Besides the built structures, the great facts to be faced on this land are its woods, its fields, and its waters. Our fundamental position is this: the forest, the fields, and the hydrology of this land have been directly and indirectly transformed by human activity in countless ways over centuries. Please note that prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the native people of this particular region cleared the forest floor with fire once or twice a year to facilitate their movements and vision. The continuing impact made by climate change and invasive species makes it impossible to simply withdraw our footprint from the land, a course that might seem high-minded and righteous to high-minded and righteous people. Without that option, the only mindful policy left is to take responsibility for its condition and evolution. We cannot step outside our humanity and manage this environment as nature’s or Gaia’s agent; these are only masks we might wear to hide from ourselves.
Well over half of the area of this land is in woods. The “natural” history of this forest is extremely dynamic and complex. As briefly as possible, this history can be summarized as
1. Logging a predominantly white pine and hemlock forest in the early and middle 19th century for the tannin in hemlock bark (used in curing
leather) and the superb lumber of white pine.
2. Clearing what remained of perhaps 90% of the remaining forest (leaving only groves as “woodlots”, and those trees on the steepest slopes
and ravines) to create a landscape of dairy and subsistence farms.
3. With the gradual and steady decline of dairy farming throughout the 20th century, allowing an unintended process of reforestation to reclaim
most of the hayfields and pastures of these farms. (the Northeastern United States is said to be the most rapidly reforesting region of the world).
This new forest bears almost no resemblance to the one first encountered by the settlers, and this deforestation has been accompanied by the continuous arrival of catastrophic tree blights imported from all around the world. Elm, American chestnut, yellow birch, black birch, beech, and many other species have been decimated by introduced pathogens and insects, and the complete destruction of ash and hemlock is probably inevitable in coming years. The point is, it is a mistake to think of these woods as “wild”; they are no more so than the fields that we mow.
The most important species of trees in our woods are sugar and red maples, red oak, black cherry, white ash, black birch, beech, the pignut hickory, poplar, hornbeam, and white pine. More isolated populations of yellow birch and basswood are found among the taller stands. On the edges of the forest are niches for stands of ironwood, black locust, black willow, serviceberry, staghorn sumac, and hawthorn. A plantation of Norway spruce that was here when we arrived is now the “Old Maze”, along with a stand of larch (a deciduous conifer) planted by the last family to farm this land. We planted additional stands of larch and Norway spruce (now called the “New Maze”), as well as plantations of red and black pine.
As noted, most of the currently forested areas of these properties were pasture and hayfields well into the ’50s, with the exception of farmer’s woodlots and hillsides too steep for grazing. Fields were abandoned one by one; old stone walls running through the woods sometimes have tree stands of different ages on different sides. It is possible to see lines of higher, older trees running through woods along these old walls since farmers tolerated and even encouraged trees along walls for shade and as landmarks. Certain types of trees are almost always the first to colonize an abandoned field: black birch, red maple, ash, and, most terribly, hawthorn, are those trees in these fields. In sun-drenched re-foresting fields and on the edges of woods, pioneer seedlings and saplings grow in maddening density creating nearly impenetrable thickets. In theory, given enough time, these saplings will sort things out themselves through Darwinian struggle, eventually selecting the largest and tallest trees that will shade-out and smother their competitors, but this process might take one or two hundred years to complete.
Our chthonic policy on the woods is largely the same as the Indian tribes that roamed and hunted these hills, although we cannot use fire to achieve similar aims. We have painstakingly removed unviably crowded and damaged seedlings and saplings by the tens of thousands from stands and edges, especially in the central part of the main property. We have also removed a great many dead trees, fallen trees, and limbs from the same areas. We have received countless minor injuries from even the smallest of the hawthorn trees we cleared; their thorns can be over two inches long and are strong enough to pierce a shoe from bottom to top. The visual evidence of this decades-long effort is almost non-existent. After cutting and dragging sometimes more than 90% of the individual trees in a given area, the results are…nothing. These treated woods look completely “natural”. Woods with open floors and open edges are universally experienced as beautiful and pleasant by people. We share an affinity for them that is very deep and old, like our pleasure in watching flowing water.
Franklin Chthonics is set, primarily, on a piece of land with its own small, coherent watershed. Virtually every drop of rain that falls on its woods and fields makes its way to a stream that runs through the middle of the property, past the farmhouse, and then to a larger creek that eventually flows into the Susquehanna River. In addition to precipitation, this water system is fed by hundreds of springs, most of which the only surface in wetter seasons but some of which are active at all times. The main house water supply is provided by one such spring. A major aspect of the chthonic program for this land has been to increase the visibility and the flow of water in this watershed. In many areas where springs basically created muddy ground, the water was pooled and channeled into small, new watercourses that become self-sustaining and better defined with time. The springs maintain about a half dozen small ponds in addition to the two larger ponds. This incremental gathering and channeling of water has, perhaps, doubled the volume of water flowing to the creek from what it was in the ’80s.
Franklin Chthonics is in the Town of Franklin, in Delaware County, New York. Although this area is part of what geologists refer to as the Allegheny Plateau region of the Appalachian Mountains, it is a hill country that many people think of as an extension of the Catskills. The geological history of these hills is stunningly complex and can be traced as far back as the formation of the supercontinent Pangea almost 500 million years ago. (The Appalachian “sister” range is the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, its former neighbor in Pangea). In relatively recent days, Delaware County, like almost all of New York State, was crushed beneath a glacier of continental dimensions, a sheet of ice more than a mile thick in places. All the watercourses and all the life forms larger than a microbe present today have only been here for a few thousand years. The geology of this place is among the oldest in the world but the living environment is actually one of the Earth’s newest. The three major rivers of southern New York, the Hudson, Delaware, and the Susquehanna repeatedly re-organized their drainage of the last melting glaciers until the current arrangement was arrived at, and Delaware County is (appropriately) defined by two branches of the Delaware River that neatly trisect it from northeast to southwest. Franklin Chthonics’ creek actually drains north to the Susquehanna, which originates at Lake Otsego (Cooperstown) and eventually meanders to the Chesapeake Bay.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, upper Delaware valleys seem to have been a border region traveled by Lenape tribes from the south and Iroquois tribes based to the north, but not belonging to either. As described in slightly more detail in the text on Woods, the pre-colonial forest was proportionally far less composed of hardwood trees than the woods of today, containing great expanses of hemlock and white pine that were cleared by the loggers and farmers, never to re-emerge with the forest’s second growth. But, as noted elsewhere, neither did the Indians leave the environment and landscape undisrupted. They hunted all the larger Ice Age mammals to extinction and regularly set uncontrolled fires on the forest floor to clear vegetation and facilitate their hunting and mobility.
Delaware County, NY:
The counties of New York State have more distinct, divergent identities than is often recognized. Delaware County has a strikingly different history and character from Sullivan County to its south, or Greene and Ulster Counties to its east; all of which are often just interchangeable parts of “Upstate” from the perspective of New York City.
The central Catskills and the Hudson Valley were both integrated into a hierarchical Dutch and English economy and society, including their connections to New York City and Albany, which did not extend into Delaware County as it was settled and developed in the first half of the 19th century. The independent, fully American yeoman farmers who cleared the land in Delaware County were not generally accompanied there by the mercantile and aristocratic classes that dominated the Hudson, and its villages and countryside remain almost empty of the legacy of old estates, manor houses, and mansions that one sees in those other parts of the state.
The one dramatic exception to the egalitarian character of early Delaware County was the persistence of an odd, semi-feudal land tenure system established in the 17th century that required farmers to rent their land from the heirs of Dutch patroons. The Anti-Rent War of the 1840s, centered in Delaware County, was an agrarian rebellion of limited violence that ended this anomalous state of affairs and finally allowed residents to own their farms.
Almost immediately after establishing a nearly Jeffersonian vision of agrarian democracy, this society of family farms began to decline, experiencing a gradual deterioration of confidence and coherence that is only perhaps just now coming to an end. The facts are that Delaware County has poor soils, very little flat land, and a short growing season. (“Two stones for every dirt” is the traditional description of this farmland). After the Civil War, farms dwindled in number from decade to decade and the enormous pride still visible in the Greek Revival houses, elegant churches and trim villages of early Delaware County wore down as well.
Although poverty in Delaware County rarely has the aspect of “classic” Appalachian poverty, it was and remains statistically the poorest county in the state after the Bronx. Again, one reason why the average income in Delaware County is so low is the historic and remarkable absence of a significant upper class whose presence would effectively raise this average.
The formative experiences of the county extended through the 20th century with a persistence that seems surprising. Delaware County never developed any urban centers larger than a village, nor did it develop a significant vacation industry like that in Sullivan County, or, until quite recently, accommodate “country” homeownership as seen in the Catskills proper. Second homes, when they did become more common in the 1970s, were largely bought or constructed by downstate hunters, including a fair number of retired police and firemen. Our sort, however you might label or describe us, did not become a significant factor in Delaware County until the ’90s, and even then to a limited degree with most city people going to the Andes/Bovina and Delhi areas in the eastern half of the county.
The Town of Franklin:
Franklin Chthonics is in the Town of Franklin about three miles from a village with the same name. [In New York, towns are merely the geographical subdivisions of a county. The Town of Franklin actually contains a second interesting village, Treadwell]. Franklin’s main street was a section of the original Susquehanna Turnpike (later renamed the Catskill Turnpike), the first improved road extending from the Hudson Valley across the Catskills to western parts of New York State. [The turnpike was a toll road chartered by the state for one hundred years starting in 1804 and it collected tolls for its shareholders into the 20th century]. A fine row of mostly Italianate-style post-Civil War homes, including a couple of former turnpike inns, graces this street. A good number of village houses have small barns in their yards, and some of these yards extend into hay fields and farmland beyond. Several old cemeteries are oddly salted around the village edge, including a rather grand, landscaped cemetery with magnificent Peevee hydrangeas that are still accepting new clients. Franklin has more impressive public buildings than its size would seem to require, including (of course) several fine 19th century churches, an imposing colonnaded former VFW Hall, a very old stone schoolhouse built for the education of Native Americans, a concise, handsome 1940’s central school for grades 1 through 12, a graceful Greek Revival public library, and a new, dignified, rather vast structure for the Franklin Railroad and Community Museum (open one day per month or by appointment).
In recent years Franklin has evolved to become one of the more cosmopolitan places in this area, with a weekly farmers market that seems to provide more opportunities for socializing than buying stuff, an ambitious theater company that performs during the summer in the old VFW hall, an extraordinary vintage clothing store with inexhaustibly interesting inventory, a Turkish-American restaurant operated by a local community of Sufis, and an impressively maintained left-leaning quarterly newspaper.
The City of Oneonta:
Our local place to get stuff is Oneonta, a classic but unusual small city. Oneonta is about 15 miles north of FC, lying just across the Susquehanna River in Otsego County. Oneonta is an old railroad town on the route that connects Albany to Binghamton, the same route that Interstate 88 uses today. Although train traffic continues through Oneonta, this industry is, of course, no longer an important employer or anchor for the local economy. But Oneonta has none of the downcast look of so many rust belt and upstate New York cities. The major reason for this is the presence of two colleges; Oneonta University (SUNY) has 6000 undergraduates and Hartwick College adds another 1600 students to the local population during the academic year. The city’s official population is only around 14,000, so these schools are an important foundation for Oneonta’s stability and relative prosperity. Another factor sustaining Oneonta is its role as a regional retail hub, which is made possible by its location on I-88 midway between its termini. After the K-Mart closed several years ago, things looked grim for Oneonta’s Southside malls, but Wal-Mart remained, and gradually the vacant stores were rented and new construction has recently followed. At the same time, Oneonta’s traditional main street has maintained much of its early 20th-century character and sustains a decent level of activity, with no derelict buildings and few storefront vacancies. The weird thing about Oneonta is that, in spite of a large number of students college faculty, very few of the ancillary amenities that one might expect in a major college town, sophisticated cafes, restaurants, shops, and the like, have ever been established there. Oneonta has dozens of mediocre pizzerias, one hippie restaurant, one of the least interesting barbecue pits in the country, a very tepid Thai restaurant and that’s about it. Nevertheless, Oneonta is a pretty solid place. It developed around the bases of several steep, largely mountains, and most of its neighborhoods are set in corridors that radiate from the town’s center. These neighborhoods are comprised of middle and working-class vernacular homes from many periods, and almost entirely the unappreciated cultural achievement of American democracy.
Virtually all the fields and pastures of the western Catskill region were made by people and almost all of them would become wooded without ongoing efforts to prevent it. The European settlers believed for a time that the land they cleared was better farmland than it really was. Much of the initial fertility of the earth came from organic matter left by the recently cleared forest. When those nutrients were exhausted after a few years, they were not replaced. Also, soil that was seemed at first relatively free from stones began to generate more and more rocks as treeless ground experienced deeper frosts that heaved buried fieldstone to the surface in the spring. The stone walls that bordered fields were not, as most people assume, built to confine livestock; they were clearly never high enough to do that. Rather, these walls were just the most efficient way to remove the unwanted stone that interfered with grazing and plowing; they were made as a means of solid waste disposal.
Fields are very complex zones that are shared by innumerable species of plants, not just grasses but clover, alfalfa, goldenrod, wildflowers, and wild strawberry, anything that will tolerate mowing. Mowing is rather unfashionable these days and it is often seen to represent a kind of aggressive domination of nature. It is true that by mowing we favor grasses over trees, but woody plants are not inherently more authentic or worthy than ones that bend. This is an important illustration of the fact that passivity can be as impactful as conscious activity: failure to mow is the equivalent of a decision to replace meadow with forest. Pastures and lawns are supremely beautiful things and many types of fauna thrive on them, including countless millions of fireflies. Maintaining fields should be considered an elemental type of gardening.
One of the most important and consistent policies implemented in the management of the fields and all other open areas is the removal of banks of tall weeds. While it is true that unmowed fields will become wooded in time, it is also true that unmowed fields and uncut border areas will almost immediately become choked with several varieties of plants that will dominate the grasses, including goldenrod. These weeds will reach heights of 4 to 6 feet and become difficult to walk through, create solid visual barriers, and crowd out all serious competition. Plant-like goldenrod is acceptable as a component of a varied meadow population but is unacceptable as a monolithic mass. Our tools against weed banks are the trail-behind brush mower where that has the room to operate and the hand-held “weed whacker” (a gas-powered flail) in areas too narrow and confined to mow.
Apple is a unique tree horticulturally with a special place in the social history of this region. Apples are not native to North America and all “wild” apple trees are descended from escaped orchard trees. Virtually all farmers planted apple orchards, for eating and making cider and vinegar and alcohol, for feeding livestock, and attracting wildlife. Each apple tree produces a different type of apple unless it is grown from a cutting; the seeds from a Baldwin apple will not result in a tree that bears a Baldwin apple. There are dozens of interesting apple trees growing in fields or on the edges of woods all around this property. Dead or nearly dead apple trees that once thrived in sunny reforesting fields can be found in the shade of young tree stands; apples are not tall trees and they tend to lose their sunlight to competing maples, ashes, and oaks. Perhaps thirty of our trees produce worthwhile fruit, each with its own flavor, texture, size, and color; all have been mapped and many of them now have names, including “Huey”, “Dewey”, and “Louie”. There is also a small orchard of established apple varieties near the house and barn yielding Gravenstein, Northern Spy, Golden Russet, and Cortland apples. In the glorious year of 2013, we harvested nearly a ton of apples from these wild and orchard trees, from which we made many gallons of apple cider, a few quarts of apple molasses (concentrated cider), and 20 gallons of apple cider vinegar.
Horticulture, on the other hand, which generally refers to the cultivation of fruit, vegetables, and ornamental plants, is a genuine, if limited, chthonic activity. Besides the garden, the major horticultural experiment undertaken was the planting of several groups of Peegee hydrangea trees in the ’90s. Hydrangea comes in many varieties but only one of them can become a small tree. Peegees are not a native plant but they seem to be very compatible with local conditions. Although only introduced to this region late in the 19th century, these hydrangeas quickly became a popular domestic ornamental tree and a fixture of cemetery landscaping. The panicles (clusters) of flowers have several remarkable characteristics: they can be enormous, easily reaching the size of a sheep’s head; the flowers bloom for months and gradually change color from light green to pure white and then shade to pink in September; they dry better than any other flower, maintaining their shape and color for additional months. Unfortunately, a basic error was made in the handling of the hydrangeas. Alarmed by the wholesale chewing off of the buds and branch ends by the deer, we put wire mesh cages around each plant. Although this certainly protected the hydrangeas, it also allowed them to use the cages for support, with the result that they did not develop strong, central stems to support themselves. Now the cages cannot be removed and these trees have embarked on a journey of development whose outcome is unknown. We generally harvest several hundred of the larger panicles each year for drying and sell them to restaurants for display.
Collecting the sap of sugar maple trees and greatly reducing it to make syrup is a very ancient activity of our region (extending to eastern Canada, Minnesota, Tennessee) that happens nowhere else in the world. Before they obtained metal cookware from the colonizers, the Indians concentrated maple sap by repeatedly freezing it and removing successive layers of water ice, and by dropping hot stones into buckets of sap to boil off more water. The settlers and farmers who cleared the land continued this practice of tapping trees and reducing sap, probably expanding the proportion of sugar maples in our particular area as they transformed the landscape. The cultivation of a “sugar bush”, an easily tapped grove or row of hard maples, and the building of a “sugar house”, a shed for evaporating 95% of the water in maple sap to make syrup, were standard features of 19th-century farmstead design. Sugaring was an important activity on the farmer’s calendar, a celebration of the end of winter’s grip that also made good use of weeks still too cold for fieldwork. (Maple sap only “runs” when nighttime temperatures below freezing are followed by daytime temperatures above the freezing point). Collecting sap in buckets and evaporating it in pans or cauldrons is a slow process that yields small amounts of precious syrup, but it the only method we are equipped to follow, although additional maple sap can usually be obtained from a modern sugaring operation in the vicinity. No chthonic calendar for our area can easily ignore maple sugaring in March and we do not intend to do so in 2015.
As noted in the description of the Old Maze, significant numbers of porcini mushrooms can suddenly, if unpredictably, bloom there adjoining the roots of its Norway spruces in warmer months. Chanterelles have been found in the forest.
The premier foraged food of our region is the wild leek, the type of wild leek native to these Appalachian woods is ramps. Despite their high value as a commodity, ramps cannot be farmed as a row crop; they require conditions only provided by a particular kind of forest floor. The two or three green leaves of individual ramps emerge in the woods in late April and rot away by late May. Except for a skeletal flower that grows after the leaves disappear, the life cycle of ramps is lived underground for the rest of the year. Ramps generally grow in clusters that mass into patches scattered around the woods. Some of these patches and the rhizome bodies they are based on may be very old; no one is quite sure. Ramp leaves are a great salad green, ramp bulbs make a very fine crunchy pickle, and ramps can be generally cooked in any manner suitable for onions or garlic. Our favorite way to prepare ramps is to sautee them with olive oil and dress them with salt and lemon juice. As they fry, ramp leaves inflate like small balloons for a moment and then deflate, causing the mass in the pan to seem to move like a living thing.
Franklin Chthonics has a large population of ramps; we believe our ramp harvest is in equilibrium with its rate of growth.
Wild strawberries prosper in mowed areas, provided the cut is not too low. As a result, strawberries run through many acres of pasture and produce grazable amounts of aromatic fruit most years, and harvestable quantities of strawberries in very good years.
It is possible to harvest a green salad in February at FC. Wild watercress grows through the winter in our streams, thought the best time for picking it is mid-summer when it can grow out of the quiet water by several inches. Wild watercress is more peppery than domestic watercress but it becomes milder when sautéed or cooked into potato watercress soup.
Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, huckleberries: Blackberries of widely divergent sizes, shapes, and flavors thrive in every unmowed field and forest clearing. Raspberries are less numerous, more delicate, and seem to prefer a bit of shade along with their sun. Low bush blueberries and high bush huckleberries are found along the edges of woods and fields in grazable but rarely harvestable quantities.