A Catskill Catalog: Aug. 11, 2010

The long narrative poem seems out of favor today, among both general readers and academic types. Nobody much reads Henry Wadsworth Longfellow anymore. His “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” seems quaint, and “Hiawatha” patronizing. Once, these stories-in-verse gave Americans a sense of place, a cultural legacy, our own national legends.

That’s what narrative poems do: create legends out of bits and pieces of history. The blind Greek poet Homer kick-started western culture by writing his twin epic poems of the great warrior Odysseus, The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Mike Todd, Catskill woodsman, might not be Odysseus, but he is the epic hero of All the Homespun Days: A Narrative Poem, written by Norman Studer in 1961. The poem’s locale is Dry Brook and Woodland Valley, mountain hollow farms, and ridgeline passes, the rugged terrain of the southern Catskills. It’s published on CD, read by the author, by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. (Washington, D.C. 800-410-9815)

It’s good! The author tells the story of Mike Todd in Mike Todd’s own words, rendering Mike’s mountain dialect and regional speech in compelling verse. Born up Dry Brook in 1877, Mike Todd lost his mother to “pneumony” when he was 11 years old. His widowed father took the boy to live in a log cabin back in the woods, soon abandoning him to fend for himself.

And fend, Mike did. He cut wood and hunted, made a home for himself in the forest with the homespun skills his elders had taught him. He fished for sustenance everyday, poaching from the protected lands of wealthy sportsmen.

And he learned to move among the hills, seldom seeing a road, roaming over the mountains from Dry Brook to the Beaverkill to the Pennsylvania border, logging, sawing, rafting, hunting bear, moving from job to job.

He settled down around age 40, taking a job as a fire spotter for the forerunner of the state conservation department. For 29 years Mike served in the Balsam Mountain fire tower, living alone in a shanty atop an erector set, 47-feet off the ground. Sundays, he’d receive delivery of a week’s provisions. The rest of the time, Mike was alone above the woods.

It was in the last 10 years of his life that Mike Todd became a celebrity. The agent of his fame? Norman Studer.

Norman Studer (1902-1978) was a teacher, writer, folklorist and educational reformer who was director of New York City’s progressive Downtown Community School. He, and several others, founded Camp Woodland in Phoenicia’s Woodland Valley in 1939, directing the camp until it closed in 1962.

Camp Woodland’s educational curriculum emphasized the collection of folklore and the exploration of rural folkways. Mike Todd was a natural resource.

He soon became the star of the show. Through him, the campers experienced what seemed to be the last of a vanishing breed – an authentic mountain woodsman. Mike was a self-taught musician, playing a variety of traditional instruments: mouth organ, squeezebox, percussion bones and the like. His appearances at camp always ended with a square dance, with Mike at center stage.

Norman Studer took a liking to Mike Todd, engaging him in conversation and eliciting stories that became the mountain man’s biography, A Catskill Woodsman, Mike Todd’s Story as Told to Norman Studer (Purple Mountain Press, 1988, third printing). Before the biography, however, came the narrative poem, written in the year after Mike died, both as a personal elegy for the man and a cultural lament, for “all the homespun days lay buried in an old man’s grave.”
Studer was an accomplished poet, able to write in the rhythm of everyday speech, able to capture the sound and cadence of Mike Todd’s voice, able to sound his own voice, tinged with loss, coupled with admiration. Here’s how the poem begins:

“As when the leaves turn on a frosty night
and trees stand scarlet in the morning sun,
children, seeing sudden flames upon the hill,
cry out that summer’s gone. So it was
when this old man died
and earth returned to earth once more.”

The connection made between the old man and the campers is an important theme in the poem, as is the unquestioned value of the homespun skills and rural knowledge Mike personifies. Norman Studer, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia University, clearly held in the highest regard Mike’s skill, intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom. It’s pretty impressive.

In 1959 and ’60, Mike Todd spent the last months of his life in a Hudson Valley nursing home, “like a prison, the worst place I’d ever been,” as he put it in a letter he sent to Studer in June. He wanted to make another visit to camp. “I can split a hoop or shave a shingle, yet” he assured Studer, signing with his birth-paper name, Merwin S. Todd.
© William Birns