Chapter XXII

The Catskill Park

From "The Catskills" (1918)
By T. Morris Longstreth

During the progress of that day when Brute and I had reduced the art of being invited to motor to a strict science, we had come through Roxbury. As everybody who has been through Roxbury knows, to see it once is to be enthralled for life. Consequently, when I was deserted by my enlister, I determined to make that charming place my headquarters from which I could sally on a raid of investigation and to which I could return to digest the spoils.

Roxbury has a civic consciousness. It has its history, which was recently reviewed in a pageant admirably constructed by Margaret MacLaren Eager, beginning with the decision of John and Betty More in Scotland to emigrate, continuing with pictures of Indian times, Colonial customs, and coming down to the moment with a fine tribute to John Burroughs, fellow townsman. It has a beautiful church given by the Goulds, a park, and an environment where Nature has been kindest. There are mountains, but they do not shut one in.

There are a myriad streams. And the people, in addition to their daily business, have one and all caught the cue of happiest living. No one comes to their town without being made to feel at home, without reacting to this fillip of good-fellowship. I am sure that this is not merely a personal impression. I have talked with many other strangers who acknowledged the flavor of kindness peculiar to this spot.

From Roxbury I made several excursions, to keep fit. One, on a day of picture-postcard colors, included Pine Hill and the summit of Belle Ayre. A steel tower gives a view of the slide on Slide; of Double-top, another elephant; of Overlook, a far retreating wave; of the sharp-edged Stony Clove; of Utsayantha in the dim northwest; of Tower and Windham High Peak. Big Injin Valley is particularly appealing from Belle Ayre, with its Lost Clove nosing into the mountain's side. Big Balsam Lake Mountain rises high with its wealth of forest about it. I stood on the porch of the Grand View Hotel, which is confronted by the long wall of Belle Ayre and looks up Big Injin Valley to a distant but still impressive view of Slide and the Wittenberg. I curved through the daisied pastorals of the Bovina valleys, and took many another jaunt, going sometimes to recommended places, but oftener where only the names suggested something of interest.

The Catskills have got off better than other picturesque parts of our country in the matter of names. Esopus, Ashokan, Neversink, Schoharie, Vly, Onti Ora, Devasego, Ticetonyk, Utsayantha, Pine Orchard, Peekamose -- these are beautiful and have some character. But, like the forest, the animal life, the wild-flowers even, names are in danger. There are too many renamed for capitalists and chewing-gums. History depends on names, and a nation's chronicles are rich or thin according to the ease with which time-laden designations are changed in behalf of the richest corner grocer. There ought to be a censorship for new names. If the Rubicon and Rheims were rechristened Mudbank and New Ashland, if Olympus were rewritten High Peak, the world would be the loser. The historical societies had better start a little research and fix up some of the Maple Shades and Pleasantvilles, or poets will never be much moved to celebrate our own heroics.

I met a gentleman, the other day, who told me that he had been instrumental in getting the name of one town, whose pretty name I forget, changed to Arkville. Arkville! Even Noah himself forbore to do that! "Tabby-cat" or "Mule" would not be a more witless scream. Since the gentleman was eighty-five, I could out grin and bear it. But I silently wished that he had descendants who would have to dwell in the suburbs of Arkville named, I suppose, Larkville or Darkville or Barkville. People need not complain about the dun placidity of their existence while they are content with such mediocrity of milieu. The cheerful ugliness of a baboon's face is at least stimulating, and if there be any virtue in personality, it were better to struggle with Przemysl than lapse to the imbecility of much of our present nomenclature.

While roaming the Catskill woods alone I had an excellent chance to compare the beauties and advantages of a hard-wood forest with those of the soft-wood and mixed forests of the Adirondacks, with which I had been more familiar. Undoubtedly the most appealing tree-land in the East is the unburned, coniferous, primeval forest occurring in the gifted recesses of the Adirondacks. There the great trees are far apart; there is little brush; the floor is soft, spongy, thick, and occasional huge birches add just the final touch of lighter beauty. In the Adirondacks there are less than 100,000 acres of this left, and in the Catskills none at all. In the Catskills there are only 40,000,000 board feet of soft woods standing, three quarters of it spruce and the rest hemlock, with just a little balsam on the high slopes, and a scattering of pine, cedar, and tamarack. There are 133,000,000,000 board feet of hard woods, birch and maple each totaling more than all the soft woods, the beech and poplar totaling respectively thrice and twice as much as all the remaining miscellaneous hard woods.

Compared to the great Adirondack wilderness, with its 8,000,000,000 of board feet, the Catskills seem a mere wood-lot. But if you will look down from Belle Ayre or Slide or Balsam Lake Mountain, you will heave a sigh of satisfaction that there is so much of it.

The future of the Catskills depends upon its trees. These are situated inside an area called the Forest Preserve, in which is the Catskill Park, the choicer, central area to be even more rigorously protected. When a man steps from his train into the deep wood and sees the birch shining about him, the great sugar-maples f orming vast overheads of green, the beeches a dense bower of shade, and here and there a hemlock, a locust, a thorn-tree, a poplar grove, or a sentinel pine, he gives thanks that someone was far-sighted enough to foresee the Park and put the legislation through.

If I were landscape-gardener to the Elysian Fields, I would have them mostly forest. There should be worshipful groves of white pine for the devout, and much bed-assuaging balsam for the sleepy; there should be hemlock for dignity, and the delicate tamarack and all the spruces. But also there should be beautiful vales of beech, and shore-lines of white birch, and many another landscape as if it were the Catskills. Nor would I forget to have much white ash and the coon-beloved basswood, as in the lower valleys of all the Catskills. But I would not admit those yellow-birch thickets and sapling cherries of which one finds so much in the burnt sections.

In the Catskill Park it is hard to say whether the maple, the beech, or the birch is the prevailing tree; for, at one time or another, each makes such an appeal as to make you wish it predominant. The birch is first, by all standards of beauty. Against winter snows it shines slim and pale, and in the midsummer dusk it shows shy and supple and worthy of Diana. Beneath the white bark is a crocus green, and beneath that umber, and beneath that honest wood which is good for burning, green or tinder-dry. The birch can be used for shelter by day and for torch by night. It always responds to the intelligent demand, is free from the plague -- the supreme example in nature of use and beauty going hand in hand.

The beech is also invaluable. In spring its delicate foliage is the tenderest of dreams this side the tamarack's; in summer it becomes a bower of shade; in fall a burnished marvel of beaten gold; and in winter the white parchment tissue tries to clothe the gray nakedness of the smoothboled tree. Its wood is strong. Its fruit, the three-sided nut, keeps more animals from starvation, probably, than any other single item of diet, except possibly field-mice. Even the leaf buds all the winter long, slim spikes of brown, are marks of beauty. The beech at its perfection is the epitome of strength and grace and color, -- a forest panther.

The sugar-maple was created on a happy day. Why some trees should be so heavily endowed, while others languish in poverty of fiber and of sap, is a mystery that I dedicate to John Burroughs to explain. It is a tree to set before a king, if he be sweet-toothed. He will have sugar for his mush, syrup for his cakes, and all tried out over a sugar-maple flame. For, though it seems sinful to cut the tree for stoves, yet it is an excellent fire-wood.

The Catskills are a vast expanse of confectionery. Wild honey, wild strawberries, wild sugar! In late March or early April whole groves of gray mottled trees glitter with buckets at their waists. To look at the slow drops, and to realize that it takes fifty quarts of sap to make a pound of sugar, is to appreciate the privileges of the corner grocery. What an unmerciful life our forebears led! Flax to grow, candles to dip, sugar to concoct from oozy trees. No wonder Longfellow thought that life was real and earnest. On the other hand, when you cease to be a looker-on and begin to manipulate your own testing pans, to pour the syrup on snow, when spring is in the air and this celestial candy in your mouth you wonder how anybody can bear to patronize a store.

The spruce cannot rank with this gifted company. It appeals neither to the palate nor to the eye. Its coat is rough, its life-blood sticky, its shape neither tapered to the exquisite spire of the balsam nor spread with the generous wideness of the pine. Yet it strengthens the Catskill forest. All cannot be aerial birch; there must be shadow. The spruce has its dream in spring, too, when it puts out green fingers to strengthen its hold on the world. Then, with that secured, it dozes off again into the grim silence of its normal mood.

There are many other trees to interest the man who allows himself to observe the unobtruding forest: yellow pine, walnut, shagbark hickory, the cedars, aspens, and poplars, willows, and the fine foliaged ironwood, alders to set the fisher wild, a chestnut here and there, and chestnut oaks, elms to make New England envious, witch-hazel, shiny sweet-gum, the mottled sycamore, shadbush and cherry, a tribe of maples, dogwood, and a rich underwood of laurel and a dozen shrubs. . . .

New Yorkers have earned the name of their State. They are the Empire builders. With a double-barreled intelligence, they have decreed their great parks for recreation and for use. They have preserved their wide forests from extinction, and are now setting about applying the scientific management that utilizes-fire lanes, watchtowers, and expert lumbering, which takes only the mature trees and does not leave slash to precipitate frightful fires. As certainly as the groves were God's first temples, most lumbermen have been Huns. A desecrated woodland is only less wrath-compelling than shattered cathedrals and dissected children. But the Hunless world is coming, and with it the time when campers put out their fires, when fishermen throw their cigarette stumps in the brook, when berry-pickers take less heed for the morrow at the land-owners' expense, when all railroads use oil for fuel, and when those men who want to take out a grudge on the State will shoot their victims instead of burning up posterity 's trees.

In the Catskills one can enjoy, then, an extensive forest, covering a country partly mountainous and partly rolling, a few small lakes, a wealth of running water; a place for camping, or boarding with simple folk, or putting up at expensive hotels. Above all, one has proximity to New York. And this fact brings me to a delicate topic: the relation of Jew and Gentile -- a bull that I must take by the horns, and that I think I can gently lead away and yet stay honest. Let me repeat two remarks: One of my friends exclaimed, when I mentioned my trip: "Didn't you find it overrun with Jews?" And one day, while walking through Fleischmann's, I overheard this: "Wouldn't there be too many Gentiles in Hunter?" "Oh! Not enough to hurt."

So long as there are so many inconsiderate Jews, so many non-practising Christians, it will be easier for both to keep clannishly apart. In the Catskills there are certain sections visited exclusively by Jews and others exclusively by Gentiles. One race likes one thing and the other another. It seems infinitely petty to me for either to sacrifice the charms and satisfactions of a beautiful region because he might be disturbed by the other. The slightest amount of investigation will suffice to find such sections, and will be repaid by the unique values of the Catskill country.

And, now that I have come to the valedictory, I wonder whether I have made you realize the unique values of the Park without over-painting. For the globe-trotter who boasts of his planetizing ability and cares for sights only as they are big, there is precious little in the Catskills. For the man who must have beetling crags, and whose enjoyment is ruined if there is another man in the same county, there is but little more. But for him who is not blind to one type of beauty simply because he can remember others, the Catskill Mountains and their surrounding hills are rich with a variety of wealth quite unimaginable. Before I visited them I imagined that they were a set of mediocre hills infested by a sandwich-eating summer populace. I found impressive ranges, noble cliffs, forests with game, streams with fish, and I came away with recollections of many cheerful firesides. In no other American vacation-land can one find a more interesting alternation of forest tramping and village living, a richer background of subdued mountain and inviting valley, a sympathetic native population with finer historic antecedents and more solid qualities. If the Eternal isn't visible to you there, it will never be in remoter lands. Happiness may not be the supreme good, but it is a joyful desideratum. It is found only where there is harmony between the without and the within. For experiments in harmonizing, I know of no more convenient spot than this Land of Little Rivers. Certainly it overflowed with gladness for Brute and for me, and for its satisfactions we many a time thanked God and the State of New York

Previous Chapter | Back to the Index

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery