American Sublime

by Judith Shulevitz | August 28, 2010

Haines Falls, New YorkLike every other summer resident of a rural region, I come to the Catskills to get away from my life. If winter is when we second-home owners disappear like pale ghosts into our routines and our urban surroundings, then summer is the time when nature is supposed to restore us to our ruddier, truer, more spontaneous selves. Driving around in my SUV, thinking “Glory be for dappled things,” I amuse myself by imagining that, down in the valley, civilization has screeched to an end, and that my family and I will revert to our instincts and live by our wits. But the northeastern Catskills offer something else, too, something I like to think no other American range offers, at least, not to the same extent. The Catskills have history, a past so inescapable that it makes my little escape fantasy look like a willful refusal to acknowledge the human presence all around me. If you hike to a ledge, it will still yield the Romantic vision of unpeopled America that first took shape here–the gnarled trees, tall waterfalls, and long views down crooked cloves beloved by the painters of the Hudson River School. But a closer examination of the second-growth forest and bare mountainsides, where erosion has made the trees fall down, will suggest how deeply people are implicated in the landscape. The Catskills, whose natural resources were long ago depleted and whose tourism industry has never quite recovered from the advent of the automobile (which lets people zoom through without stopping, or else spend the night cheaply car-camping), provides a useful corrective to our naïve faith that nature will revert to its noble sublimity once we stop torturing it. Wild mainly in the sense of being un-manicured, at least in comparison to the more agrarian counties to the east, crisscrossed by the ruins of tanneries and bluestone quarries and old hotels, this place is a depressive realist’s dream vacation spot, a Detroit of the natural world.

Let me explain which Catskills I’m talking about. I’m not talking about the Borscht Belt, the Grossinger’s-and-tummlers’ Catskills, that is to say, the rolling hills in the western counties indelibly associated with Danny Kaye, Jewish singles, and indoor tennis. I’m talking about a much taller Catskills, farther to the east, whose 2,200-foot-high escarpment looms up on the left of drivers traveling north on I-87 toward Albany or Montreal. I’ve got in mind the dark-blue, fairy-tale land of Rip Van Winkle and Natty Bumppo, a region once famous for its brooding hemlocks and elegant mountain hotels and notorious for turning Jews away from them. I’m talking about mountaintop towns with names like Tannersville and Hunter and Windham that look today, to the casual passer-through, like little more than a series of slope-scarring ski resorts and struggling downtowns, and about a network of springs and streams tenuously protected against overdevelopment and the riskier methods of oil drilling by New York City, which draws its drinking water from the area.

More specifically, I’m thinking of my own village, Haines Falls, a picturesque, diminished gateway to a spot known, in its better days, as Pine Orchard. This is the site of North and South Lake and the much-painted Kaaterskill Falls, and it was once the site of the Catskill Mountain House, from whose veranda the great mid-nineteenth-century artists Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher Durand, and Sanford Gifford, as well as the naturalist John Burroughs, were able to see the Hudson Valley spread out before them like “all creation,” as James Fenimore Cooper put it in The Pioneers. On very clear days, they could also see the Berkshires of Massachusetts and the Green Mountains of Vermont. This is the exact spot on which American landscape painting was born (previously, Americans went to Europe to paint mountains), as was the notion that America’s wilderness, less worked-over and more extreme than Europe’s, was somehow bound up with our destiny and character. From this glorification of virgin territory, it was a relatively short step to the modern environmental movement. This makes it all the more remarkable to stumble upon the old photographs that line the walls of many second homes here and realize that, when these pictures were taken more than a century ago, the mountains had been completely denuded, the slopes reborn as sheep meadows, and the rivers and fish all but destroyed. The cause of this devastation was the tanning industry, which cut down the hemlock forest for its tannin-rich bark and sent hot, noxious wastewater tumbling down the sides of the mountains.

The Hudson River painters, intent on proving God’s presence in the landscape, declined to depict the destruction of the forest, and the tourists who came to the Catskills looking for what they’d seen in the paintings were remarkably good at screening it out too. In The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock, historian Alf Evers makes you feel how odd the scene must have been: “Travelers seeking romantic thrills among the Catskills soon met long lines of wagons laden with stinking hides destined for mountain tanneries. ... Those who visited the Catskills in order to see its great primeval forests sometimes saw instead vast mountainsides and hollows covered with bleaching trunks which a long dry spell would convert into fire-blackened wastes.” People began to think that hemlock only thrived on the steep slopes and crevices where the loggers hadn’t been. As environmental historian David Stradling documents in his 2007 Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills, when the trees were gone, farms replaced them, and, when those failed, too, and the owners defaulted on their taxes, the state appropriated the land and made it over into “wilderness,” defined as a place attractive to hikers and fishermen, with well-stocked streams, scenic campgrounds, marked trails, and lush young forests (the less mature a forest, the thicker the underbrush).

Meanwhile, cars and highways allowed New York elites to summer in more remote spots, such as Maine and Vermont. Air-conditioning alleviated the need to get away for months at a time and also made visits to the beach–the Hamptons!–more appealing. The Catskill Mountain House and its fellow grand hotels, Hotel Kaaterskill and the Laurel House, decayed and were abandoned and, finally, burned down. The northeastern Catskills became the land of ethnic and specialty tourism.

And so it remains today. If I drive the five miles between the eastern edge of Haines Falls and the western edge of Tannersville, the next town over, I will pass by or near a defunct Korean Christian camp, a still-working Buddhist retreat, a convenience store that is the main hangout of the region’s Harley riders, a German Orthodox synagogue, a Lubavitch Chabad, a Satmar Hasidic summer camp, a hippie restaurant called Maggie’s Krooked Cafe, an Italian hotel called Villa Vosilla, a Hutterite compound called the Platte Clove Community, a Latvian summer camp, and a gated community that used to be all German, the summer home of the Liederkranz Society in Manhattan’s Yorkville. When I go swimming at North Lake, I hear a joyous babble of English, Russian, Korean, Portuguese, German, and a yeshivish Yiddish. The old summer colony on the slopes of High Peak, in which my husband and I bought and fixed up a house, is peopled mostly, though not entirely, by wasps. It’s a quiet holdover from the region’s exclusivist days, the great-grandsons and great-granddaughters of New York’s Episcopalian upper classes reduced, in this multifarious milieu, to just one ethnic group among the rest.

I like to think that the northeastern Catskills, having given birth to one notion of the sublime, a sense of awe and terror before God’s power as manifest in nature, has given birth to another, a sense of awe and terror at the astonishing diversity of humankind. Because of the trees, because of the way the roads wind around the crags, because you can see down into the valley more easily than you can see what’s happening over on the next peak, these mountains readily accommodate communitarian or separatist dreams. You can settle here, with your kin or your kind, and never have to interact with outsiders. Others remain other. Assimilation is not required. Up here, we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that Americans are a single people capable of mutual understanding. We know that we’re many and distinct and often incompatible, and we settle for mutual toleration. We’re cordial, but correct, in that laconic mountain way. In this, we here in the northeastern Catskills are, once again, in the vanguard of American life. 

Judith Shulevitz is the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. 

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