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
Spring, Closely       April 9, 2010
The Signs to Holmes   (the comet story)    May 28, 2010
Zipping at Hunter:  a reminder of joy         June 30, 2010
Hallowed Lands       October 8  2010
Nature's Fingerprints   November 26, 2010
Spinning Out   February 11, 2011
That Thai Trip (Thai Elephant 2 restaurant review)  March 2011
Over My Head in Cabarete Bay: a near-life story  May 2011
Lightning Strikes - the fire out on main street  June 2011
9/11: Images and the Aftermath September 2011
Dylan and 9/11: Going Back to New York City  October 2011

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. 

It’s no 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 SpongeBob lunchbox.

Which is the long way round of saying that I know Thai food.   "Chicken Curry Town"

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 they were overwhelmed.  People were grumbling about how long the food was taking, but everyone shut up once it  arrived. A few days later they had staffed up and everything went smoothly.  Weekends you should still prepare to be patient.  Buddhas are there to help you.e

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.

Spinning Out

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

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?

Nature’s Fingerprints:
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
Street 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 temporary world.   

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 imperfections, 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  2010

What's the use of a fine house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?

            --Henry Thoreau

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 several-hundred acres.

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 work.” 

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 hawk-height. 
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 did. 
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 down.” 

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 ride.” 

Morse, 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 there.” 

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            May 28, 2010

How did I get here?
                                  --Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”

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 playing 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.

I 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 system.

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 attention.

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.

Spring, 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.
                -H.D. Thoreau

Spring has come at last; it has come fast and is close at hand.  Change 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 to moment, the colors and forms I recorded yesterday are today long gone.   Most 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 have to.

The Last of Fahnestock                     April 2, 2010

He who hears the rippling of rivers in these degenerate days will not utterly despair.

--H.D. Thoreau

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 stop.  

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 Hudson.  

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.

A 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 One.

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 tax dodge.

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.

Snow Days  (Three Degrees of Separation)           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 makes.

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.

It 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.  

And 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. Snow.
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.

Six 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.

Lessons 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 chatting distance.

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 heads.”

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 native Massachusetts.

I 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.

In 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.

On the Lake – an introduction      Pawling Press   January 29, 2010

Last 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 about.

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.

It’s 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.