A Catskill Catalog: Oct. 7, 2009

I always get a little catch in my throat when, driving up the thruway, I glimpse the first dramatic rise of the Catskills. Perhaps, it’s a distant yet distinct glimpse of home, but, I don’t think so. I remember the same little well of excitement seeing the mountains when I was a kid, long before the Catskills became home.
No, there is something strong and mysterious about mountains, something we humans react to, instinctively, I think.
Maybe that’s why Moses carried down the tablets from the mountain, or why Mount Fuji is sacred to traditional Japanese, or why the twin volcanoes are said to watch over Mexico City. Maybe that’s why the greatest sermon in Christian teaching was given on the Mount. There’s something about mountains.
So there must have been more than a few throat-catches in 1609, when Henry Hudson’s Half Moon crew caught glimpse of the mountains as they quietly sailed up the tidal estuary they hoped would lead them to the Pacific. The mountains appeared blue in the early autumn light.
Crewmember Robert Juet, first European chronicler of these parts, reported that several groups of “people of the Mountaynes” paddled from the shore to admire the ship and its weapons, signaling their desire to offer furs in trade. Things went south, Juet reported, when one native climbed up the rudder from his canoe into the ship’s cabin and stole a couple of shirts, a pair of cartridge belts, and Juet’s pillow.
Now I recognize the corrosive effect stealing has on any relationship, but, I’m afraid, the response of the victims to this burglary was excessive, and several natives were killed. That news spread fast among the people along the river, and the Half Moon was attacked by a flotilla of angry natives the next day. Musket fire and cannon overpowered the attackers. Ten natives were killed. The Half Moon headed back to Europe.
The first contact between Europeans and natives was, literally, a collision of cultures. The cultures of the natives, like that of the Europeans, had developed over many centuries. There existed, here in the northeast woodlands, three distinct cultures (based on language and material artifacts): the Coastal Algonquian, Central-Northern Algonquin, and Iroquoian.
The blue mountains and green lands that Hudson’s voyage opened up to European eyes had long been home to successive bands of people. Archeological evidence identifies human habitation 10,000 years ago in the cliff-side hills above Athens, just north of our Catskills. These hunter-gatherers used fire and tools and made clothes of fur and hide. They used hillside caves for shelter. They had babies and raised their children. They wandered far afield for their needs.
This Paleolithic culture used found objects and handmade tools to procure and prepare food, clothing, fuel, and shelter. A self-respecting Paleolithic tool kit might include a chopper, a scraper, and a sharpened stone, a needle and a scratch awl, a cudgel and a club, a harpoon, a spear, and a bow and arrow.
A friend of mine started collecting such tools as a boy here in the mountains more than a half-century ago. Once, he let me hold a 10,000-year-old mortar. Makes you realize how small and temporary is our time.
Over the centuries, out of this beginning, several archaic and woodland cultures developed in our region. About the time the Roman Empire was falling in Europe, the first Woodland Culture arose, soon followed by the second, or Owasco culture, the first peoples here to adopt agriculture. Growing crops supplemented the hunting and gathering folks continued to do. Corn, beans, and squash, planted intensively in small hills of cultivated earth, were the crops that fed the people in this part of the world.
The Iroquoian and Algonquin cultures that collided with Hudson’s people emerged in the 12th Century, around the time of the European Crusades.
Our mountains became important to several groups of these natives: Algonquin Lenape, Munsee, and Esopus, and, later, Iroquoian Tuscaroras, transplanted from the south, as well as Iroquoian Mohawks, who dominated the valley north of the Catskills. The great flat behind the Village of Schoharie was the Mohawks’ preferred site for gatherings of the multi-national Iroquois League.
The mountains were a source of fish and nuts, wild herbs and vegetables, abundant game. The mountains also provided a powerfully evocative landscape.
Native culture saw the land as a living spiritual presence. Land and myth merged in stories and heritage that recognized the power of place, the reality of the land’s individual nature.
Maybe the most dramatic approach to the Catskills is the one up Route 23, heading west from Thruway Exit 21 at Catskill and Leeds. There, the sheer escarpment rises from the flat valley floor forming the Catskills’ northeastern wall
Native peoples called this The Great Wall of Manitou, the wall protecting the spirit that, intrinsically, they understood in these mountains.
There’s something about mountains.