Certain Trees

Prose + Photographs by John P. O'Grady

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Catskill Mountains, New York

Overlook Mountain, Catskill Mountains, New York
Once upon a time in the wild heights of the Catskill Mountains, Rip Van Winkle ran into some rambunctious “Gentlemen of the Shade.” They offered him a promising draught from a wicked flagon. He accepted, eagerly, and fell asleep in the woods for twenty years. He dreamed about certain trees.


In my youth, I liked to poke around in the abandoned farmhouses that were still standing along the encroaching edge of the Catskill Mountain forest. In one of those farmhouses, I found an old view camera. It was time-worn beyond repair. Certain theorists claim that the ground glass of a view camera retains every image ever focused on it. The problem is, very few have figured out how to recover these occult likenesses. On the particular camera I found, the ground glass had been shattered.


The Catskill Forest Preserve consists of 287,500 acres of state land, free and open to the public. According to the New York State constitution, the Preserve is “to be forever kept wild.” That means no cutting down any trees. Nevertheless, self-styled “aficionados of the view” occasionally go against the law and fell a few just to open up a vista. As might be expected, this can lead to certain problems.


One of the most reliable guidebooks to the Catskills is Michael Kudish’s 1971 doctoral dissertation, Vegetational History of the Catskill High Peaks. I keep it on the poetry shelf in my library. In his introduction, Mike writes: “The Catskills are small enough a geographic area (1500 square miles very roughly) so that one investigator can do a reasonably thorough introductory job in two summers and several vernal and autumnal days in the field, plus three winters of thought, discussion, and library research.” Mike’s introductory investigations turned into his life’s work. He is still out there in the mountains, reckoning the trees.


Some trail guides for the Catskills read like an old time Puritan sermon. Others read like a Zen koan. Still others read like both at once: “The most difficult part of the Devil’s Path is a 30-50 foot vertical climb up a nearly sheer cliff, where you will have to use small tree roots to be able to climb it. Another section has a 10 foot cliff called a ‘chimney’. They have a tree in the middle of the chimney. You have to worm yourself around the tree to ascend or descend around the tree. There is another part of the path that walks along a sheer cliff. There are scrub conifer trees on the very edge of the cliff. Some people are not even aware of the cliff. But if you tripped and fell thru the trees, you would fall to your death. It seems that someone dies on the Devil’s Path each year. Either from a fall or a heart attack. The path is dangerous and difficult. No other way to describe it. You better be a skilled hiker who is in good shape. If you are scared of heights, you might not want to do this trail. I do not recommend this trail for children or animals.”


Another useful albeit less common guide to the Catskills is by Thomas Vaughan, the seventeenth century alchemist. The book is titled Anima Magica Abscondita. Vaughan did not so much know the Catskills as anticipate them: “This is the labyrinth and wild of magic, where a world of students have lost themselves –a thing so confusedly and obscurely handled by such as knew it that it is altogether impossible to find it in their records.” This volume sits on the same shelf where I keep my photography books.


Art improves nature. Or so believed the Eagle Scouts who re-opened a “historic” vista on Indian Head Mountain. Their good deed was not well-received by all. As one local authority describes it: “This view has created controversy. This view was created many years ago when the view was opened back up by cutting out some trees. Some feel that the view is worth it, while others believe that the trees should not have been cut. This cutout also helped warblers breed here. If you stay and rest here for a half hour, you will see many warblers flying in-and-out. Warblers fly very fast, so watch carefully.” Warblers are very fast. So are the shadows cast by the trees.


Kat Anderson is an ethnoecologist from California. I don’t know if she has ever been to the Catskills, but she authored a wonderful book titled Tending the Wild. In it she writes: “California Indians believe that when humans are gone from an area long enough, they lose the practical knowledge about correct interaction, and the plants and animals retreat spiritually from the earth or hide from humans. When intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge, passed down through generations, is broken, and the land becomes ‘wilderness.’” The Catskills are increasingly just such a “wilderness.” This dark fact goes largely unnoticed.


During Prohibition, the Catskills provided safe haven for any number of underworld figures. Bootleggers from the city would come up here and stash their loot deep in the forest. Eventually, one by one, each gangster was found out and gunned down, if not by bullets then by karma. Their loot was seldom recovered. There may have been no loot at all. But this did not prevent generations of kids from looking for it. Many a lazy summer afternoon was spent digging at the base of certain trees where the “treasure” of Dutch Schultz or Legs Diamond was rumored to be buried.


In the early nineteenth century, the landscape paintings of Thomas Cole helped turn the Catskills into America’s first destination resort. Cole knew something about trees and human beings. He noted that trees “are like men, differing widely in character; in sheltered spots, or under the influence of culture, they show few contrasting points; peculiarities are pruned and trained away, until there is a general resemblance. But in exposed situations, wild and uncultivated, battling with the elements and with one another for the possession of a morsel of soil, or a favoring rock to which they may cling—they exhibit striking peculiarities, and sometimes grand originality.” The fourth highest peak in the Catskills is named after Thomas Cole. No vista is to be had from this summit. Trees occlude the view.


Tucked into the pages of my well-thumbed copy of Mike Kudish’s dissertation is an old coupon I once used for a bookmark. Printed on it are these words:

Save This Coupon

These coupons are redeemable

entitle you to have

We reserve the right to discontinue this offer at any time.

Kodacolor II film is long out of production and hardly anybody processes it anymore. For years an exposed—but never developed—roll of it has been lying around our place here in the Catskill Mountains. It’s the last roll of film my father ever shot. I’m afraid to send it off to be developed because of what ghosts might show up.


When I was twelve years old, I read a book called My Side of the Mountain. It was about a boy who runs away from home in New York City to live in a hollow tree on the abandoned farm of his great-grandfather somewhere in the Catskill Mountains. Reading it made me want to become a Catskill Mountain Hermit. Somewhere along the way, I lost my copy of the book. But that hasn’t stopped me from seeking my own hollow tree.


Photo Gallery: Certain Trees
By John P. O’Grady

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All images are copyright John P. O’Grady and may not be copied or used without express written consent of the artist.


John P. O’Grady is the author of Pilgrims to the Wild and Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature. With Lorraine Anderson and Scott Slovic, he co-edited Literature and the Environment: A Reader on Nature and Culture. He lives in the Catskill Mountains.

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