Landscape is what arises from the hand of work as we make our living on the planet and our relation to one another as we do so.
The windows of the mill are dark. But I have seen the works inside: the two pairs of millstones, fluted for gristing, the sifters, the shuckers, the hoppers, the conveyers, the belts and the pulleys and the cast-iron turbine. Thinking of them I become aware of the millworks of thought and feeling in me. The gristmill is just across the road from my cottage. It’s a big wooden structure, three stories, painted an old red, reaching down the bank to the stream. Just by the mill is a dam. From inside my cottage I hear the steady sound of the falls going over the dam. The mill was built in 1880, replacing another that burned. Its geometry is time-softened, but it still carries itself with an air of prosperity and confidence.
Following her bestselling The Architect of Desire, Suzannah Lessard returns with a work of relentless curiosity and a graceful mixture of observation and philosophy. This intriguing hybrid will remind some of W. G. Sebald’s work and others of Rebecca Solnit’s, but it is Lessard’s singular talent to combine this profound book-length mosaic—a blend of historical travelogue, reportorial probing, philosophical meditation, and prose poem—into a work of unique genius, as she describes and reimagines our landscapes. In this exploration of our surroundings, The Absent Hand contends that to reimagine landscape is a form of cultural reinvention.
A little ways upstream, in the woods, a long, stepped, natural falls comes over a ledge high above and down through a gorge. At the bottom of the falls the stone foundations of another mill, half collapsed and mossy, are disappearing in the woods, rooms half-filled with drifts of fallen leaves. Compared to the gristmill, these ruins convey a cramped, hard-wrested quality. But this was a big woolen mill, also three stories, where felt was produced. Felt made from sheep’s wool was used in the production of paper, and became the great industry of the village. The gnarly little mountains around here are good for sheep. When the woolen mill was in operation, a flume siphoned water from the top of the falls down to the mill at the bottom, a descent of a hundred feet, into the mill, into the turbine, inside of which was a small wheel of vanes turned by the concentrated water, powering the works. Once, even the pitching land around the gorge was pasture. Now all the slopes that enclose the village are wooded.
From the gristmill the village tumbles downhill, above a small widening floodplain, alongside the tumbling stream. A reproduction of a print that I bought at the Historical Society, which now occupies the gristmill, is taped to the wall above the bathtub in my cottage. It shows the floodplain in the 19th century, busy with industry: largely lumbering—big tree trunks, some strewn about, some stacked. You can tell it was noisy and dirty. The work of agrarian times was not always as peaceful as we like to imagine. Indeed, there were once five mills along the stream. Today people get upset if a tiny business opens in the village, as if that would ruin its historical character. Midway down Main Street are townhouse-style attached dwellings that were once lived in by merchants who ran shops at street level. Some houses along the way are substantial. The village is small, and yet there was substance here, reflecting a time when wealth and political power was in land—those pastures full of grazing sheep whose wool could be turned into felt. When wealth is in the land, then the countryside is less context, more the main thing. It’s a spread-out scene, decentered, continuous yet with nodes, like a painting by Kandinsky. That land-wealth gave even a small settlement like the village importance. Other houses are farmhouse-sized with barns in back; others are tiny. Downstream, where Main Street gets steep, sundry houses and cottages are attached to one another to comical effect, as if to keep from falling.
Beyond the last houses, the stream turns into a small valley of fields where it quiets.
The village is Rensselaerville, located in the Helderberg Mountains, a small range in the northwestern corner of the Hudson River Valley, between the Catskills and the Adirondacks in New York. It’s named for one of the Dutch patroon families that first settled the region. The arrangement was feudal, typical of the region. It held back more varied development until overturned by rebellious farmers. As a result, the earliest houses in the village are late 18th century—late for the East. People here are place-proud, but in daily parlance Rensselaerville is just “the village,” and I will adopt that usage here because it captures a quality of anonymity, of solitude, of being the only village—not quite on the map and perhaps a bit lost in time, too, that is the quality of many villages. Behind the anonymous solitude lies the history of a small productive society, an arrangement out of which the physical form of the village arose, including the specter of a previous feudal arrangement successfully routed. However stratified the architecture, there is a strong “we” in the close clustered physical village: a sense of something earned by all, and lasting—passed on: something modestly, collectively triumphant.
Landscape differs from region to region, but all our landscapes incorporate shifting layers of meaning, some purely personal, sometimes strangely close to the hidden springs of personhood, some familial where lines go back as they do here, intertwining, but always ultimately, to my mind—even when landscape invites us to solitude—recalling our profound social connectedness, a sense of our lives together. Landscape to me is different from nature alone, from wilderness. It is the work of art that results from the collaboration between man and that which has been provided—the gift of providence, you could say, but whatever you say, it is not something man had a hand in at the start. Landscape is what arises from the hand of work as we make our living on the planet and our relation to one another as we do so. The hand of work creates in terrain a kind of syntax, an arrangement of interrelating parts, a composition that has a human meaning that is always, in part, beyond words. Landscape is different from wilderness: Wilderness only has meaning in relation to domesticated environments, while landscape is always part human, though never all human. All our physical surroundings, including the city, are landscapes. Architecture is a component of landscape, a maker of landscape, too. The mill is a landscape maker, literally connecting the parts. The village is a landscape maker, inseparable from its surroundings. The meaning of landscape changes from region to region but our landscapes are all, in one regard, related. The greatest power of landscape is that in expressing our collaboration with the physical world—with that which has been provided—and in that to each other, it becomes the armature of our common interior life; our most social dimension. This is the ultimate, most profound value of landscape.
It’s raining today in the village. After a series of spectacular June days, in which the light was so bright and the shadows so dark one felt blinded, the rain is a relief. On June days of that sort, heaven seems to have come down and occupied the landscape, leaving us dazed and a bit embarrassed by our inadequacy. Without the wherewithal to take it in, we are stupid. When the sun begins to sink into the long evening we are reprieved. A rainy day is something different: just us. I like the lowered demands of a rainy day. Here in my cottage the sound of the rain is lost in the sound of the falls, but I can see its pattern against the side of the mill. The pattern is veil-like, a loose weave, but what has my attention are the spaces. The wind blows and the veil billows. The trees are blowing, too. I love a windy rain.
What I see in the moving weave of spaces is the gorge, the floodplain, the valley beyond before the village was built. That transparency is always part of our American landscapes: still. The mill is old, and this draws me to it, but its age is thin. We Americans have a little to remember now, but part of what we remember is that not very long ago we had nothing to remember.
Suddenly it’s raining harder. In its clustering character, the village conveys both exposure and the comforts of shelter, but nothing does this more than rain on a roof. The rain is making so much noise that I can’t hear the falls. Now the rain is half turning to hail, rattling in the bird feeder and smoking off the roof of the gristmill, mixed in with curtains of water. I go out on the porch to watch. Hail lands in the grass by the road: unseemly white in the green. Now it’s raining harder yet, almost too hard. Hail in June is a marvel, but when common rain gets uncommonly heavy these days, a question arises. Suddenly the rain subsides. There are rivulets in the road, and the steady sound of the falls reemerges. The landscape reassembles.
Long ago the dynamo of American agriculture moved on to the Midwest. Later, but still long ago, agriculture itself was replaced by manufacturing as the leading work of American society. The first change was on a continuum, rendering the village merely lesser, but the second severed the continuum. The village was left back in another era, unchanged on the surface but changed in meaning, becoming a pastoral haven for industrialists whose primary home was in the city of Albany and whose wealth was derived from factories there. The village became romantic.
Those city factories reconfigured American society. You could say that they made of us a nation—that is, a people with a common interior life, as opposed to an association of regions. The factories as national form-givers subverted the gravitas of the village, its sense of itself as complete, but also made that very quality, lingering in its physical character, deeply attractive as an escape from the realities of industrial times. The owners of the woolen mill in ruins by the falls in the woods saw opportunity in this change. As the market became national and the economy industrial, they abandoned the village mill, separately building bigger ones in cities on rivers elsewhere. Felt had by that time become a popular fabric for clothing: the felters made fortunes. One later returned to the village, and built a large, very lovely house there for his family in the summers. The gristmill by this time was unable to make a profit but the farmers still needed it, so the felter subsidized it. Other wealthy families, most from Albany, who summered in the village, developed a philanthropic relationship to it as well. The gristmill was in operation until 1945, which is why, in contrast to the almost vanished woolen mill, it is still so sure of its place on the stream.
Today manufacturing has, in turn, been superseded as the first order of American work, once again radically altering the meaning of place, here and elsewhere. Factories, once eyesores, have become beautiful to our eyes. The industrial landscape has become our immediate past, as the agrarian landscape once was. For its part, the village is now separated from its origins by two eras, is now the past of the past: double severance. And yet the form of the village is the same. Landscapes remember, and part of what they can help us re- member is the successive armatures of former collective interior lives. In this they pass on what could be the most important part of our history long-term. But it’s difficult to see what the meaning of the village has become today, because the romantic interpretation we have inherited from the immediate past has the hold on our imaginations of a fully developed archetype, while the new meaning is undeveloped and elusive. To ask what the village is and means today is to engage with the strangeness of our transitional time, in which place itself seems undercut in meaning. Having no common interpretation of our surroundings, we are, to a degree, lacking in any common interior life with which to orient to one another. In a way we are lost. I find this to be unnerving but also invigorating. It makes me curious about where we are, really. The elemental simplicity of the village landscape provides a reassuring place to start.
In truth, the agrarian landscape around here has been disappearing for a while. The fields down the valley are half gone to brush, even while still used as pasture for sheep, horses, some cattle. In the many forests that are former fields, collapsed stone walls run through: unimaginable labor squandered. Some of this reforestation is more recent than one might think. Ways of life developed in one era inevitably live on into successive ones, and farming is a particularly change-resistant occupation, even in regions unsuited to contemporary agriculture. People went on raising sheep near the village for a long time after industrial scale rendered feltmaking here obsolete. They sheep-farmed because there continued to be a market for wool and lamb chops and because of the momentum of habit—sheep farming is what has always been done here. Americans are attracted to working the land. Farming in the Northeast may have been demoted to a secondary, or even downright marginal, realm a long time ago, but lots of Northeasterners have gone on farming anyway. Here in the Helderbergs it was only in the 1980s, when an epidemic of burrs too hard to extract from the wool broke out, that sheep farming faded. Much of the reforestation around the village began at that time.
But corn and hay are also traditional local crops: plenty of fields around here remain clear. I am a lifelong connoisseur of the Eastern field as genus, but the local variety was new to me when I first came to the village. Gentleness is lacking. It has to do, perhaps, with the pitch of the land and the fierceness of the winters. Many village fields are odd-shaped and small. You can feel in them still that they were laboriously hacked out from forest, the very forest that pushes back relentlessly at their edges. These irregular, hacked-out fields seem talky to me, as if asking for help or protesting, or unloading memories before it’s too late, in contrast to the modest but confident silence of classic Eastern fields. Most unrestrained in this way are abandoned apple orchards, where mature, even elderly, long neglected trees gesticulate in openly distraught, pulsatingly intense poses, as if painted by Van Gogh, and at no time more so than in spring, when they blossom, becoming gorgeous King Lears—crazed divas, some already engulfed in returning forests where they bloom in the dark murmuring passionately, Here! Here we still are!
But there are also fields around here that are expansive in size and have the assurance of a reciprocal providential bargain. In these the lay of the land, revealed by the wind blowing through crops, is comfortable, steady. Even the most confident Eastern fields are implicitly threatened by development and, under that threat, have about them an elegiac sweetness: next year they could be gone. The eye of the speculator is around here, too, and people looking to build vacation homes with a nice view. Cleared farmed fields are always the best for building and, around here, often have the best views. But the possibility of abandonment is the defining one, and actual, too, in those old pastures that show us the stages of disappearance, from brush-encroached pastures all the way up to mature forest.
In some fields in early winter, corn stubble pokes up through light snow, delineating furrows as if in translation. Unlike the wind in a full-grown crop, also a translation, the stubble in snow accentuates the micro-irregularity of the terrain. Later, serious snowfall once again smooths the lay of the land. As forests become totally leafless the views open up, and the windrows and half-toppled stone walls dividing the fields are like complicated, delicate black sewing. These seams reveal intelligent, unexpected shapes that are obscured by the promiscuous green of summer. Like pieces of cloth that have been cut to conform to the body of the land, the fields in winter reveal the genius of the great couturier of landscape that man at work can unwittingly become.
Like pieces of cloth that have been cut to conform to the body of the land, the fields in winter reveal the genius of the great couturier of landscape that man at work can unwittingly become.
All approaches to the village are from above; from the surrounding ridges. The first thing you see is a white steeple piercing through trees. This is the Presbyterian church in the center of the village. The spire tapers sharply to a point, directed at the sky. There is, in this, a stretch of the spirit that, though I have seen it many times, always gives me a small leap of heart. Descending into the village you lose sight of the steeple, and then you are in the densest part, near the merchant houses, and there is the church on a knoll, with the steeple so far above you have to crane your neck to see it. The church was built in 1842, in the Greek Revival style that had become popular in America because of identification with a war for independence in Greece, the birthplace of democracy. The simplicity of the style was a statement of opposition to the more ornate styles of Europe, which were seen as celebrating social orders based on privilege of birth. The village church is an especially fine specimen, austerely symmetrical, perfectly proportioned. The church completes the landscape of the village as an expression of the human experience of life on Earth and what we have made of it—what we made of it in this place and at that time. The steeple, with humble precision, introduces a measure beyond measures. It perfects the landscape of gorge, stream, and valley, village and mills, with the human intimation of transcendence. When I see it I feel that no more need be said.
But in truth the congregation is dwindling, and no one would claim that the church expresses a core collective belief of the residents of the village, as once was true. The interior is austere, high, with tall windows. The glass is clear, bringing in the plain light of day. On those rare occasions I attend, I look out the windows at sky; trees blowing. The simplicity of the church and the choice of clear over stained glass remind me of the Puritan tradition, in which the idea of a hierarchy, of priestly intermediaries between God and the individual, was rejected in favor of a direct encounter. The plain interior of the church is attuned to that idea.
The village chorus often sings at services. It’s comprised of just who’s here who likes to sing, so the quality of the voices varies, but a lot of work, a lot of discipline, goes into the music. I know this firsthand, because I sometimes sing in the chorus. At other times I am a listener. Then I hear the vulnerability of the voices and, in that, the significance of making a mark on the surrounding silence that was this place before it was landscape. Moments of excellence in this local music move me in a way world-class performers in the great halls never have.
Everything is here, I think, in such moments: everything. Yet, for all this, I get impatient in church. I’m not one who thinks all religion is claptrap, but, sooner or later, I crab to myself that anyone in the congregation could do as well as the person giving the sermon, that we are all just politely pretending to be enlightened because it comforts us, and that, where awe is concerned, or whatever part of ourselves we are exercising here, I could do as well by myself in my garden. In this I am probably more of a piece with the current collective beliefs of the village than not.
A few years ago the steeple began to list. It was determined that if the list was not corrected the steeple would become dangerous and the spire would have to be taken down. Many villages hereabouts have churches with steeples cut off at the belfry. I don’t like to see this. Whenever I pass one of these churches, I fleetingly feel truncated myself. Like many in Rensselaerville who are not a part of the regular congregation, I was dismayed by the prospect that this could happen to our village. A matriarch from one of the old philanthropic families, a kind of godmother of the village who was dying at that time of a brain tumor—many of her set were coming to the end of their lives in this period—took up the cause. A campaign to raise funds got a lively response—though it must be said too that for some the preservation of a monument to white Christianity did not seem urgent. Still a first-class preservation architect was hired. He found that the steeple had been repaired in the 1930s but in a makeshift way. The godmother was adamant that the job should be done properly for future generations. A meeting was called at which we learned that the outer casing of the spire was connected by supports, called cradles, to a mast that had its footing in the body of the steeple. To do the job properly, the mast had to be taken down. Another group that was disappearing were steeplejacks: the last one in the region had just retired. A crane was brought in that diminished the entire village. Parts of the steeple were removed to a faraway workshop. The mast, meanwhile, was laid alongside the church, peeking out from under a bright blue tarpaulin; rough-hewn, still mostly tree.
Then funds ran out, and there was a long hiatus. I went to visit the godmother at this time: she was at a table with villagers stuffing envelopes with letters signed by herself, soliciting more funds. In the end she had to turn to deep pockets outside the village. She died before the work was completed, but the spire went back up, so straight and true it stops the heart. An inauguration ceremony filled the church as it had not been filled in a long time. At the ceremony, a rumor circulated that the Presbyterian powers were considering letting go of the Rensselaerville church because regular attendance was so small. The closing of churches is hardly a surprising matter but in combination with the completion of the heroic effort to repair the steeple, the rumor created one of those moments of slippage, common in our time of transition, in which you realize you had somehow drifted back into a world that no longer existed. Had we all somehow believed that restoring the steeple would actually stabilize our shifting cultural landscape? The village is convincing. I think perhaps I, for one, did.
When the ceremony was over we all stepped out onto a small flat-stone terrace. I, like many, looked up at the façade and the steeple above, magnificently foreshortened from that perspective. The sky that day was a deep blue, the steeple a brilliant white. I snapped it with my iPhone.
Suzannah Lessard is the bestselling author of The Architect of Desire, a New York Times Notable Book. A founding editor of The Washington Monthly and a staff writer at The New Yorker for 20 years, she is a recipient of the Whiting and Lukas Awards, and has received fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and George Washington University.
Header image of historical mill at Rensselaerville, New York, by Warren C. Riter, courtesy the Rensselaerville Historical Society. Photo of Suzannah Lessard by Christine Burrill.