely text and photos by Jeremy Wolff
Pawling Press April 9, 2010
Nature will bear the closest
inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf,
and take an insect view of its plain.
Spring has come at last; it has come fast and is close at hand.
may be constant, but only at this time of year, amid the ancient holy
days of rebirth, is it so obvious. The changes are moment
the colors and forms I recorded yesterday are today long
of these pictures, of mosses and buds and fungi, were taken as
close as I could get, the technology allowing me to explore things I
can't see with my eyes. The camera gets its nose in the dirt so I don't
Last of Fahnestock
April 2, 2010
He who hears
the rippling of rivers in these degenerate days will not utterly
The hill is not much to look at. But when you’re coming down, it
drops away below your line of sight, the “visual cliff” from which we
instinctively retreat. You hit it with a boost of acceleration
before you’re jolted out onto the flat ground, carrying your speed a
good 50 yards out onto the field.
Acceleration is change in velocity divided by the change in time—not
how fast you go, but how fast your speed is increasing towards terminal
velocity. Technically, this is your stomach rising out of your
abdomen. It is also the feeling of time racing and the past
receding. The biological term for this pain is nostalgia, which
you also feel in your middle. Looking back up that hill, thinking
about the end of Fahnestock, I feel the change in time:
Molly is a toddler, wide-eyed in the raw weather sitting in the lap of
her pre-teen cousin. He’s grinning over the precipice perched on
our fastest sled. Innocence in the arms of recklessness.
Too far below to do anything about it now, I question my parenting,
plan an escape route and a few excuses, as I note the bounce and shock
in Molly’s body, the recovery and smiles as they sail out to a giggling
What could be more frivolous than a state-sponsored, dedicated sledding
hill? Three bucks for the kids to sled, twenty minutes away from
us, and 60 from the city. Fahnestock State Park, where my kids
learned to cross-country ski and first sat around an outdoor fire, has
shown up on a list of sites the state is planning to close to save
money. This winter may have been the last of Fahnestock.
Clarence Fahnestock was a rich kid. His father was the president
of the First National Bank, which in time was acquired by the National
City Bank of New York: Citibank--which, in our time, received
bailouts of $45 billion. Clarence went to Harvard, became a
doctor, a big game hunter, and a member of the yacht club. He
owned a 6,000-acre estate in Putnam Valley.
Fahnestock Park opened in 1929, on the cusp of the Depression, and is
just one 89 sites in every part of the state facing closure or service
reductions, including Taconic State Park, Wonder Lake State Park, James
Baird State Park, Hudson Highlands State Park, and the Walkway Over the
Closing parks is a mistake any way you look at it. Attendance is
at record levels. They are inexpensive to run relative to the
tourism they stir up. The park system provides nearly $2 billion
in economic stimulus for state and local economies, a five-to-one
return on investment. As nature disappears, natural attractions
become invaluable. The real-estate joke that they’re not making
any more land really means they aren’t making any more nature: there
will be plenty of Avatar-like worlds to explore from the comfort of
your own seat. Nothing will be more prized. We would as
soon destroy diamonds.
During the Great Depression, no New York State parks were closed, and
user fees were lowered. In these times, people need things to do that
are easy and cheap, close and healthy. The experience of beauty
in nature restores faith of every of kind, and is a cheap investment in
health care. For obesity, obviously, and depression actually:
studies show a walk in the woods more effective than either talk
therapy or anti-depressants.
Dr. Fahnestock displayed no signs of greed. Despite a thriving
practice in the city, he joined the army during World War One. He
went over as a combat officer, rose to become Chief Surgeon of the
301st infantry, and never returned. Route 301, between Carmel and
Cold Spring, is still the road to Fahnestock.
month before the armistice in 1918, Major Fahnestock died in France,
felled by pneumonia treating in soldiers at the front lines--pneumonia
caused by the Spanish Flu, that killed more people than the war.
He was 45 years old, and the wealthiest American to die in World War
Clarence left his Putnam Valley estate to his brother, Ernest.
And it was 2400 acres of this inheritance that was given to the State
of New York to create what is officially known as the Clarence J.
Fahnestock Memorial State Park. There were rumors that it was a
Let’s look at another slope: this one shows a steep climb, and it’s
still going up. This is a chart of the profits of New York-based
securities firms since the last year’s bailout. I would never
send my kids down that hill. The $11 million it would take to
keep the parks open is an invisible eyelash of these banks’ profits,
and would be a public-relations coup worth its weight in whatever it is
they deal in.
The kids are learning to cross-country ski, and find it’s not much
harder than walking. The 5 year old falls happily on his
face, his skis and feet somehow pointing opposites directions,
which it falls to me to untangle. Serious skate-skiers whoosh by
with powerful strides inside skintight suits. I lift him upright
so he can start again.
Parks are the embodiment of the idea that there is something worthy and
worthwhile in unspoiled earth. And Clarence Fahnestock, who we
remember amidst the joy of winter light, embodied the idea that even a
millionaire’s son with an ocean of banker’s money could sacrifice to
save lives and do what’s right. Does the presence of parks saves
lives? I suspect so.
Now it’s me looking down. My daughter, 80 pounds of her, is prone on
top of me. Completing the sandwich is my son, the top of the
pyramid, clinging to his sister. They are no longer too young for this,
but I may be. Letting go together into the field of gravity, the
inbuilt exhilaration takes me out of my anxious mood, our heads shaking
together in uncorked laughter, in one voice and one sigh.
Days (Three Degrees of
March 5, 2010
The trees and shrubs rear white arms
to the sky on every side; and where were walls and fences, we see
fantastic forms stretching in frolic gambols across the dusky
landscape, as if nature had strewn her fresh designs over the fields by
night as models for man's art.
--H.D. Thoreau, “A Winter Walk”
The first transformative snowstorm of the season came pretty late into
it—and almost didn’t come at all. What a difference three degrees
Mid-week, I'm a stay-at-home dad, and that meant staying home with the
kids for one, two, count-em three snow days. With the kids I can
be patient as hell, but with this weather I’m less tolerant. The
first two “snow days,” you may have noticed, were actually Rain Days;
snow days without snowfall are considerably less charming.
The maps and the forecasts and the histrionic weathermen were all
promising us the Blizzard of ‘0-10; the kids know that the phone
ringing at 6:03AM is a robo-call from school confirming the inevitable,
and they’re already in my bedroom grinning like bullfrogs, raring to
get started on their long day of computer and TV. This storm had
such promise--and I take it personally when it doesn’t pan out.
Because I love the snow, I live for it in fact, and I’m up early too,
but not waiting for the call from the Governor: I’m listening to
the tap-tap-tap on our metal roof--the tell-tale heartbeat there’s no
escaping: it's still raining, still raining.
dates back, like most things, to my childhood, and those bright,
sudden mornings when your waking awareness is filled with the ineffable
white immensity that coalesces into your first conscious thought: snow!
But as Wednesday stretched into Thursday and Hannah Montana stretched
into Zach and Cody, there was still no snow. Worse, it seemed to
be snowing everywhere else. My friend down in Yonkers for crissakes was
getting dumped on, and so was Fahnestock Park just over in
Carmel. We’re stuck on the slushy borderline, and I’ve lost
it--spending way too much time obsessing on maps and charts and 48-hour
precipitation forecasts. They all showed the same thing: a sharp
line running north-south right over our heads. If you looked up,
you could see it. The blizzard was so obviously possible, I felt
my serious paying attention might be enough to move that line…if I just
check the animated NEXRAD radar one more time.
then, it happened. Thursday around 9PM the
temperature plummeted (as they say on the Weather Channel) from
35 to 32 degrees. The tap-tap-taping above my head had stopped.
The silence of the metal roof.
(The silence is followed, when the thaw starts, by the Avalanche.
When the snow and ice lets go on a metal roof, it goes all at
once. It drops with such thunder you never get used to it, and is
so dangerous and unpredictable the neighbor-kids have to sign a waiver
if they want to knock on our front door.)
By 3AM it’s all over. Sunrise and 14 inches in our yard.
I’m happy again and the kids can feel it: whatever, Dad.
Friday morning, my wife is back from work, and sorry kids, I’m gone,
skis on and I’m wading into the woods that start in our backyard.
The snow is deep but densely packed, and has hidden every feature of
the terrain, smoothed out the rough edges so my skis float over rocks
and stumps and fallen trees alike. I’ve passed the rock wall and am
topping the first hill into this homegrown wilderness, when suddenly
I’m stopped in my tracks. Where am I?
I’ve been grooming these woods for ten years, but I don’t recognize a
thing. The snow has erased the absolute landmarks and blown away
the visual cues that used to be a path. The verticality of trees
is bent sideways to horizontal arches, pinned by pounds of ice.
Hemlocks are everywhere cracked clean from their boughs, unable to
cradle the massive weights in their evergreen arms. My way is
blocked by these stranded branches and I’m forced into a new
route. The smell of fresh pitch rides in the air. I ski down into
a surreal swamp, held up by an inch of snow over a foot of slush, and
faith in the ice below. I am on the land of my neighbor, who I
hope will forgive my trespasses as I have forgiven his. I leave
tracks which no new snow will cover.
miles east, in Sherman, CT, they got nothing--three inches; at
Fahnestock, ten miles west, three feet. In the scheme of things,
that is a very fine line, considering it changes our psychology,
landscape, and everyday plans.
I am reminded of the absolute fineness of the film in which we reside,
the atmosphere of the earth, a layer thinner than spit on a bowling
ball, within which lies every extreme of human tolerance, from airless
mountain peaks to the Dead Sea. Ninety-three million miles from the
atom-smashing star that is our only source of heat and light, a tilt of
miles changes everything. That it works for a minute, that it
works at all, is a miracle.
Thoreau, in his winter, saw in this edge our possible fate: “Nor
need we trouble ourselves to speculate how the human race may be at
last destroyed. It would be easy to cut their threads any time with a
little sharper blast from the north. We go on dating from Cold Fridays
and Great Snows; but a little colder Friday, or greater snow would put
a period to man's existence on the globe.”
Nonetheless, he does not hesitate to lead us on, and in: Silently we unlatch the door, letting the
drift fall in, and step abroad to face the cutting air.
from the Lake
(or Thoreau on Ice)
February 19, 2010
A lake is the landscape’s most
expressive feature. It is the earth’s eye; looking into which the
beholder measures the depth of his own nature.
--H. D. Thoreau
The ice on Whaley Lake is 10 inches thick these days, and the popular
activites upon it are loud, and quiet; ATVs, snowmobiles, and
motorcycles fly over the white flats, carving tracks through to the
glare ice. The noise comes on the weekends and mainly in the
afternoon. Quiet is the silence of ice fishing. Fishermen
are up earlier, and on weekdays, weekends, and in the worst weather
someone’s out there, their back to the wind-chill, poised in meditation
over a single hole or guardian over a field of flagged holes, circled
by seagulls who, though far from the sea, seem to have an intuitive
grasp of Dutchess County fishing regulations. Even when they come
in groups, the fishermen settle and spread apart, beyond speaking or
Henry Thoreau looked into Walden Pond, even in mid-winter. This
was his morning drink: “I cut my way first through a foot of
snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet.”
Kneeling to drink, he looks down into “the quiet parlour of the fishes”
with its “perennial waveless serenity.” A hunter since boyhood, a
fisherman by necessity, he has opened this window with an ax—the same
borrowed ax he used to cut and hew the timber for his nearby
cabin. And he saw: “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our
I pass the fishermen with a nod, and keep going north. I’m
skate-skiing, which you can see in the Olympics (and, yes, the theme
music was going through my head). It’s faster than “classic”
cross-country skiing—in the right conditions. The snow mid-lake gets
chewed up by a big weekend’s traffic, but today the tracks of my
brothers on snow machines have groomed me a nice path through the heavy
powder. I am soon past them and coasting to the dam.
Over the north swamp I count 14 bald eagles in the trees and in the air.
The dam I’m standing on was built to regulate waters which worked mills
and factories in Poughquag, Fishkill, and all the way to Beacon.
It was finished in 1853--Thoreau still had another year before Walden
would be published, though he’d been working on it since 1845, and
fugitive slaves were still returned to their owners, by law, in his
encountered Thoreau, like most kids, in high school, when we were
required to read a section of Walden and his essay Civil Disobedience.
These were taught as lessons in the American values of self-reliance
and integrity—but he was more subversive than that. Now I read
him as the American forefather of the sturdier parts of the New Age and
self-improvement movements: he read and wrote about the Bhagavad Gita
in the 1840s. He studied books and nature with no discrimination.
Thoreau didn’t need 10 inches: “The first ice is especially interesting
and perfect, being hard, dark, and transparent, and affords the best
opportunity for examining the bottom--you can lie at your length on ice
only an inch thick.” (Don’t try this at home.) I picture a
grown man spread like a bug on ice that wouldn’t support a deer hoof,
staring down and taking notes. He measured bubbles from an 80th
to an 8th of an inch thick, counting 30 to 40 per square inch of
ice. He determined how they affected the strength of the ice.
Henry David Thoreau’s time, like ours, was on of new
technologies. He’d witnessed the coming of the telegraph and
photography, which were seen as entertainments, like today’s
screen-gadgets. Industrialization was in its heyday, and
its servant, the Iron Horse, chugged loudly by Walden Pond everyday.
He’s famous for living in the woods but it turns out our house is
quieter than his was.
his day, his name was pronounced “thorough,” and he was nothing
but. In the patterns of frost melting out of the mud along steep
railroad embankments, for example, he found an endlessly fascinating
object of study. Over three pages in Walden he reads the thawing
clay and finds in it the structures of leaves, the quantum unit, you
could say, of vegetative life. “The whole tree is but one leaf, and
rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp in the intervening earth, and
towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils.” In what we
would walk by he finds, “this one hillside illustrated the principles
of all the operations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but
patented a leaf.”
He paid total attention to the detail of the natural world, not in some
remote spot, but at hand, and studied it with a child’s curiosity, a
scientist’s thoroughness and a poet’s reflection: he knew that his
discoveries meant something—that the patterns of nature were universal
and applied not just to the world or to society, but to himself.
There was nothing in nature too trivial to observe or to record.
Nature is the great teacher, and all the lessons of life, of the way
things work, can be found only here.
Besides the eagles, I’ve seen on the lake lately one Great Blue Heron,
and two small blue Bud Light cans. These mysterious objects were
left, not flat and scattered like trash, but posed in the snow,
upright. On the weekend, kids are out mid-ice with their dads,
under the circling gulls, dogs galloping over the snow, memories no
doubt getting laid down with the tracks in the snow.
the Lake – an introduction Pawling Press January 29,
Sunday, before the rain started, I was out on ice skates and ski poles
bumping over the grey ice, looking for smooth spots to try a few
turns. Some beavers had been busy on the near shore, fresh
teeth-marks in a couple of recently felled trees. A pair of
fisherman were barely in visible a mile up the lake to the north, and I
could hear but not see a snowmobile. Ideal conditions? Far
from it. But any chance I have to stand alone in the middle of
nowhere, I’ll take it.
We have this big lake here in Holmes, the largest in Dutchess County
and just 60 miles from NYC, and I hesitate to name it because it is
relatively unknown, and maybe I’d like to keep it that way. Since we
came to the area, first as weekenders and now as full-timers with kids,
we’ve been worried that someday it will be “discovered” and suddenly
overrun with…well, people like us. Sharing, you’ve probably heard
us tell the kids, is a good thing, but this we have mixed feelings
The great fortune of our lake is that only about a third of its shore
is built up, half is protected by a disused rail line, another big
chunk taken up by an old Mormon-owned camp. It’s not along a road
to anywhere, and doesn’t show up on a lot of state maps.
This time of year it’s frozen solid. Suddenly there is a new
white plain of fresh territory to explore. Tundra. When I
was little, a lake I was playing on started to crack, lines ripping
away from my steps, the sound echoing back from shore. I
flattened myself starfish-like and inched to the edge. The point
is, I like to feel safe out there, which is why I like cross country
skis for getting around. Easy and fast, they spread your weight
so you barely break through crusted snow. When you see the ice
fishermen and ATVs out there, then you can relax—just don’t forget
which docks have bubblers.
surreal and beautiful in a winter squall, snow and ice and sky blended
to the same uniform grey with no horizon, a muffling cocoon that moves
along with you, the wind visible in a blur of sideways flakes.
You can always follow your tracks back. Afterwards, the blown
powder resolves into dunes, reiterating forms we’ve seen in the canyons
of Southeast Utah and the sandbars in Cape Cod.
I have seen new deer tracks merge together with coyote, then drops of
blood appear in the footprints and soon more and then fur in clumps,
other sets of track joining as I follow to the inevitable carcass and
kill. It had happened fast on the sunlit lake while I was hidden
by the smaller island. There is probably a message here about
“the cruel beauty of the natural world”--but all I can think of is
TV: the Wild Kingdom, the bones at my feet. A little
frightening as I look around, a predator watching somewhere, waiting
for me to clear off from his meal.
At the north end is the dam, built old school, wide and solid from
earth and giant stone blocks back in 1853. The view is north onto a
swamp, and from here you could be looking out over a bird sanctuary, a
national park. The bald eagles nesting the winter here don’t care
for visitors and unless you’re paying attention you’ll miss them swoop
slowly from the branches on their broad, loping wings. In a few
flaps they are a mile downrange, specks swirling at the top of the sky,
now long gone. Last year we saw only juveniles—brown and gray but
without the famous snowy head and tail. This year a few are
full-grown and look like the real thing, and are even more majestic
than their picture leads you to expect. We have watched them play over
our heads, diving and rolling, crashing into each other and spinning
off, like fighter pilots and acrobats.
As I turn to ski home, blown back with the snow and prevailing wind to
the steep hill up, I’ve forgotten that coyote or cat crouching
somewhere out of sight. But I never forget our good fortune to
have this in our neighborhood, down the road, across the street.