As you drive northeast through Dutchess County in upstate New York, farm scenes strike calendar poses: leaning barns, well-tended white Victorians, winding roads tunneling through overhanging maples. Then, round a bend, a vista breaks open upon hilly patchwork fields and cow-dotted pastures, with many layered hills growing progressively mistier in the farther distance. This stretch of the Harlem Valley is none other than the very locus amœnus of pastoral paradise, where nothing bad can ever happen.
My mother and I moved here from Brooklyn at the end of 2002. We didn’t feel safe in the city anymore, and we could no longer bear the fact that every time we heard an uneven tread in the stairway, we thought it might be he finally coming in the door. We supposed removing ourselves from the familiar physical triggers would help extinguish that cruel hope reflex.
This morning, instead of taking the bike path past the train station, I decided to run up DeLaVergne Hill to look down upon the hamlet Amenia, whose name means “pleasing to the eye.” From up here I can soliloquize to the greatest advantage about the larger perspectives necessary to frame my story. We may take Amenia for what it is: a miniature in enamel, hung from a gold chain around a virgin’s neck, an abstract of the times.
The last stop on the train from the city, it lies as far as one might retreat into rural country without losing that connection to urbanity. In this valley, an abandoned length of rail bed, which used to route the train on up into Massachusetts, is now a bike path. It cuts through shale cliffs—hung over with fern and dripping moss—and then snakes languidly through swamps, woods, and sheep pasture. Sometimes opening wide and scenic, sometimes growing close and shady, the “rail trail” is nevertheless boycotted by the locals, who, years before, fought bitterly against the intrusive charity who would convert and maintain it. They feared youth would be drawn to the asphalt surface late at night for Colt 45 drinking parties. But they have been proven wrong, and it’s mostly the bottled-water crowd who use the trail, human-billboard cyclists and new moms chasing three-wheeled strollers, who come up from the city to their weekend homes. The locals despise these people whom they call “citiots,” exhibiting an otherwise unprecedented stroke of cleverness.
A sign at the entrance to the rail trail promises that “no motorized vehicles” are allowed, but local forces lobbied and affixed a second sign further announcing that the trail is “patrolled by sheriffs on ATV’s” (sic). We can say that the signs agree to disagree for now. One idea of respect is to avoid making a choice. The smaller guy is moved by tolerance; the other by pride.
Here it comes now—following its own deep, pulsating sonic wave—a pimped-out, camo-painted, all-terrain vehicle, complete with a custom stereo system, louder than the engine. The funds for its requisition, I hear, came from some unusual interpretation of a line in the sheriff department’s Homeland Security budget. Atop this fantastic vehicle, a large-faced deputy reigns, swooshing past startled cyclists and waking babies with his thunder. He heads down the rail trail toward a parking area where four men stand talking around the bed of a pick-up truck, the red-neck conference table. The deputy pulls up and dismounts speaking to the men. Simultaneously, all heads turn to look up the hill to where I stand looking down at them.
I start back toward our farm where my mom and I have lived happily enough for almost seven years, sporadically, between trips abroad and cross-country. With the insurance settlement, we bought our farm from a vegan woman whose unrealistic wool business had failed. We are among numerous other well-heeled former urbanites, “living off the land” within convenient reach of the train to NYC and equidistant from five tolerably decent airports.
But things are not quite as peaceful at home as they could be. Of late, sorry to say, an “uncle Claudius” has interloped, got in between my fortune and me. He executed the move just last month when I was away at school. Not really an uncle, but “step dad” won’t do. Today is the wedding. Our lawn is crawling with caterers and the musicians are setting up even now. Will I still sit at the head of the table tomorrow? He has been eyeing my seat these last couple of days since I have been home, but I make it a point to get to the table early to claim it. I think he may have even occupied it while I was gone. I found my seat unpleasantly warm. But my name, alongside my mother’s, was still on the parcel map last time I looked, and I mean to keep it that way. Our home was dearly bought.
Our cottage is very old, circa 1750. It first appears in the records in 1763 when it acquired a new porch. How long it had stood porchless we can only guess a decade or two. It has been added to and upon in every direction over the years and currently has a morphology of a human hive of some sort, mostly done up in Quaker-gone-Tudorish, crumbling here and there, sagging a little now and again. But it’s lovely and storybook; a stranger can get lost in passageways and cupboards. In our old house, we know none of the mean evenness of imported fruits and machine weather. We eat in season and hang the laundry. All these years we have followed Voltaire’s advice, my mother and I. We have twenty-two horned, long-haired wild-looking sheep of small size in various colors from dirty white, to chestnut, to shoe black, the ewes about that of a big retriever and the rams and wethers not much larger. With slender legs and two-pronged toes, they step lightly over the rock outcroppings in our hilly pasture. In the spring before shearing season, the ewes’ overgrown coats make them look like tiny Jewish grandmothers who got their furs four sizes too big at a thrift shop. They roam around the cottage lawn and occasionally, if the door has been left open, step inside, clattering over the floorboards sounding as if a crowd of high-heeled ladies have just arrived.
On a quiet morning when sheep shake off the frosty dew, the wool rumbles like distant thunder. I can distinguish the tenor of their bleats. Some ewes are plaintive or begging, some are rude and angry. Pluto, the lead ram, a massive, sturdy black animal, is mostly silent, but when he does speak it is like a kitten mewing. There is a worn and polished fence post he scratches his woolly face against for hours, and when I come to the barn in the morning with my shovel, he greets me putting his head down so that I can get that spot behind his horns. He was good enough to give old Claudius a swift butt once, sending him face forward into a manure pile. Good Pluto.
At the age of twelve I became a fulltime shepherd—who, true, has read more than roamed. I am an experiment. Some may claim “gone awry.” My mother, after trying hard to do otherwise, educated me at home, where I read and read and read. Too many books and not enough interaction, says Claudius. My life has become one long self-conscious narration. My hours and days are pages turning, and I cannot wait to get to the end.
For the greater part of seven years, we have been more or less holed up from the thumb-communicating world. There are no malls in Amenia. One buys one’s clothes at Tractor Supply, or else at the drug store. There are no billboards, and if one does not have cable TV, an aptly-named Yahoo account, or newspaper subscriptions—and we did not—a lot of celebrity news can go on without your ever knowing about it. Sure, things come up in conversation, and, as we went through the grocery line we received our inoculating dose of tabloid, but that was the extent of our exposure to the flotsam and jetsam that people take for information. I read the classics and liked math and science. I got very good at finding geeky things online and somehow missed everything else. You really can tunnel your way through the Internet using Scholar Google. Besides my flock, I had plenty of playmates, young and old, all over the world, but I completely slept through American popular culture, knowledge of which, it appears to me, could be as important as knowing last year’s weather predictions.
Our house is one of several very old homes in the area, but most in town are much younger Victorians or pre-war farmhouses that rose up in the boom of Jewish resort beside the lost Amenia lake, whose dam broke and flooded the poor goys in Wassaic below. A hundred years of no development ensued, and then slowly a grave state psychiatric prison hospital was erected on the hill, calling forth thousands of low-paid workers from the North and spawning trailer parks and split-ranch tragedies, spreading sprawl even here, where Lewis Mumford lived, where for the longest time town and farm refused to produce the monstrous progeny of the suburb. Now every Sunday the automaton locals, on stinky noisy mowers, go meticulously back and forth across their great tartan plains.
Happily, suburban expansion was limited. The state facility closed after sixty or so years of operation, atrophy replaced growth; the grand old hotel and other treasures were burned to the ground by a few local delinquents. Then post 9/11, as small dairy farmers’ suicides were being subsidized by various Federal Farm Bills, citiot migration really began in earnest. The former pederast house was converted into eco-condominiums with equestrian amenities. Failed farms were bought up by the uber wealthy, who built stately manors, installed waterfalls, and imported gazelles and camels for their lawns.
In the meantime, however, the wave of workers from the north had far outnumbered the settled farmers. These later folks became “the locals” but are themselves Adirondackian diaspora, whose weekend hunting plots, for reasons hid to me, are there not here. Now that the facility has closed down, released its residents into the population, the locals work hard at two, and sometimes three, part-time service jobs so that they can drive an hour to a Walmart to buy lots of plastic crap they don’t need, get themselves deeper into debt, and pay their taxes—often by high interest credit cards—to support undeclared wars and to bail out banksters. They actually vote, right and left, to remain enslaved instead of throwing off their partisan shackles, waving crowbars with half-articulate shouts of fury. When these NeoUncleToms die, I expect they will go straight to Terrordise, a celestial gated community where cavity searches are the routine safety procedure for all ages, all foodstuffs are engineered and radiated, and all information carefully filtered of meaningful content.
The locals don’t hike the gorgeous hills that surround the valley; and they fought my mother to keep the trucked-in junk food for the school cafeteria instead of switching to locally grown vegetables. They actually encourage their girls to watch banal Disney romances, in which everyone seems to scream at each other at first and then marry at the end. They train their boys with video games to see slaughter as a form of entertainment.
Second- and third-homeowners now employ a good percentage of the locals—landscapers, carpenters, lawn mowers, snow plowers, pool cleaners, pest controllers, window washers, housekeepers, horse trainers, septic tank drainers, caterers, and tutors—whose own homes and families are left unattended. The grand estates wait in pristine readiness for their owners to visit while the landscaper’s own vegetable garden is choked by weeds. There isn’t a local in town who can afford to hire himself. The carpenter’s own doors are sagging; the housekeeper’s windows are opaque with dirt.
Polonius, my mothers’ friend, a tiny former military man with a large fortune and florid signature unfurling a full four inches, goes on about how the locals hate weekenders like himself: “If it weren’t for us, whose homes would they take care of?”
Their own? one might suppose, each others’? Maybe they would grow chard and raise chickens; maybe they would run little repair shops or make things to sell to each other; maybe they would not watch so many TV reality shows about grand estates whose lawns are mown by people like them.
Something is rotten in the United States of America.