Cold Spring Diary: Spring Arrives; the Bear Mountain Bridge; an Impractical Person

by David St.-Lascaux


Weeping Willows, Sloop Hill State Unique Area, Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York.

April 27, 2014

LIVING IN THE HIGHLANDS, one experiences firsthand the arrivals of Spring. I say arrivals because the natural events of Spring are many – the late winter red-tipped budding of the oaks, the arrival of Turdus migratorius (the robin, or “migrating thrush”), the various ornamental flowerings, the chartreuse windblown waving of riverside willows, and the unfolding of skunk cabbage leaves. Most impressive, however, is the greening of the mountainside maples as their leaves peep out, forming pointillist spheres, dot-to-dot defining the trees’ cloud-shaped crowns, recalling a poem by the peerless Princess Shikishi (my translation):

春 ぞ
歌詞 思う ばかり に うち かすみ 恵む 梢 ぞ

I recall a song’s lyrics with which to bless the mist among the treetops,
a spontaneous vista

Spring, in its exhilarating, dreamy fullness, is indeed in the air.

By the measure of the maples, Spring arrived in Cold Spring this weekend. Ever peripatetic, the Agrarian Librarian and I ventured south on this vernal Sunday afternoon to Peekskill for a lecture about the Bear Mountain Bridge at the Peekskill Museum. The longest suspension bridge in the world at the time of its opening in 1924, the bridge itself was built, according to the Museum’s lecturer, in about 18 months. Originally planned as early as 1868, its non-construction correlated to two economic depressions – in 1873 and 1893.

Of equal interest to the building of the bridge was the visual story of construction of Routes 6, 202 and 9D from Peekskill to it. Immigrant laborers worked in vertiginous conditions: an audience member recalled his grandmother telling of multiple deaths, a kind of human sacrifice, you might say, a necessary ingredient in its construction. This is true of many such projects, including the vaunted city skyscraper. Perhaps these might be ceremonially conducted and sanctified, in propitiation of an inorganic god.

Today, the Appalachian Trail – the inaugural section of which traversed Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks in 1923, a year before the bridge was completed – crosses the bridge. The AT was the brainchild of forester, conservationist and Wilderness Society founder Emile Benton MacKaye (1879-1975), who first proposed (and peremptorily named) the trail in “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” in 1921. MacKaye (rhymes with “high”), deemed “impractical” by observer Natalie Johnson Fry Hunt in a 1935 essay, was author of Expedition Nine: A Return to a Region (1969), which, according to Hunt philosophized “on nature and the harm it suffers from man,” and The New Exploration: A Philosophy of Regional Planning (1928), characterized by Tony Hiss in the New Yorker as “a long-lost classic” about balancing development, recreation and environmental preservation. Hiss is author of The Experience of Place (1990), one of a long list of related books in David P. Schuyler’s course, “From Wilderness to Environmentalism,” at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. MacKaye’s mandatory biography, Benton MacKaye: Conservationist, Planner, and Creator of the Appalachian Trail (2002) was written by Larry Anderson.

According to a friend, MacKaye was “the only Socialist in Shirley[, Massachusetts].” He lived to 96, experiencing the collision of technological humanity and nature. Of Shirley, whose Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988, MacKaye wrote (as quoted at,

“The community par excellence was [and is] the colonial New England village. Take my own hill hamlet – Shirley Center, Massachusetts, as I knew it as a boy, with its seventy-one souls in the 1880’s. A meeting house, a red brick schoolhouse, a store, farmhouses, wheelwright shop and town hall – seats respectively of religion, education, commerce, agriculture, industry, and government – the basic elements of civilization….”

BENTON MACKAYE’S TRAIL is today well traveled. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2-3 million people visit annually. Sometimes, dreams that spring from the minds of impractical people are the most practical of all.

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May 4: Arsenal & Garden.

Text and photo copyright © 2014.

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