Tag Archives: Catskills

Singing to the Sun

Since about a hundred years ago, with the formation of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony and the offshoot Maverick Art Colony’s performance festivals, the eastern Catskills have been resounding with art and music. In the 1960s, the folk and rock scene gathered for Sound-Outs, concerts presented on a farmer’s land situated between Saugerties and Woodstock, in rural Ulster County. This musical staging style built to a crescendo in 1969 when the Woodstock Festival’s organizers decided to put together a blowout musical happening that echoed throughout the land. It still does, decades later. But it never happened in Woodstock. What did happen, though, was that it drew musicians to this place, to share and play in a nurturing environment, surrounded by sensuous natural beauty. Many of those early musicians stayed and made their homes in the Catskills. The history of this place is rich in the arts, as rich as in its soil, water resources and contoured mountains.


Currently, there is a decadelong tradition of some of these young upstart musicians, now gray of beard, getting together annually to jam and entertain themselves and the crowd, for the purpose of coaxing or welcoming the sun at the winter solstice. If I were the sun, I would be readily recalled by these true artists-in-residence. The quantity of talent that gathers on the stage each year is a bit of a crowd, and you can’t help but wonder how they will avoid stomping on each other’s musical toes. Happy Traum & Friends: Happy, once part of a folk duo with his brother Artie, is the dynamo who puts this event together; John Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful – who performed at the 1969 concert and is as fresh today; Larry Campbell, a musical machine (just hand him any instrument and watch him make it sing) with a track record that reads like a Who’s Who of rock, country and pop music;  Amy Helm, daughter of Woodstock’s own Levon, but a musician in her own right as co-founder of Ollabelle; Teresa Williams, a powerful country singer; and guests Paul Rishell & Annie Raines – two musical blues magicians, he on guitar, she on harmonica.

Rishell & Raines

The performers are so comfortable in the venue and in their abilities that there is a special casual give and take that occurs, and we the audience are privy to it. There is no fourth wall here. Just some neighbors, gathered together to be amazed and amused. The sounds are beautiful. The musicians are pros, but there are no airs, no pretense of them being there as paid pipers playing. Their faces tell us that they are enjoying this annual event as much as we are, and relishing the interaction with each other. It is a thing to behold. And the music, always at a high level, can overwhelm you with its emotional content and real feeling, like shockwaves bouncing through the auditorium. You are completely in the moment and the music fills you as you disappear into the sound. Arslocii.

The night and the performances are intertwined, just as are the multitude of guitars and voices. These musicians breathe music, it exudes from their pores. There is nothing contrived, no trickery. Just music, flowing in through your ears, hovering like a puffy cloud around your brain, teasing and fleeing, diving down into your toes, then soaring back up into your lungs and filling them to the point of gasping, and settling around your heart – the place where the sound will reside forever … or at least until the next year’s concert. This special musical event is the return of the light just at the darkest moment, when you need it the most. It is the alchemy of turning sound into light.

Solstice Concert

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Tree Graveyard

Where do trees go when they die? Some just stay in place and become their own ghostly markers. Others topple over, sometimes taking along near-neighbor trees or human-made objects or structures with them. They live their lives and end their lives in the same spot, unable to move away from danger.

Two weeks ago, during the surprise of Sandy (now referred to as Superstorm), thousands of trees were lost on the East Coast. Thousands. The kinds of numbers that are all-too-familiarly reported in human casualties during wartime or plagues. Of course, trees have had their plagues, too. But in proportion to the frequent tree damage that occurs in various disease- and storm-related events throughout the seasons, this was huge in scope.

In New York City alone, roughly 10,000 trees succumbed and, also, multiple thousands were felled on Long Island. These shocking numbers were reported by state and city parks administrators. And in New Jersey, utility companies logged more than 113,000 irreparably damaged trees, many of which up until this particular storm had survived a hundred years or more of natural assaults.

I am walking through a trail on the eastern edge of the Catskills, and, let’s remember, it is two weeks after the record-shattering hurricane. It is usually a silent place, entirely wooded by white pines, oaks, birches, hemlock. There is an outdoor cathedral quality about the landscape, with the towering arboreal columns that allow sunlight to ricochet off the trunks, or to glint through the empty spaces as it would through clerestory windows above a cavernous interior space. Filtered light sprinkles through the veil of pine needles above – what is left of them, that is.

In the distance I hear the constant buzz of chain saws. I have been hearing that sound every day since the storm. Sometimes it is loud and close, now it is low and soft. Although it is somewhat like the riling sound that a fly or mosquito makes, an annoying, persistent and alarming noise. The ever-present buzz echoes off the mountains and hovers like fog over the valleys. It could be miles away but its droning is solidly felt. All around, it is the familiar sound of sadness and loss.

In this special place, a heavily wooded parcel of just under 80-acres, this municipally owned land protected by a conservation easement for the town around it, is shocking evidence of the devastation. It feels like wholesale slaughter, a massacre. Trees lying down, feet in the air. Trees splintered off twenty feet above the ground. Trees piled on top of trees, much like Pick-Up Sticks if the game were played with thousand-pound sticks. Trees that now resemble an exploded view of a tree. Many of the victims have now been cut away for the trail by those same persistent chainsaw flies. It is a heart-wrenching sight, both terrifying and mind-boggling.

Everything seems topsy turvy. Trees should not lie horizontally on the ground. Or be split and cut with their innards exposed – their dignity and life removed. Yes, some of the lucky ones still stand, the survivors who look on helplessly at their fallen fellow creatures. Trees are the very thing we need most in this climate-changed world, yet here I am, and you are, standing in a tree graveyard caused by our own selfish interests, unable to comprehend how, in the scheme of things, they are more necessary to the world’s well-being than we are. Look what we have wrought.

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Stone Age

In this sucked-silent, away place there is something halted, something wrecked. Without even knowing what happened here, why it is what it is now, being here, looking down at this mountainside layered with broken lives, you feel a deadness, a dull ache, as if standing at the intersection where fear and sadness and abandonment all come together to form a corner of desolation. And, yet, there is beauty.

Up the river on crowded sloops, and on carts and in wagons, the jobless immigrants (so many of them from the north of the United Kingdom that soon, nearby, there would be an encampment called Irishtown) came here 150 years ago or so, because they heard that there was work, and a chance. The city had been crowded and unwelcoming, and those who were unlucky or unsmart, or who couldn’t or wouldn’t accept the sticky largesse of the criminal element among their own, or couldn’t stomach becoming part of those gangs and organizations, went north – some because, back in their homeland, they had been masons and cutters and this would be familiar work, while others would do anything, even this killing labor, to prove that they were worthy of the American dream’s promise. Here was where opportunity seemed written in stone.

This mountain, in fact the whole chain that it is a small part of, is full of bluestone, made of it. Here, quarries were established, and soon there were men all over the ridges and promontories, finding brutal ways to yank the hard stone from its rightful place, while the men’s wives either stayed at home or climbed steep trails up to the mountaintop resorts, where they made sure that rich patrons could lead a fantasy life far removed from any that these servants would ever know. The men, in the jagged rock pits, would work in partner teams: one would hold a pointed drill shaft in his bare hands, the other would swing a sledge hammer to strike that shaft lower into the stone. Both men would pray for unwavering focus and unerring accuracy, because one misguided downward arc and a man could lose his hand, or the use of it – and there are heartbreaking stories of wives forced to leave the men they loved, now crippled, who were unable to do the one job available, and these women marrying another man who could provide.

Later, blasting became a mining technique, and with it came increased injuries, and deaths, and the need for fewer workers. The irony is that the bluestone – sliced to size and shipped south – was used primarily to surface the sidewalks of the city from which these quarrymen had fled. Soon the invention of Portland cement provided a cheaper, faster, more pliable, replaceable and repairable walkway material, and the age of bluestone ended.

Up here is all that’s left of it, except for the occasional city pavement that continues to embrace its cut-stone legacy. Up here, it’s a stone graveyard – shards and chunks and great unbudging rocks lie about in the now-overgrown and nearly hidden work roads and sluices and cart-wheel paths. It is so immensely silent, and, yet, the littered cliffs and ridges make you hear the pounding industry that produced this debris of dismemberment. There are, here and there, perfectly cut and sized stone sheets, piled up, waiting to be hauled away – as if, one moment there was a loud and kinetic and thriving way of life and then in the very next moment it all just ended, everyone vanished, and all that is left is the physical evidence and the undocumented suggestion. Like a ghost town – like the Roanoke colony. Echoless echoes.

And, yet, this being-then-not-being should come as no surprise. Where these gouged stones and shavings now lie, where hordes of workers climbed and assaulted the earth, one can also discern, though just barely, the footpaths of the natives who walked here in a previous time. And, in locations, possibly linked and coordinated, tucked away on this and neighboring mountains, one can stumble upon cairns and liths and mysterious piled-stone structures, date and creators unknown. And among these stones, and among others that simply make up the land, one can, every now and then, find the finely etched remains of a creature that swam here when this pile of bluestone was underwater, and possibly just slurry soon to be compressed by the shifting earth and the rumbling glaciers – a living thing caught in mid-swim, in a life that – like the bluestone quarry and the lives that inhabited it – was and then the next second wasn’t.

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Acts of Submersion

Starting in the 1800s, New York City needed a bigger and more reliable water supply. With so many of the water sources originating in the Catskills, the comparatively empty land was eyed for potential dams and reservoir sites. Towns in the valleys were vulnerable and seemingly dispensable to the state, and many were sacrificed for one city’s needs. The citizens were evicted from their homes and towns by the usual ploy, eminent domain.

Dams were erected, floodgates were opened, New York City was guaranteed a huge, seemingly endless supply of mountain water. Mountain water that drowned towns. Whatever existed in the towns was submerged and diluted by billions of gallons, including moral turpitude. Some might consider it a crime against small town America.

 These disappeared towns, their fate similar in many respects to being outfitted with cement shoes, are referred to as “drowned towns” or ghost towns. Townsfolk’s lives were abruptly ended, they were transplanted to other towns or new artificially established ones. It has happened in many other states in our country, mostly in mountainous regions that have proximity to large metropolises which have no natural resources. Most likely those who are run out of town are rural and poor. Sacrifice of the few for the many.

This, from A Town Called Olive, by Camilla Calhoun: “Imagine the logistics of getting 2,000 people, some who had lived there for generations, to move from their homes in this lush, fertile valley at a time when transience was uncommon. One thousand New York City residents who had second homes there, also lost their homes. Located in the valley, among other things, were 35 stores, 10 churches, 10 schools, 1 gristmill, and 7 saw mills. In order to begin the exodus from the valley, the Commissioner of Appraisal had to post notices warning property owners ‘that in less than two months title to their property would be vested in New York City and they would be subject to a ten-day notice to move.’ The state Water Commission had supported the plan despite the fact there were hearings and residents fought the city’s plans with capable lawyers.”

And from Water for a City, by Charles Weidner: “A woman with 21 acres of land and a boarding house was awarded $6,500 while another with a half acre and a small house was awarded $4,000.” According to Weidner, business claims were also unfairly paid: “Mrs. Emma Cudney received only $8,707.50 for the loss of her 20,000 ginseng plants…. In 1909, Ginseng was being sold for $6-$7 per pound…. While these claims moved extremely slowly, construction of the reservoir progressed at an incredibly fast pace, including the building of a village camp for the immigrant laborers. The 3,900 laborers outnumbered the inhabitants of the valley, which also was a factor in the displacement felt by the local residents.”

There are instances where water levels in the reservoirs decline and some of the towns become visible once more, hence the name ghost towns. (In fact, it’s happening now, in the Midwest, where the terrible drought is causing reservoir-buried towns to reappear in Indiana.) Talk about rising to the surface. Foundations, wells, even railroad tracks are detectable at times when water is in shortage. Ironic that the towns reappear when water levels are low – there are at least eleven reservoirs in New York state that evaporated twenty-five towns in their creation.

Now there are scuba clubs that dive into reservoirs in search of these Atlantises of the east. And there are descendants of the townspeople who gather, gazing longingly into the consuming and soon-to-be-consumed water when the levels are low, hoping to catch a glimpse of their homes, their history, their decades- and generations-long mistrust and dislike of the way they were pushed aside in favor of the thirsty giant downstream.

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Mountain Time

Unwittingly, even ignorantly in topographic terms, we took a turn through New England and were surprised by the “range” of mountainous terrains. (And mountains don’t exactly sneak up on you. Besides, they are indicated on maps.) So, stupidly and simply, wow! Truly, though, it is hard to get a physical sense of such things on a map. This trip had its own built-in quests that were calculated and planned and full of expectations. Sometimes the joy of discovery is the anticipation, the imagining followed by the actualizing and, finally, the measuring of the two – a balance sheet of whether the thinking about is better than the doing, or vice versa. But the unanticipated joys, either large or small, can often be the most memorable part of travel. Like finding mountains.

For someone who purportedly loves mountains, I had no idea what was in store for me. Living in the mid-Atlantic region, I tend to think of the coastal states as being flat-ish lowlands, floodplains, sandbar shores intermingling with the sea. Maine disabused me of that notion. (As did Mark Twain; stopping off at his Hartford home, we were reminded that he wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”)

Maine’s mountains meet the water on their own terms, spruce and pine emerging from speckled granite; the rock/paper/scissors game comes to mind, especially when the logging trucks come toward you on highways (yikes!). In Acadia National Park there are more than twenty mountains, individually named but lacking a range name. The tallest is Cadillac, at 1,530 feet. We didn’t set out to do this, but we climbed it. The views are well worth it. This climb turned out to be a highlight (no pun intended) of the trip. Especially on the descent, when we attempted the rarely used, barely accessible and minimally marked west trail. It set forth challenges and we became intimately involved with the mountain, both on top and on its varied flanks. One of us has a bruise to remember it by. Both of us have a sense of accomplishment, a memory of pounding hearts and a deeper understanding of the landscape and nature’s power.

New Hampshire’s White Mountains are awesome and rugged, comparatively. Also, very much higher, considering that they have numerous four-thousand-footers and that those are then towered over by the renowned Mt. Washington, of bumper-sticker fame. As does its namesake, the tallest mountain seems to wear the same white wig made of clouds, preventing one from ever viewing its summit. And that explains its reputation for consistently having the worst weather in the States. These White Mountains possess a breathtaking beauty that can be matched only out West, yet in New Hampshire their presence feels more compressed and dense, adding to their intensity. In the East, you don’t have the same distant vistas of mountains before you enter their domain. (Kind of the same idea as when seeing whole trains out West and only partial trains in the East.)

Generally, when driving, our choice is to avoid interstates – the eunuchs of roads – but instead traverse the state routes and parkways, the older byways that knew what a road’s purpose was: to delight and surprise the occupants of the vehicles and to find unique approaches for going through and around things like mountains, as opposed to just slicing straight through, all in the service of connecting you in a less intrusive and more tangible way to the countryside. The most spectacular road of our journey was New Hampshire State Route 3, now partially eaten up by I-93, skinnying through Franconia Notch – happily unable to be widened further. Literally a mountain pass, for 12-15 miles I-93 is a parkway that winds between the cleavage-like high peaks of the Kinsman and Franconia mountain ranges much like a log flume. The road reveals that the lower parts of mountains can be as spectacular as the tops on our roller coaster ride along nature’s splendor in tandem with human engineering.

Vermont’s Green Mountains are comparable in stature to the Whites (except for the one), although they appear a bit mellower, softer, rounder than their neighbors to the east. Surprisingly, they are, as are some of the other ranges mentioned, part of the Appalachian Mountains. Their greenness, it seems, is because of the density of coniferous trees, creating a rolling rise and fall with fuzzy edges. The softer flow of this group makes for a picture-postcard photo-op, as houses and small villages live in harmony with the surrounding topography; and these natural limitations make for a saner balance of man(made) and mountain. The intrusion of bare lawn swaths of ski slopes are a little dismaying, as if a large-toothed, sharp-edged comb had raked down the mountainsides – the visual counterpart of fingernails dragged over a blackboard. In situations of nature versus nurture in this country, one has to have a sense of relativity: ski slopes are better than the wholesale timber trade which once denuded entire mountains. So, even with the bizarre grooved effect, it is preferable to scalping.

Going through the Berkshires and on to the Catskills, we are descending in size and scale, as well as latitude, but we are ascending in esteem. This area is considered a plateau, and whatever its codification, there is nothing more beautiful than the Catskill range in juxtaposition to the picture-perfect Hudson Valley. The mountains’ perspectival palette of greens into blues, sometimes going to purples with hints of yellows are so lovely as to leave one dumbstruck. The entirety looks moss-covered, a kind of giant Japanese-garden woodland. There is an appearance of comfort and calm in their curvaceous form and a magnetism that is inescapable for some of us so attuned. In the New York Highlands, just below the Catskills, gumdrop-like mountains erupt as guardians along the Hudson Valley. And, once again, we find ourselves climbing – Schunnemunk Mountain this time, our second ridge this summer. (Funny, considering that we have climbed zero up until this year.) With its unusual “pudding stone” and long and graceful waterfalls, and views of the Hudson that rival Maine’s coast, it is a long hike but worth it, nearly 1,700 feet. At this rate, maybe next it will be Mt. Washington.

All the mountains are sculpted earth; shaped uniquely by upheavals and slow compression, they are lovely, awe-inspiring, some maybe a bit fear-inducing. Their special placeness must be a result of genius loci, they and their settings creating a powerful arslocii.

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Seeing Spots

We met in the Catskills, and arranged to meet again a few days later, in New York City. I think we both knew that something very interesting was bubbling between us, and so quickly, too. (And now, together 35 years, it’s clear that we were pretty much right on the money about it.) We took a walk, a long one, all over the East Side of midtown (as deserted as Manhattan ever gets in the late-night hours), winding our way up and down the number streets, click-clacking through an eerily unpopulated Grand Central and onto Park Avenue, where we found a low wall to sit on in front of a tall building we didn’t pay much attention to. As water jets burbled and splashed into a wide pool behind us, and as we occasionally broke our gazes at each other to focus aimlessly at another meaningless tall building catercorner from us, we talked and talked, and talked some more, exchanging information and intimacies, sharing secrets to see if the other would be shocked by the revelations, and if they would be deal-breakers. We were testing the waters by throwing boulders into them. By night’s end, we had two things: a very real and certain relationship that’s more than we ever could have imagined … and we had a spot. “Our spot.” In our minds, the place where it all began for real – a low wall along a big street in the middle of New York.

For years afterwards, and periodically more recently, when we’ve been in New York we’ve stopped by “our spot,” for old times’ sake, to try to feel again that wonder of the first time. And we usually do. That’s what “spots” are for: to act as touchstones to our past, to encourage our hearts to re-experience a thrill or a defining time or that moment that changed a lot, or everything. Like a tune that becomes “our song,” a spot brings back a vivid “then,” even complete with the echoes of the sounds and the waftings of the smells, and the perhaps-idealized memory of the words spoken, and of that face. Sometimes your “spot” has become so iconic and totemic in your life, what happened there is, in your mind, a sort of tableau or stage set, and you have an out-of-body experience, seeing yourself, as from a distance, as part of the display, one of the mannequins, a member of the cast – you, but apart from yourself. Our “spots” have a placeness so thick, we continue to “see” what happened there even when the “spot” has been altered, even destroyed. In the art of living, it is a placeness that, once lived, never dies. It is as close to having an encounter with ghosts as one is likely to have. And these “spots” are so strong, so integral to the psychological infrastructure upon which who we are is built, that just to be at a “spot,” even a changed or missing one, can make us cry or laugh, regret, shiver … wonder.

It is an amazing thing about us humans: that we seem to have a need to imbue locations connected with seminal events with a kind of secular holiness to potent that we are moved to see visions, not of a god but of ourselves when we thought that we were gods, or others were devils. So immensely enthralling are these, our “spots,” that it is hard to believe that others walk past them or drive by them or even pause at them, yet do not perceive the power there, the emotion, and do not see the spectral remnants of us there, then, played in a loop for all time. How can they not see that? It’s there.

So – that low wall, on Park Avenue, on a warm night, with nary another soul in sight – “our spot.” But here’s the funny thing, the little kicker to this tale: Those few square feet of wall, and the polished-brass hydrants that stick out from it where our dangling feet rested – that is our shrine, the Mecca of our pilgrimages … and all the time we didn’t know or realize or care that, on that wall, at what would become “our spot,” our backs were turned to that tall building … which happened to be the Mies van der Rohe / Philip Johnson Seagram Building, one of the most significant in all of New York. The water feature and the wide plaza – among the most stunning and influential setbacks in all of New York architecture – should have been the giveaway. And that tall building across the wide, divided Park Avenue, catercorner from us – the one that we would flick a look at from time to time? Gordon Bunshaft’s equally important Lever House. Both buildings great and vital contributors to the Modernist movement, New York’s skyline treasures and the general 20th-century boogie-woogie.

But, you can have them – they can crumble and fall, or get a new skin, or bay windows, or ground-to-roof neon-advertising billboards. So what? In the history of architecture, they have a place. But they are nothing to “our spot.” Mere backdrops to it. When we see them, we see textbooks; when we see “our spot,” we see us. And that’s where true placeness lies.


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Wrack & Ruin

There it is, still standing, a vestige, sturdy and upright beyond all odds, remarkably vertical despite the forces of horizontality, concocted of sinew and bone as any other living thing but built of natural stone or manmade versions thereof – a singular wall or, perhaps, a forty-five degree angled pair of walls forming a kind of solidarity for the ages. Time was when there was more to this, when its solid mass made its structure less visible than now. Such remnants, considered ruins, sit in isolated overgrown places: open meadows or wooded lots, near abandoned train tracks, in brownfields. They stand as reminders of what once was or what might have been. They are in slow demise, left out to fend for themselves – abandoned, both structure and site.

Confession time: ruins speak to me. There is something about a partial built structure, in combination with nature on the ascent, that excites something primal in me. It is not only the aesthetics of it, the textural interplay of hard and soft, or grays entwined with greens, or straight and sharp edges in counterpoint to curves and wiggly organic lines – it is all of that and more – and there is some energy felt, too, rather than merely visual delight. Ruins are like a breach or tear or glimpse into other time periods – a kind of limbo of unclarity where convergences of past, present, and future gather. And it is uncertain, for an instant, as to which one you are occupying. I am not a science-fiction aficionado. For me, ruins represent time travel in real time. They provide one of the few instances when we are made aware that there was something before us and our here and now.

Such partial structures are often walls, masonry walls. The most beautiful are stone or brick. Occasionally, there is one of cinder block. Rarely are they wood, since wood doesn’t stay self-supporting for very long. Often, they are house walls, sometimes with chimneys. Others are former buildings of commerce or industry. Occasionally, they are false starts, buildings unfinished as opposed to structures in aging dismantle. They cling to life, they are fighters: against the elements, against human whim and greed, against physics and even probability. They are survivors.

When I first met my life partner, it was because of a ruin. I was in upstate New York, in the woodsy rounded mountains of the Catskills. I had walked through a thicket the day before and spied a ruin, cloaked in its site as they often are. In the morning’s bright light, I wanted to test out my new camera, but headed out hastily in search of the hidden treasure, forgetting the camera. I doubled back, almost at a trot, and literally bumped into this guy who (apparently) had followed me into the woods. We started talking, I explained my mission, he enlisted, we walked together to find the crumbled structure. I photographed the site from various angles, we walked more; in fact, most of the morning, and watched a deer amble across our paths, mere yards ahead – it was the most silent of moments. A deer and a ruin – it was magic and it was fate. Ironically, those pictures never “took” but something else did that day.

It is said that fairies live in the woods. Maybe they inhabit the ruins of man. And maybe their gentle spirits enliven and protect them and infect us, those of us that find them. The partial structures suggest something other than what we witness on a daily basis: that land is to be “improved” and used and modified. Sure, there was once some structure on this piece of ground, but it has been given back, rejoining nature in a dramatic tango, a creative tension and parity. Excuse me, could I cut in? Maybe it has something to do with life, an all-at-once illustration of growth, change and death found in a ruin and its site.


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Phoenicia, N.Y.

How is it that we can enter a place and feel … something: aesthetic engagement, emotional resonance, at times an almost deja vu memory and familiarity, a comfort, a relationship? And in other places, even places designed by smart people to provide those attributes just mentioned, how is it that we feel … nothing? They can be like looking at or being in nowhere at all (see James Kunstler’s Web site, www.kunstler.com).

It has, we’ve learned, little or nothing to do with size, or expense, or even intent. It just happens that, sometimes, fortuitously, out of the blue, you come upon locations that have arisen, mostly organically, that are so redolent of placeness that they practically define the term and rise to the level of art. And they can take your breath away, or insinuate themselves into your memory forever.

Such a place is Phoenicia.

At first glance, it is nothing special. At second and every subsequent glance, it is only special.

Take a look at the terrain-view map reproduced below (click on it to get a better look).

There, amid a canyon of lurking, hovering mountains in the Catskill range – reminiscent, in a way, of images we’ve seen of the Yangtze River and its gorges, both having verdant gumdrop-shaped mountain walls all around, with the New York version including the burbling Esopus Creek rushing through – Phoenicia, a not-so-distant neighbor to the equally magical Woodstock, has set up shop.

We stayed in a funky motel complex just off the main drag in town. Notable – beyond the level of funkiness, which was extreme – was that if you walked out your door you practically walked into a side of a steeply rising mountain. The mountains here are so abrupt and surprising that they appear to be distinct entities rather than part of a chain.

The town as well as the setting, for us, is the draw. It is intentional only in that its site was selected; beyond that, it has grown as it needs and wants to. For those familiar with the revered TV series “Northern Exposure,” this IS Cicely, Alaska – in the flesh. The main street, all several blocks of it, looks remarkably like that of the show. There’s even an eating establishment, Sweet Sue’s, that’s like The Brick, complete with a number of Shellys serving up perhaps the world’s best pancakes (and even a kicking tofu dish). There’s a general store. The bookstore doubles as the town library. And the night we spent there, we stumbled into an art opening at a second-floor gallery that was distinguished as much by the multitude of pot-luck dishes as by what was hanging on the walls. All that’s missing is Dr. Fleischman and Morty the Moose. It is a haven, a vision in the mist, a Brigadoon – and, yet, just a town. And, yet, more than a town – a place that is art by being artlessly itself, and unselfconsciously perfect in its form, suis generis yet representative of something we’ve lost in the rush to be big, and look the same, and set up divisive walls. And it coexists so well with its hidden and unlikely location.

Placeness does not mean, solely, a spot where you feel you belong. But that can be one element of it. It can be a place where hope resides, or highest intentions – even the modest ones – are manifest, or where someone left a soul to be discovered and shared. Or where nature and the manmade complement and determine each other, each underscoring and threatening the other. That placeness – for us, and for many who come there, for Sweet Sue’s or art openings, tubing or as a spot to stay during ski season, or for no set reason – against all odds can be found in Phoenicia.

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