Sunday, May 29, 2022

At Evergreen

     Maybe someday I'll take up permanent residence in Evergreen Cemetery. Just not right now. Not anytime soon. No sense rushing into these things.

     In the meantime it'll be occasional visits. It's a fascinating place. Rewarding to the naturalist, the historian, to anyone who appreciates monuments in all their myriad shapes and quirky inscriptions. In anticipation of Memorial Day I spent a few hours there recently. In this post I'ld like to share a little of what I saw. 

     First, some orientation. There are a lot of Evergreen Cemetery's out there but the one of which I speak is located on Cemetery Road a mile or two outside the Village of Salem in Washington County, N.Y. The site of the village and much of the surrounding area is level to gently rolling outwash deposits left by the melting of the last glacier. But on either side of these bottom lands Taconic slopes rise up to 400 feet above the valley floor. One of these ridges, Cary Hill, sits at the western edge of Salem and Evergreen Cemetery is located on a low knoll at its southern end.

     Tilted, layered mudstone bedrock outcrops on the western side of Evergreen's knoll but it dips down toward the east and is covered with enough deep silty-shaley soil to make digging graves possible. The cemetery features a small pond ringed with cattails and yellow iris's and home to an even smaller island, the domain of a solitary spruce tree. At a low point near the entrance there is a hand pump which hints that the water table is probably less than 20 feet down. On its eastern side White Creek skirts the Evergreen knoll but it's down a steep, wooded bank and not easily accessible.

     Evergreen certainly lives up to its name, being the home of just about every type of conifer you're likely to see around here. Cedars and yews, spruces and hemlocks, tamaracks and several types of pine are scattered thru out the grounds. You'll also see deciduous trees of impressive size and, because some of the plots are accessed by woodland paths, wandering here can feel like a nature hike. Wildflowers are everywhere with white and lavender ones (phlox?) in colorful bloom on the day I visited. Mossy stone walls, most likely dating from when this was a sheep pasture, add to the charm.

      My feeling is that every gravestone commemorates a precious life with stories to tell and accomplishments to celebrate. The problem is that unless you are family or friend to the departed there is no way of knowing the particulars of that life. That said, there are several people interred here whose lives are well documented. 

     Brigadier General David Allen Russell was a Salem native who graduated from West Point and participated in many campaigns before being killed leading his men in battle. A large granite block at the far end of the cemetery sits over his grave. Look for the Civil War monument surrounded by markers of the fallen from that sad time.

     Francis Clark was decorated for his bravery fighting the Nazis in World War II. He received the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman for repeatedly facing enemy fire to help save his fellow soldiers. At one point he was wounded but refused evacuation and continued to fight. Back in Salem after the war he continued to serve his community until his death in 1981. A simple stone and two bronze plaques on the eastern side of the cemetery pay tribute to this humble hero.

     In a section to the west of the Civil War monument is a large memorial to the Fitch family. There were multiple generations of distinguished individuals but probably the best known was Asa Fitch Jr. He was a medical doctor, an historian and a scientist sometimes called the father of American entomology. His family home still stands a short distance away at Fitch Point near where Black Creek flows into the Battenkill.

     Others buried here are more notorious than revered. Volunteers working in the cemetery told me the story of 'Old Head Allen'. He was  local doctor involved in a scandalous affair of grave robbing and beheading! Shades of Frankenstein right here in Salem. 
     And then there are those who are all but forgotten. Walking down a wooded lane on the eastern side leads to separate sections where people of color, the poor and those with no local connection were once interred. Places to contemplate our complex social and cultural history.

     These are troubling times. Our rights, our freedoms, our very lives seem under attach. Remembering the trials of those who came before us can keep things in perspective. Everything we cherish and take for granted is owed to their sacrifice. 


web image

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Beauty or Beast?

     I was standing just inches from  the point where the stream gathered momentum before giving in to the inevitable and falling away. The energy (and the danger) were palpable. Water is heavy and when it plunges fifty, maybe even seventy-five feet over ledge and jumbled rock it doesn't go gently. It splashes, it foams and it protests noisily. It was an awesome sight and if ever there was a time and place to be in the moment this was it. But wouldn't you know, I felt my thoughts drifting...drifting to cathedrals and climbing gyms of all things. Now, what was up with that?

      Maybe it helps to know that I was at Shelving Rock Falls, in the Washington County Town of Fort Ann. It's a beautiful and popular destination. Waterfalls like this can elicit the same emotions as a magnificent gothic cathedral. Exultation and soaring spirits in the presence of grandeur. At least that's what I and many others feel. But there are those who instead see a climbing gym type challenge. A place to test their nerve, to taste the tang of risk. It's to those that the beauty can, and too often does, turn beastly.

     Shelving Rock Brook is one of many small streams that feed Lake George. It gathers on the southwestern shoulder of Erebus Mountain and drops quickly and precipitously down to Shelving Rock Bay  (aka Log Bay). The entire watershed is heavily forested with a thin patina of glacial till over bedrock. The brook's water is transparently pure which in turn contributes to the lake's famed cold clarity. In streams such as this you see the impetus for the Adirondack Forest Preserve and its goal of protecting the waters that flow from the mountains.

     You can hike up to the falls from the lake shore but this requires a boat, which on Lake George is an expensive proposition with a relatively short season. Most people come by car via Sly Pond/Shelving Rock Road, parking in one of several DEC lots, and walking the short level path along Shelving Rock Brook. The approach is delightful and normally quite easy but when Gwenne, Zia and I visited in late April recent storms had resulted in blowdown and washouts of part of the trail. Towering pines and hemlocks add to the 'cathedral effect' and in summer the stream begs to be waded in.

      The majestic trees are a legacy of George O. Knapp whose Shelving Rock estate included thousands of acres and miles of Lake George shoreline. At the falls there was a barn, a gazebo and a power plant. You can also see insulators embedded into trees, half-buried water pipes and carefully constructed stone abutments that support old carriage paths. Most of Knapp's property was sold to New York State in 1941 for $200,000 (which might buy you a few feet of Lake George waterfront at today's prices!).

Looking across Log Bay to Shelving Rock Mountain

     Perhaps the perfect way to spend a day here is with Elsa Kny Steinback's Sweet Peas and a White Bridge and Fred Tracy Stiles' From Then Till Now. Find a quiet spot, spread out snacks and a drink and let the two authors immerse you in stories of Shelving Rock and the east side of the lake. Now that's my idea of a good time... 

     But not everybody's. Log Bay used to host a notorious party day every summer when it filled with boats, drinking and debauchery. It took a heartbreaking tragedy in which an innocent young girl lost her life before authorities put an end to it. Another problem area called 'The Pines' along Shelving Rock Road became known as the site of rowdy behavior and environmental degradation. Land managers closed it off in 2004 and today the area is quietly recovering its natural beauty. And then there is the falls. It's been the scene of a number of accidents in recent years. Friends who live on the road leading to here say the sound of sirens and ambulances rushing by has become all too common during the summer.

Web image of first responders at Shelving Rock Falls

     The most recent death occurred in January of this year when Timothy Gillen's body was found at the foot of the falls. In 2011 a man fell on June 30 and a week later a boy fell at the same spot. Several years ago a man and then a young girl fell on consecutive days, July 3 & 4. All suffered injuries and required rescue and medical evacuation. 

     Another season of outdoor exploration is here. Rivers, lakes, cliffs, mountains and, yes, waterfalls beckon. Just remember to approach all that beauty with care and respect lest you provoke a beast. 

Gwenne's video of Shelving Rock Falls