I was recently asked by an editor to explain why I've lived in the same place -- in New York's Hudson Valley -- for nearly 40 years.
I could only think to answer the question in the guise I'm most familiar with: as the grandfather of four boys. What memories, experiences and places would I bequeath to my grandchildren, should they ever wonder why the old geezer lived there for so long?
Here's my grandfatherly context: In 20 years, my eldest grandson will be 34 years old; the youngest will be 20. Between the two of them -- and the two additional boys whose birthdays I chronically forget -- my fondest wish is to be remembered as someone who loved them as much as my grandparents loved me, which was a lot.
Should one of them ever wonder why I chose to live here with their grandmother all these years, I'll say this: the Hudson Valley is crawling with history. Folks around here value old things, I'd tell them.
Old things like grandfathers, for example.
We live in New Paltz, a small college town. Half a mile from our home is Huguenot Street, which calls itself the the oldest street in America. You'll find the names of the country's earliest Europe-fleeing (white) founding fathers emblazoned on the headstones in the quaint Huguenot cemetery. The street reeks of early American history, carefully preserved, endlessly and rather selectively extolled. (Let's not talk about the distasteful matter of slavery, shall we?)
The even-older grandfathers of the valley -- the natives who were displaced by the newcomers -- have suffered an even less-friendly fate, a local echo of the tragic fate suffered by countless grandfathers across the land who spoke neither Dutch nor English and whose histories can only be guessed at today. I hope my grandchildren will understand the importance of remembering those ancient grandfathers as well as the ones who "conquered" them.
I was surprised and delighted recently to learn that, contrary to my romantic imaginings of even the recent past, the Hudson Valley is a lot more verdant now than it used to be. All those white grandfathers, intent on making a living in the New Land, found it necessary to raise industries that employed other grandfathers intent on raising families in every corner of the valley.
So it was that the laid-back, boho-friendly Town of Rosendale was once a smoky, dusty company town whose only product was a naturally occurring cement that was torn from the mountains that surround it, then toasted in local kilns, hauled by wagon to the Hudson River from whence it was unloaded downstate and finally mixed with water and used to create the most amazing buildings and bridges that New York City has ever seen.
Rosendale Cement was a great discovery whose production supported many families, until it didn't, until Rosendale Cement went the way of the ice houses on grandfatherthe Hudson and the bluestone cutters in Kingston and the brick-makers of Saugerties.
This phenomenon is what is often called progress, though, having seen my own grandfathers displaced and saddened by the passing of their respective occupations (the railroads and small-time shopkeeping) and having lived on the brink of another dying industry (newspapers) I can think of choicer terms to describe the process.
The cost of all this industrialization, necessary as it was to survival in the New Land, wasn't much appreciated back then. The cost was the countryside itself. The valley's first-growth forest was among the first victims of its settlers' needs. Vast swaths of land were cleared of primeval forests to make room for dairy farms that thrived until they didn't, until their rolling acres were sold off to provide patchworks of five-acre plots on which were planted not resurgent forests but squat, lonely-looking things called McMansions, visual afflictions which Malvina Reynolds, were she alive today, might write a cheerfully mordant song about.
What the valley lost in the name of commerce over the years has been trees. But thanks to the rise of the environmental movement (which was birthed at nearby Storm King Mountain when I was Grandson Number Two's age (12, I think)) my valley is greener today than it was a hundred years ago. The Hudson Valley is the sworn enemy of corporate invaders eager to fill its hills and valleys with cheapjack chain stores and sprawling condos. The valley is still full of trees, and not so full of WalMarts and Holiday Inns, as many corporate raiders have discovered to their chagrin.
I learned to appreciate trees by growing up in suburban South Buffalo, NY where all the trees -- American elms -- stood in small, polite rows in front of post-war "starter homes" that lined the street I grew up on. Every autumn the the leaves on those trees turned a crinkly brown and dropped like a plague of dead grasshoppers to the street below.
But only a few months after our arrival in the Hudson Valley, we discovered to our delight how, come September, the lush green leaves of maple and oak and birch and willow turned every color but grasshopper-brown.
So, boys, we've since found that even when the trees seem to revolt, when their storm-tossed branches come crashing down in the backyard, we still treasure them. Trees, like grandfathers, will welcome you with dappled sunlight in your shared springtime, will let you crawl through their limbs and dangle from their highest reaches as you age. And even as they grow old and creak in the winter wind and finally crash to earth, as you will one day do, they're worth hanging around for.
Should one of them one day ask, I'll say the trees are there for you, boy, just as my grandfathers were there for me, as I am there for you now, even if I don't always remember your birthday.