A Catskill Catalog: Feb. 4, 2009

I was amused a few years back by a cover story in New York magazine. The August 2003 article was about the Catskills’ second-home real estate boom that followed the horrible events of September 2001, when hundreds of New Yorkers discovered the Catskills and many bought homes and acreage here in the mountains.
What amused me was the notion that the Catskills were kind of a new Hamptons, the seaside resort towns where many New Yorkers have traditionally summered. “It’s the old Hamptons lifestyle without the new Hamptons scene,” the article said of our mountains, “though there’s certainly no shortage of beautiful people.”
Well, at least they got that right. I’m sure the magazine wasn’t referring to the Converse sneaker wearing, Dickies work clothes and Carhartt jacket crowd that I found so compelling when I came here from the suburbs 30 some-odd years ago. Nonetheless, the Catskills are filled with beautiful people.

Back to nature
How do you capture the sensibility of a people? What made Catskill Mountain folks so, I don’t know, interesting to the many of us young people who flocked here in the wake of the back-to-nature ’60s and ’70s?
A Joe DiMaggio story I once heard captures some of it. It seems the great Yankee Clipper, perhaps the greatest baseball player ever to play the game, was a passenger in an automobile driving through our area on the way to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Somewhere south of Cooperstown, the driver got lost. Spotting a farmer on his tractor mowing hay, DiMaggio’s friend pulled over to the side of the road to ask directions.
The farmer got off his tractor and walked slowly to the passenger side of the car. He leaned in the passenger side window, looking and talking across the famous, and highly recognizable, ballplayer to give directions. “Cooperstown?” he said, eyes on the driver. “Just head straight a few miles until you come to an intersection,” the mountain farmer began. His focus was on the driver, describing turns and landmarks, until he interrupted himself momentarily, patted DiMaggio on the arm, said, “I see you, Joe, I see you,” and then went right back to direction giving.
No fuss. No celebrity gushing. Just the quiet human dignity of one person letting another know he matters, but on an equal plane, and within the context of the task at hand: getting the driver to Cooperstown. For me, that’s the Catskills.
I got to thinking about this last week at a workshop I attended that focused on the great writer and naturalist John Burroughs. Each of us who participated in the session focused on Burroughs as the writer of over 30 books, Burroughs as the master of the nature essay, Burroughs as literary critic, Burroughs as keen observer of the natural world. And John Burroughs was all of those things.
Yet, somehow, coming away from the workshop, I felt as if the John Burroughs I have come to admire and love was missing. That was the John Burroughs who was friends with the poet Walt Whitman and the President Theodore Roosevelt – two pretty different types of guys. The John Burroughs who used to stop at the neighbor’s to take a quick nap, tuckered out from the long walk home uphill from the Roxbury Post Office. The John Burroughs surrounded by a bevy of Vassar girls who loved the old man.
That John Burroughs was a Catskill Mountain guy, a lot like the farmer who refused to objectify Joe DiMaggio.
Elbert Hubbard, a longtime friend of Burroughs, tried to capture the essence of the man in his little book Old John Burroughs, now out of print. Hubbard was a writer and thinker associated with the early 20th-century Arts and Crafts Movement. Not being a Catskill Mountain guy himself, he gushed a bit over Burroughs. But he also captured a bit of the mountain sensibility that makes John Burroughs so attractive even today, decades after his death.
Of Burroughs, Hubbard wrote: “He is a piece of elemental nature. He has no hate, no whim, no prejudice. He has no airs, and he believes in the rich, the poor, the learned, and the ignorant. He believes in the wrongdoer, the fallen, the sick, the weak, and the defenseless. He loves children, animals, birds, insects, trees, and flowers. You would confess to this man – reveal your soul and tell the worst, and his only answer would be, ‘I know! I know!’ and tears of sympathy and love would dim those heaven-blue eyes.”
Now there’s a description of the Catskill Mountain beautiful people we can all aspire to.