In these July mid-summer weeks I am left with the sense of being a witness to the broad extremes of rural life in the USA. They were full of movement, mostly starting and finishing around our house in upstate New York where we took in, until then undiscovered dirt roads, villages and towns close to our home but also the Islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Then last night this folksy complacency ended abruptly as I flew to Bogota offering the wry observation that I woke in Andes, NY (ironically named for the modesty of its mountains) and went to bed later that day on the actual northern Colombian foothills of that dramatic geological spine.
The days spent in Upstate New York adopted a restless attitude of discovery. The roads, even in the height of summer, were largely unpopulated and so we drifted a little without precise destinations or with some casual, and normally unrealized, goal. This is a landscape of mild tragedy and opportunity, sometimes hope. Some of the most beautifully proportioned eighteenth and nineteenth century farm houses are boarded up, left for the mice. In the semi abandoned towns similar ponderous scenario’s unfold and yet at the same time it’s encouraging to see some of these homes well-kept and some actively being restored not for the sake of gentrification, but in order to maintain history, for a hope of continuity and commitment. I detect in myself an aloofness, some snobbery even, when driving through these marginalized places, offering judgements without any comprehension about how lives are really lived here, what struggles for money (or opioids) might feel like, all I see is the surface, the aesthetics. We now are comfortable here, knowing the visual markers for each of our routes, anticipating the tight corners, a river bordered and suffocated by Japanese Knotweed, the garish antique store we pass but never visit. These open, wild landscapes always amaze us because we gave ourselves to urban life for so long, we are absorbed by how the weather announces its intentions hours and hundreds of miles in advance, threatening grey horizons, cloud shadows over the sun then the shock of rain hammering on the roof of our rental car. We feel part of something, but uncertain of what, perhaps it is the tantalizing clues on offer about how our lives could have been had we turned out backs on the comforts and diversions of the city and embraced the natural world more and so I return to our house sometimes with confusion and mixed emotions. And if I’m truthful a frail desire to drive back into the embrace of New York City as it still retains its magnetism and promise.
The region sits in a mild mannered mountain range, a brief mutation from the more pronounced Appellation Mountains whose vertiginous path stretches from Maine luxuriously down to Tennessee. For the majority of its human history the population were the Esopus tribe of Native Americans but such was their ephemeral touch little is left of their long residence other than arrow heads found occasionally within in the flinty stone streams and brooks. It is an area that has been inflated and deflated by infrastructure projects and one that has been burned by reputational damage, first by financial ruin, secondly by the vulgarity of the comedians who infamously created a course “borsht belt” humor. Somehow now the word Catskills has dark and crude associations, its known less for its virtues and more for its failings, a heavy postwar sadness pervades but without the enthusiasm or self-belief to re-build. It builds on a long history of in-hospitality; the original Dutch settlers feared the density of the poisonous tress and foliage, giant hogweed, poison ivy, and the presence of mountain lions, perhaps giving it its name Kats Kills.
But there was a period from the turn of the century to the post war years where it briefly prospered thanks to transportation from the city. In the early 1900’s a sizable steam boat would come up the Hudson River from New York and deposit holiday makers at the towns of Kingston or Catskill. There are early faded black and white photographs of this posted on the internet, the women with white parasols and elaborate dresses smiling shyly as demanded at that time, the men formal with top hats waving from a robust Edwardian ship. From there a train wove all the way North West to Oneonta through the arteries on the Northern Borders of the Catskill Mountains until it stopped for good in 1954. Why did this have to close? Today there is a rattling bus that takes roughly the same route. The idea of sailing up the Hudson and then to a train through the delightful scenery surely must appeal now to a modern larger audience.
Plans for tourist re-emergences are made then scuttled by the locals. Helicopters are not permitted, cell towers not allowed, young New Yorkers opening restaurants looked down upon and unsupported. As an outsider you are left with the feeling that the area doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be, but only has clarity on what it doesn’t want; the atmosphere of the Hamptons where a prerevolutionary game of master and servant is acted out each summer, the locals resentful of the hand that feeds them. What model should remain? The emptiness of the landscapes, the preservation of farming, an insularity and fear of change….of gentrification, a place of southern confederate flags and the ugly paradox of a Trump sign adorning a wreck of a house. One model that they might fear the most are the tony Islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket of the New England coast which was our next destination.
We took the cheery airliner, Jet Blue out to these two islands off New England; first to Martha’s Vineyard and then on to Nantucket by ferry. Martha’s Vineyard from the air appeared empty in its emerald core, save what appeared to be flat uneventful forests, while on its edge a ragged, serrated coast of pale yellow sand. From the window I saw an ancient sailboat plowing forward through the Ocean with three masts and sails like handkerchiefs, a hive of activity on board a sight from another century, I tried to remember, without success, the difference between a clipper, a schooner, a galleon and a cutter but I remain certain it was one of those. Catching taxi to our hotel you are immediately struck by cleanliness and order, lots of things done well; cycle paths, perfect gardens, expensive cars…reminding us of the high end parts of the Hamptons and the aroma of money.
We were staying in the least exclusive part of the Island, Oak Bluffs which has a strange unsettling familiarity, it is not until you see the tee shirts with a gaping mouth of a shark that things fall into place; “Jaws” was filmed here. The director chose it to represent a typical New England beach town and in most of the Island it certainly isn’t, except Oak Bluffs does have a certain Honkey Tonkness; a fine pizza joint, endless souvenir stores, bars overlooking the harbor offering amusing cocktails and fried food. It’s nice to see a cultural mix on the streets, black writers, artists and intellectuals who have had a place here for a long time and it was known once as the “Ink well”, clearly a derogatory name but one which was repositioned by the community and now warn with pride. It has the slight feeling of impermanence of a destination in service of the summer months, about sixteen thousand live on the Island year round but it can swell in the summer to as many as a hundred thousand, only half of the lovely houses we pass are used continually through the year, an incredible indulgence as they are 96% more expensive than an average house in the rest of the USA.
Alone for a while I walked along the edge of the beach and saw yellow flashes in the grasses, more affirmation of what we suspect, the thrilling exoticism of the multitude birds passing through these Islands. We too are passing through (meaning we humans) being reminded of this by a lecture by a “green” scholar who stood on the beach podium and told us that it’s all soon to be underwater again. Depending on the breadth of your historical perspective, our occupation is brief indeed. This small Island had been populated by Wamanoq people until an English Vessel arrived captained by Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602. He named it Martha’s Vineyard perhaps after one of the three women in his life named Martha, his Mother in Law, Wife and deceased young daughter. I like to take the romantic road and think it may have been thoughts of his lost daughter and the vines across the Island offering a hope of a parallel afterlife for her in this new world paradise.
The Islands fortunes took circuitous paths, the prosperity from Whaling ended in 1870 when cheaper lamp fuel was found in oil fields, the turn of the century arrival of vacationing wealthy businessmen whose riches fell with the depression and slowly re-gained traction in the 1950’s never to turn back.
We had arrived with a thin excuse; the opening of an art event by the Californian based artist Doug Aitken, a hot air balloon made of a silver fabric. I know little to nothing about his work which is difficult to categorize, a form of land art perhaps, slippery practices where his physical and performative interventions makes us think of a place anew. He has had projects such as covering an ordinary Joshua tree house with a mirrored surface making it disappear, to reflect and blend into the surrounding landscape. This balloon was intended to do the same but never rose due to danger presented by high winds. He is an artist I think who is generally known for this common thread of reflective surfaces and his personality is also highly polished, his social skills shining here on the remote beach, he is Hollywood handsome and impossible not to like, despite his enviable narrow waistline and thick head of hair. Meeting him under these circumstances he is impressively personable, complimenting Mary on the clash of patterns in her outfit during an awkward lull in the conversation.
We were here partially at the invitation of the curator who greeted us and, as he was to introduce the talk (which was between the artist and Norman Foster) asked us if we could think of anything he should say about the legendary architect. I told him that I once read that he claimed his favorite building was a Boeing 747 but after he left I immediately had doubts, did he really say this? I searched on the internet and had a mild anxiety that I was distributing false information. Moments before the talk I had realized that Foster was standing with his family in the beer line behind me, a jovial group with Foster in the center, his familiar close cropped hair, healthy tan and holiday whites, a cheery easygoing manner seemed to announce the presence of an English Aristocrat visiting a Garden Party. I was relieved that the introductions were brief and my recommendation not used.
During the talk it was clear that he is as much a futurist and philosopher as he is architect. It may have been the slightly alarming apprehension of a storm visible on the horizon or the studied casualness of the event itself but Foster was naturally concise and blisteringly articulate. He talked about why he kept a home on the Vineyard, his fears and optimism for the future, ironically its “all about the cities” and I suspect I was not the only one thinking that this location, with Tisbury Great Pond on one side and the increasingly vigorous Atlantic on the other, sand between our toes, a cold beer, the sky at times rose and lavender alive and restless with red tailed hawks floating upwards on soft thermals, was the perfect place to encourage the redirection of populations to cities. At one point I was absorbed by the sky, staring at its drama with a child-like wonderment, and walked quietly off down the empty beach with the conversation fading behind me. A short while later I returned to hear the question “Are you a minimalist?” a long pause and then Foster replied that he wasn’t one in terms of style but more that minimalism was the logical result of intense thought and repeated the truism that making something simple is the hardest thing to do. He reflected on the time that he walked around the proposed site of the Apple campus with Steve Jobs and told of the high engagement of his client and the endless iterations of ideas for the perfect working environment; the final result of a circle surprised everyone with the purity of its logic.
On to Nantucket which offered up its clichés without remorse, the huge military style SUV’s driven by a petite blonds with two miniature versions of herself in the back seats, the quay side shops with floral dresses and precise basket-ware, men in chino’s and boating shoes, the studied perfection of the nineteenth century houses all properly painted to code. There is neither ugliness nor possibility here. Our ferry from the Vineyard was met first by old wooden sailing boats, lovingly maintained and polished from the turn of the century, containing small, transparently exclusive, social groups drinking Champagne oblivious to the exertions of the sailors around them. The beach was an easy walk in either direction and was almost empty once you had stepped through the tall grasses and down a slim path onto the warm sand. It’s impossible not to be intimidated by the emptiness and the noises of nature, but in time our heart rate seems to adapt to the rhythm of the waves, our ears alert to the birds languages, some harsh others melodious. There is nothing more pressing to do than study the colors of the shells and pebbles, the paw-prints of a dog in the soft sand, a crab’s exquisite sideways sprint.
Then back to Andes NY. Following a concert in the Village we drove back to our house in inky blackness on treacherously unmarked roads, mist rising in unpredictable clouds from the surface, and back inside the house removed a few persistent wasps, the whole night heavy and overloaded with metaphors. A restless one, sleepless with the burden of the travel day ahead, being apart from Mary after a long spell together, the flight to South America; the certain knowledge I will be longing for home the moment I departed Newark.