Sleetmagazine.com

Volume 13 • Number 2 • Fall-Winter 2021-2022

Susan Petrie

I Get Up, Get Dressed, and Go Out to Look for Home

Infrastructure and Intimacy in the Hudson River

If you have ever ridden the Amtrak train from Manhattan to Albany-Rensselaer, and you are attentive to the nuances of landscape, you quickly notice the Hudson River’s abundant yet subtle natural features. There are impressively large birds—eagles or hawks or turkey vultures gliding in slow circles, great blue herons moving with cool, direct purpose, and snowy egrets picking their way along the waterline. Low tide is lush with swaths of mud plantain, while a high tide carries the swaying green carpets of invasive water chestnut. There are numerous little coves where someone may be fishing for stripers or paddling a kayak, and in the spring the maples are lush and near to bursting. There is the graceful slope of Storm King Mountain and the angled lines of lighthouses, each surrounded by the colors and reflections of calm or choppy waters. On rainy days, clouds carry the full weight of gray while fog lingers above salt marshes and meander channels. Sometimes, the river is smooth as a pressed bedsheet, split for a thin moment by the wake of tug or tanker.

On cool autumn mornings, the Catskills hue violet and the long, slow Vs of migrating geese appear and recede across the pastel glow of dawn. In the winter, pancake ice spreads its geometry across a liquid blue-green meadow. Here, on the train, you have a front-row seat to some of the country’s best natural and aesthetic geography. A setting sun still casts the light that once captured imaginations and bewitched artistic men and women, setting in motion the Hudson River School painters. From the train, it is all here, a timeless natural story, soothing, majestic, enigmatic. This unparalleled northward journey.

Then, as you approach Rensselaer, the train angles slightly inland, and a distinctive urban character takes over. Graffiti, concrete, lights and horns blare your arrival. Exiting the train, you’re struck by the smell of fuel, the hot blast of an engine, the rush of people ascending the steep concrete stairs. The river recedes, and so does nature’s trance.

Departing the station, maybe driving over the Dunn Memorial Bridge, toward Albany, you can glimpse the river below. If you’re particularly attentive, maybe you notice a tanker docked at one of the ports, but the time you have to observe, especially if you’re the driver, is limited. The human story takes over and the Hudson—a flat, north-south band of greyish green and not so beautiful—becomes inaccessible. That it has tides, tributaries, salinity is not knowable from bridges and highways. The natural grandeur of the lower Hudson is silenced here by a type of masculine harshness: engineering, transportation, architecture, government, pavement, commerce. The work of it.

The river never stops being the river, of course, it’s just that here the man-made infrastructure overwhelms its subtle personality, with everyone rushing on about their business as if the river doesn’t matter. Which is unfortunate. Albany, Troy, and Cohoes are river towns, but don’t necessarily welcome or support the river’s actions, its gentle curves and lines, its struggling forms of life. Instead, the Hudson is hard to get to. We can’t wade in because its shallows are gone, banked by cement holding walls, with only a few difficult-to-reach access points. Even though she is the basis of our abundance, we aren’t encouraged to see, feel, hear, touch, or care about her. Silenced. Domesticated.

**

When I was young and growing up in Troy, I had one of those wonderful, free-ranging childhoods, running off into the woods that ringed our small neighborhood in Hillsview Heights. Day after day, I could run wild bushwhacking and picking berries, or clearing little frozen reservoirs to slide around on, or making sled runs with my friends and brothers on the hills that dropped us down into Pig Town, South Troy.

We were always outside, so we knew our landscape and named our favorite features—Clay Cliff, Clory Cliff, The Foundations, running Black Pipe. Some places I discovered, I explored with friends. Other places, like waterfalls and streams, I liked to go alone because by myself I could pretend they were mine. In a trance of green and light and water, I’d spend whole summer days skipping rocks, squatting in the mud seining the shallows for guppies. In the winter, I’d lie on the ice and study the movements of water beneath me, looking for the shades of blue that signaled places that could hold my weight safely. The tingle of discovery, the scent and feel, never seemed to wear off.

I had no way of knowing then that I’d stumbled onto significant tributaries of the Hudson River; I had no idea what tributaries even were. All I knew was that this flowing water was mythical and that the nearby Hudson—because my parents told me—was disgusting, filled with raw sewage, a cesspool to stay away from. Of course, my young mind never connected water to water.

But, oh, river, river….

Whenever my family returned from outings, I knew we were close to home because I could smell you, inescapable scent of tar and chemicals as we drove over you, across the Menands Bridge. I recall my mother’s complaints that all those buildings down there beside you, such an eyesore, that they should be knocked down.

No one ever talked about what was down there, maybe no one knew precisely. Later I learned that your whole weed-covered shambles held not only our local story, but the story of Big American Infrastructure—iron, bricks, steel, railroads, ships, the spinning and dyeing and bleacheries of textiles… In neglect, there was little evidence of the fire of work, the smelting, rolling, pressing, and pounding out of an idea of America, that the muscle it took to help form New York, the Empire State, happened here.

No one ever explained to me the once-vast geographical reach of the century of boom-town economics you enabled. Not a word about factories, foundries, or mills, nor the people who gave hours, weeks, months, years, and lives to supply the region, the state, and the country with all its unsexy essentials: from horseshoes to shirt collars, chicken wire to toilet paper, stoves, bells, rail lines and spikes, tanneries, tillers, tools, and the list goes on. This was Troy. Invention central. Silicon Valley of the nineteenth century. The syncopation of innovation and backs and legs and shoulders and hands and you— water.

Never mind that this would become America’s story, and that anyone who had lived near a river would know a similar story by heart. But much of it happened here first; some of the grandest and most complex aspects of America’s infrastructure, specifically those related to transportation, were invented and perfected here. Later, discovering what happened along the Hudson and, in some cases, beneath the bridges of my hometown would both vex and thrill me. That our human story had the relevance of a tin can would vex and confound me. That the story was destructive almost beyond words would crush me.

**

But, in 1975, back when I was free-ranging Troy, everyone could see that there was nothing along my river to be proud of, though the reasons were less clear to a young person. I would come to learn that Industrial entrepreneurs, visionaries, and corporations made wealthy by the river had disassociated from it, from Troy and from our region decades earlier and left a reckless mess. The party had ended and someone had to clean it up, but no one really wanted to. Various environmental movements would eventually form along the Hudson and cast disparaging glances toward Albany, Troy, Cohoes, toward General Electric and General Motors, and for good reason. Those who cared deeply about rivers were gathering and speaking up and had named the magnitude of destruction, the decades of dumping industry’s afterthoughts, chemicals and liquids, PCBs and heavy metals. Two hundred miles of the Hudson were so polluted they would be declared a Superfund site. This habit of ignoring collateral damage.

An excerpt from a 1970s article in the New York Times illustrated a lack of regard for bodies of water and the life they supported:

Army officials have estimated that as many as 2,000 derelict vessels lie rotting into floating debris in the New York‐New Jersey area, and that 330 abandoned piers, warehouses and other structures are crumbling into the water.

Of course, similar stories rippled across American rivers. The users were the abusers. Today it’s not news.

What does matter, though, is that as a change in thinking gathered momentum along the banks of our grossly polluted river, our strength in ingenuity and work was now our flaw. As attempts were made to protect and restore the ravaged natural surroundings, sides were drawn and manufacturing became a dangerous embarrassment. It had proceeded for a century at a wonton gallop, and that gallop was being slowed to a walk. People were hurt and angry, on both sides.

The formation of organizations like Clearwater Sloop, River Keepers, Scenic Hudson, and Hudson River Fisherman’s Association were inspirational and legal entities that sprang to life to defend water, to address those PCBs and heavy metals, to stop the wholesale dumping of trash, and to enforce the Clean Water Act, enacted in 1948 but not acquiring real teeth until 1972. Now, there was a way to effectively block companies that applied for permits to strip mine the floor of New York Harbor. Doing what was right and necessary frayed the cables of labor, and our local pride in work seemed to weaken. Thus, our history of invention would go underground, its language would disappear, and its value to future generations would diminish.

So, instead of growing up feeling connected to my home with stories of magnificence, I heard disparaging comments about the leftovers. Because I was young and lived in the present and future, I took those comments to heart.

What if my parents had known that the world’s largest waterwheel once powered the Burden Iron Works? What if they had told me about it? And what if I’d told them that I’d discovered its spot while playing in the woods? In retrospect, I know they were too busy to care about five hundred Sons of Vulcan putting Troy on the world’s map. In reality, if they’d known I was climbing down inside a waterfall, I’d have been grounded. The truth was that our history was obliterated and no one knew I’d stumbled into a meaningful past, this place where Civil War horseshoes were made and barreled by the ton each day. Once it was great, but the damage had been done. Now everyone had moved on.

While ignorance and neglect translated into acres of rewilded nature for me, the beauty and lure of these wild pockets—big to me but small and relatively inconspicuous compared to the size of Troy—lacked the strength and visibility to lift the film of despair that wrapped the city. One of my brothers called it Broken Town. I felt the effects of defeat but lacked an adult’s vocabulary to frame and translate its causes. So much for our big industrial past. So much for rivers.

It was therefore inevitable that when I turned 18, I left. Most of us with hope left. Because I was unaware of the growing numbers of people who had begun the hard work of saving the river, my love of land and water went unnurtured and receded as a childhood fantasy. It was time for me to make my way.

**

I was gone for fifteen years, and in 1999, I returned—like most who do—for family. I’d forged a life, propelled myself into newer and bigger unknowns—Buffalo, Detroit, South Bend, and Minneapolis. As I write this, Buffalo River, River Rouge, St Joseph River, the Mississippi. Each a post-industrial river town, some faring better than others. I see now that I’d lived near significant bodies of water, that I knew their names, yet I lacked a basic understanding of their significance, their necessity to life, their power, their critical infrastructure.

Which meant that when I came back to the Capital District, I had no awareness of the Hudson as a 315-mile-long tidal estuary that sourced in the wilderness of the Adirondacks and flowed south through New York harbor to the Atlantic. That, because it had tides, the aboriginal tribes called themselves “people of the waters that are never still.” How could the largest geographically defining characteristic of this place be so … meaningless to me?

For one, I lacked its language. I’d never been taught what rivers do, why they matter. Instead, examples had been set here that communicated rivers were vectors of transportation, objects to be crosscut and monetized in a dozen different ways: canaled, locked, bridged, backfilled, diverted, contained, ported, tunneled, channeled, emptied, polluted, fished, dredged. Rivers were things people acted on; rivers didn’t act on us. It was a one-way conversation.

I remembered my parents’ warnings about the Hudson: Avoid it. Disgusting. It made sense that despite years of proximity to rivers, I’d never handled one in my imagination, driven its lengths, looked at one closely, wandered its banks, learned about its role supporting every life in a landscape. I realized I was just like everyone else who’d never bothered to ask, “how?” or “why?” It would be accurate to say I was profoundly landscape illiterate. I didn’t know you could love a river. I didn’t know you could ruin a river. Infrastructure 101.

**

Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano, by way of Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, observed

…that America was conquered not discovered, that the men who arrived with a religion to impose and dreams of gold never really knew where they were, and that this discovery is still taking place in our time. This suggests that most European-Americans remained lost over the centuries, lost not in practical terms but in the most profound sense of apprehending where they truly were, of caring what the history of the place was and its nature. [p. 66]

Thus it was for me: my ignorance, my inability to comprehend the history of this place and its nature. I knew I’d returned to a home I did not love, only now I was stuck—trapped by superficial ugliness and political corruption, emotionally disconnected in the mid-Hudson, unlovely midriff, the Capital District. My feelings were shared; many people I knew said the best thing about living here was its proximity to better places: Maine, Boston, The Cape, Montreal, Manhattan.

In Albany, my present and future lacked luster. Perhaps the past held something to believe in. So one morning I got up, got dressed, and went out to look for home.

I began by revisiting my childhood landscapes and learned they had names: Mount Ida Falls, Poestenkill Gorge, the Wynantskill. (The “-kills” a Dutch remnant meaning “body of water.”) I began to learn a language for the natural world. I learned what a tributary was. Then, mud flat, tidal estuary, brackish tidal marsh. The growing things along the shores weren’t just trees and weeds, they were oaks and locusts and big shellbark hickory. They were broom weed and phragmites. With each naming, living things with varying characteristics and behaviors became animated and meaningful. In their layers, I found Verplanck Colvin, Seneca Ray Stoddard, Pete Seeger, Frances Dunwell, Tom Lake. Human determination, people who valued and fought for our natural infrastructure.

The months passed, and my curiosities and wanderings expanded, carrying me down backroads on impulse and instinct, bringing me to pier pilings along the river that could only be seen at low tide. As I traveled and traversed, various fragments revealed themselves to me: a verdigrised sign under an Albany highway commemorating a Dutch trading fort from 1624, an old steamship ticket office, piles of bricks along the shore made and left, an ice factory, a Civil War-era swing bridge, a sunken barge rotting in the woods, moss-covered train tracks leading nowhere. Stephen van Rensselaer and Henry Burden and Erastus Corning, dreaming their 3-D dreams, determined to create a human infrastructure.

Curiosity taught me to be attentive to lingering whispers in place names. I heard a Native story in an island, Papscanee, named after a chief; more Native names in Adirondack, Coxsackie, Kinderhook, Niskayuna, Schenectady, Cohoes. I heard Dutch influence in the name “van Rensselaer,” which carried remnants of a feudal system of indenture called a patroonship that lasted three centuries, leaving its own troubling psychological scars. I lit upon Albany’s original name, “Beverwijck,” or beaver district. I read a beaver was (until extinction in the late 1660s) equal to 8 guilders. Early evidence of this perverse Euro-American habit of exploiting animals to the nth, then naming places after the voiceless entities being destroyed.

And then there were, spread all over this region, dozens of quixotic blue-and-yellow historic markers that teased significant people and events but—in a future-facing world—lacked context and had become irrelevant. World-changing human endeavors reduced to 15 words, like tweets. Joseph Henry and the invention of electricity (through induction), tilted on the lawn in Academy Park. Glenn Curtiss and the first long-distance land flight, obscurely planted in the Port of Albany where no one would ever see it. Emma Willard’s vision for an educational institution for women on par with men, gated and tucked away on the East Side. Nearby, Lock One of the Erie Canal, in a parking lot beneath a highway. Henry Burden’s Iron Works. The nation’s first railroad. Inventions and discoveries and innovations too many to list.

Underpinning these discoveries: Albany as the longest continually occupied European settlement in the eastern United States, its charter granted in 1686, making it the oldest still in force in the United States. Albany wasn’t about pilgrims. It was about igniting the sparks of capitalism, then letting them rage to flame. Empire State, indeed.

For a while, I was quite taken by human endeavor. With each discovery I made, I started to recover a sense of pride about being from Troy, living in Albany. As I slowly unwrapped my home over weeks and months and years, certainly not in any kind of chronological order, I discovered two more valuable things. One: both the bold endeavors and the people who’d accomplished them had been wiped away democratically. No more sachems (thousands of years on the river) nor brickmakers (300 years on the river), nor steamship captains (150 years on the river). Nothing from the inventors and manufacturers, silence from the skull cracker cranemen, laundresses, bobbin boys and girls. And two: I was at odds with the male-centered conquesting and industrialization of this place. It didn’t speak to my ethic. With each visit to the river, a recognition of absence rose to the surface.

Gone: the aboriginal people, Mahicans and Mohawks. Enticed to hunt and fish themselves out of a way of life. Gone: their ethic, manito, which held that rocks, trees, animals, and the river itself were animated with a spiritual life force. Gone: most things with fur, feathers, and four legs. Gone: the birds that, according to Adrien van der Donck, in A Description of New Netherland from the 1650s, were once so abundant they blocked the rays of the sun. Instead: Henry Hudson’s vision of a river as a business venture. With the arrival of the Dutch West India Company, evidence of the forging of the gears of capitalism being built with each negotiation, each land grab, each contract, handshake and shady arrangement, with each animal skin, money making cloaked by the deceptively simple words, “trade” and “settlement.” To come: the dehumanization of place. To come: concentric rings of diminishment through domination. To come: an eradication of feminine influence. To come: the loss of every kind of secret in the land.

In reckoning with disappearance, I realized that forgetting, letting go, and indifference to the past were elemental to survival here. One afternoon at the grocery store, I noticed a scrapman’s ad on a cart: “recycling our present to conserve our future.” I felt the “evisceration and erasure of home….” that Karrie Arsenault had written about in her book Mill Town.

Thus I’d discovered the paradox of New York. A friend from China shared this with me: “We have an expression, ‘If you love someone, send them to New York. If you hate someone send them to New York.’ ”

**

Over a decade, and mostly on weekends, I moved from ignorance to awareness. I taught myself a language for the things I could see and developed an imagination for the things I couldn’t. I gave myself as many stories as I could and stitched up my own private chronology of home. Because I wanted some comfort, I chose to see at its core a magnificent compression of human and natural infrastructures. The bones and beating heart of it.

And because I deeply desired beauty, I began photographing the river. Its various looks and moods were constantly changing. At dawn and dusk, at high and low tide, in summer, fall, winter, and spring, I built a place for myself in the land. I also developed an awareness of and appreciation for the convergences of water and mountains that define our world-class landscape, anchored as we are between two renowned mountain ranges to north and south—Adirondacks and Catskills—and at the joining of two mighty rivers—Hudson and Mohawk. Recently, the word tsceminicum came to me, a Nez Perce word meaning “meeting of the waters.” My sense that there is power in convergence echoes back over centuries and returns to me.

The power, of course, doesn’t lie simply in descriptive geographical terms, but in what these rivers do, what they are, how they flow, their appearance, and in how we need them because they support life. People get used to their surroundings, so it’s easy to become desensitized, and I wonder how many residents still have not seen the sun setting on Cohoes Falls or noticed a low tide on the Hudson, have not watched eagles fledging from Peebles Island, or witnessed glass eels spawning up a tributary. I wonder how many don’t appreciate this bounty or can’t see its critical infrastructure because they lack the language.

As I came to terms with the region’s industrial history, I developed a language and a debt of gratitude for my American hot shower. I recognized that my easy commute on I-787, my electric lights and internet, my fresh food, my clothes, and my safe, clean ride on an Amtrak train are luxuries enabled by thousands of people—mostly men—whose faces and names I do not know but who have built and maintained this human infrastructure.

Still, I want to be clear: I’m hurt—well, pissed might be more accurate—that women didn’t have a meaningful voice in the making of this place. And frustrated, because I can’t find myself in what has been done to “civilize” or build or claim the region that is my home. Because I (meaning women) had almost no voice in its making, I can’t locate myself in my discoveries. A man’s way of problem solving with dirt, force, efficiency, and disregard for collateral damage is not my way. If Henry Burden’s wife, Helen, had leaned over to him in bed at night, saying, “I’d rather you didn’t build your railroad so close to the river. I think we need a water garden instead,” he didn’t listen. None of them did. Today, this one-sided, masculine vision of an industrialized infrastructure has come at too high price; it may be forcing us to participate in our own demise.

**

It’s 6 a.m. on a Saturday in June, and I’m wandering Hannacroix Creek, a tributary just south of Albany, to photograph low tide. My nine-year-old self feels very much alive. I watch an eagle dive for fish, a swan in the distance, two deer walking to the water’s edge. I think about how a few questions (to seek, a difficulty, a doubt, an interrogation, a torture) turned into my own Corps of Discovery, elongated over ten years.

Infrastructure is all the rage with politicians these days, and I wonder if nature will finally become a legal, defensible human-infrastructure right. I wonder, too, about convergences, the place where disparate interests meet and how we need to manage them better. Those places where river meets road. Maybe the generation coming up, a mix of women and men, will imagine ways to use our tech infrastructure to bridge converging human and natural infrastructures. I also wonder at the fact that Americans, at least urban ones, seem more literate in consumer luxuries than landscape. Perhaps the trick of change lies in a wider vocabulary.

Suddenly, I hear the double-hull rumble of a tanker. I laugh to myself—it’s the industrial sounds drawing me back to the present, while the Hudson’s tide is quietly rising.

After a decade of exploring, the Capital District has vindicated itself to me, and I am no longer searching for home. Do I love what I found? I don’t know. It’s possible I loved finding my home more than I love living here. Being New York, I could pick a side and fight. Perhaps it would help me solidify my commitment to place. I think, though, I’d rather build a bridge, though not with iron, steel, and concrete.

 

1. Blue crab molt. Discovered on the banks of the Hudson River. Nature has wondrous methods for changing and adapting, but needs habitat and can’t survive against ubiquitous human disturbance.
2. Blue sky tug: A tug boat at work on the beautiful Hudson. Huge preservation, rescue, and legal efforts have returned the Hudson to a state of natural beauty. The natural world is less exploited than it once was, however, it is not pristine but shared.
3. Convergence on Mohawk: A former 19th-century ribbon factory sits at the convergence of the Hudson (out of frame) and Mohawk Rivers, where the first lock of the Erie Canal opens to the west. I am standing on Peebles Island, to my back is a bald eagle’s nest that has produced 1-2 fledglings each year for more than 5 years. In 1960, there were only two eagles left in New York. Today, with massive help, protection, and hand-rearing, there are about 500 nesting pairs.
4. Race 3: Original Erie Canal fragment. The Canal was built along the Mohawk River, by hand and by ox, with no engineers, connecting the Midwest to world markets via the Hudson River and New York ports.
Susan Petrie is an artist and writer and holds an MFA from Bennington College. Her book, Hundred-Mile Home: A Story Map of Albany, Troy & the Hudson River was published in April 2021 by SUNY Press. To look at Susan’s Hudson River wanderings, visit her Instagram: spetrie_100milehome or website:susanpetrie.com.