September 9, 2011

WALKING: Overlook Mountain

Overlook Mountain rises just north of Woodstock in the southeast corner of the Castkill Park. The trailhead is across from a Buddhist Temple high on the slope. To get there, you just follow Rock City Road from the middle of town all the way up.

Most of the trail is wide and lined with gravel. It follows a steep jeep trail that runs to a transmitter near the summit. I passed a lot of people going up (one of whom was barefoot), but it still felt quiet. The edge of the trail was feathered with green ferns.

Higher up, the clusters of wildflowers became more frequent.

After two miles, I walked into a cloud bank. A haze clung to the edge of everything, and it felt the sky was just past the trees.

Near the summit, the trail goes through the ruins of the Overlook Mountain House. Built in 1870, it enjoyed brief favor as an elite resort (Ulysses S. Grant stayed there when he was president; they called it "the summer White House") before it burned down in 1875.

Rebuilt and overlooked, the Overlook was turned into a sanitarium before it burned again in 1926.

In the 1960s, the state of New York set controlled fire to what was left, leaving behind a yawning shell of rock.

Foundation and rock walls, empty doors and windows, a few fireplaces.

Lots of stairways leading to nothing.

At the top of Overlook, a fire tower juts into the air. You climb it and ascend above the trees. You can feel the mountain curving out in every direction below you. It's like hovering half a mile in the air.

September 8, 2011

READING: The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

A few years ago, Darbie got me the first third of the New York Review Classics catalogue. The series, described by the NYRB as "an innovative list of fiction and nonfiction for discerning and adventurous readers," is full of interesting, overlooked, often out-of-print oddities, the kinds of things that fall into the "strangely compelling" category.

The Peregrine details a winter J.A. Baker spent obsessively shadowing two peregrines, a falcon (female) and a tiercel (male), near his home in the English countryside. It's strange. He doesn't explain the origins of his interest, doesn't give any details about his personal life, doesn't once, in the course of the book, describe an interaction with another human. His fixation is complete, and works slowly to transform his consciousness. "Wherever he goes, this winter," he writes early in the book:

I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.

Later, his transformation progressing, he describes himself investigating the corpse of a woodpigeon recently killed by the tiercel:

I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.

It wasn't surprising to learn that, after writing
The Peregrine, Baker wrote one more book, The Hill of Summer, then disappeared into obscurity. From the cover page: "...he appears to have worked as a librarian for the remainder of his life. Little else, including the exact year of his death, is known..."

Shortly after reading
The Peregrine, I took a walk by the Hudson and flushed a red-tailed hawk. I watched him alight in a tree fifty yards ahead, kept my eyes on his outline, and started slowly approaching him. He wasn't startled by passing cars, but when I got anywhere near, he took off again. I followed him from tree to tree for an hour, trying, and failing, to get close without annoying him and pushing him away. Once, when I lost him high in the branches of a black locust, I noticed a mob of crows cawing in agitation and knew, after reading Baker, to look there for my hawk. I think I'll look for him again later this week...

Reading The Peregrine made me want to revisit another NYRB book I read a while ago: The Goshawk by T.H. White. Rather than tracking a hawk in the wild, White (the author of The Once and Future King) attempts to train one using a book called Treatise of Hawks and Hawking, which was written in 1619. The method requires the austringer (is to hawk as falconer is to falcon) to "watch" the hawk, which means sitting with her on his glove, preventing her from sleeping until she loses the will to resist and agrees to eat from his hand, and thereby "breaking" her. White watches Gos (his goshawk) for four sleepless nights before he has any success, and he and the hawk end up sharing in a strange delirium, which continues through various trials and travails.

In the post-script, written years later, White concedes that using instructions from 1619 for anything, including hawking, may not be the best idea:

Imagine the Tudor staircase in a country house, with all its coats-of-arms and carved balusters and heraldic griffins: compare it mentally with the chromium staircase in a modern hotel: and you will have imagined the difference between what I had been doing to Gos and what a reasonable austringer would do today.

Part of what makes me love both The Goshawk and The Peregrine is precisely that they're not reasonable. They're not written by reasonable people. Rather, both beautifully chronicle the dedicated pursuit of unreason.

September 5, 2011

WALKING: Kingston Point Park

In 1896, Kingston Point Park became a stop for the Hudson River Dayliner, a classy and well-trafficked steamboat service running from New York City to Albany. From 1896 to 1920, it was the thriving park pictured above. It had a merry-go-round, a dance hall, and a shooting gallery. People would gather on warm nights for picnics and fireworks. The Oriental Hotel, which was built overlooking the park, burned down in 1922, and by 1928, there was nothing left. I'm not sure what happened, but the Great Depression, which followed immediately, couldn't have helped.

The park was refurbished in the late 80s and early 90s. There's only a hint of what it once was.

There are a few gazebo shells, and a bridge that leads out to the Western bank of the Hudson.

I walked down the railroad tracks, which curve along a berm rising out of a lush swamp. The tracks lead towards the Rondout. A trolley ran from the center of the Strand up to the park.

From the Southern edge of the park, you can see the Kingston Point Lighthouse jutting out into the Hudson. Some days, the whole peninsula is covered with waterfowl.

Giant tankers still barrel down the river. I saw three as I wandered down the tracks.

The remnants of what the park once was are everywhere: scattered bricks, worn and rounded, railroad tracks peeking out from the grass, gazebos stranded in the middle of copses of trees. You walk through a turn-of-the-century clearing, and suddenly you're in the middle of a modern baseball diamond next to a BMX raceway. It's strange.

September 2, 2011


My box of books arrived today from Texas. Half Price Books in Dallas is an ever-growing hunting ground. I had to show uncharacteristic restraint. Here's what I got:

The Control of Nature by John McPhee
A book about all-out battles with nature. Three chapters: "Atchafalaya," "Cooling the Lava," and "Los Angeles Against the Mountains." With all the Catskills flooding recently, it turns out to be even more salient than I expected.

A Long Desire by Evan S. Connell
Since I read Son of the Morning Star in an impromptu book club a few years ago, I've been picking up Evan Connell books whenever I can. He's a best-living-writer contender, and due for renewed widespread appreciation. This is a book of essays about exploration, about seekers of Atlantis, the Northwest Passage, El Dorado, etc.

The Fort Tejon Letters by John Xantus
Xantus collected specimens for the Smithsonian in the 1850s. These letters, written from a fort in the Tehachapi Mountains in California to his museum contact in Washington, describe his adventures trapping, shooting, stuffing, and shipping animals. Apparently, he was a bit of a fabulist.

Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson
Wilson's autobiography. "Most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine."

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen by Larry McMurtry
Already read and written about here.

Wilderness Essays by John Muir
A naturalist exploring California and other points West. A theme is emerging here...

The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde
How is it that I've never heard of this book? The pull-quotes come from people like David Foster Wallace ("No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged") and Jonathan Lethem ("Few books are such life-changers as The Gift: epiphany, sculpted in prose"). It just jumped to the top of my reading list.

The box also included two books given to me by my parents:

Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas by James L. Haley
After reading about the Comanches, I found my interest in Texas renewed. It's where I grew up, after all. My dad recommended this history.

The Big Short by Michael Lewis
According to the dust jacket, "a character-driven narrative brimming with indignation and dark humor" about the crash of the bond and real estate derivative markets. My mom recommended this.

September 1, 2011

READING: Mozart by Peter Gay

Acquired a few weeks ago from Bibliobarn Too in Margaretteville (does it still exist? is it still underwater? Margaretteville was hit really hard by post-Irene flash flooding), this is part of the Penguin Lives series in which well-known authors and historians are commissioned to write little biographies. It was a plane-trip-sized read.

Reading this book made me realize I want to build a master timeline to start keeping track of what happened when. Mozart was 22 in 1776. He died in 1791, as revolution raged in France. He was a prolific letter writer and journal keeper (his correspondence peppered with shit jokes), but he never mentioned anything about the American or French revolutions in anything he wrote. Did the Comanches have horses yet? I'm going to need a big sheet of paper.

I'm interested now in Lorenzo da Ponte, the Italian who wrote the librettos for the Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan Tutti. He galavanted around Byron-style breaking hearts and incurring debt until he settled in the U.S. late in life. In 1825, he was a professor of Italian at Columbia University. It surprised me that Mozart was that closely connected to the modern world and to New York City. Who was in da Ponte's class? Did they badger da Ponte with questions about Mozart?