Tag: John Burroughs

Pandemic Art – Heartfelt Stories from The Catskills

by Simona David

“I have a feeling that in art the need to understand and the need to communicate are one,” remarked Hedda Sterne, revered Surrealist painter. 

Coming out of a 14-month once in a century pandemic, we take a moment to reflect on this monumental experience and make sense of the changes we have witnessed around us thus far.

Artists have extraordinary perceptual abilities, an attribute that Marshall McLuhan referred to as “integral awareness,” something that will guide us through the process of re-gaining meaning in a post-pandemic world. Societal forces play their role as well in influencing the artistic product from idea to execution and reception of the artwork in the field as the artist and his or her social surroundings are interdependent.

The pandemic took a year out of our otherwise normal life – everything was turned upside down. The unexpected circumstance changed our mindset, and forced us to adapt like never before. It also provided the sudden opportunity to slow down and re-think priorities. The post-pandemic world will look a lot different than the pre-pandemic one.

But how exactly does the art world respond to this colossal transformation in our life? In her seminal book “Meaning and Expression: Toward a Sociology of Art,” first published in Germany in 1967, Hanna Levy Deinhard exemplarily illustrated how humans are able to distinguish in a work of art its visual expression from its meaning. While visual expression however remains relatively constant over time, its meaning is subject to change. Deinhard strived to reconcile the everlasting contradiction in art between the artwork as a timeless object and the artwork as an expression of its time. 

With that in mind, we spoke with prominent Catskills artists to learn about their experience during the pandemic and how that might have impacted their creative life.


Brian Tolle (sculptor)

The pandemic and all the chaos that it created gave rise to a different mindset for many of us. On the one hand we were intensively connected to the world, unified in the global effort to control and contain the virus. On the other hand, were in lockdown, limited to our immediate cohabitants guarding ourselves from our families, friends, colleagues and neighbors. My time was spent obsessing over the news and worrying about my loved ones. That said there was little or no time for thinking about art. For the first time in my twenty-five-year career the mere thought of making ART felt gratuitous. However, I greatly respect and appreciate the work that so many artist friends produced during this most difficult time. I alas, did not, could not. What I did do was to reflect on what it meant to be an artist and art educator. My resolve for both pursuits is stronger than ever. Creative thinking is essential for the health and survival of humanity.    

Recently I have begun to focus my energies locally, inspired by the communities that I live among. My work has always been engaged with history and my sights are currently on the history of the Catskills; the place my partner and I call home. More specifically I am studying the history of Roxbury, where I have a studio. Of particular interest are the lives and careers of John Burroughs and Jay Gould, two men who grew up in this place at the same time but pursued very different careers. Burroughs the great naturalist and Gould the capitalist represent very different world views that continue to shape the nation and the world that we inhabit.


Amy Masters (painter)

In a Field, 24”x 24” oil on canvas, 2020

My most recent body of work centers around the idea of home and shelter. I had been exploring the iconic ‘house’ shape for many months, experimenting with its form and how accessible and recognizable it can be. When the pandemic forced so many of us inside and often isolated us, the house paintings took on a new and deeper meaning for me and pushed the work even further. The house became a symbol of safety; a shelter that protects but also isolates.


Gail Freund (painter, illustrator, and embroiderer)  

Catskill Beauty page from fabric Verso-Recto book, fabric paint and embroidery floss on linen, 8″ x 18″, 2020

It has been an unchartered time. Terribly sad, isolating, yet interesting. I was fortunate to have moved to the Catskills from New York City in 2016 and had already been familiar with leading a remote life in this beautiful region. Over the past year I had been missing social interaction and community, however. Pre-pandemic, I was working on a fabric book project called Verso-Recto at The Pine Hill Community Center. A few artists including Hedi Kyle and myself were meeting there regularly to work on our books. The pandemic put a stop to those meetings, but I continued to work independently at home. Because the book is heavily embroidered, I used to jokingly call it my “security blanket”. On the bright side, this was a rare occasion to literally have more time on my hands. Working on the book was meditative and handily portable. For three months last summer I had to take care of my 93-year-old mother in Long Island. It felt great to be able to bring this project with me.  


Lisbeth Firmin (painter)

Waiting, 16″ x 20″ oil on wood panel, 2020

When the pandemic first hit, when we shut down in March 2020, I was stunned and afraid like everybody else. We did not know anything about Covid, and the panic about that combined with the isolation bred fear and anxiety. I was working on a few paintings for my gallery on the Cape, and for a while I continued to do that. But after those paintings were finished, I just did not do that much. I would go to the studio – I was very lucky that I was able to do that. My building was empty, and I was the only one there. So, I would just go there and read the news, and sit and worry. All my workshops and exhibitions were cancelled. My art income was gone. Then in the fall, I started a new series of oils. I have painted through so many tough times. I will continue to do so.  


Tabitha Gilmore-Barnes (textile artist)

Verso-Recto Tapestry, Book Project with Catskilled Crafters, 2019 – 2020

2020-2021 has been a time of great challenge for me. My husband fell critically ill last fall and winter, and I had very little time to spend in the studio and create new work. In the midst of such upheaval, I have been blessed however to be visited by producer Jan Albert and filmmaker Kent Garrett who interviewed me for “Catskilled Crafters” as part of a series hosted by The Pine Hill Community Center called “Getting to Know Your Neighbors.” The presentation is posted on my website at VIDEO: Tabitha Gilmore-Barnes Studio Visit | Tabitha Gilmore-Barnes Studio where people can learn more about my work as a weaver.


Alan Powell (media artist)

Mutation, 3″ x 3″, video graphic 2020

In May of 2020 I was asked by a colleague from Buffalo, NY, Dorothea Braemer, to take part in a global project to document our dream during the Covid pandemic. Many of us were having intense dreams due to the stress of the pandemic and the isolation that we were feeling. There were about twenty initial participants from as far away as Bulgaria and Arizona. These dreams were to be produced as video projects. I put together a team of ten former and current students to work on a 30-minute narrative called “A vacation in Covidville”. The narrative centered on two young women taking a road trip during the Pandemic. One woman was a rock and roller looking for her next gig. The other woman was a revolutionary looking for a home for her revolution. They would stop at homes along the way. Each home housed a dream. In the fall of 2020, I made collages from the dreams and showed them in a popup exhibition that was hung in the store windows in the town of Stamford, NY. The ad-hoc collective included artists such as Nat Thomas, Elaine Mayes, Amy Masters, and others. One such dream is what I titled Corona Diary #15, posted on Vimeo along with other videos that I created in the past year.


Nursing Home Pantoum  
By Sharon Israel 

I call to hear my mother’s voice  
She eats so little, drinks Ensure    
So sorry I can’t visit now 
We say I love you at the end    

She eats so little, drinks Ensure
I keep disaster from my voice
We say I love you at the end
She worries that I’m not all right 

I keep disaster from my voice
I hear fear in every word
She worries that I’m not all right 
Everyone’s so strange here  

I hear fear in every word
I’m in a hospital, she thinks
Everyone’s so strange here
Nursing staff wear bunny suits. 

I’m in a hospital, she thinks
Friends disappear from the dining room 
Nursing staff wear bunny suits
The dead visit her in dreams 

Friends disappear from the dining room
I call to hear my mother’s voice
The dead visit her in dreams 
So sorry I can’t visit now 

This poem first appeared in the May 2020 issue of Chronogram magazine. The pantoum, a form from 15th century Malaysia, consists of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza.  The last line is the same as the first.  Poet Sharon Israel used it in her poem for its repetitive and incantatory qualities. Her mother died on June 28th, 2021 at the age of 99 and a half.  

Book Release: Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days by Nina Shengold

Shengold Book Cover

Author: Nina Shengold

Title: Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days

Publisher: Syracuse University Press

ISBN: 978-0-8156-3696-0 (hardcover)

978-0-8156-1124-0 (paperback)

978-0-8156-5507-7 (e-book)

Release Date: June 15, 2020

 

Art:

Cover Painting: Kate McGloughlin

Map and Line Drawings: Will Lytle

Hand-Colored Linocuts: Carol Zaloom

 

Catskills author Nina Shengold’s latest book Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days will be released by Syracuse University Press on June 15, 2020. Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days chronicles a year in Shengold’s life, from September 15, 2015 to September 15, 2016, when the author took daily walks along the Ashokan Reservoir, a place that she describes as “an ideal reflecting pool for the Catskill High Peaks.” As she was approaching sixty, the author embarked on a journey of self-discovery and re-connection with nature no further than her own backyard, where she finds the Ashokan Reservoir – throughout the book she fondly refers to the reservoir as “the res”.

In Shengold’s own words:“My reservoir year was a treasure, a gift that keeps giving. I didn’t know it at the time, but that sweet span of days from one September to the next was the only year I could have fulfilled the commitment I made to myself, a restorative pause between wearing the mantles of caregiving mother and caregiving daughter. The Ashokan landscape is a part of me now, a deep well of peace I return to in times of stress and hold in reserve for the times I’ll go back there to grieve; a reservoir in every sense of the word.”

Partly meditation and partly nature diary, the book highlights the importance of being outdoors and re-connecting with self. The author took her daily walks regardless of weather and mood, holidays, birthdays, and celebrations. Sometimes she was accompanied by family or friends, but most of the time she was alone. From time to time she encountered other strollers which she meticulously describes in her book. Shengold’s daily recollections depict nature, people, moods, thoughts, and errands and activities that are on Shengold’s timetable at the time, as she goes about her daily life; the experience is juxtaposed with intermissions to take trips to New York City or attend other social functions, all between taking care of aging parents and spending time with a loving daughter. Adventures and unexpected turns intercede, as it often happens in life.

The book is structured as a chronicle of 367 days – fall, winter, spring, and summer. “The Ashokan is a different kind of gorgeous in every season, in every kind of weather and light,” Shengold recollects. Without taking any pictures or notes, the author immersed herself in this daily experience, only to write about it later. In her diary, some days are full of observations, whereas others are reduced to one single line.

The Ashokan Reservoir was built in the early 1900s when twelve local communities were displaced to make room for this wondrous construction needed to bring mountain water to New York City. The Ashokan is one of several such reservoirs built in the Catskills. The name “Ashokan” comes from Algonkian and can be translated as a “place of many fish.”

Shengold’s observations from Day 9, on September 23, 2015 at 6:50 pm include: “Sun already behind the ridge, air cool and breeze up. I notice the curves of the mountains, even the distant ones, are saw-toothed with individual treetops. But the star attraction tonight is the eastern sky, in soft rainbow stripes—indigo, lavender, pink, amber, gold—and floating above all that color, a startlingly bright moon, already past half.”

Another day reads like this:

“Day 11. September 25, 7:25 pm I drive to the res straight from teaching. Two roller-derby girls in full combat gear—sleek black catsuits, sculpted helmets, red knee pads—sail off the path and circle the empty parking lot, using the wide space to practice. They skate backward, drop into low crouches, do lunges and tango-like dance steps. Both of them laughing, enjoying their badass moves. Then they step out of their skates and remove their protective gear, loading it into the backseat one piece at a time as they chat about haircuts, blow dryers, and Rite Aid reward cards. They get smaller and blander as each piece of armor comes off. Come back, roller ninjas!”

On Day 14, September 28, 6:20 pm, Shengold explains her method: “I don’t have many ground rules for this, but I don’t carry paper and pad when I’m walking. I notice whatever I notice, and memorize a few keywords to help me remember. Here are today’s: heron cloak veil stillness alchemy. Which is either a very short poem or dialogue you might hear from a tarot reader at a Woodstock bar.”

A single line describes the day of October 3, 2015: “Day 19. October 3, 9:55 am Ghost mountains, gray on gray. Cold, wet, and blustery.”

Day 173, March 5, 2015 at 6 pm includes a visit to John Burroughs’s log cabin at Slabsides, a National Historic Landmark:

“Born in Roxbury, high in the Great Western Catskills, the young Burroughs taught in a one-room schoolhouse in the relocated village of Olivebridge, less than a mile from the Ashokan dam. He went on to write hundreds of essays on nature and literature, publishing twenty-three books between 1861 and his death in 1921. It occurs to me for the first time how he saw these valleys change, as one reservoir after another was built on the fast-moving streams he had paddled and fished.”

The motto of Shengold’s book is in fact a quote from John Burroughs’s Signs and Seasons: “The place to observe nature is where you are; the walk to take today is the walk you took yesterday. You will not find just the same things: both the observed and the observer have changed.”

Burroughs, the founder of nature writing in America, is best known for his collections of nature essays Wake Robin (1871), and Signs and Seasons (1886). He is also known for his friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt, industrialist Henry Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, and poet Walt Whitman. Burroughs is buried at Boyhood Rock, next to the Woodchuck Lodge, which served as his summer residence in Roxbury from 1910 until his death in 1921.

In the Afterword, Shengold reminisces about how the reservoir had changed her over the course of one magical year of daily walks: “I’m calmer. I found an oasis, a daily routine. In the same way I once used to walk my dog, I walk myself. I’ve learned that the days I resist going out are exactly the days when I need it the most. I lost some, not all, of the “pregnancy weight” I’d carried for twenty years. My eyes opened wider; I pay more attention to details. I can find more constellations in the night sky. I recognize more plants and birdcalls, the flight silhouettes of different raptors. I’m better at guessing how soon it will rain, what kinds of clouds will yield what kind of sunset. I’ve learned that dawn, sunset, and twilight unfold over time. The practice of learning to notice goes on and on. It’s connected me to this particular place, to the cycle of seasons, and to the earth we all share.”

Shengold’s previous books include the novel Clearcut (Anchor Books), River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers (SUNY Press, with photographer Jennifer May), and fourteen theatre anthologies for Vintage Books and Viking Penguin, many coedited with Eric Lane. She won the Writers Guild Award for her teleplay Labor of Love and the ABC Playwright Award for Homesteaders. Her plays are published by Playscripts, Broadway Play Publishing, and Samuel French; War at Home: Students Respond to 9/11, written with Nicole Quinn and the Rondout Valley High School Drama Club, has been produced around the world. Shengold has profiled more than 150 writers for Chronogram, Poets & Writers, and Vassar Quarterly. She’s a founding member of the theatre company Actors & Writers, author series Word Café, and Hudson Valley Writers Resist. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Shengold has taught at Manhattanville College and the University of Maine, and currently teaches creative writing at Vassar College. She was born in Brooklyn, grew up in New Jersey, escaped to Alaska, and now lives and works in the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains.

Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days expounds the transformative power of making a commitment and sticking to it. There is reward in that, as the author herself discovers throughout her journey. The book is an invitation to find our own “Ashokan Reservoir,” a place of magic that will engage our senses and awaken our spirit.

To purchase the book, visit Syracuse University Press.

The Quarry Fox: And Other Critters of the Wild Catskills Audiobook to Be Released in June

First published by The Overlook Press in 2017, The Quarry Fox earned rave reviews. From the New York Times: “A poignant and modern reminder of untamed creatures so close to home.”

Audio Book Cover

From Library Journal: “This engaging portrait of the Catskill wilderness will appeal to nature enthusiasts of all stripes.”

Silver Hollow Audio will be releasing the audiobook edition of The Quarry Fox narrated by the author herself in June this year.

Leslie T. Sharpe is an author, editor, and educator. She began her editing career at Farrar, Straus & Giroux and is currently an editorial consultant specializing in literary nonfiction, literary fiction, and poetry. A member of PEN American Center, she is the author of Editing Fact and Fiction: A Concise Guide to Book Editing (Cambridge University Press, 1994), which is regarded as a “modern editing classic” and “On Writing Smart: Tips and Tidbits,” featured in The Business of Writing (Allworth, 2012).  Leslie has been a regular contributor to Newsday’s “Urban ‘I’” column, and her essays and articles have appeared in a variety of publications including the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Global City Review, International Herald Tribune, New York Times, New York Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, and Village Voice; The Villager; The Writer; and Psychology Today. Her latest book The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills, a lyric narrative look at the wild animals of the Catskill Mountains, was published by The Overlook Press in the spring of 2017. Her poems for children have appeared in Ladybug Magazine. Leslie has taught writing and editing at Columbia University, New York University and the City College of New York.

To learn more, read our interview conducted with Sharpe in 2016, included in our book How Art Is Made: In The Catskills, published in 2017:

https://artinthecatskills.com/2016/11/30/featured-artist-leslie-t-sharpe/

New Writers’ Residency Opens in Roxbury

Roxbury, an international destination in recent years given its wildly popular attractions The Roxbury Motel and Plattekill Mountain, is now home to a Writers’ Residency, newly opened by writer Annie DeWitt and photographer Jerome Jakubiec. The three-day residency program includes accommodations, meals, workshops and manuscript review by DeWitt, who teaches writing at Columbia University and is the author of White Nights in Split Town City, greatly reviewed by The New York Times.

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© Simona David

The residency, which opened on July 11, hosted an inaugural Editors’ Panel on July 13, featuring Jonny Diamond, editor in chief of LitHub, and Tracy O’Neill, author of the acclaimed novel The Hopeful and editor of the literary journal Epiphany. Diamond and O’Neill talked about the submission process to literary journals.

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Tracy O’Neill and Jonny Diamond © Simona David

Asked about her aspirations with the residency, DeWitt said: “We couldn’t be more delighted with the outcome of this summer’s inaugural residency. It has fueled our creative energies to put so much of ourselves into a project and community that we love. We see Roxbury Writers’ Residency as an ambitious project with a dual focus: providing writers at all stages of their careers with a supportive vibrant atmosphere within which to create, think and question as well as to provide Delaware County with a wellspring into New York City’s creative excellence by offering free programming such as our Editors’ Panel to all Delaware County residents which furthers artistic dialogue. We want to help put Delaware County on the map as the thriving artistic community and rural paradise that it is.”

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Annie DeWitt © Simona David

Roxbury, the birthplace of financier Jay Gould, has long had a literary tradition going back to the days of naturalist writer John Burroughs, Gould’s contemporary, and Walter R. Brooks, who wrote Freddy the Pig series in Roxbury. Writers in the Mountains, a literary non-profit organization serving the Catskills and Hudson Valley area for over a quarter-century, is also headquartered in Roxbury. Writers in the Mountains offers creative writing workshops year-round and hosts a series of literary events throughout the region.

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© Simona David

Roxbury Writers’ Residency program, founded by DeWitt and Jakubiec, gives participants the opportunity to work in a secluded location on a 27-acre farm, and receive feedback from top-notch professionals. Writers can enroll in the three-day standard program, or book a room and design their own schedule. Jakubiec, who is the author of I Actually Wore This: Clothes We Can’t Believe We Bought published by Rizzoli, offers author portrait sessions on sight, thus immortalizing the experience.

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© Simona David

“Our hopes for the future are many,” explains DeWitt. “Short term, we are looking into funding through the MARK Project to be able to build additional artist cabins as well as provide scholarship assistance to residents. Long term, we have our eye on building a barn and studio space. Fashioning it from the existing blue prints for the original dairy barn which was torn down and filling it with artist studios ~ a metal workshop, a digital photography room, a dark room, and a performance space with the hope of expanding the residency to attract artists across various media and disciplines. We’re also horse enthusiasts and we would like to eventually bring that unique angle to our residents,” she adds.

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© Simona David

Roxbury’s charming appeal and bucolic scenery have in fact attracted a wide range of creatives for years – artists, writers, an Oscar winning filmmaker, fashion and theater professionals, and other creatives have made Roxbury their home. How Art Is Made: In the Catskills by this author features some of these creatives, including sculptor Brian Tolle, and painters Adam Cohen and Ellen Wong, whose studios are located in Roxbury. This burgeoning artistic community can only benefit from the newly opened writers’ retreat with the potential expansion into a full arts colony similar perhaps to Byrdcliffe in Woodstock or Sugar Maples in Maplecrest. In recent years Mount Tremper Arts opened to offer performing artists a space to rehearse and explore new ideas.

 

To learn more about Roxbury Writers’ Residency, visit https://www.roxburywritersresidency.com/.

Featured Destination: John Burroughs Estates

Slabsides, West Park 

Naturalist John Burroughs built his log cabin in West Park, Ulster County in 1895, in the Adirondack style. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968, the cabin retains most of its original furnishings, and is open to the public year round. Slabsides is one mile east of Riverby, Burroughs’ main residence. The naturalist wrote some of his most celebrated essays while at Slabsides. He also wrote extensively at Riverby, as well as the Woodchuck Lodge in Roxbury, Delaware County, in the Western Catskill Mountains.

Since 1993 John Burroughs Association has honored authors, illustrators and publishers of nature writing by awarding three annual awards: John Burroughs Medal, John Burroughs Nature Essay Award, and Riverby Awards. The Awards Ceremony takes place every year in April at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Burroughs Drive, West Park, NY 12493

(845) 384-6320

For more information, visit

http://www.johnburroughsassociation.org

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Woodchuck Lodge. © Simona David

Woodchuck Lodge, Roxbury 

Woodchuck Lodge, also known as John Burroughs Memorial State Historic Site, was built in the 1860s in the rustic farmhouse style, in Roxbury, Delaware County. It was Burroughs’ summer residence from 1910 to 1921. Burroughs is best known for his collections of nature essay such Wake Robin (1871), and Signs and Seasons (1886). The naturalist writer was friends with many luminaries including President Theodore Roosevelt, industrialist Henry Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, and poet Walt Whitman. Burroughs went to school with financier Jay Gould.

Born in Roxbury on April 3, 1837, he died in 1921, five days before his 84th birthday. He is buried at Boyhood Rock, where he used to play as a child, right next to the Woodchuck Lodge.

Guided tours are offered the first weekend of the month from May to October. Special events and talks are organized the first Saturday of the month, as part of the Wild Saturday series.

1633 Burroughs Memorial Road, Roxbury, NY 12474

For more information and current hours of operation, visit

http://woodchucklodge.org

John Burroughs’ Signs & Seasons. © Simona David

Bird Note dedicated an entire program to Burroughs this Sunday, January 21, 2018. Listen to the transcript at:

https://www.birdnote.org/show/john-burroughs

The Arts Converge: Photographer Rudd Hubbell in Conversation with Nature Writer Leslie T. Sharpe

“How Art Is Made” at the Catskill Interpretive Center

Naturalist and nature writer Leslie T. Sharpe speaks about her passion for the wildlife of the Catskill Mountains

Nature photograph by Rudd Hubbell

Nature photograph by Rudd Hubbell

Photographer Rudd Hubbell in conversation with writer Leslie T. Sharpe

With Leslie T. Sharpe and Rudd Hubbell

The Quarry Fox has received great review from The New York Times

Honored to be acknowledged in the Quarry Fox, released earlier this year by The Overlook Press

 

Catskill Interpretive Center, Mt. Tremper, New York

September 23, 2017

 

How Art Is Made: In the Catskills

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How Art Is Made: In the Catskills is a collection of interviews with some of the world’s most accomplished artists who live and work in the Catskill Mountains, New York. Five painters and illustrators, two ceramicists and printmakers, one sculptor, one weaver, and one writer discuss what inspires and moves them, what draws them to their medium of choice, what materials they use, how they approach a new artistic project, how they deal with setbacks, and how they celebrate success. Nine are formally trained at prestigious art schools; one is self-taught. What they all have in common is a rigorous studio practice, discipline, and the desire and curiosity to learn new things, and share them with the world.

Buy Online

Featured Writer: Leslie T. Sharpe

Leslie T. Sharpe. © Simona David
Leslie T. Sharpe. © Simona David

Leslie T. Sharpe is an author, editor, and educator. She began her editing career at Farrar, Straus & Giroux and is currently an editorial consultant specializing in literary nonfiction, literary fiction, and poetry. A member of PEN American Center, she is the author of Editing Fact and Fiction: A Concise Guide to Book Editing (Cambridge University Press, 1994), which is regarded as a “modern editing classic” and “On Writing Smart: Tips and Tidbits,” featured in The Business of Writing (Allworth, 2012).  Leslie has been a regular contributor to Newsday’s “Urban ‘I’” column, and her essays and articles have appeared in a variety of publications including the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Global City Review, International Herald Tribune, New York Times, New York Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, and Village Voice; The Villager; The Writer; and Psychology Today. She recently finished her memoir, Our Fractured, Perfect Selves, and her new book, The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills, a lyric narrative look at the wild animals of the Catskill Mountains, will be published by The Overlook Press in the spring of 2017. Her poems for children have appeared in Ladybug Magazine. Leslie has taught writing and editing at Columbia University, New York University and the City College of New York.

Simona David: Leslie, you are well-known to the Catskills literary community as an instructor for Writers in the Mountains. You also taught for MediaBistro. And of course, for a long time, you taught at Columbia University in New York City. Your new book The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills will be published in the spring of 2017 by The Overlook Press. Congratulations!

Leslie T. Sharpe: Thank you. I am delighted to say that my book The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills is set to be published by The Overlook in spring 2017. The Overlook Press started in Woodstock, but their offices are now located in Manhattan. Since the 1970s the press has had a wonderful specialty area for Catskills books, Hudson River Valley books; that’s why my agent and I really wanted to be published by them. They have a large list, including literary fiction, literary nonfiction, history, and other parts of that genre. For instance, Alf Evers’ The Catskills, From Wilderness to Woodstock was published by The Overlook in 1972.

SD: You’ve been a naturalist all your life, very much involved with Audubon Society. What is a naturalist, and what does he / she do?

LTS: The thing that I’m proudest of with regard to my environmental credentials is that I was president of Junior Audubon when I was in the 2nd grade. I’ve also been the vice president of New York City Audubon Society, and editor of the Urban Audubon. And like most people who love nature, I’m a lifelong birder and naturalist. Of course, there are many definitions of naturalists. In a large sense, a naturalist is just someone who observes nature. This could be a backyard birder or a wild life biologist. Everyone who looks out their window, and watches their bird feeder, welcomes the hummingbirds, puts out sunflower seeds for the chipmunks, and watches their antics and often records them – this is what a naturalist is, and the basis of our knowledge about nature really comes from people like you and I who are not trained as scientists but watch and observe and record. And there are many events that honor this. For instance, National Audubon and other organizations have what they call “bird counts” such as the Christmas bird count in December: people are urged to go out and count the number of birds they see, which species, the number of birds in each species; and this kind of anecdotal information is an incredibly important part of our knowledge of birds and animals, and our sense of population rise and fall, and the effects of the environment on them, the effects of winter on them, and the effects of summer on them. So, yes, basically a naturalist is someone who just observes, and keeps a diary, and writes down his or her observations.

SD: One doesn’t have to have scientific training in order to be a naturalist. Is that right?

LTS: A naturalist has a very personal and deeply felt connection to the natural world. To be a naturalist in essence all you need is a pen and a notebook, perhaps a recorder. But the most important tools are your senses. It’s not really a division however between a naturalist and a scientist. For instance, Rachel Carson who was a scientist was also a naturalist. These are not mutually exclusive occupations. My point is that anyone can watch, anyone can observe, anyone can record. And those are very valuable insights.

SD: You teach a Nature Writing workshop for Writers in the Mountains in the tradition of naturalist writer John Burroughs, a Catskills native. Participants range from memoirists and essayists to journalists and scientists. Let’s talk about various approaches to nature writing.  

LTS: There are so many aspects to nature. We think automatically of critters, and that’s largely what I’m writing about. But in my upcoming book I also have a whole chapter on wild flowers. Without dandelions in early spring what would the bees do? It’s the first thing bees find once they come out of their hibernation. Everything in nature has a purpose. And there are so many aspects to nature writing, not only the genre it can take, but also what you’re writing about. For instance, in my class we had people writing essays, journals, poetry, and some fiction as well. We had someone working on sketches for a book. A photographer, working on a multi-media project, brought his photographs to class, and shared some other angles.

SD: Let’s talk about the writing process. How does your routine look like? How do you alternate between observing nature and then writing about it?

LTS: It’s really organic. For instance, all the chapters in my book The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills are about different creatures. And they’re all marked by two things: it’s my direct experience with the critter, but it’s also the latest science on the subject. Because there is so much that is being discovered. And although my book is described as a lyric narrative book about the wild animals of the Catskill Mountains, it’s also informed by the latest science. One of the hardest things to do when involved with these creatures is to remain objective and not to become sentimental. Another struggle is to not interfere and not to project our own emotions on them. They have their own emotions.

SD: Have you done a lot of research for the book?

LTS: Yes. There are many sources, but you have to weigh them carefully. For instance, All About Birds, which is from Cornell Institute of Ornithology, that’s a fabulous resource. Audubon also has its own online resources. As a trained classicist, I very much enjoy doing research as part of the learning process. But I’m also scrupulous with my sources, both in print and online.

SD: Would you like to expand a bit, and talk about the genre of creative nonfiction?

LTS: The Quarry Fox, as narrative nonfiction, is themed to the wild Catskills, but every chapter is essentially a different personal essay. That is very much in the tradition of John Burroughs, the founder of the nature writing genre in America. One of the things that I do in my book, is that I dedicate each chapter to a nature writer that I love. The first chapter is dedicated to John Burroughs, a spiritual father of mine. I have a chapter dedicated to Edward Abbey, another one to Annie Dillard. I believe Abbey’s Desert Solitaire is the best nature writing book ever written. Dillard, on the other hand, is a mentor to anyone writing creative nonfiction.

John Burroughs Memorial Home in Roxbury, NY. © Simona David
John Burroughs Memorial Home in Roxbury, NY. © Simona David

SD: You have taught for Writers in the Mountains a workshop called Selling Your Nonfiction Book: The Art of Proposal Writing. Would you like to share a few tips?

LTS: Nonfiction is such a popular form, a lot of folks are working on memoir and personal essays. To sell a nonfiction book, whether you hire an agent or not, you need a book proposal to show it to the publisher. When it comes to nonfiction, publishers don’t want to see a whole book right away; what they want is a proposal. The proposal breaks down into certain aspects, including a marketing plan, a literature review, and some sample chapters. It’s important for the publisher to know who the book is for and how they can sell it, also if there are other similar books out there, and what credentials the author has. In my case, there are very few other books out there since John Burroughs that really cover the Catskills’ wild life. It’s important to know that everything you write when you submit to a publisher or an agent is a writing sample. The query letter is a writing sample, and is a sample of professionalism. The proposal itself, and the description of the chapters mirror the quality of the chapters themselves.

SD: What makes a naturalist also a good nature writer?

LTS: I am a writer, and I believe that we humans are hard-wired for stories. That’s what compels us. We tell our stories, and pass them down. Most people who write about nature are most certainly naturalists, they observe nature. Most naturalists are not necessarily nature writers. But what drives us as naturalists who are also nature writers is our desire to tell stories. How you tell your story is completely up to you. Nature writing is a great American form, not uniquely American, but this country is so extraordinarily beautiful, and there is such a diversity of landscape and critters and birds of all kinds that we’ve been shaped by it.

Leslie tweets at https://twitter.com/catskillcritter.

© 2016 Simona David

We’ve Covered a Lot in Two Years

Adam Cohen’s Clairvoyant. © Simona David

Brian Tolle
With sculptor Brian Tolle. © Simona David

James Kleinert Art Center
James / Kleinert Art Center in Woodstock. © Simona David

Landscape painter Margaret Leveson. © Simona David

Ceramicist Peter Yamaoka. © Simona David

The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice. © Simona David

WAAM
Woodstock Artists Association and Museum. © Simona David

John Burroughs’ Woodchuck Lodge in Roxbury, New York. © Simona David

 

artinthecatskills.com

The History of the Catskills: Book Talk with Author Stephen Silverman

Stephen M. Silverman, author of The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America, published by Knopf in 2015, spoke at the Erpf Center in Arkville, Saturday, April 2 in front of an audience of about forty animated Catskills fans. Co-written with Raphael D. Silver, who passed away in 2013, the book covers all the turning points that shaped the region and made it into a popular attraction. The Catskills have been known as America’s First Wilderness, First Vacation Land, and also the place where American Art was born. The event, organized in partnership with the Woodchuck Lodge Foundation, also celebrated John Burroughs’ 179th birthday: the beloved naturalist was born on April 3, 1837 in Roxbury, Delaware County. Also Washington Irving, who helped popularized the Catskills, was born on April 3, 1783.

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Silverman spoke about the history of the region going back to Henry Hudson’s discovery in 1609. He talked about the Hardenbergh Patent, signed on April 20, 1708, and how that changed the region. And then he talked about the naissance of an authentic American art movement, which took place in the Catskills in the early 1800s, and manifested both in literature and visual arts.

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Washington Irving, who wrote from an urban perspective (he was born in Manhattan, but spent quite a bit of time in Tarrytown), and James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote from a rural perspective (growing up on the shores of the Otsego Lake in Cooperstown), both helped shape a narrative that was genuinely American, a narrative that dealt with American realities, American customs, and American social mores.

Likewise, Thomas Cole, who was born in England, but moved to America with his family when he was a teenager, started the first authentic American art movement after visiting the Catskills in the 1820s. Catskill Mountain House, the first major hotel, opened in 1824 when hotels were rare even in New York City. That was a game changer for the area: visitors would come by steamboats on the Hudson River, and then take a local stagecoach from the town of Catskill to the Catskill Mountain House. The expansion of the railroad system supported a growing tourism industry: the Catskills became the model for what was to become the typical American resort town.

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Grossinger’s Hotel opened in 1919, thus marking the beginning of a Golden Age for tourism in the Catskills. That ended in the 1970s for several reasons: the expansion of air conditioning, cheap flights, and suburban lifestyle – all these factors changed not just how people lived but also how they chose to vacation.

Silverman spoke about the region’s potential to keep re-inventing itself. He then talked about the Woodstock Music Festival which took place in 1969, and what the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts has to offer today. He mentioned places like The Roxbury Motel, which have become international destinations in and of themselves, and new businesses, retreat centers, so forth and so on.

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I asked Silverman what surprised him most when he sat down to research and write this book. What surprised him most was the extent of gang criminal activity in the Catskills throughout the 1920s and the 1930s.

Find more at Amazon.com.

© 2016 artinthecatskills.com