I grew up playing baseball, growing veggies with my grandmother and riding horses in Madison, Ohio. It’s a small village in the northeast corner of the state that sits five miles from the shores of Lake Erie. When I was in school, the Cuyahoga River caught fire regularly and “Help me! I’m dying,” was scrawled in graffiti letters on the side of a Lake Erie pier. Anyone who lived along its banks already knew the lake was in jeopardy. The miles of fish carcasses strewn along the shore were clue enough.
Today, I live in a lovely, well-worn home overlooking the banks of the Delaware River in the Hamlet of Callicoon, NY. Whether I drink my morning coffee on my front porch or at a bedroom window, the gleam of the river is the first thing I see each day.
I’ve stood on the bridge that connects Pennslvania to New York and watched vacation trailers float beneath me in a torrent of brown flood. I’ve watched ice floes pile and pile so high that I’ve never doubted our tenancy rests in Nature’s hands.
But for more than the River, I came home to Callicoon for the people and early morning walks down Main Street.
This morning’s first stop was The Delaware Valley Free Library, built in 1913. As I approached the door with my ever-late book returns, Bernie, a friend from “the PA side,” poked his head out saying, “Got a minute? We have to talk.” His dark hair hangs well below his stocking cap and his salt and pepper beard reminds me of my old hippie days. He’s wandered through the Far East and Buddhist Temples and now, he works as hard as anyone I know to preserve and protect the river and its hamlets. He wants to be sure we’re ready for this Saturday’s forum on Gas Drilling and Public Health that we’re helping to coordinate. It will be held in Callicoon’s Delaware Youth Center this coming Saturday.
At the back of the Library is a public room with murder mysteries and computers where locals chat as often as they read. As we finalize our last minute plans for the forum, the owner of Callicoon Van & Taxi Service wanders in with a big “Mornin’, all!” and settles at one of the internet terminals. A half hour or so later, as I pay my fines and check out a selection of Martha Grimes and Louise Penny mysteries, an elder whose head almost reaches my shoulder breathes toward my ear, “Oooo. Martha Grimes!” “Yup,” I nod. “Richard Jury’s my one true love,” and the conversation’s off and running until I remember I’ve got three more stops at least. She pats the cover of a book I’ve just returned. “The winter’s too long these days,” she sighs, “and I need all the books I can get.”
Headed toward The I.O.U., my favorite store in the universe, I remember I need stamps. Yes, stamps. I send birthday cards that carry fingerprints and smudged ink because anyone who’s struggled down a birth canal deserves more than misty electrons floating in an ethernet pipeline.
The main lobby of the post office is closed. Bud, a long-time resident who migrated up from NYC decades ago, shakes his head at me from the driver’s seat of his truck. “And it’ll stay closed for a full 90 minutes,” he says.
“Well wouldn’t Mae Poley and Wilda Priebe have called that heaven in the old days,” I say. (Mae and Wilda were North Branch’s post mistresses when I first moved to The Delaware River Basin. They’d taken over from their mother when she retired and Mae, her husband Earl and their daughter Amy still live in the old building that houses the PO. When I was a young single mom with a baby to raise, the sisters made sure I had plenty of house cleaning and dairy farm jobs to feed the little bugger. Neither of them ever closed the post office for more than half an hour and even then, we all knew where to find them. More than once, Mae fed me lunch at her kitchen table. She thought it’d keep me quiet till she was ready to re-open the window. I still remember the day Wilda admitted she knew fewer and fewer of the “new folks” who were buying the old, empty houses in North Branch. The Poleys, Priebes and so many others are woven into my life here in The Basin. I’ve cared for their loved ones in the Callicoon Hospital, rattled rafters with them at Democratic Party meetings and cheered all our kids from Tee Ball to graduation.
“I like your ‘Drilling Isn’t Safe’ button,” Bud says and I invite him to the forum on Saturday. For an hour, we catch up on all the people we know in common and where they are.
“Ya’ know Barbara and George Hahn?” I ask. “Sure!” he says. “We were in school together.” Barbara was an RN who flew over the original Woodstock Festival in a medical helicopter with Abby Hoffman. Her husband, George, had the Jeffersonville Veterinary for decades. They spent a whole afternoon giving me the skinny on my Jeff postcards. Although, truth be told, their memories weren’t always…synchronized, George’s family hearkened back to the days when our first settlers spent their first winters hunkered down in caves till their houses could be built. (The old Hahn farmstead was where Apple Pond Farm is today in Callicoon Center.) Barbara and George moved to Connecticut this winter to be nearer their kids. “They lit my days,” I say, missing them all over again.
Bud says his daughter was laid off when the Neversink Public School closed its reading program to save money. “Can’t pass a math test if ya’ can’t read,” he mutters.
My heart was set on a stop at the I.O.U. but I still needed a few things at Peck’s and as ever, the morning was nearly gone.
Peck’s is more than just a village grocery. For years, Art and Beth Peck worked day and night growing their first Narrowsburg store till it became another and another and another. Just as Beth’s energy fed the Narrowsburg Library, the local arts alliance and theater and a small news sheet that eventually became The River Reporter, when they retired, the Pecks ensured their employees were vested in the small chain’s future. But that’s not why Peck’s is more than a grocery. As my friend Marci says, “If I’ve got things to do at home, I don’t dare go to Peck’s.” Even if you make it down the aisles at a run, there’s the check out where neighbors share the news of the day. Among others, this morning, I ran into Fred Stabbert, III, publisher of The Democrat, Callicoon’s hometown newspaper. He was in college when I first worked for the paper that was handed down from his grandfather to his father and not so long ago, to him. Anyone who moves to Sullivan County should make it a point to read The Democrat’s “Down The Decades” page. It’s a wonderful compendium of more than 100 years of Sullivan County history — from the “white knights who protected our women” in, thankfully, bygone days to our more modern times. Those pages, in concert with Quinlan’s History of Sullivan County are a must-read if you’re interested in the foundations of your new home.
Most days, I feel a terrible urgency about painting a picture the outside world will see and cherish as much as I do. Our River valley’s wealth and health depend on each of us. We are a generous people. We care for each other — for our elders who return home alone after a hospitalization because their children have left in search of better jobs; for our young people who are learning the old arts from teachers like Bobbie Allees over at the Sullivan West Central School in Lake Huntington.
Our memories are long, stretching back to the days when our early families lived in caves above Callicoon Center and North Branch. Much of our strength derives from our open arms; arms that have welcomed organic sustainable agriculture to replace the old dairies. Fiber artists, novelists, poets and even Hollywood actors have made The Basin their home. And just this winter, our valley sent two of our sons to The Sundance Film Festival where Zac Stuart-Pontier won critical acclaim as an editor for “Catfish” and Josh Fox’s “Gasland” brought home Sundance’s Special Jury Prize for Documentaries.
Like Appalachia, Texas, Ohio and countless others before us, our valley faces a threat from outside.
But with each new year, our farmers, artists, teachers, librarians, nurses — old-timers and newcomers — carve a new historic tablet.
Please come to the Delaware Community Center February 20th at 4:00 PM. Learn what gas drilling may mean to the future of our valley.
(Postscript to yesterday’s article. Bread bakers who read yesterday’s article will be unsurprised to learn that my pumpernickel loaves were reluctant to rise. The yeast knows when the baker’s spoiling for a fight. I suspect anger makes the air too heavy.)