Daily Archives: April 27, 2011

A Smattering of Local Literati and Nature.

On Easter Sunday, we do a short bike loop –  21C east to Harlemville Road, south on Harlemville Road to Ten Broek, east on Ten Broek to Pheasant Lane, south on Pheasant Lane until Phudd Road, and then back west on Phudd Road to Harlemville Road.

A cloudy, rainy but relatively warm day. We continue our exploration of the landscape as seen (or at least written about) by John Cowper Powys. So, in this installment, we’ll try to mix seasonal excerpts from his diary with our own natural history observations and photographs. To call Powys’ writings “complex” is, from what little I understand, an understatement. And yet, much of his diaries are simply recountings of his walks and wanderings about the land. As such, they help us understand the evolution of our local landscape.

A few words of thanks: Jacqueline & Max Peltier for having first contacted us from France. Jacqueline runs the web site which can link one to a world of people studying this English novelist who lived from 1872 to 1963, and who resided from 1930 to 1934 on the east side of Phudd Hill. Two of his most well-known works, Autobiography and Glastonbury Romance, were written while he lived at what he called Phudd Bottom. Jacqueline and Max have provided me with copies of Powys’ diaries, and those works provided the extracts given below: The Diary of John Cowper Powys 1930, edited by Frederick Davies and published by Greymitre books & The Diary of John Cowper Powys 1931, published by Jeffrey Kwintner. Via Jacqueline, Kate Kavanagh provided a very handy map, indicating the location of sites mentioned in Powys’ diaries. Thanks to all these folks for their generous sharing of information and resources.

John Cowper Powys and his long-time companion Phyllis Playter on the stoop of their Harlemville home in the early 1930s. The origin or exact year of the photograph is unknown.

Same house, Easter 2011.

Wandering chimneys, disappearing shutters, stone steps to the back door, but, ‘awl ‘n all’, not too different. However, look too at the landscape. The hill behind the house is at least partially bare. In the 1930s, this landscape was much more in fields. With this in mind, reading the diaries can be a bit like visiting a house you know but in which they have moved the furniture about. He talks about fields and views which are now closed by forest.

Powys and Playter, and their dog (and frequent character in the diary) Black. Photo courtesy of Louise de Bruin.

Given the amount that gardening is mentioned in the diaries, it seems likely that, on a spring day such as this during Powys' time, the flowers also would have been 'popping' in the garden.

Looking north along Harlemville Road, back towards Powys' house. It seems likely that this would not have been a wood-lined way during his day.

The German Graveyard, with stones dating back into the 1800s, is still well-kept and was present in Powys' day. Many of the names whom he mentions as neighbors - such as, Steitz, Krick, Uzner - appear on graves here.

This 19th century stone is inscribed in German. Some of the German settlers around Harlemville may have descended from the 18th century Palatine Germans who were settled in Germantown with the idea that they would help the Livingston collect "navel stores", that is, tar and pitch. When that venture failed, many went elsewhere in the County and the region. Other immigrants arrived at a later date from other regions of Germany.

A mosaic of 1940s aerial photographs showing the land on and around Phudd Hill - regrowth had probably occurred in the 10 years since Powys' residence, however much of the landscape was still open field.

The same rectangle as illustrated for the 1940s but in the year 2009. Extensive reforestation is evident.

With that as an introduction, the remains of this posting are annotated/illustrated spring-time excerpts from Powys’ diaries for the years 1930 and 1931.

Monday 23rd March 1931

…do you know what I saw but I doubt if the Black [‘the Black’ was their dog; a spanialish sort that appears in the pictures] did – in the centre of Phudd Field – The first wood-chuck. It was rearing up so very high on its hind legs and snuffling the air by its hole. I wondered at first whether it were a post but when it dived down I knew it for certain…

[ “Phudd Field” may be what we now call Young’s Field – long the home of many Groundhogs]

The Woodchuck or Groundhog is actually a large member of the squirrel family (something that will seem more intuitive if you ever happen to see one in their occasional forays up trees). While best known for their presence in open fields, they are also found, albeit more rarely, in more wooded situations.

Thursday 26th March 1931

… I looked for long at the water as it rushed round a willow tree and foamed by a rock and whirled along. .. I looked too at the waterfall and red barn and white house with green shutters & old old manure heaps and old wall & posts & water-butt & I thought it is a Ruysdael picture such as … I used to stay and stay to see in Art Gallery in Chicago…

This photograph, while not taken where Powys was standing on the 26th, is from one of his favourite haunts: the Grotto; an area slightly upstream from his house. See more below.

The manure piles are still there, these being across the road from the stream flowing out of the Grotto. Yet, it is hard to know how long they will continue to be there. Farms like this one struggle with a changing market sitution influenced by factors from the local to the international. The high price (and hence high property taxes) of this scenic land so close to NYC, low and fluctuating milk prices, and the difficulties of farming in an increasinly non-farming society are amongst the challenges.

Ruysdael or Ruisdael was an 18th century Dutch illustrator. This work is from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Elsewhere in his diaries, Powys comments on the Red barns of the neighborhood; this one is near the Grotto.

Monday 30th of March 1931

I do so like that little school house… It is the best of all schools – with five children…

[This was probably the building that is now the Banjo Mountain Café.]

Monday April 14th 1930

The tapping beak of the bird woke me at 5:30 AM. Red dawn and white mist and a purple glow to the West. ..a heavy white dew was over all… We have seen the first butterfly! A Camberwell Beauty and heard the sound of the Pheobe Bird and also a bird who said ‘Come, come come and the other girls with you’…

[On Easter, as we made our rounds, a Pheobe was singing across the road from their house. The other bird which he refers to is probably a Song Sparrow. Both of these are native birds of brush and edge.]

"Camberwell Beauty" is the English name for what we call the Mourning Cloak butterfly. This species overwinters as a hibernating adult, and so can appear on just about any warm day of the year. We haven't seen any so far this Spring, this picture was taken during a past year. Because there are so few flowers available when these butterflies first become active, they often rely upon sap running from tree wounds for nutrients..

This Pheobe (photographed a few days after Easter) was perched near the remains of the barn that used to stand on the corner of the main Philmont to Spencertown/Austerlitz road and Harlemville Road, just up the way from the Powys House. The barn was torn down a couple of years ago.

Pheobes are named after their song, a harsh, raspy “Phee-bzee….. Phee-bzee”. Click here for a recording of the above bird’s vocalizations. It was by a busy somewhat busy corner, hence the background noise and the fact that I had to cheat a bit on the sound editing (I was able to record only one good call, so I’ve repeated it three times in this track).

Wednesday 16th April 1930

Got up at 5:30 woken by the tapping of the bird. It is very cold and quite grey today and a north wind with a feel of snow in it. ..There appeared Mr. Steuerwald in his great truck with all our goods. .. And one by one all the things were brought in save the couch and the wicker-chairs which were left on the lawn. Mr. S. is of Herculean proportions. I detected a funny chuckling smile on his face as he drove away like a keeper of a zoo who has just given straw to absurd new beasts from far away.

[The rural/city dichotomy is not new; as Powys’ diary pages amply illustrate there was a regular flow of people between this area and New York City during his time.]

Thursday 16th April 1931

… how sweet the grass smelt! Why do such lovely damp scents rise from the earth at sunset?… the little frogs were very loud in that marshy place beyond the hedge…How green the new grass by that little streamlet…

The bright green of the grass along this "streamlet" near Powys' house is all the more evident for the cloudy weather. Actually, judging by its straightness, this water flow may be an old drainage ditch or, at the least, the recipient of some ardent straightening.

Friday 17th April 1931

Took Black to top of Phudd & saw the Red Sun setting like a great purple plum that you couldn’t eat. Watched as it melted slowly away like a purple heart in the vapour, a plum, a dying heart, a mystery, it faded away.

Saturday 18th April 1931

… Passed the three Ashes and looked for long at the Red blooming Maple near them. Red blossoms are nice to see. There is a little bush with real green leaves [probably Honeysuckle, which, like many other non-native plants, tends to green-up early] coming out there in that mountain glen with swathes of snow-resurrected grass under foot and the silvery river…. I decided to take an extra long walk & I passed the wall-fence of stone & wooden bars…

Male Red Maple flowers. Fireworks.

This illustration, from the 1878 history of Columbia County, shows a solid 'rail-over-rock' fence (together with some other models of fencing). Many of our low stonewalls were surmounted by wooden rails that have now rotted away.

This picture, taken in or near Columbia County, by botanist Rogers McVaugh in 1935, shows a rock wall with decaying rails atop it.

Sunday 19th April 1931

… today near New Bridge I saw the first Blood Root wild… there is one we planted in the Rock garden coming up where those Pansies are out. This morn we saw a White Butterfly [in all likelihood, an early-season Cabbage White – an introduced species that was common by that time and is still common in Harlemville today]….

These Bloodroots were in full bloom on the stone steps of Powys' former house. The current owner says she doesn't think they were planted during her time. During this same Easter walk, we saw many more Bloodroots blooming in their natural, stream-side habitat.

The Cabbage White is an introduced European pest of brassicas (e.g., the cabbage family). It arrived en force during the second half of the 19th century. We haven't seen any yet this year, but they could be about.

Sunday 20th April 1930

…I have begun my Glastonbury Book. May I be inspired by all the spirits of all hills and of all stones upon all hill-sides and upon all plains raised up above sea-level. … Went to the Nymphs Grotto and sat above the waterfall in the twilight….

Pictures from the Grotto; the last perhaps from more or less Powys' above-the-falls perspective.

Monday 20th April 1931

Found the Blood Roots out in our little park. … Two red stalks – one the flower-one the leaf wrapped round in a big grey shawl of the leafy texture & out of this flower comes & a round flower it’s all white and covered up like a white club. As we had breakfast we saw a Phoebe Bird sitting on an old nest on the pillar of our porch… Took Black up Phudd… heard the Hermit Thrush the most beautiful song.

[The Hermit Thrushes, with their haunting songs, still sing from atop Phudd Hill, especially during the last little bit of daylight.]

Wednesday 22nd April

… in the Spinney. Today, however, I found the first Adder Tongue there hence I shall call that wood Adder Tongue Copse… The Willows are out in leaf & on top of Phudd Shad Blow is now out in flower. Red Maples are, here and there, and the Apple Tree (near the pump) is out in green leaf.

[The Adder Tongue are now out. The Shad Blow – aka Shad Bush, Juneberry, Serviceberry – was not in flower on Easter, but made its appearance today.]

The Trout Lilies or, as Powys called them, the "Adders Tongues", are now blooming. Look for groves of their speckled leaves. This one was out along the Agawamuck.

There are several species of native "Shad-Blows" (Amelanchier is the genus), but apparently only one that is tree-sized in our area. Spending most of the year as inconspicuous small trees or bushes, it can be startling to see the white flowers pop out along a fence row. This one sits above a rock ledge near the Banjo Mountain Cafe (and former school house).

Saturday 26th April 1930

…’Twas a perfect day – windless and with heavenly sun – and old rain – drops on every blade, very iridescent. The yellow-brown leaf buds on the distant Maples make a beautiful earth-rainbow under which are green fields and over which distant hills. The calf is grazing happily. The black and white cow is moving about like a prehistoric animal in the dawn of the world… I saw the bowed form of Mrs. Krick gathering medicinal weeds of some kind, perhaps Dandelion leaves, in the meadow. Her form as she bent down was a statue of all women working in early morning under the sun – stoical and in contact with the great old woman and eternal maid the earth.

[Powys was seeing the end of certain traditions, such as medicinal plant collecting – which has returned/continued to some degree – and the middle of others like Holstein-based dairy as a core of the County’s agriculture.]

Not Dandelion but a frequently-confused member of the same plant family. Coltsfoot, like Dandelion, is a European import. One sees it early in the season in disturbed areas such as stream banks and road edges. This cluster was in Easter bloom near the Agawamuck.

Sunday 27th April 1930

… In the afternoon I persuaded the T.T. to visit some hypaticas I had found in the wood in the hill. She got up a blue one, there were also white ones and pinkish ones… Then we went down to the edge of the river for the 1st time but it was cold there but there were Blood roots growing there wrapped up in funnel-like swaddling bands….We saw an extraordinary bird – like a strange waterbird. It was blue and white with a black crest and it flew with the sound of a wooden rattle [Almost certainly a Kingfisher; a bird still to be seen and heard around our waterways].

A particularly purple Hepatica. Although this photograph was taken during a previous year, we have seen Hepatica in bloom this Spring.

Thursday 1st May 1930

…A thunderstorm came and it was followed by warm rain. I walked by the road to Harlemville and got bread.

[Good thing the Farm Store was open…]

For those of you interested in what is perhaps now literature trivia, amongst Powys' nearby friends was the poet Arthur Ficke. He was well-known in his day, but has since faded in renown. This is his former house along Phudd Road. Nearby we heard the deep, thump....thump....thump...thump..thump.thump. thumpthumpthump of a male Ruffed Grouse advertising himself.

It seems appropriate to end this posting with a look back at Phudd Hill on Easter.


Posted by on April 27, 2011 in Nature