Author: Nina Shengold
Title: Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days
Publisher: Syracuse University Press
ISBN: 978-0-8156-3696-0 (hardcover)
Release Date: June 15, 2020
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.