It looked like a dull and dusty road. Fifty miles from the Delaware to to the Hudson, over country that seemed flat and useless. I expected a desert of the imagination. I should have known better.
Late last night, as I perused my favorite map, The Reaches of New York City 1939, an all-but-buried label caught my eye. It’s a busy map, and well worth reading. (Some people read detective novels for pleasure, I prefer old maps.) This part of the world once was called “The Drowned Lands.”
Now that is a Romantic notion: Drowned Lands! I’m reminded of The Polymath, who warned Patrick Leigh Fermor in A Time Of Gifts that
“Everything is going to vanish! They talk of building power dams across the Danube and I tremble whenever I think of it! They’ll make the wildest river in Europe as tame as a municipal waterworks. All those fish from the East–they will never come back! Never, never, never!”
Fermor returned to the Danube, and the prediction of The Polymath, in Between the Woods and the Water. He had continued his walk to the Iron Gates in 1938, but wrote this second volume at a time (1977) when “progress has placed the whole of this landscape underwater.” The theme of the vanishing landscape haunts him, as if it were a blue Danube walk. He laments even that the dam-makers have carefully removed and reconstructed the drowned mosques and cathedrals on higher ground.
No imaginative or over-romantic traveler will ever be in danger of thinking he hears the call to prayer rising from the depths and he will be spared the illusion of drowned bells, like those of Ys, the cathédrale engloutie off the Breton coast; or those of the legendary city of Kitezh, near the middle Volga, hard by Nizhni-Novgorod. Poets and storytellers say that it vanished underground during the invasion of Batu Khan. Later it was swallowed up in lake and chosen listeners can sometimes hear its bells tolling from the drowned towers .
But not here: myths, lost voices, history and hearsay have all been put to rout, leaving nothing but this valley of the shadow.
I love the casual way Fermor encyclopedically tosses off a series of irresistible stories. He and The Polymath may be lamenting a sort of drowned land different from the formerly malarial miasmas of Orange County, New York. Drowned lands can also refer to riverine lowlands dammed and flooded, for flood control, power or drinking water. The Walkilll Valley was long thought to be a place that needed drying out. (Its history–and a fascinating contemporary controversy, are explained by Fred Isseks and his students in an excellent blog, called Garbage, Gangsters and Greed.)
The kind of flooded places that I know well, and plan to visit on my walk, are such underwater towns as Enfield, Dana, Prescott and Greenwich in Western Massachusetts where I went to school, or East Weare Village in New Hampshire where I grew up. But before all this modern dam-building, drowned lands meant seasonally flooded areas, like the Walkill Valley I’ll be passing through in May.
The swamps of North America, whether they have been dredged and drained or dammed and flooded today, were not always abandoned as lost lands. Hunting, trapping and fishing, the Native Americans swarmed these swamps. (Arrowheads and artifacts still abound.) The early white settler-farmers did not consider the natural flow of the Walkill a good thing. Here is the 1875 report of the New Jersey State Geologist:
The extreme breadth of these lands is four miles,- and their area is 25,600 acres, of which 15,600 acres are in New York, and 10,000 acres in New Jersey. Through the entire course of the stream in these lands the fall is less than three inches to the mile, and the current is scarcely perceptible. After heavy falls of rain the stream becomes swollen and overflows its banks, and these lands are soon covered with water,remaining so for weeks together. In the present condition of the stream there is no chance for improvement; ditches are of little use for lack of an outlet, and nearly the whole of this area is ruined for the best agricultural uses. Some of the land is in swamp; other parts are attached to farms, and coarse and sour grass is gathered from them, when the seasons are not too wet. Along the borders of the upland, some of this ground is cropped, and fine returns are obtained, but the greater part of the area is utterly useless.
By November 1941, the drowned lands had found a new and less useless place, as recounted in the pages of the National Geographic Magazine. Dorothea D. and Fred Everett contributed Black Acres: A Thrilling Sketch in the Vast Volume of Who’s Who Among the Peoples who Make America, with photographs of their adopted home in The Drowned Lands.
The color plates display exotic peasants digging ditches, planting onions, blessing the onion seeds in their churches (no onion domes are depicted), eating onions, celebrating onions in old-world dances, and wearing costumes that Patrick Leigh Fermor would have described lovingly. These were recent European immigrants, mainly from Poland, who had drained the swamps and made the desert bloom. The Black Dirt Region of New York State–as it is now christened–had become a major producer of onions, the “wine-scented and poetic soul of the capacious salad bowl,” in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, whom the Everetts quote, romantically. They write
At night the toilers come home black with dirt but happy. Week ends they clean up and gather for a few hours dancing to their own Polish band music. For more than two years we lived across a small valley from their woodland park, and often the summer breezes wafted to us their sprightly tunes.
The swamps are being drained and cleared at an ever-increasing rate. In 1930 some 3,00 acres were in use; in 1939, 6,800; and in 1940 , about 9,000. At this rate the total area of 26,000 acres will soon be under cultivation.
And so it is now, according to contemporary accounts. I want to explore this land myself, and also investigate the irony that the public health of the Drowned Lands is today more threatened by an out-of-control landfill than a malarial swamp.
From these lovable people we have heard many stories brought over from the Old Country, legends based on superstition. Favorite subjects are the balls of fire seen dancing through the swamps on dark nights. Scientists, of course, have an explanation, but to simple folk such phenomena are weird omens.
These ancient sorceries reminded me vaguely of the Danube–was it Patrick Leigh Fermor who told a chilling tale of the watery intervale on the old river below Vienna? No, it was a lesser light I recalled: Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), a master of the Edwardian ghost story, and author of “The Willows” (1907).
“The Willows” is my favorite ghost story; it was H.P. Lovecraft’s, too. The horror is terrifyingly restrained. It is a simple story of two young men on a canoe trip on the Danube, who find a dead body among the the drowned islands of Austria-Hungary:
After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Budapest, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes. On the big maps this deserted area is painted in a fluffy blue, growing fainter in color as it leaves the banks, and across it may be seen in large straggling letters the word Sumpfe, meaning marshes.
In high flood this great acreage of sand, shingle-beds, and willow-grown islands is almost topped by the water, but in normal seasons the bushes bend and rustle in the free winds, showing their silver leaves to the sunshine in an ever-moving plain of bewildering beauty.
The only source of their dread is that dead body, and the sound of the incessant wind in the willows, But Blackwood is a master of the uncanny, of finding the fear in everyday events. Unseen and unseeable beings surround the lads–as one of them says, ” We happen to have camped in a spot where their region touches ours, where the veil between has worn thin.”
Herbert Welsh, whose footsteps I’ll be following in May, also dabbled in spiritualism, and sought to pierce that veil between worlds–there is a miscellaneous file of “Psychic Interests (1926)” among his collected papers, which I have yet to explore. It consists of letters from corespondents who have tell of weird omens of the other side.
No road, by the way, is dull, once you start down it.