Tag Archives: New York State

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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A New York State of Find

Maybe it is a fact of life in the city – every person is in it to win it, to coin an overused phrase. Something about population density, and compression of spirit as well as space: too little for too many, everyone grabbing and pushing and protective of what they have. It has always seemed to me that once people spread out physically and psychically that there follows a more relaxed attitude – allowing someone to not only breathe but to be more willing to share the air. And this expansion does not mean ¼-acre lots in the suburbs, because there have been extremely intense battles over property boundaries and other lines drawn on those subdivided plots, too.

At the other extreme is how genuinely helpful people can be who live in places of great distances, where towns are 50-100 miles apart. Anyone who has crisscrossed the west and southwest and has had vehicle breakdowns knows that folks in vast landscapes are aware that aiding a stranger is a necessity, a tit-for-tat act of karmic insurance for the inevitability of their own mechanical failure and fate. Helping is a way of existence and survival in a sparsely populated place. Without the generosity of fellow travelers, we would all end up like the bleached bones in a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It is a very different mindset of shared, rather than proprietary, neutral space, but also a more empathetic understanding of the inherent dangers and a willingness to pool resources in a spot where there are so few at hand.

Admittedly, all this generalizing does not preclude there being greedy bastards out west and generous spirits in East Coast cities. But it can color one’s thinking and expectations about places. So, imagine our surprise when we recently encountered three acts of kindness in one twenty-four hour period in upstate New York. This isn’t meant to cast any aspersions on New York state, but it is and was a surprising triad of events, perhaps another ploy to make us fall even deeper for this region. Part of this happy experience is the unexpectedness of it, which, as we have said, can be a component of arslocii. In this instance, though, it is a placeness achieved through human connection, of people extending themselves for the purpose of aiding you in achieving your goals; no questions asked – like really good parents. Only they are strangers.

The day began with a dead tail light as we were headed out to cover some distance. Luckily, there was a Ford dealership near the Thruway in a spot not too far from where we were, and not too much out of our way. Three things: their service department was open on Saturday morning, which this was; their parts department (also open) had our particular bulb; and the three or four mechanics on duty seemed underwhelmed by the volume of repairs. We were shuttled into the Quick Lane, which must be like the fast lane for when your car isn’t moving. The tail light cover was removed, one of us went to the parts counter and purchased the bulb, and the new one was installed and working in about two minutes’ time. Quick Lane. Then: No charge. Really? Their reply was, simply, for us to enjoy our day. Come to think of it, about the West – I was once swindled by greedy bastards in Arizona for some shock absorbers my car didn’t need. Here I am, 100 miles from New York City where, by centrifugal force alone, unsavory New Yorkers could be easily flung into my path. But, no: quick, courteous service … and no charge. That was the beginning of the day. I could have settled for just that.

Now that our Google maps were completely worthless because we were no longer starting out at the beginning or even from the same direction, we improvised to try to reconnect with our route. And, naturally, without directions in sequence (and their directions always lacking any kind of context), our distances were completely worthless. And, then, even right turns and left turns became meaningless and confusing, because we were not starting at point A, and we knew in our hearts that we were without any ability to locate point C. So, we stopped to ask for help – at an ambulance company. Emergency services would know how to find every place, we assumed, no matter how rural. The ambulance driver had no idea where this place was we were going to, to our chagrin. But he did have a very fancy GPS device that he spoke the address into and, presto, we had directions from this point that was not on our Google maps. His kindness was that he didn’t have to do that for us, but he could and he did.

Back on the road with Google maps once we connected with our destination, we were on our way again. No problem now, smooth sailing. Except for one thing – a frickin’ detour through Newburgh. And the worst part of this was that either we were experiencing deja vu, or we had been caught up in this same detour a couple of years before. We remembered it all: the turns, the landmarks, the overload of traffic being rerouted, and also the fact that the detour signs disappear without getting you back to the road you really wanted in the first place. And, suddenly, just like the last time we were there, we were utterly lost. For a while we thought we could recover from this but it grew gradually apparent, as we found ourselves on rural roads once again, that we didn’t have a clue where we were (thanks again, Google Maps – I mean, if a detour has been ongoing for a few years, wouldn’t you think they might have mapped that, too?). The space between things was expanding and we had to yell “uncle!” once again. This time it was a very unbusy car-repair or tire shop in the center of what seemed to us as nowhere.

Since it was a very male kind of establishment, the male of our party went inside. It was an even more unbusy place than the Ford service had been, with a few folks sitting in the back talking – about their lack of business, presumably – although it seemed almost conspiratorial, questionable, strange even. Directions were asked and a woman who was among the group jumped up and said, “It’s too confusing if I tell you, just follow me.” Astonishing, yes. Even more astonishing is that we drove behind her for at least 15 miles before she honked and pointed to our desired route as she turned off the highway. Awesome! Talk about going above and beyond. And you would especially not expect that kind of help from a place that in all appearances seemed like either a front for some illegal off-track betting ring, or a group that was discussing how to get rid of the body. And just like that, a fifteen mile escort to a recognizable road.

What a day! It was filled with good Samaritans and their kind acts of turning a sense of being out of place into placeness.

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The Deer: A Solstice Tale

Staying in a wooded cottage in upstate New York for the winter solstice, surrounded by the serenity and beauty of nature, one expects all of life’s dramas to fade into a perfect cosmic balance. Fewer humans per square foot = harmonious, bucolic calm, right?

Our first morning there, we awoke to deer just outside our door and, had the door been open, it seemed that they would have come in to greet us. They appeared to be a family group, or a herd; obviously a large male, a few less bulky females and several gangly offspring. They were cautious, alert, but also familiar with their surroundings. Some were absolutely breathtaking; all were whitetail. They had come from the hillside above our cabin and were making what we soon learned was their twice-daily pilgrimage to the house at the foot of the hill below us: the large domicile was their deer diner, where a well-meaning citizen fed them some sort of grain mix. And these poor, hungry creatures arrived like clockwork for designated feeding times, much like any domesticated animal does. As we all know, deer are starving not only because winter takes away the grass and leaves of their diet, but also because their ability to roam and get food is impinged by human development and the disappearance of their habitat. They still reproduce no matter how little space or food they have. I don’t know if feeding them is the right-headed thing to do, but I understand the urge to assist these beleaguered fellow creatures.

One of the group, we noticed, arrived with the rest and then settled into the hillside. This one did not continue on to the feeding site about thirty yards below. She curled up like a cat on the ground, camouflaged in the brown leaves and resembling one of the frost-stricken shrub mounds that pepper the woodland floor. When the rest of the herd had eaten their handout, the caravan moved in a retrace of their steps, back to wherever it is that they spend their days and nights. But she stayed, coiled, head down. Much after the rest had gone, we saw her get up and move unsteadily and slowly, we hoped, to rejoin the group. But she hadn’t eaten, never reaching the destination but participating as well as she could in an established habit, though stopping short of the goal.

The next day, the same thing: the herd moving down the slope to the eating spot and the one deer arriving late and settling into the same position and location. Oh no, she must be sick, we thought. And if she doesn’t eat, she will die. She stayed longer in her coiled repose each day that we watched her. It was heartwrenching. What was wrong: Was she aged, was she injured, was she dying? I couldn’t stand to witness this. I am a big believer in all things natural, and I understand that nature is very practical and not at all sentimental; but I am sentimental – a cruel irony for this observer of natural wonder.

Here we were, in this exquisite setting, views from every window, and our most meaningful prospect of the descending woodland had this poor, hapless deer right smack in the center. I found myself not wanting to look out, thankful for the short days so that I couldn’t see the tragedy playing out before me; on the other hand, I was compelled to look, hoping that she had gone back with the herd. I was despising this beautiful place, all of the joy drained out like the life I was witnessing. I was sobbing every day, to the point where my partner said that I was not allowed to look out the windows anymore. Our car was parked down the slope, not far from the deer’s site, so we had to pass it every time we were going out; I was eventually forbidden to look in that direction at all as we passed, since the tears would start flowing again. And when we turned our car around to exit the property, our headlights would scour the landscape like searchlights, and I couldn’t look because I was afraid I would see her still sitting. It was so distressing; I longed to be back in the familiar daily stresses of the too-dense city.

We mentioned this terrible situation to a local friend who came over one day and was willing to look from a distance, even if we weren’t. She didn’t see the deer, dead or alive. The next day, the day of the lunar eclipse, I was looking out at the woods, feeling a little easier, when a huge bird arrived and sat in a tall tree above the site. It was a bright, sunny day, and the giant creature opened its wings, a span of many feet. As the sun shone through the massive feather spread, much like a hang-glider or kite but more beautiful than any you could imagine, glowing orange and black – it dawned on me: a vulture. Oh no, oh no. The sobbing began again, but it was different this time.

Strangely and suddenly, I started thinking that the worst was over, and whatever pain and suffering that may have been happening there in the woods had ended. I was relieved, somehow, that the deathwatch was over. I knew that there would be more vultures coming soon to do what they do so well in ridding the world of dead animals. And then, just as quickly as it had arrived, the vulture flew away and no others came. Now I was confused, but I had just been through the whole gamut of emotions: terror, sorrow, resignation, relief, acceptance – and I was starting to feel less anxious about the landscape. I began looking anew out the windows and, when I walked by the site, I scanned the ground for the deer. I became emboldened and walked closer to the wooded parcel, not entering it because it was a drop-off from the path, carefully studying the ground and all the frost-stricken shrub mounds that lay about. No deer. My partner, too, looked hard for the deer and did not find it. My spirits lifted. The woods became friendly and attractive once again.

We will never know the fate of that deer, but we are, in our insular citified way, happy that we didn’t have to know. Bambi’s mother wasn’t really killed by that hunter – we all hope that. We had said, over the course of our visit, many pagan prayers for the deer. What we want to believe is that she was healed by the lunar eclipse and the winter solstice happening simultaneously, a seasonal natural miracle – an occurrence of mythic proportions in a place in nature. We like to think that nature is full of miraculous events – all of us living things are evidence enough – but sometimes you just need a twist of fate to reinforce your sense of hope and magic.


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