Saturday, December 27, 2014


     "Absence makes the Heart grow fonder."  Thomas Haynes Bayly

     The sun has been noticeably absent in December, the double-whammy victim of endless overcast skies and the long nights of winter solstice. On the bright side, the occasional nice day has been on the weekend, just when we need it most.
     Last Saturday I was doing chores in the predawn darkness but could see it had cleared. There was a slender crescent moon in the east, Jupiter shone bright in Leo, and the sky was full of stars that gradually faded as the morning pinkend.
     I did some quick math and came up with this equation: sun + Saturday = SAW. SAW is the Salem Art Works and I'ld been wanting to check out their new trail system so the decision was easy, "Let's do it."
     The trip to Salem was memorable.  Holly drove her blue Civic with standard shift and I rode shotgun. Unfortunately this is her puppy Lala's reserved seat and she wasn't about to give it up. So I had a much-larger-than lapdog on my lap and Holly had to negotiate Lala's butt just to shift the car.

     But it wasn't till we turned down Cary Lane that things started getting really weird. Everywhere you looked big, colorful objects were poking up out of the snow. Sculptures galore grace the SAW grounds, a former dairy farm complex of barns, sheds and fields. We checked in at the house and got an enthusiastic thumbs up to explore.

     Not quite sure where to go we walked along a lane with Beaver Brook dancing along one side and a colorful mural on the other. A short stroll brought us to a pond ringed with trippy, rainbow painted vintage campers, apparently an artist's encampment in summer. Today all was quiet but it's easy to picture the place verdant with life and activity a few months hence.

     We wound our way up Cary Hill following tracks in the snow past the Salem DPW building. Apparently you can drive up here at times and someone had made an ill-advised attempt just recently that appeared to end in the ditch. It's actually a nice walk up the steep hill. Just take it slow stopping often to catch your breath and enjoy the whimsical art that dots the hillside. Looking to the east you see a breathtaking creation of another sort - the frost white panorama of the high Taconics.
     From south to north I noted Grass Mountain, Red Mountain, Equinox (with it's trademark line to the summit), Bear and Egg Mountains and Merck Forest's Mt. Antone. This is a fine vantage point to sense the tremendous compressive forces that pushed these rocks up from the sea floor thousands of feet into the air and many miles from east to west. Such is the heavy lifting that tectonic energy is capable of when Earth's plates collide.

     Near the top of the hill, past an arrangement of orange girders that can only be described as monumental, is a big stone circle that must host amazing bonfires in season. I can imagine magical star-filled nights here with flames dancing and sparks flying. Salem nestles like a toy village far below.
     A little farther are some big maples that mark the transition from fields to woods and the beginning of the trail system. We didn't see where any people had been but did see tracks of deer, rabbit, squirrel, mice and birds. After circling the crest of the hill it was a short bushwhack thru open woods back down.  
     Lala had an excellent adventure at SAW and so did I. But within minutes of reaching the car she was sound asleep. On my lap, of course.


Friday, December 26, 2014

Gift of New Skete

     "I'm dreaming of a wild Christmas."

     No white Christmas this year. Two days of warmth and rain washed that away. Our family tradition of a holiday ski tour had to take a break although Gwenne and Holly did manage some skiing (and splashing) on Christmas Eve.
     "Wild" filled in for "white" as we opted for a Christmas Day hike in the hills beyond Cambridge. From the village we drove east on Co. 67 to Ash Grove, taking time to admire the Scotch Highland cattle and, a little further on, the ghostly sycamores along White Creek. We turned right on Chestnut Hill Road where we watched Pumpkin Hook Brook staging a spring flood preview.
     Finally it's up the long hill leading to the New Skete Monastery, nestled beneath Two Tops. There had been a service earlier in the morning but all was quiet when we arrived. We strolled the peaceful grounds and were given trail directions by a gracious Brother. Then it was into the woods for a few hours of easy hiking.
     The Monks have over four miles of marked trails on their forested hillside. I've wanted to come back since going on a guided outing lead by Sue Van Hook several years ago. Stone walls tell of a time when this was open sheep pasture. Now it's mature hardwoods, full of wonder any time of the year. Reading the Forested Landscape  by Tom Wessels would be a good primer before a visit. It's a book that looks at the changes New England forests have experienced over time.
     We enjoyed our walk so much we hardly missed the white this year, and stopping for cheesecake at the Nuns of New Skete didn't hurt either. Brothers who create enchanting trails and Sisters who bake yummy desserts, now that's wild! Here's hoping you can visit and support the New Skete community in the year ahead. They are a part of what makes Washington County such a great place.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Big Tease

     Here are a few things I know and some things I'm not sure about:
     -Washington County once had a huge sheep population.
     -Woolen mills dotted the countryside.
     -Teasel plants are part of our flora.
     -Teasel has been used in the carding of wool.
     And the uncertainties:
     -Was teasel used here in wool processing?
     -If so, was teasel grown as a crop or simply harvested from wild populations?

     If you're wondering what kind of plant could be used in manufacturing, I suggest a drive north on Rt. 4 past the intersection with Rt. 22. Look for a large pull-off on the east side of the road and  you'll see big weeds growing there. Careful! This is botany that demands discretion and heavy gloves. Teasel is a plant covered in spines but it was the bristled, cone shaped flowerhead that was used in the mills.
     There are probably patches of teasel throughout Washington County but this spot's accessibility is hard to beat. It's over-your-head height keeps the plant above the deepest snow and visible all winter long. It is a biennial, native to Europe and Asia (invasive here). In the first year teasel produces a low rosette of leaves and the second year brings a tall stalk topped with the distinctive spiny eggs. These have purple flowers in summer and delicate curving bracts all year.
     I'm hoping to learn more about this curious plant and its role in the areas agricultural/industrial past. Anyone out there who can help?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Beholden to the Holdens

     I recently drove from Saratoga County to Warren County so I could research Washington County. Life would be so boring if it made sense.
     My destination was Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls. More specifically I wanted to spend some time in the Holden Room, located in the Folklife Center downstairs from the Glen Street entrance.
     Dr. Austin W. Holden was a Washington County boy, born in White Creek in 1819. He was a medical doctor while also spending time as an editor, teacher, school superintendent, soldier and cabinet maker! Did I mention he was also the area's leading historian. Following in these big footsteps his son James became the first New York State Historian. Their combined collection of some 2,500 books, maps and documents was donated to the library and forms the core of the Holden Collection of Americana. Further gifts from A. B. Colvin and A. W. Miller plus ongoing acquisitions have created a little slice of heaven for anyone interested in the region.
     The shelves are filled with an eclectic mix that defies description. There are cookbooks, phonebooks and yearbooks sitting beside family, community and church histories. There are 1840's era manuscripts from the first geological survey of New York State by the likes of Emmons and Mather next to a delightful new book titled The Hudson Valley  in the Ice Age  by Robert and Johanna Titus. Folk arts volumes ranging from basketmaking to blacksmithing to tattooing are here as well.
     The Washington County curious can read about a haunted house in Hartford, Bigfoot in Whitehall, Fort Ann's Shelving Rock Falls and the Welsh quarrymen of Granville. Even the map covered walls here are rewarding. Check out the 1884 Birdseye view of Sandy Hill (Hudson Falls) to see what's changed and what's stayed the same. Then there's the 1842 Geologic Map of New York State and an 1853 map of the county where Roger's Island was called Monroe's Island and Eagleville was East Salem.
     It isn't just the books that make the Holden special. Erica Wolfe Burke is here to help as archivist and special collections librarian and Todd DeGarmo is director of the Folklife Center. Todd has a Washington County connection: he lives with his family in beautiful downtown Shushan. He's currently working on a Battenkill River exhibit that will open in the Folklife Center early next year.
     Occasionally I'll visit the Holden with something specific in mind but most of the time I'm not that focused. I love to just browse the stacks, open to some serendipitous bit of information that will send me out into the Washington County landscape looking for a fossil site, an old mill ruin or an outcrop where Native Americans chipped arrowheads. It mirrors the pleasure some find in shopping (something I remember doing last, maybe 25 years ago). It's the thrill of that special find only here there's no sales tax!
     Nothing circulates at the Holden so remember to bring a notebook and change for the copier. Hours are Monday thru Friday 10 to 12 in the morning and 1 to 4 in the afternoon plus Tuesday evening from 5 to 8.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Wild Week

     A favorite segment of A Prairie Home Companion begins with Garrison Keillor telling us, "It's been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, my hometown." We're a long way from Minnesota so I'll try, "It's been a wild week in Washington County, my roam ground."
     It seems like the sky and things that fall out of it take center stage this time of year. Last evening I was out doing chores when a big orange moon rose about 6:00 PM. It was just one day past full and popped up far to the northeast, nestled amongst the familiar winter constellations of Gemini, Orion, Taurus and Auriga. Even bright stars like Capella and Betelgeuse fade into the background as if bullied by the big kid passing thru the neighborhood.
     Thursday morning served up a special treat. I was waiting for the skid-steer to warm-up and wishing for the warm-up that comes with sunrise. What I got was a blazing orange sun pillar against a purple gray cloud. It was over in a few minutes but the memory lingers. Here's a little info I found on the phenomenon:

Sun Pillars
vertical shafts of light

A sun pillar is a vertical shaft of light extending upward or downward from the sun. Typically seen during sunrise or sunset, sun pillars form when sunlight reflects off the surfaces of falling ice crystals associated with thin, high-level clouds (like cirrostratus clouds).

 Photograph by: Rauber

The hexagonal plate-like ice crystals fall with a horizontal orientation, gently rocking from side to side as they fall.

When the sun is low on the horizon, an area of brightness appears in the sky above (or below) the sun as sunlight is reflected off the surfaces of these tipped ice crystals.
     Credit Illinois WW2010 Project.

     A Sunday swing thru southern Washington County left me with pleasing images: Wampeack Creek running cold and blue between tawny banks, a big flock of wild turkeys along Co. 59, mallards in the Battenkill at Rexleigh (they seemed happy to have a river empty of fishermen, swimmers and paddlers), a squirrel's tracks in crusty snow and lots of holiday spirit at Bailey's Christmas Tree Farm in West Cambridge where cars with bushy green things on top lined both sides of the road! Something to smile about in every season

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tellebration Place

     You can't get into heaven with a handful of dirt. This is information that may come in handy some day. Just not some day soon I hope.
     I learned this while listening to a story called The Man Who Clung To Earth. We were at the Cabaret Theatre in Salem for an event called Tellebration. Seven local storytellers kept us amused, enthralled and in tears over the course of a couple of hours.
     The event was part of a national resurgence in the simple art of the oral story. No music, costumes or staging, this is just one person standing up and offering a slice of human experience. I've enjoyed The Moth on NPR but there's nothing like the warmth of live and local.
     On Sunday Joe Peck offered two of his trademark glimpses into farm life. Christy Keegan remembered a misguided effort to support her sister. Gwenne Rippon (my one and only) told an emotional story of family forgiveness and redemption. Kelvin Keraga adapted Icelandic folktales that reminded me of Mettawee Theatre material, evocative even without the puppets. Tom Weakley then kept us in stitches with The Good Lookin' Suit (very punny). Dan Garfinkel, a familiar figure to many in Salem, came with a memoir of his father and alzheimers that was a rich blend of funny, sad and wise.
     Finally, our relationship with place was the subject of two memorable performances. Siri Allison, the event's gracious master of ceremonies, took an Arthur Clarke piece and made it her own in a heartwrenching tale of loss and longing. Clarke was a writer of deep science fiction best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey, the source for the Stanley Kubrick film. The story Siri told was titled If I Forget Thee, O Earth. In it a little girl is mesmerized by her first view of earth from exile in space. She has the revelation that the future of the human race rests on her love for the home planet, which has been made uninhabitable. May we all learn that love before it's too late.
     Tom Weakley closed the program telling us about a Vermont farmer who may have loved his place too much. He was so deeply rooted in his Mettawee Valley land that he wouldn't let go of it, not even to get into heaven. It took every trick in God's book to coax him thru the Pearly Gates but when he finally entered there was a richly satisfying reward waiting for him and the audience.
     I think all of us at the Salem Tellebration felt like we had spent a little time in heaven. Great job storytellers! Thank you.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sugar High

     "That's big scat."
     "Big enough to be..."
     "A moose!"
     Then, a few feet down the trail:
     "That's a big hoof print."
     "Big enough to be..."
     "Definitely a moose!"

     It was one of those moments when you look a little deeper into the woods around you. Wildlife encounters are a cherished part of the Washington County experience. But when the wildlife can weight over a thousand pounds and carry antlers spanning six feet across you want some distance to the meeting. As in safe distance.
     Turns out large ungulates aren't the only challenge to climbing Sugarloaf Mountain. Though small in stature the peak has an impressive ring of cliffs circling its summit. It reminds you of a castle that begs to be stormed.
     Sugarloaf lies in the shadow of Black Mountain, at 2646 feet, Washington County's highest point. Both mountains are accessed from a DEC parking lot on Pike Brook Road just off County 6, which is the road connecting Rt. 22 to Huletts Landing in Dresden.

     All of the hiking traffic on a recent blustery, early November day was heading for Black. All except for us. While I can understand that people are drawn to the heights, I find Black's summit disturbing. It has been trashed with towers, sheds, turbines, cables and such to the point of sullying its natural wildness. If you can ignore the detritus then the views are worth the climb and by looping over the mountain and coming back by its namesake ponds you'll visit an interesting variety of ecological communities.
     Today little Sugarloaf seemed to beckon and a short distance up the trail to Black we veered right on a logging road blocked by limestone boulders. I'd heard that this land had recently been purchased by the state and DEC signs prohibiting motorized use but apparently allowing hiking seemed to confirm this. The only person we saw was a lone hunter on watch.
     At a drained beaver pond we turned right and weaved up thru open hardwoods and hemlocks. The area has been logged but not recently and the walking is easy. There is a gradual slope until the cliffs when things get sporty. We found the faintest of herd paths on the northwest side and with minor risk to life and limb gained the flat summit. It was doable but I wouldn't recommend it when wet or snowy or icy or... You get the picture, use some judgment up there.

     The top is lightly wooded with lots of open rock that caps the mountain in a non-flowering bonnet. There was a variety of ferns, mosses, lichens and clubmoss amongst patches of blueberry and juniper. It also has sweet views of both Lake George and Lake Champlain along with a wide panorama from the high peaks of the Adirondacks down the full length of the Green Mountains to the northern end of the Taconics. There's a couple of incongruous structures that if removed would return the top to pristine condition. All this for less than an hour of hiking and only slight risk of death and dismemberment.
     Anyone with a little gas in their tank and a taste for bushwhacking could do an intriguing three plus three trip by tagging Sugarloaf, Elephant and Black Mountains before swinging by Upper and Lower Black Mountain and Lapland Ponds.

     Today we were content with getting down the cliffs in one piece. Gwenne and Holly had to bucket brigade our puppy Lila down the steepest part. Lila's a born hiker whose less sure about rock climbing and rappeling.
     Sugarloaf is a fun little mountain that proves size isn't everything...unless, that is, you're dealing with certain hoofed mammals known to do their business in these parts.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Gated Communities of W. C.

     I won't be trick or treating in an Obama mask this year. The risk of scaring to death a Democratic candidate running for office is just too great. Instead my nod to Halloween will be this photo tour of a few Washington County cemeteries.
     Why are graveyards considered frightening? And why do so many of them have fences and gates? For most people in Washington County the thing they fear most is getting their property/school tax bill.   Still, when I'm out for an evening jog on Binninger Road from Eagleville or along River Road in Fort Miller, with dusk settling and a little foggy mist creeping out of the woods, my pace always picks up as I pass the tombstones.


     Here's a peaceful spot on County 61 just up the hill from Battenville.

     Eagleville is an oldie with internments from 1795. It's a simple opening in the surrounding woods. Curiously, the stones are placed perpendicular to the dirt road. And what a wonderful road it is. Binninger is my favorite running route in all of Washington County. Tree shaded and stone walled with classic country homes, a quaint crossing of Steele Brook and the cemetery, of course. Park down by the covered bridge and enjoy this outing on foot. Extra points if you walk it after dark on a full moon night.

     The Moravian Cemetery is a pastoral gem, with its enclosing stone wall and (missing) gate. Being located in beautiful Camden Valley doesn't hurt. The sheep in the pasture across the road add to the charm. Philip Embury, the father of American Methodism, was interred here in 1773 then moved several times until he ended up in Cambridge. The Moravians are a protestant sect that came to America from Germany around 1735. Abraham Bininger established a mission of the church, and this cemetery on his farm here in Camden near the Vermont border.

     A small group of stones commands this knoll along County 62 near the intersection of Kenyon Hill Road in the Town of Jackson.

     Fort Miller's Riverside is a personal favorite. I've logged a lot of miles from the Rt. 4 bridge up
River Road thru the hamlet and past the cemetery. It's lovely during the day with two large catalpa trees along the road and tall pines towards the back. But I always seem to hit it at dusk when it spooks me out. It's aptly named because the Hudson is right behind it. Always wanted waterfront property? My advice is to walk to the back of Riverside and be careful what you wish for.

Jane McCrea - How not to rest in peace

     Jane   McCrea is the diva of local historical lore. She was a young woman who died during a skirmish between American patriots and Indians attached to British General Burgoyne's army. There is some uncertainty but she was probably murdered by the Indians and was definitely scalped by them. Her death incited many in the colonies to fight the British and was a factor in Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga several months later.
     For Jane, her violent death on July 25, 1777 was the beginning of a long, strange journey. Depending on the accuracy of various accounts she was buried and dug up four or five times and not all of her made it to her final grave. You can visit the sites of this macabre story in and around Fort Edward and Halloween seems like the perfect time to do it.

     This was Jane's brother's house on the west side of the river below Fort Edward. She was staying here in relative safety until family discord over the war caused her to leave.

     The historical marker calls this the Jane McCrea House. Was this where she was staying with Sarah McNeil when they were abducted? They were taken towards the hill where the high school is today. Somewhere in what was then a wooded area she was killed and perhaps buried for a short time. Presumably the Stewarts Shop next to the house wasn't there in 1777.

A short time after her death she was apparently dug up and floated down the Hudson with the intent of burying her on her brother's farm. The family didn't agree to this so she was interred on the east side of the river near where Blackhouse Road joins Rt. 4. There is a marker here beside the road and a small enclosed lot with a monument to an American soldier who died on the same day as McCrea. His name was Tobias Van Veghten.

     In 1822 McCrea was exhumed and moved to the State Street Cemetery in Fort Edward. Supposedly her remains were placed on top of her old friend Sarah McNeil's vault. Eventually she was dug up again in 1852 to make room for the Champlain Canal then under construction. This time she moved up the hill beyond her murder and original burial site to Union Cemetery along Rt. 4 across from the Washington County offices.

     In 2003 a forensic exhumation was conducted by archeologist David Starbuck. Although there were few remains left it was discovered that two bodies had been buried together, presumably McCrea and McNeil. McCrea's skull and many bones were missing, probably taken by souvenir hunters at a previous disinterment. Today you can see the monuments within an iron fence enclosure, gated and padlocked, just inside the entrance to Union Cemetery. Side by side are stones honoring Jane McCrea,  Sarah McNeil and Duncan Campbell.

     Cemeteries are where we remember those who've come and gone before us. But they also serve as visible landscape reminders of deeper truths about the human condition, about how grateful we should be for this blessed, fragile gift. Life itself is the real trick or treat. Happy Halloween to you all.