A Catskill Catalog: Jan. 6, 2009

The Catskills are the Catskills, the physical reality of mountain upon mountain, hill-hollow-hill, the rolling rise of land on our uplifted plateau. The Catskills are also our collective idea of the Catskills, our shared sense of what mountain landscape means, what mountains can offer to an increasingly urbanized, globalized human community.
The Catskills’ proximity to New York City magnifies the influence of our comparatively small mountain range on the larger cultural understanding of the very nature of mountain environments. The development of this shared understanding is a collaborative process, one in which urban visitor and rural resident each play a constructive role. Together, we make mountains, shape the landscape, move the environment toward the ideal landscape of our cultural expectations.
That’s the gist behind the genius of University of Cincinnati Professor David Stradling’s 2007 book Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books.) The book is an engaging and readable narrative of major periods in mountain history: the Catskills as raw material resource, the Catskills as artistic inspiration, the Catskills as transcendent destination, the Catskills as wilderness, the Catskills as water supply, the Catskills as resort brand, the Catskills as Manhattan exurb.
But Stradling’s Making Mountains is more than a fact, detail, and local-color history. It is a thesis-driven academic study of our mountains, exploring ideas that are bigger than the Catskills. Established here were environmental ideas about mountains, and attitudes toward wilderness, that later shaped America’s approach to places like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. The meaning of mountains is continually created through the equal interaction of the city and the country, of New York and local communities, of urban visitors and rural residents. Neither dominates.
Cool. I think it’s exciting when our little corner of the world is singled out for serious study. It’s interesting and fun when the very place we call home provides the fodder for profound study and speculation, for the application of rigorous academic methods aimed at uncovering new understanding. I, for one, always liked school.
How much more exciting when the academic study comes from one of our own. Lizabeth DeSiena is a Woodstock girl, a 2005 graduate of Onteora High School, and the author of “Where the Water Tastes Like Wine: Life and Meaning in Woodstock, NY,” a 2009 Sarah Lawrence College Senior Thesis. I’m proud to say I was once her teacher.
Liz takes on ideas, cultural understanding, and perception in a manner consistent with Professor Stradling’s approach, although coincidentally – his book does not appear in her 40 item bibliography.
In the ’70s, young people - many self-described hippies - moved to Woodstock and its environs. They did so in the wake of the Woodstock Concert, an event judged to be culturally transformative almost immediately after the last hitchhiker caught a ride home. What was their perception of the Woodstock they were moving to? How did their perception clash with the perceptions of longer-term residents? How did perceptions and ideas about what Woodstock was supposed to be effect the manner in which the town actually developed?
These are the questions Liz pursues in her meticulously researched, carefully footnoted 66-page bachelor’s thesis. Liz was born and raised in a Woodstock that seemed, to her generation, a product of the 1969 festival, a self-consciously hip community where the honored virtues were peace, love, and 400,000 people gathered for a four-day Aquarian Exposition with no violent incident.
But Liz’s parents, Bob and Barbara, came to a Woodstock in 1978 that was struggling with a change in perception, a conflicted identity. Interviewed for the study, Bob and Barbara DeSiena tell of young people carving out homesteads up-country, of months spent without indoor plumbing or running water, of building cabins and building a life unlike anything possible in the small suburban New Jersey city they left behind.
But not everyone in Woodstock was ready for change. Older residents had moved to what they perceived as an artist colony, not a hippie homestead commune. And later arrivals seemed to groove on the vibe without any commitment to the post-festival ideals. Arguments ensued over the “real” Woodstock, over whose perception of that community would most forcefully shape the environment.
Liz got the answer to that question before she undertook the study. In fact, she explored perceptions of Woodstock specifically because of the response she got, invariably, from new acquaintances when they learned where she was from. “Woodstock? Oh, hippies!”
Alf Evers was a Woodstocker of the old school, and the great Catskill Mountain writer. He used to ask his every new acquaintance what they thought of his hometown. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about Woodstock, and Alf, who loved his hometown, knew that perceptions matter.
Liz DeSiena, a Sarah Lawrence educated Woodstocker, applied the rigors of academic study to understand how those perceptions came to be. She finds herself in the company of other seekers after understanding: Alf, himself, and Professor David Stradling.