(Days Twenty-one through Twenty-five) Mumford Country

Lewis Mumford, born in 1895, is a hero. He died in 1990 in a little house in Amenia, New York–a home that, for no good reason–is not an historic landmark today. Traipsing through in 1915,  Herbert Welsh, in The New Gentleman of the Road, praised Amenia only as “a favorite resting place for automobilists.”

Lewis MumfordHistorian, sociologist, philosopher, and literary critic, Mumford is best remembered for his study of cities and urban architecture, but was, above all else,  a writer.

My attraction to the writer Mumford has a history, and that story has a theme, that can best be described as “Mumfordian.”

I’m a country boy. Grew up working on the farm and in the forests, hiking and camping for fun:  rural peace and bucolic quiet came to me as second nature. But in the 60s, the metropolis felt as close as the TV set and The New York Times, and I choose to live today in a mess of a big old American city. The tension between City and Country dominated Lewis Mumford’s work–as well as my life.

CityInHistoryI discovered Mumford when I was in college–in a used bookstore, not a classroom. The City in History (1961, and still in print) is, in its author’s words, a “book that opens with a city that was, symbolically, a world: it closes with world that has become, in many practical aspects, a city.” Here was a topic that ranged wide enough to suit my imagination. The writer Mumford was, and is, too much a generalist, a polymath, to get much academic credit. He never earned a college degree, although later in life he taught at several universities–he once called himself “a professor of things in general,” a course I would have signed up for with joy.

At Amherst College in the 70s, Mumford was wholly absent from the curriculum.  I knew that Amherst was never going to be a scholarly home to me–the scholarship grant that generously financed my education proved, oddly enough, a hindrance to any academic scholarship. I was drawn to this un-credentialed and un-tenured teacher, who also seemed to take seriously such country matters–in all senses– as I had learned at home, in New Hampshire.

If you have no inkling of Lewis Mumford and his many books, I suggest you watch an evocative and nostalgic film that he created in 1939, for the New York World’s Fair. It’s called “The City,” but you will see that it nevertheless spends a lot of time in “The Country.”

Mumford was an early advocate of Regionalism, and the region where he spent most if his life was, in fact,  The Reaches of New York City (1939).  The City he loved; and The Country, but his distaste for Suburbia was profound:

The end product is an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before a television set: soon, with a little more automation of traffic, mostly in a motor car, travelling even greater distances, under remote control, so that the one-time driver may occupy himself with a television set, having lost even the freedom of steering wheel. Every part of this life, indeed, will come through official channels and be under supervision. Untouched by human hand at one end: untouched by human spirit at the other. Those who accept this existence might as well be encased in a rocket hurtling through space, so narrow are their choices, so limited and deficient their permitted responses. Here indeed we find ‘The Lonely Crowd.’

The greatest 20th-century American urbanist made pastoral Amenia, New York, his home: this is where died in 1990. Twenty-five years on, Amenia is a suburb of New York City, as is most of the range of my great walk. Must we always rhyme, as I did when I was young,  the very word “suburb” with “subdued,” “dumb” and dull?” I hope not. I hope my feet, as I walk, map out a better way.

Mumford’s biographer Donald Miller describes Leedsville, New York,

…the upstate hamlet where he had been living for thirty-six years [since 1936] with his family, in a simple wooden farmhouse tow miles or so from Amenia, an old iron-making center not much larger than Emerson’s Concord. Here, in a tiny study off his book-lined living room–a monk’s cell, really–he had done most of his best work; for while he loved the variety and velocity of the city, country living suited him better. In slow-moving Leedvsville he lived a life in line with his temperament, writing in the mornings and walking, sketching and gardening in the afternoons.

Mumford Home, Amenia
Mumford Home, Amenia

No record shows that Mumford ever even considered the 90 mile stroll to or from Manhattan.  Even from Poughkeepsie, whence I’ll be coming, Amenia is a long walk.  I will visit Mumford’s home on my way. The simple message of Mumfordian Regionalism is also the truth of my walk: no country without the city, no city without country. Walking, you come to know that the city is both very far from, and also very near, the countryside.

Bewteen the Woods and the Water

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.

Screen shot 2015-03-19 at 10.49.58 AMLate 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!”

Fermo9781590171660_jpg_90x450_q85r returned to the Danube, and the prediction of The Polymath, in  Between the Woods and the WaterHe 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.

Screen shot 2015-03-19 at 10.36.38 AMBy 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).images

“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.