Ithaca, New York — After spending three weeks in Seattle, smoke-choked from the Bolt Creek Fire burning north of the city, I returned to Upstate New York. Here the skies were blue and the foliage glorious gold with touches of red from the sugar maples, most of whose leaves had already fallen.
After the West Coast sojourn my lungs were in need of a deep purge and so I set out with a daughter from our doorstep to hike from Ithaca to Watkins Glen—45 out of the 584 miles of the Finger Lakes Trail which runs from the Pennsylvanian border in Southwestern New York to the Catskill Mountains in the eastern part of the state.
I stashed the car in Watkins Glen on Friday afternoon and cycled back to Ithaca on rural roads. After a harrowing stretch on the state highway up the long grade out of Montour Falls to Odessa, I encountered only a few cars. The traffic increased dramatically on the outskirts of Ithaca, commuters leaving the urban jobs mostly at Cornell University—the biggest employer in the county—for their houses in the countryside. Land is still cheap, though the boom is on. A realtor friend says many of the new buyers are fleeing the flaming West.
Elizabeth and I started walking from our house the next morning before sunrise: down the shoulder of our gorge, through downtown Ithaca with its new high rises and old clapboard houses, out the strip—its big and small boxes (from Home Depot to KFC) all new since we moved here and all built on what was a giant wetland that once extended from the southern shores of Lake Cayuga down the long valley left by the receding glaciers after the last Ice Age. A kindred marsh survives largely intact (though a Walmart decimated dozens of acres of it a few years ago) in Watkins Glen at the southern end of Seneca Lake, the terminus of our ramble.
As the sun rose, we crossed New York State Route 13, already busy on an early Saturday morning. Almost suddenly we were on the Finger Lakes Trail, enclosed in the forest’s magic—glowing yellow above and a thick carpet of maple gold below. Oblivious and alien to this luminous world, the cars and trucks whizzed by beyond trees.
After a couple of miles the path bent away the highway the and the sounds of the traffic give way to the sounds of the woodland—the taunt of a jay and the burbling call of a Carolina Wren, and that perpetually rustling and crackling under foot.
When you walk you think about everything and nothing. Against the immediate truth of birdsong and tree bark, memories flow and eddy. Some thoughts appear to follow one another, others seem to drop from beyond the canopy—or rise up from the earth like a lone pine shimmering green in a stand of beech.
Themes of life and music—is there a difference?—come and go.
The great John Ashbery, raised on a farm eighty miles north of here on the shores of Lake Ontario, walks with me for a while:
As you came from the Holy Land
of western New York state
were the graves all right in their brushings
was there a note of panic in the late August air
because the old man had peed in his pants again
was there turning away from the late afternoon glare
as though it too could be wished away
Other hikes emerge from the past. On the second day we see a sign in Texas Hollow State Forest offering a $200 reward for finding the largest American Chestnut tree in New York—the species was decimated by blight across its enormous range in the first half of the twentieth century. As we continue on our way, I think back to the bicentennial year of 1976 walking miles through Harriman State Park above the Hudson Valley looking for any surviving American Elms with my grandfather, born in the 19th century and raised in the Irish brick making town of Haverstraw, New York. We didn’t find any elms.
There are musical chestnuts too. “Autumn in New York” accompanies me for more than a few miles. From all the saplings that Vernon Duke’s song spawned, Dexter Gordon’s grew the tallest.
His long strides are always almost just behind the beat—motive walking music heard inside one’s head. The sound of his horn can, like the season, take in all hopes and disappointments. Kenny Drew’s piano glints and shimmers like sun through the leaves, and the fall colors he paints aren’t all yellows and reds, but blues.
From the hardwood forest of North American my mind flies to the Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen where Drew is buried near his fellow expatriate, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and a few plots from the physicist Niels Bohr, the writer Hans Christian Anderson, and the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
That’s what happens along the way: you think of the people you’ve walked with and those who are gone—of the friend taken before any gray streaked her flaming auburn hair.
The least portable of instruments, even the organ can be transported by the mind into the forest. Jacques van Oortermerssen, one of the great musicians of his time, died seven years ago this month. A dozen years ago he composed a setting of the Lutheran chorale “Nun ruhen alle Wälder” (Now all the woods are resting). He was commissioned to write it by the excellent English organist William Whitehead,, who had embarked on an initiative to complete one of J. S. Bach’s few unfinished undertakings: the Orgel Büchlein—the Little Organ Book. Into this small bound volume measuring just six by seven-and-a-half inches Bach laid out an entire liturgical year of chorales— 164 in total. But he completed only 46 of these exquisite miniatures. For his Orgelbüchlein Project, Whitehead enlisted 118 different musicians (some not primarily composers) working across a wide range of idioms to complete these blank pages, their contributions to be based on the hymn tunes of which only the title had been inscribed by Bach. Jacques was one of the first asked, and he was rightly proud that his short chorale prelude about the forest had been premiered by Whitehead in Westminster Abbey.
A brilliant and complicated man, Jacques’ piece is one of joyful awareness and simplicity. For a moment it seems to stray from its path, but returns in the end to the calming glint at the onset of evening. The original poetry was penned by Paul Gerhardt, one of the most prolific writers of Lutheran chorales, in 1647, the year before the conclusion of the horrific Thirty Years’ War. Gerhardt was a man of reconciliation in an age of endless religious strife. Here are the opening lines, in Catherine Winkworth’s high Victorian translation:
Now all the woods are sleeping,
And night and stillness creeping
O’er city, man, and beast.
On returning to Ithaca, I read earlier this week in the New York Times that Whitehead’s Orgelbüchlein Project is now complete.
Though his chorale artfully captures the living, breathing repose of the forest, Jacques was not someone who rested much. His music continues his journey and joins me sometimes still to walk on mine.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)