A Catskill Catalog: July 9, 2008

University of Cincinnati Professor David Stradling, his wife Jodie, and their two young daughters toured the Catskills a couple weeks ago. In many ways, the trip was a homecoming for the professor. His grandfather, Glentworth Haynes, grew up in Highmount. When Professor Stradling was little David Stradling visiting his grandparents in Kingston, his postal-worker grandfather told stories of his Catskill Mountain boyhood, taking the boy on numerous nostalgic road trips into the mountains. Professor Stradling grew up living outside the Catskills but feeling intimately connected to them.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Professor Stradling chose the Catskills as the subject for his second work of environmental history, that school of academic history that looks at the way human beings interact with the environment. (His first book was on urban air pollution.) It is fortunate for those of us who live in the mountains that this grandchild of the Catskills is the author of the first comprehensive history of our area since 1972.
Alf Evers’ The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock was published that year by Doubleday, a major mainstream press capitalizing on the interest in the Catskills generated by the 1969 Woodstock concert. Ten years later, the regional Overlook Press republished Evers’ book, which has been the definitive Catskill Mountain history for 35 years now. Lots of locally published regional history has appeared since, but Evers’ book is the national standard source.
Move over, Alf. David Stradling’s Making Mountains: New York City and the Catskills was published in 2007 by Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books, an imprint of the University of Washington Press, an academic publisher. It is good. Very good. Professor Stradling traces the history of the mountains through an analysis of changes in the landscape, both the actual landscape of the hills and valleys, and the imagined, envisioned landscape we all carry in our heads.
The professor’s thesis is timely: that the Catskills have always been intimately connected to New York City, and that city dwellers and mountain folks collaborate in the creation of both our idea of the landscape and its reality. In fact, both the professor and his grandfather are representative of the many people who have close connections to the mountains while living, most of their lives, outside of them. In other words, we don’t divide neatly into mountain folks and city people – so many of us, in important ways, are both.
Making Mountains is very inclusive history. Stradling begins with a look at the six generations of his family – he is a Haynes – who settled Haynes Hollow up Dry Brook in the early 1800s. He is able to see the mountains as land to be tamed, natural resources to be exploited as his ancestors and their fellow settlers built a life out of lumber and hides, bluestone and butter.
The historian is also sensitive to the ways artists and writers have shaped visitors’ views of the Catskills. Each chapter begins with a quote from John Burroughs, who helped shape our mental concept of these mountains through his vision of nature at the border where civilization meets the wilderness. Stradling credits Hudson River School founding artist Thomas Cole with the creation of our mental image of the Catskills, one where nature is overpowering but reassuring, wild but restorative.
What makes Stradling’s book so good is that it looks at the history of the mountains in a systematic way, one that poses an understanding of the past that can help us sort out the confusing present. I love Alf Evers, and The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock will always hold an honored place on my shelf, but Alf was mostly telling stories, wonderful stories, one after the other, with little real narrative thrust. This new book applies the rigor of academic history to produce a highly readable, engaging, and interesting story of deforestation and reforestation, of a wilderness landscape turning into an agricultural landscape and back again, of hotels and reservoirs and second homes, of change, change, change.
Change is the one constant in this Catskill Mountain history, as writers and artists create an image or vision of what mountains are, city dwellers come to the mountains looking for that vision, and locals try to earn a few dollars by providing it. Sometimes the mountains are wild forest, sometimes fresh milk and eggs, sometimes hillside view sheds of man-made lakes.
Whatever the mountains are to us at any given point, they are nurtured and protected, developed and conserved by the people who love them. Those of us who love them – including, I think, the late Alf Evers – are fortunate that this 2007 environmental history of the Catskills was written by someone who loves them.
If you love the Catskills, go get this book.