Search results for ‘The Diary of John Cowper Powys 1931’

January Thaw on Powys’ Hill

Melting Ice

Rainstorms, sunshine, melting ice…the signs of January thaw have settled in this week.  I recently became fascinated by this phenomenon as I was working on our Perspectives on Place column for The Columbia Paper (forthcoming this week).  It was all set to be a wintry reverie on Januaries past, but as soon as I started looking back over historical accounts of Januaries in Columbia County, I realized that the ‘wintry’ weather was often interrupted by warm spells, sometimes even noted as the “January thaw”.

In the diary of John Cowper Powys, local author and Harlemville resident in the 1930s, there are especially rich descriptions of these thawing days of January, including a warm spell lasting nearly half the month in 1932, and an early January day in 1934 when the temperature rose 60 degrees F, from 20 below to 40 above.  In the midst of our recent 50 degree F temperature swing, I set off up the road to Powys’ house, to look at a melting landscape through the double lens of a digital camera and diary descriptions written some 80 years ago (excerpted below).

Use of excerpts from John Cowper Powys’ diary is made possible with special thanks to The Powys Society.

Rushing Streams and Ice Floes


The Agawamuck stream directly across from Powys’ home, here strewn with debris and melting ice chunks after the weekend’s torrential rains.

Saturday, January 9th, 1932

It is still Warm & wet.  Albert told me that with a pole he had cleared our bridge of Debris that might have caused its overthrow in the wild rush of water after heavy rain & melting snow.  Albert had started working in the garden for the T.T. [Powys’ nickname for his partner Phyllis Playter].

Thursday, January 25th, 1934

All is thawing!  Then I went to Prometheus Stone … could see his footstool with the water clear of ice rushing over it.  But I actually crossed the river our own river near that high bank…Huge floes of thick ice were there under [where] the water ran.

Icy Puddles and Green Grass

Icy Puddle

A view over an icy puddle and green grass to Powys’ house.

Monday, January 18th, 1931

But it is another PERFECT DAY.  When I came down the sun was half-risen over the ridge.  So warm was it that I opened the front door and kept it open wide all morning and we had breakfast with it wide open – think of that, on Jan 18….There has been a faint hoar-frost and some of the puddles had a little ice on them & patches of grass had a little rime on it – very little. 

Thursday, January 14th, 1932

Another Unique Day – Warmer Still…. We all sat in the wall & the T.T. took photos…The grass by the edge of the Rock bed & Round Bed is quite green not the usual dead winter grass.  And big blue-bottle flies go humming past your ears like Summer & the Hellebore bud under the Stump has come out…& wonderful white flower.  The T.T. brought out deck chair for me to sit & write on Porch. 

[Conrad pointed out that in a previous blog post we have a photo (the third one down) of Powys and Playter sitting on the stone wall in front of their house – might this have been taken on this balmy January day when photos were being taken?]

Looking Out at the Orchard


The orchard directly across from Powys’ house. On the right is a water pump (the same he refers to?).

Tuesday, January 26th, 1932

Back in my own orchard – on the mossy turf by our gate – I gazed through the warm spring-like sunshine at the 4 cows coming slowly and gravely forth.

Wednesday, January 27th, 1932

…looking out at the rain falling against the Pump, against the apple-tree and I looked at the wide expanse of the valley the higher fields light straw coloured dead grass and the Lower fields where innumerable stalks & seeds of dead flowers are a remarkable reddish-colour, brownish-reddish, like the bark of elm trees gets when it has been deluged by the rain for many hours.

Wednesday, January 4th, 1933

A Perfect Spring Day. O lovely Day! O woeful day!     Down at 7.35. Wind South-East. Warm sunshine – everything golden. A flock of blackbirds (starlings Albert calls them) on the Apple-tree, on the cherry-tree – on the Field Hickory Tree – tumbling and tossing in massed patterns to the ground & back & making a twittering very sweet…. a Linos song [?] – like elfin violins.

Tawny Fields


A field near Powys’ house, lit in the afternoon light.

Tuesday, January 20th, 1931

Took the Black [his dog] over bridge and by river and up hill.  The yellow stalks were shining gold and on each were many diamonds of melting ice.  I counted 4 on an upright grass on its stalk and 5 on a horizontal grass bent down by age. 

Friday, January 19th, 1934

It is so warm so warm, so warm …  I had only time to get to the Spinny but the brown-reddish Twigs against the blue-grey Ridge – aye!  but the Ridge was a lovely grey-blue & so insubstantial & poetical – I gazed at Phudd too & rather dodged my Rigmarole in consequence.

Saturday, January 6th, 1934

…took the Old [same dog] to the Battlefield [nickname for a local field] & walked over it.  It was pure gold – what wondrous tints the dead grass gives to these taw[n]y leonine fields.

Misty, Wild Hills

Mossy Ridge
Looking up into the mossy ridges around Powys’ home

Sunday, January 4th, 1931

Got up at 9.15 very late – all foggy – Summit of Phudd invisible….The far ridges invisible.  All thawing….The grass & earth were visible again because of the Thaw.

Tuesday, January 12th, 1931

It is a beautiful day.  It is warm.  It is misty sunshine.  It is like spring.  It almost has the smell of Violets.  The hills of the Ridges are all misty & little patches of blue keep coming in the sky.

Thursday, January 14th, 1932

It is – it  is – incredibly warm 0 warm lovely sunshine – warm as May – warmer than April – O and the heavenly indescribable scents that came out of the earth – the muddy wet drenched earth.  Yesterday when I lay my back to a stone fence on the top of the One-Tree Hill above the Fir Tree House I had an ecstasy of pleasure at the deep deep deep beautiful lonely wildness of Columbia County.

What signs of thaw or wild beauty do you see in this January landscape?


Posted by on January 16, 2014 in Uncategorized



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


Local Literati: The September-October Edition

English author John Cowper Powys kept a diary of his stay at Phudd Bottom (just east of Harlemville).
Much of his outdoor time was spent along this stream and connected waters.

Preamble to the Ambles

Phudd Bottom.

Following up on a couple of earlier blog entries and spurred by the Roeliff Jansen Community Library‘s upcoming John Cowper Powys presentation (Sat., Sept. 22, 6pm) and display, I returned to that author’s diaries and autobiography to assemble a small collection of his observations from the present season and to dig up a few of his more sweeping commentaries.

For those of you too young or too wise to have read our previous blog on John Cowper Powys, Cowper Powys was an English author of literary criticism, philosophy, and novels such as The Glastonbury Romance and Wolf Solent. From 1930 to 1934, he lived at “Phudd Bottom”, a relatively small house along Harlemville Road on the east side of Phudd Hill.

In his diary and autobiography, Cowper Powys plumbs the depths of his own psyche and that of his companions, including his partner Phyllis Playter and his dog, “The Black”. Literary figures such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edgar Lee Masters and Theodore Deiser make occasional cameos.  Digging into those psychological and literary ruminations is best left for others, however Cowper Powys was also an astute and passionate observer of nature.While he certainly linked his walks through the natural world to his internal perambulations (don’t we all?), they can also be read as snapshots of the culture and ecology of our area in the early 1930s, a subject closer to this blog stream’s theme.

Road east of Phudd Bottom, 14 Sept 2012.

Before delving into seasonally-specific entries, it’s worth introducing a couple of more general comments that Powys made. He was, at least during his time at Phudd Bottom, an avid walker. Few of his daily entries do not include mention of at least a short ramble. The following excerpt from his autobiography describes what motivated and allowed him to do this,

There is no “trespassing” here as there is with us in England. These isolated up-state farmers are of a mixed Holland-Dutch, German-Dutch and English descent, but their methods, though in some respects they might be called “Kulaks”, are singularly Communistic. They use the same machinery, taking it round from farm to farm, as in the Russian ”Collectives”, and they exchange a still more precious commodity; they exchange labour. And so while they own their farms and have substantial savings in the banks they are the extreme opposite of English farmers. I can walk in this region if I can overcome the physical obstacles, in any direction, all round the compass! And my neighbors don’t get in the least annoyed when they see me forcing myself over or under their fences. For the first time in my life I could, starting from my door-step, walk on my two feet wherever I pleased. And this applies to these people’s houses, paddocks, gardens, bartons, enclosures, chicken-yards, farm-yards, door-yards. Just imagine what it would have been like at Burpham [English town where Powys lived] if I had suddenly inaugurated the custom of walking into people’s yards and across people’s gardens! In America there is not only  a most real “democracy”, there is the latent psychology of a good many aspects of Communism. [Autobiography, pp 567-568]

Posted signs in nearby woods.

Many private land owners have been very kind to us and have, when asked, allowed us to wander on their lands. The motives that lead people to post their land are complex and private property is a touchy issue. I only pause to wonder what occurred over the past 80 years to now make us look to Europe as the home of such comparably free wandering and how current limitations affect the public’s chance to know and develop compassion for the land around them.

Another theme that appears time and again is Cowper Powys’ understanding that this landscape touched him deeply, because, like some familiar scent, it pulled up memories of his earlier life.

The country here has the very look of the old romances that I love best. Those who love tapestry say its hills offer the same enchanted vistas as did the mediaeval backgrounds to the castles of the Gothic North. It is more like England, this district of upper New York, than any landscape I have yet seen in the whole of America. It is like Shropshire. It even makes me think of my native Derbyshire… In every direction narrow lonely “dirt roads” wind through far away valleys and over remote hill-tops, leaving behind them, as their perspectives diminish, that peculiar thrill that seems to come down to us from the generations, but which is so peculiarly hard to define.  It is an impression that has to do with horsemen journeying, Inn-light beckoning, journey’s ends coming to lovers, to tramps, to hunters, to camp followers, to adventurers, to the life-weary Dead. It is an impression that has to do with all those mystic omens of the way that are driven off like hunted wild-geese by such things as “filling stations”, sign-boards, cement highways, ginger-pop stalls, and “residential sections”.

...Grassy slopes, park-like reaches, winding rivers, pastoral valleys, old walls, old water-mills, old farmsteads, old bridges, old burying grounds give to the contemplative imagination that poetic sense of human continuity, of the generations following each other in slow religious succession, which is what the mind pines for, if it is to feel the full sense of its mortal inheritance.[Autobiography, pp. 562-563]

The east side of Phudd from along 21C; German Cemetery is at center.

Derbyshire, England
source:, author: Mentifisto

As Cowper Powys wandered about this northwest corner of Hillsdale, he seems to have been tantalized both by familiarity and the old memories that re-appeared and by novelty and the new forms of nature and geology that came before him. Likewise, perhaps, his eyes, ‘exotic’ in era and origin, can bring new views to forms already familiar to us who live here.


At the top of this hill, which must have been about the height of Montacute Hill [an English hill from Powys’ youth], was an avenue of large heaps of heavy stones. Which I hoped were the grave-mounds of old Indian Chiefs, Mohawk Chiefs, for the Mohawks were my favourite nation; and at certain seasons during these four years, at the two equinoxes and at other pivotal days, I used to climb to this wooded summit and walk up and down this “death avenue,” as I liked to call it, kneeling in front of each pile and invoking these dead Indians. [Autobiography, p 579]

Stone piles along top of Phudd Hill.

The origin of the rock piles along the top of Phudd Hill continues to be a topic of discussion. The Mohican Indians of this region (the Mohawks were actually further west), clearly did create stone mounds. Some of these became boundary markers as landowners such as Robert Livingston accumulated deeds to former native lands. At the same time, Phudd Hill is laced by rock walls (see below), and piles such as this, located at the edge of formerly ploughed land, could well have been dumpings from rock carts filled as fields were cleared of plough-breaking stones. For more on Cowper Powys’ connections to Indian culture, see this work by Jacqueline Peltier.

One of the peculiarities of this region that so appealed to me are the number of old stone walls dividing the fields, walls built without mortar and bearing on the top of them sturdy beams of wood, laid cross- wise without the use of nails. Around these ancient walls and around these tumble-down wooden fences have grown up, by the work of Nature rather than of man, tall hedges of choke-berry [Choke Cherry], thorn, and other white-blossoming bushes; and the presence of both stone walls and hedges gives this landscape, combined with the bare grassy uplands between the wooded hills, a look sometimes, especially in the winter, that stirs up in me feelings that must rever to far-away impressions of my Salopian ancestors of the Welsh Marches. [Autobiography, p 566]

Natural rock wall topped by man-made wall, Phudd Hill, 14 Sept. 2012.

A “dyke” wall for delineating and perhaps defending territory, the Welsh Marches.
source: wikipedia,

 In our earlier blog entry, I described a bit more about these ‘rail over rock’ fences. Today, most of the beams have rotted away leaving seemingly ineffectual strings of low rocks strung around the hills. However, this extract also alludes to another aspect of landscape change – many of the “bare grassy uplands” that Cowper Powys mentioned are now forested. Much of the eastern half of Phudd Hill, a land now largely wooded, was bare or, at most, shrubby during his time here. One can search in vain for certain of his views, because they are muffled by trees. The landscape might not now feel so familiar to a returning Powys.

My favourite before-breakfast walk in this up-state home of mine was along the river by the edge of a spinney about half a mile from my house. To reach this, I had to scramble along a little bank whose twisted tree roots, emerging from the mud, reminded me of that higher bank at Sherborne …. The sight of caddis-worms – those inch-long bundles of minute sticks animated by an invisible organism – always thrilled me with delight as I stared at this stream, and so did the reflections at its clear bottom of the long-legged water-flies. These reflections represented, like the mystical Beasts in the Apocalypse, six legs, or rather four legs and two feelers, and at the end of each leg and at the end of each feeler there moved, as the creature moved, a dark moon rimmed with a silver rim. [Autobiography, p 590]

The shadows of Water Striders fall onto a rocky bottom in the Agawamuck near Harlemville Road.

A Water-Stride skates across the Agawamuck’s surface tension.

Haunts for fish, handles for climbing .. roots along tributary of the Agawamuck.

Caddisflies and Water Striders (our current names for Powys’ “caddis-worms” and “water-flies”) still abound in the Agawamuck. The Caddisfly young are aquatic and construct houses from a variety of local materials, including pebbles and rocks. Water-striders are True Bugs (order Hemiptera) who skate about the water surface in hopes of finding some hapless living flotsam upon which to feed.

The diary entries below are almost in calendar sequence, although those from 1930 and 1931 are mixed and, once or twice, I abandoned strict chronology in order to group similar entries together.

Thursday,  3rd September, 1931

… along the hedge and then over the swamp of Pan where bull rushes and Boneset & a beautiful Michaelmas daisy .. & Jewel weed & tall green rushgrass were all tangled – into the cut field on the other side & looking back I saw the sunset thro’ the hedge.

Michaelmas or New England Aster. It receives its first name from the fact that it commonly is in flower
on Michaelmas (29 September); banks of the Agawamuck, 14 Sept. 2012.

Joe Pye Weed (pinkish) and Boneset (white); 7 Sept. 2006, Hawthorne Valley Farm.


Jewelweed after a heavy dew; 14 Sept. 2012, banks of the Agawamuck.

Monday 8th September 1930

I walked up to the Red Barn on the Top of the hill – the Obstructing Barn that sent a lady mad and there, from there, I saw the Mountains, Mountains, the Mountains. This is a great event in my life to know that in half-an-hour I can go where I can see the Mountains and come back.

The Catskills as seen from “Indian Lookout” atop Phudd Hill.

The exact location of the Red Barn of the Mad Lady still alludes me, but the Mountains must clearly be the Catskills, distantly visible from Phudd Hill and, less completely, from atop Schober’s Hill, what Powys called “Windmill Hill” because of a rusty weather vane, along 21C.

Tuesday. 8th September, 1931

Heavy white dew of the kind that earlier might easily have been a white frost – by earlier I mean before dawn; for the sun is warm Filmy Feather clouds but otherwise a clear sky & delicious cool wind…. Found a Red Lobelia Found four of the Stocks [stalks] in that treat long row out…. Took Black to John Stone at noon in beautiful September sun through fields of Golden Rod and Queen Anne Lace and Yellow Toadflax [Butter & Eggs]. A lovely autumnal feeling in the cool air.

Butter and Eggs, or Yellow Toadflax; this picture is from elsewhere in the County, but this European plant does
occur in fields around Phudd Hill.

Queen Anne’s Lace, needless to say given the name, this is not a native plant.

Cardinal Flower or Red Lobelia. This flower is found along streams and in other damp areas;
Hawthorne Valley Farm, 5 Sept. 2006.

While still found ‘in the neighborhood’, Butter & Eggs (Powys’ Yellow Toadflax) seems not as abundant as in Powys’ days. It was one of our earlier ‘invasive plants’, expanding across fields as early as the 18th century.

Thurs 10th September, 1931

Warm even hot. A very beautiful morning of Heavy Dew – drops of dew big as large diamonds on railings on grasses on all; especially on those lovely delicate faint straw coloured grasses like filigree of lace, made of fine hay. Soon these Heavy Autumn Dews will turn into waste frosts…. Then found two beautiful specimen of the flower like an orchid called Lady’s Tresses. Then walked right up hill to where I could see the Mountains and the hill near the River which I have named Corfe Castle. On returning I saw the big trout. The Alders field sadly dead… St. John’s Wort, Tansy, All dead and withered and black. Only the Golden Rod flourishing and four tall Scotch Thistles. I held the stalk of a Gold Rod that was Far taller than I & meanwhile listened to the rippling of the stream and saw the misty light on the Plane Tree [Sycamore].

Ladies Tresses, moist field of Hawthorne Valley Farm, 21 Sept. 2011.

Looking through Burdock towards Powys’ Windmill Hill, just east of Phudd Bottom; 14 Sept. 2012.

An etching of Corfe Castle, Dorset, England.

The yellowing leaves and brown seed head of Yarrow (what Powys called Tansy),
west of Phudd Hill, 17 Sept. 2012.

Friday 11th September, 1931

There is a beautiful red Autumn branch on an elm-tree near the Wohn Orchard [the Wohn’s were neighbors] & yesterday I noted on the great Hawk’s stone two big blood-stains which must have been red Virginia Creeper. The Spinney too I noticed full of red Virginia Creep on the ground & also has many Berries brilliant & more jewel-like – like red coral beads – more than that; like frozen blood drops – of Lords and Ladies [Jack-in-the-Pulpit]. Only Golden Rod and Toad flax in the fields; & Skull Cap…. This warm weather has brought the Katy-Dids back.

Virginia Creeper hangs in front of Willows and, behind that, Japanese Knotweed, an invasive plant that Powys
probably never encountered in this area; east of Phudd Bottom, 14 Sept. 2012.

The hidden jewels of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, or Lords-and-Ladies. 1 Sept. 2008, Taghkanic.

Wednesday. 9th September, 1931

Took Black to river… There is still a faint trickle of water there, tho’ the water under the bridge is foul with green slime… There was a terrific noise all day. Mr. Krick helped by six men cutting his corn (maize) and putting it in his Silo.

Monday 14th September

Still very hot….At noon I went for a stroll by the river which is getting terribly low & full of duck-weed and of frogspawn… How the tiny little fish and the quick water flies dance thro’ this water trickling thro’ green slime I know not!

The algae-covered bottom of the Agawamuck; 15 Sept. 2012.

Fallen leaves, Duckweed, and rock – 15 Sept. 2012, the Agawamuck near Phudd Bottom.

I have taken the first of these two entries somewhat out of order, but this pair goes together, at least for our purposes. Algal growth (apparently what is referred to by “green slime” and “frogspawn”) still occur along the Agawamuck, but perhaps not as thickly as in Powys’ day. Their excessive growth usually reflects the presence of abundant nutrients in the water. While natural leaf fall and the like are always contributing some nutrients, the dairy farms for which the neighbor Mr. Krick was cutting corn surely contributed their lot, as did streamside outhouses. Septic systems, improved on-farm waste handling, and agricultural decline may have cleared the Agawamuck’s waters somewhat. However, algal growth also varies substantially from year to year, and hot, dry years like Powys seems to have experienced in 1931 can cause blooms.

Wednesday, 16th September, 1931

… a delicate misty dewy day with a dew-cloud over Phudd & dew-vapours regular classical Nephelae like floating essences of fragile entities over the Ridge & I thought – this is so beautiful this landscape but I must go to bed & enjoy it at one remove listening to the crows and the owls & Mrs Krick’s chickens.

A misty sunrise over the west face of Phudd, 23 Sept. 2010.

Friday 18th September, 1931

.. the Golden Rod is dying… beginning to die… yes, on  this the 18th September the Golden Rod is beginning to wither. The last of all the year’s flowers to look fresh… I mean those in large quantities… is a certain small white Aster, white with the faintest lilac tinge but a sturdy little plant & the greenery of it so filmy & delicate. This Aster this little common Aster is now in its heyday while Golden Rod begins to fade.

Aging Goldenrod and sparks of a white daisy; 14 Sept. 2012; roadside near Phudd Bottom.

Goldenrod and Calico (?) Aster.

Saturday, 20th September, 1930

I walked along the river on this side following the line of willows and finally coming to a hedge of wild raspberry… I met a beautiful green frog… he was green and beautifully spotted; a tiny saurian and very wise.

A spotty Greenfrog from hereabouts. Not all Greenfrogs are so mottled.

Willows (and assorted other shrubbery) along the Agawamuck, just east of Phudd Bottom; 14 Sept. 2012.

Thursday, 24th September, 1931

…& there was an upright rainbow mostly red but also green & violet & the golden light struck the top of windmill hill…

Rainbow(s) north of Phudd Hill and in front of Powys’ Windmill Hill; 28 Sept. 2009.

Sunday, 27th September, 1931

I took pail & net & rescued fish. .. They are all Trout – beautifully spotted with little red spots & one with a black back.

Thursday, 1st October, 1931

Caught a very broad light coloured fish and three others all big ones from a rock pool. Their tails look so funny all poking out from under the same stone. Three under one stone, side by side like fish-horses in a manger!

Sunday, 4th October, 1931

I … saw a very strange unforgettable sight seen by few living men I wot! I saw four fish in procession cross a strip of dry land from under the rock into the pool.

Monday, 5th October, 1931

Caught quite a lot of fish – they have now come out from under both rocks & few are left in my three pools & my grand aquarium has a whole shoal of large fish – are they brown trout – with broad yellow backs, striped with black.

Trout resting near the bottom of a pool just east of Harlemville Road’s crossing of the Agawamuck;
the fish with the ‘wormwood” patterns on their backs are Brook Trout; the more spotted
individual may be a Brown Trout. 16 Sept. 2012.

As Powys notes in his autobiography, he was often hounded by concern for fish in the drying pools of the Agawamuck. He spent hours ferrying the fish of shallow, drying pools to deeper “aquariums” as he called them. As he surmises, he probably was seeing Brown Trout, a European species that was (and is) being widely stocked in the area. Probably also present but more skittish were Brook Trout. These are a native species, although they have also been extensively stocked and so which populations, if any, are really native to a particular stream can be difficult to know. The presence of so many trout suggest that water quality wasn’t regularly as bad as his earlier 1931 descriptions might suggest.The light, broad fish may have been a Golden Shiner (to see one, visit our fish tank at the Farm Store). He was obviously and rightly stunned to see the ‘walking fish’; he repeats the description in his autobiography. Some fish are known to move short distances over ground. While it is difficult to imagine trout accomplishing this, Creek Chub, another fish in the watershed, might be more adept.

Tuesday 6th October

Half Phudd is now yellow with autumn tints. The most beautiful tree round here is the Maple on the right hand of the road going towards Wohn Bridge – I am referring to the autumn tints!…The first one of all to get red is a very small Maple by the rail of the Wohn Orchard. Brilliant red now is the Sumach on Stein’s Hill & also near our own garden – what a garnet red and Ruby red and wine red all mixed together the Sumach is… Why then do I not justice to the Sumach… I’ll tell you why… because I have no old memory connected with Sumach – yet it has not yet won me over… but is beginning to do this now by its ruby redness in this weather but it may still be only beginning to win me over when I die.

A young Red Maple just starting to turn, west face of Phudd Hill, 15 Sept. 2012.

The seed head of Staghorn Sumach, behind it a few of its leaves are starting to turn. Sumach do not grow wild in England; roadside near Phudd Bottom, 14 Sept. 2012.

A Sugar Maple starting to turn beside the German Graveyard, just south of Phudd Bottom; 14 Sept. 2012.

Saturday, 17 October, 1931

The day is grey  & cloudy – vast heavy lowering clouds over everything darkest to the North where there is almost a snow-cloud look … Not quite a cold snow-sky but a late autumn sky suggesting walks over hill & dale in German forests and towards Castles perched on high rocks and down by Ruysdale-like windmills and brown swirling waterfalls. Yes, it is a Nordic day…

Geese flying over barn just north of Phudd Bottom; the barn is no longer standing.

I have not yet found an entry mentioning the passing Geese; maybe I’ve missed it, but Canada Geese were a much rarer sight (and sound) in Powys’ day. Extensive game hunting had virtually driven the eastern populations to extinction by the 1930s. It was not until the 1960s that, aided by releases of captive birds and restrictions on hunting, Canada Goose populations began to rebound. If you’re curious who Ruysdale was, then see our earlier Powys blog

Saturday, 25th October, 1930


An early snow (27 Oct., 2011) on rock and pine; east side of Phudd Hill, perhaps not far from one of Powys’ ‘praying stones’.

Sunday, 26th October, 1930

Saw the dawn or rather the sun rise. First there was the long clear line of the hills and then above them a clear watery seas of golden light and across this darker but messily gold clouds were driven by a strong north wind – this blew the actual sun rays. When the sun itself finally appeared it took the form not of above the hills but of a distinct bite, like of enormous teeth, out of the hill. This apparently was caused by the clear air which made the sun as blazing then and unbearable to stare at, as later (which is unusual) and hence where you cannot bear to look at it, it makes a bite, or a gap cut out of the line of the horizon-hill-ridge.

Illustration from Powys’ diary, showing the rising sun taking a ‘bite’ out of a hill top.

Sun rising over Waggoner (now Fern) Hill; 14 Sept. 2012.

Monday, 26 October, 1931

But cold thro’ the thorn trees blows the North wind O so cold & strong & leaves do race & flutter & swilr down. Mr. Scutt thinks there’s less red than usual in autumn.. all yellow & brown this year. Our maple is Orange. Our Hickory in field is Gamboge. Our Cherry tree, both our Cherry trees are Bare – A stray Margarete Daisy & a few Achillea are all the wild flowers left. I have not seen one single purple Loosestrife this year. The Toadflax was the last flower to make a gallant defiance but they are all now dead.

Woods just west of Phudd Hill, 16 Sept. 2009.

Purple Loosestrife

It is botanically interesting to find Powys mentioning Purple Loosestrife. Reportedly common along the East Coast shoreline by the early 1800s, this invasive European plant (Powys probably knew it from England) has since become common in wetlands throughout the US. Regional populations seemed to have been knocked back by beetles introduced as biocontrol, but this year (2012), it again seemed particularly abundant.

Botanist Rogers McVaugh, who roamed the County just a few years after Powys, described its distribution in the County at that time as, “Marshes along the Hudson River; common, often forming dense stands and becoming the dominant plant over large areas. Unknown away from the river except in isolated colonies. This species, now the most conspicuous one in the river marshes, is apparently spreading rapidly.”

Tuesday, 27 October, 1931

Saw what I think was a Star perhaps Jupiter very large thro’ the middle of the Lilac but it may have been a light in the Windmill Barn but I think it was a Star. I could feel the Full Moon up above house & the house was so light with moonlight all chilly and wan that I lit no light.

The full moon and a companion over Phudd Hill, 3 Sept. 2009.

Leave a comment

Posted by on September 17, 2012 in Uncategorized