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For 20 years I’ve lived by the river, and every time I walk down the old-fashioned main street of Cold Spring to the water’s edge, I think how fortunate I am to be there. The village has not been tarnished, the landscape where the Hudson river has cut its way through a rocky ridge of mountains called the Highlands is a rare place just an hour by train north of New York City. Even in the early 19th century the village was known for its bucolic setting. This is where George Morris wrote “Woodman, Spare That Tree”, perhaps America’s first eco-protest song.
This landscape has been spared more than once over the centuries, and though George Washington is known to have led his horse to drink at the “cold spring” by the train tracks that gave the village its name, it rose to new prominence in the 1960s when Con Edison, New York’s energy company, wanted to build a new kind of power plant on the slopes of Storm King Mountain, right across the river, at which they would pump water up in the middle of the night, when electricity rates were cheap, and let it flow down during the day to make both energy and money. This project was stopped by a huge public protest, not because it was impractical, (there are many such power plants in the world today), but because it would mar a vista so recognisably beautiful to the American people for so long. One-third of the engraved landscapes that featured in English artist WH Bartlett’s American Scenery, published between 1837 and 1839, were images of the Hudson Valley, the region which became famous a few decades later as the source of inspiration for the wide, brooding landscapes of the Hudson River School. Looking up at the Catskills he would paint so grandly, Thomas Cole explained his inspiration: “Let me transport you to those wild blue mountains that rear their summits near the Hudson’s wave . . . Your soul may have a sweet foretaste of heaven.”
This bend in the river was saved because it was beautiful as well as useful. Long the home for all kinds of industries that required easy downstream transportation, this section of the river was always known for its spectacular beauty. The preservation of the Hudson Highlands as a state park, never to be developed in perpetuity, is one of the great success stories of the American environmental movement. It also took the efforts in the 1960s of attorney-general Robert Kennedy and the activism of the great folk singer Pete Seeger, who renovated an old sailing ship and called it “Clearwater”, to urge that the land be saved and the river cleaned up. Seeger’s sloop still sails the river today, and he tells the tale of its saving most eloquently on the album The Storm King, which came out just after his death in 2014 at the age of 94, with the help of his local friends — percussionist Jeff Haynes and singer Dar Williams. “He is the wiser father,” Seeger sings of the mountain. “I am the Storm King now . . . May we grow better still.”
I live half a mile from the river’s edge but I always feel it is there. Just north of Cold Spring is a beautiful beach that looks like it could be in South America. Wild and unkempt, the thickets of ivy tumble out almost to the water’s edge. Every time I walk or swim there I thank all the musicians, lawyers, poets and activists who have praised this place over so many years deeply enough to save it. Drive north or south half an hour and you are into the anonymous suburbia that has tarnished much of the American landscape, but Cold Spring gives an alternative vision of how the most beautiful parts of the land can be saved in a way that everyone can enjoy. The village is surrounded by protected land, so suburban sprawl is impossible here. A rigorous design code stops anyone from building too large a private home. If you choose to live here, you accept these restrictions in favour of a greater public good. Many say it is one village that looks as if it could be in Europe. You can walk down the street, take a train every hour to the city, the houses are small and close together, and the most beautiful landscape is preserved all around the concentrated settlement for everyone to enjoy.
We have had two remarkable floods in the past few years, with the arrivals of hurricanes Irene and Sandy. We were told these were once-in-a-century-type storms but we had two just a few years apart, and science tells us to expect many more upheavals like this in the decades to come. Living by the water will only get more perilous as sea levels rise. And yet we humans have always craved a proximity to water. It must remind us of our humility and the small place we still must accept if we are to keep this planet alive rather than destroying it. There are so many bad ways to live by the water, such as putting up huge sprawling four-storey houses with four-car garages one after another next to the shore. How much space does one family really need? If that beach stays wild, if I can walk easily past small shops on sidewalks and trails down to the river that belongs to all of us, am I not in a better and more caring place?
The Lenape people called the Hudson Muhheakantuck, the “River that Flows Both Ways”, because the tides reach all the way north to Poughkeepsie. Yet a shifting current also pulls upon humanity in two ways, as our whole culture wants us to be both in the city and the countryside. This preserved and respected Hudson river reminds us that we are never far from the pull of nature, a fragile but powerful pull that we must never lose our respect for.
David Rothenberg is a writer, musician and professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology
Photographs: Russell Cusick; Bridgeman Images