Another Glance at Greylock

As a kid I spent a decade growing up on a hill near Albany, NY and had a backyard view of both the Catskill Mountains, to the west, and the Berkshires to the south and east. You could say that those low-lying mountains left an imprint on the brain, still noticeable these long years after.

I left the region, never guessing that 60 years later I would finally come back to the highlands of western Massachusetts, to the rolling hills near Williamstown and Pittsfield, to the marble and the limestone earth, long overdue. And here it was: Green Mountain culture, hiking, arts, small breweries, fine restaurants, and fishing.

motel site, Williamstown, MA
birch, near Greylock…
marble dam, Natural Bridge State Park…

Several days were spent near Hemlock Brook and Williams College, casting flies in the North Fork Hoosic, resting in the smell of honeysuckle blooms, with views of Greylock, highest mountain in the state, its summit (3,491′) once attained by literary hikers Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Thoreau. The latter spent a night there in July 1844, an act that reinforced his growing sense of personal independence and adventure– one year prior to his start at Walden Pond.

North Fork, Hoosic…
limestone waters

I toured the Herman Melville residence called Arrowhead and, from the writer’s desk and attic window, saw Mt. Greylock in the distance. The forms of Saddle Ball and Greylock were an inspiration for the famed creator of Moby Dick. The snow-crowned winter peaks reminded him of a great white whale that broke out from the ocean’s surface. My perception of the ancient hills was far more modest, naturally, but significant in a personal way. I saw the Berkshires as I viewed them at the age of 10, but closer now.

Arrowhead…

If I’m fortunate to have another look at Berkshire country, I could hope for a clear day and a view of five states from the taiga-boreal top of Greylock Mountain. I would try to see the distant Green River and a possible spot to fish it near the New York border. I would try, as well, to locate Kinderhook Creek, the stream where I caught my first trout on a fly in the early 1960s. Driving home from Greylock, I could stop there at the headwaters of the Kinderhook to ply its waters, as if I’d never walked its shaded banks before.

looking down, Natural Bridge…
Saddle Ball, w/ Greylock hidden behind…
Greylock, from North Adams…
dome, North Adams…
phoebe, waiting my return
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A Trout in the Milk

“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”

H.D. Thoreau

On April 15th Leighanne and I drove south from the wintry residues of western New York for a weekend in the Pittsburgh environs and then onward for a week in central Virginia. Away from home, the fresh spring season came alive as vibrantly as a trout dunked momentarily into a stream of cold fresh milk.

“one of the forgotten classics of rock and roll history”

I am not advocating an experiment whereby hatchery trout, or any kind of fish, are allowed to swim outside of their natural waters. I’m merely suggesting that “circumstantial evidence is very strong” at times, as in this case where a season is most welcoming. En route to Virginia we drove through the mountains of western Maryland and West Virginia in an unanticipated “nor’easter” for about eight hours when the trip, under normal weather conditions, should have taken only half that time. Unlike hundreds of other unprepared travelers, we came through relatively unscathed, and thankful for the southern warmth and bright blue sky.

from Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle State Park…
Youghiogheny River…

Another trout in the milk, for me, has been more like a piranha in the bloodstream. Several months ago, I suffered a physical injury that limits my ability, for now, to walk long distances or even to wade a favorite stream, so I felt lucky to have strolled a bit of the southern trails and have had a measure of success while casting a dry fly to the river denizens.

kayak sans kayaker…
hmm…

To find words for my experiences I look to the seed syllables of language– to the wind and water and the birds– to communicate and share the joy and pain. The seed syllables can be sourced, as well, in the plants and animals and landforms of our place in the world. We may feel their impulse and respond with the equivalent of a field note, i.e., “Saw a kayak turned topsy-turvy in the rapids.” Later, the field note can develop the full reflection of an experience: “From the high bridge spanning the Youghiogheny River (aka “the Yawk”), the stranded kayak seemed to shimmy like a rainbow trout.”

Cucumber Falls
Meadow Run (a misnomer), a trout stream that’s more pastoral farther up…

The poet or the naturalist-at-heart transcribes a little corner of the world to help share its beauty or significance with others. Thus, we find our place in Nature and suggest its variability as we build an art form or develop a sense of peace or solitude or hope. Why not? We could do worse than mirror our relationships with the non-human world or that deeper place anchored in the overlap of civilization and the wild.

wild brooks were fairly numerous
a nice brown… unfortunately, a camera breakdown has precluded my use of rainbow trout photos taken in the lowlands, and of pictures snapped from Skyline Drive…

The writer William Stafford once said that “Poetry is something everyone is caught up in, early (as in childhood), and a few keep on doing.” The pursuit of poetry or music and the arts in general can help overcome the fragmentation of our specialized, adult lives. One need not be an artist to appreciate the work that artists do, nor be a fisherman to recognize a good trout finning in the milk.

hepatica
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The Antipodes

The British writer, H.T. Sheringham (1879-1930), has been critically lauded as one of the best angling writers of all time, who wrote primarily of local waters but whose style can appeal to readers of wider interest. An advocate of any type of fishing, from pursuit of the “coarse” species on up to Atlantic salmon, Sheringham isn’t much remembered in our day, but some of the excerpts that I’ve read from his books have had me laughing, shaking my head or nodding in full agreement. Here’s a good one on the notion of antipodes, or “polar opposites,”(from the book Trout Fishing: Memories and Morals) to think about as we contemplate some very dire consequences for the heedless actions of world governments:

H.T.S., courtesy, Fallon’s Angler

“The world, by the signs of the day, is turning, or being turned, upside down, and in a few years we may all be at the Antipodes of our former states, as old Sir Thomas Browne might have said. But it is some comfort to me that the real Antipodes are now very well furnished with trout.

“That being so, the figurative Antipodes will surely not be without them. The future, therefore, need not be wholly strange and alarming.”

We gotta credit the guy for trying…

maple sap’s on tap
old style

Thinking of recent world events, I remain almost at a loss for words. Yeah, I’ve hopped on board the Antipodes Express and got a laugh out of images like the Texas senator riding shotgun in big wide circles with the DC truck convoy in a time of war, and wondered who was complaining about the price of gas? Other times, I’ve looked to the calming scene of hungry birds outside my window, some of them in migratory transit, still adapting to their frozen nesting grounds…

fox sparrow en route to Canada
after the buckwheat cakes & maple syrup

And talk about antipodes… From the darkened world of the pandemic to the brightening days of spring and the opening up of in-person art events comes this: The Writers’ Stage, with featured readers Meghan Dwyer and the American Gothic Brothers, Peter and Walt Franklin. Although less dramatic than a quick reversal of the Earth’s magnetic poles, it’ll be a party, and everyone’s invited. Reading to begin, May 4th, 6:30 p.m., at the Hornell, NY Community Arts Center, Broadway Mall. Meghan will read from her accomplished romance novels, Peter from his rough-and-ready tales, and Walt from his new book, Learning the Terrain, another segment of which will finish up this post:

American Gothic bros….
very much available!

“… I was thinking like a creek, or possibly a scop. A scop is defined as a bard, or poet, of the Anglo-Saxon days in ancient England. I was drawn to the word and to the scop’s role in medieval time because of the pandemic in 2020 and the way its subsequent restrictions had revised my own approach to the environment…

My inner scop was ready to begin from scratch– to go with the flow of new surroundings, to fly-fish on a clear stream close to home, to scope out the poetry of earth the way that minstrels worked in days of yore. Doing so, I might appease the need of trying something different in these difficult times. It was like teetering on the brink of creation all over again…”

Keeney Swamp, waiting…
a look at Spring (courtesy, Scott Cornett)
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Uncomfortably Numb

Numbed by recent world events, all I can say is stand with the down-trodden and maybe also lend a moment to John Steinbeck’s thought, “All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.” And as we read, how about this from writer, Ray Bradbury, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

Numbed by a peculiar feeling emanating from within myself and from distant lands, I still managed to enjoy a recent visit with my son and his wife at Cook State Forest in western Pennsylvania. The old-growth forest with its stately pine and hemlock trees uplifted our spirits even as the ice-clad trails kept us sliding on our keisters. Later, I could fortify a springtime hope for peace with words revisited in my new book Learning the Terrain:

“…When I walk or fish along a run, it’s possible that everything outside of this small place will fall away. Goodbye, news of the world. Farewell, financial woes. See you later, friends, as well as screwball enemies… For the purity of the moment, for its sheer simplicity, I have something that is almost sacred. If the stream could talk, it just might tell me something about who I am and where I am headed.

“I cast in the quiet company of streams and see that the waters of Earth move systematically. The brook trout gets connected with the wood duck that is connected to the forest that’s connected to the trout lily blossoming at its feet. There is distance here, but the place is also close and intimate…

“… When I heard of the death and mayhem, I took solace in the creek. I fished it, knowing that the stream would comfort me and lighten the load. It did not spit in my face or take any side at all. It favored no religion or political agenda, no one theory or belief. The creek was simply there, cold, and flowing bank to bank, clear and tumbling toward the distant bay.

“The stream was there to embrace me if I wanted it to care. It was there to reject me if I got in its way. I stood in its waters feeling like the young musician who towed a grand piano to a site of death and terror. Towed it with a bike! The fellow could not raise the dead or heal the injured, but his playing helped to soothe the pain for a bit…”

Music. Literature. The Effort. Please contribute where you can.

available @ Amazon & Wood Thrush Books…
in many places, trails were sheer ice…
Leighanne, w/ hemlock or pine…

wondrous, Cook State Forest….
springtime hope, March Brown, by Scott Cornett.
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It’s Here! Learning the Terrain

I’m excited to relay the news that my new book, Learning the Terrain, has been published by Wood Thrush Books in Swanton, Vermont. The book is now available from Wood Thrush, as well as from Amazon (Kindle or paperback) and Yours Truly. I’ve been fortunate to have had an excellent editor and small-press publisher handling the five-book series on fly-fishing, hiking, and natural history experiences, the first of which appeared in 2008. This latest publication will be my last book of its kind, but its 144-page content held by attractive matte covers is a work that I am proud to offer. At my Amazon Page you can click the “Look Inside” button and preview a generous sample from the book’s beginning. Many of you know my writing style and interests, and I’m sure you’ll find the book price of $14 to be worth every cent. For readers new to Rivertop Rambles, Learning the Terrain is a great place to learn what it’s all about, to enjoy the streams and rivers, oceanside and mountains, from the comfort of your world.

In other news, it’s been a long cold winter in New York, a good season for outdoor adventuring, if you’re so inclined. As for me, I’m ready for a change. The trails and streams are beckoning. I have plans for the home front and for the road, as well. The mountains of New York, the hills and streams of Pennsylvania, even some westward travel later in the year. Even though I sometimes entertain a fit conclusion for the life of Rivertop Rambles in its present form, I have no solid outlook at this time.

I thank you all for your patronage and wish everyone a bright new season. Read good books for the enjoyment of interesting perspectives and remember that a banned book is in likelihood a work that needs to be read and reconsidered.

Phil: 6 more weeks no fishing… Rivertoprambles: You lie!
snowy headquarters
Cardinal “learning the terrain”/ got the whole world in his brain…
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Winter on the Genesee

Creak of beech bough, crack of ice. No eagle sharp-eyed for a fish, no wild duck drifting on the flow. So, what is here? The trout are unobtainable, the sun glimmers faintly in the canopy, the promise of a snowstorm for the night. There’s a patchwork green– the stiff fern by a stump, the skunk cabbage rising over crystalline seeps.

Genesee w/ rail-to-trail on left…

Inside the pointed cabbage heads– a fire. A cold Catskill Mountains night, late 19th-century. A lonely angler sitting by the hearth, with pen to paper, scratching out another of his “Little Talks.” Theodore Gordon rambles conversationally, confiding, questioning, provoking one more issue of his day– for trout, for angler, for himself. By morning, his successes and failures will invite him to another round of tying artificial flies, their beauty resonating through the century that follows.

Skunk cabbage holds one particle of sun. It flourishes and greens a Catskill riverside, a woodstove meditation, streams that flow through any healthy land. The hiker pauses by a wild plant near the Genesee. The snow will come, the warmth remain.

Quill Gordon, first created by T. Gordon; photo copyright Mike Valla…
beavers like cherry…
poets like…
Genny reminds me of upper Pine…
view from Owl Farm, early 2022…
and then came the snow (15 inches?).
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Evolution ’21/’22

Although much of 2021 was spent toning up Greenwood’s “Owl Farm,” we were able to refresh our views at year’s end with a visit to Brent and Catherine’s new house in metro-Pittsburgh. Son and daughter-in-law were excellent hosts as country dwellers and urban folk alike enjoyed celebratory hours and received some eye-opening views of the rejuvenated city. One of the highlights was an afternoon spent at the impressive Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History where daughter Alyssa and my wife and I (along with our hosts) enjoyed a river-bottom ramble through time. Yes, our beloved Allegheny River joins the Monongahela to form the mighty Ohio River just outside these hallowed corridors. For the purpose of this short narrative, I have chosen a handful of museum pics to brighten the display of 22 images.

A happy & healthy New Year to all!

three of ’em, actually, plus bridges & the steepest streets in all the land (SF included)
Greenwood domicile…
3 river skyline from Mt. Washington…
Steelers’ stadium…
we had fun on the Funicular, one of 2 remaining old transports in the city (Ohio River forming from Allegheny on left, Monongahela on right)
top of the hill, maybe, but a taste unlike anything since college days…
inside the museum’s mineral hall
and the reptiles
in a sense we all live on Turtle’s back…
Sinosauropteryx @ Carnegie… found in China, 1990s, first dinosaur to be discovered with feathers preserved– a sure sign that birds evolved from reptiles…
mankind DEVOlved when causing mass extinctions… Here, a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, from 1912…
illustration of pre-colonial Pittsburgh…
a rise form…
reptile/bird
stained glass window at B./C.’s new/old house…
Bob Stanton’s gift of hope for ’22!
a t-shirt gift from B.&C. sez it all!
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The Return of Old Woodenhead

[In which we hear an echo from an earlier post or two at Rivertop Rambles, now an excerpt from my book Wings Over Water (available from Amazon, Wood Thrush Books, or myself). That said, Old Woodenhead, my Christmas confidante or alter ego, wishes everyone aboard a very healthy and enjoyable holiday season!]

“Walt Franklin on the Stream” is a wood carving that my wife gave me as a Christmas present years ago. The sculpture, an example of Pennsylvania folk art, was produced by David Castano, a full-time wood carver from Potter County, PA.

that rod has taken quite a beating

Castano’s approach to working with a knife might be construed as an attempt to represent an individual in the context of family and work traditions. According to the artist, his wooden figures reflect the value and diversity of workers in America. He was once commissioned to carve the figures of nine surviving mine workers rescued in 2002 from the Que Creek coal disaster in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Since fly-fishing isn’t usually thought to be a part of America’s work traditions, I was fortunate to be considered a suitable subject for the carver’s time. But wait a minute– can’t fun be part of the work experience, too? Let’s look at this example…

work done, Four Mile reminiscence, Allegheny River

Winter had been present for a while, but on Winter Solstice, the astronomical gun-start for the season, rain was on tap for the region, and the temperature was rising quickly. Since the weather hadn’t registered above the freezing mark in more than two weeks, I wanted to fly-fish if the signs were good, so I packed a couple of rods for the drive to the Kettle Creek Tackle Shop. The plan was to fish, if possible, and to drop off one rod that I’d broken in November.

Phil Baldacchino’s shop near Hammersley Fork is a favorite fly and tackle center in my region, and the owner had agreed to make a replacement tip for a bamboo rod that he had sold. Phil was quick to show some of the latest fly rods he had built, cool fiberglass and bamboo instruments. I stood there in the narrow aisles of the shop as he handed me one rod after another, expertly providing the statistics for each one. In the dim glow of the quiet shop, I was like an old salmon that had found his natal river, like a kid aboard the Polar Express that pushed across the Northern Lights.

Santa Phil? No way…

I was there only to deliver a broken rod and maybe to buy a few small items, but the fun that came from looking over all the new stuff started to reveal the dark side of the sport. It began to feel like work. Putting thumb prints on a gorgeous spacer carved from box elder and testing the “speed” of various rod tapers, for example, wasn’t easy, but I thought, what the hell. It was the Winter Solstice; why not stand back and enjoy?

Returning home in the rain, I slowed the car at numerous bridge crossings and threw a long eye to the widening streams. The waters were rising from a sudden snowmelt. Road slush was accumulating and preventing a safe stop, so I limited my day’s work to the job description of a stream monitor. Difficult labor, maybe, but somebody had to do it.

Winter Solstice, Gemini Moon

At home, I took David Castano’s carving from the shelf. I turned it upside down and read the statue’s title at the bottom. “Walt Franklin on the Stream.” I took it to our creekside by the waterfall and stood the statue at the water’s edge, the way a kid might play with sticks beside a pool. The carving looked right at home there by the creek. I thought about the fishing creel constructed at my side. Although I’d never worn a wicker basket even in the formative years of youth, the notion of it smacked of tradition, so was fine with me. The scene looked almost celebratory in the rain. A gift from the past gave me enjoyment in the present. I even had a fish pulled from the water, lively in the air.

back for more…
Elfie, that was for the Bourbon Balls!
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Water Lines

I hadn’t been fishing in a while and felt the need to reconnect. We’ve been working on the house all year, and some of the wettest months on record have produced poor opportunities for being on the water. Still, I needed reconnection with an earth mother dwelling in the clay and ferns, among the spruce and birch, beneath the river pools and riffles. I imagined that her late-year loveliness or her reptile countenance were tantamount to Time itself…

We needed to replace an ancient water line between the hillside spring and the plumbing in our basement. Digging out the long trench, draining the springhouse reservoir, we fixed the old connections, straightened out 200 feet of plastic line, backfilled tons of muddy clay, and let the water rise again to meet our needs with gravity’s permission…

Work aside, I track small animals that complement my being. Salamanders cold beside December rocks near the springhouse. Moles and field mice looking for an exit from the frost and thickening ice. Raccoons and foxes denning behind the barn. And trout– I could live with brook trout gathered in my reservoir of dreams! I track small animals, as if to balance a skewed totality, to speak with them and know them as my own.

5 December brown…
Mired in the mud, the Cat couldn’t come back– till rescued by Excavator…

The reconnection has its hurdles. Weather can be uncooperative. Machinery can bog down or destroy the gentle mystery. The flow can kick the ass of expectation! But completed, there is dialogue… I hear quiet words between a wild fish and an angler. Lines of poetry or prose in past and present time. A burst of exclamation! An exchange between a dream and a wakeful moment… Water lines.

contemplating old Red Wing shoe ad while in muddy boots!
upper Allegheny River, 12/5/21
autumn sycamore…
Fall Creek, Ithaca….
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In Praise of Hemlock

Indeed, the most precious things of life are often close at hand, obtained with little cost, and we give our thanks for what sustains us. A short walk from my home is a grove of hemlock trees. I often enter the grove in a summer evening and obtain a feeling that is priceless. The mature green conifers subdue the final rays of sunlight and reveal a growing sense of fine remoteness, a serenity verging on the spiritual.

Here amidst the hemlock trees the eyes grow large; the senses sharpen in the solitude. And yet I’m not alone. The winter wren rings out its intricate song as if from a soundboard of the deep ravine and massive trunks. The hermit thrushes flute melodically. John Burroughs thought them to evoke “the finest sound in nature,” and I almost see him there, sitting on a mossy log at dusk, chewing on a citric-flavored sorrel leaf.

The eastern hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, is yet another forest tree in serious trouble. Hemlocks managed to survive unmerciful cutting through the nineteenth-century when the bark was valued for its tannin content and a promise for the leather industry. Today this so-called “redwood of the East,” so vital for the sustenance of brook trout and other cold-water species of the uplands that require deep shade and cool temperatures, has become a victim of the woolly adelgid, a non-native insect that consumes the tree by sucking the sap from buds and branches. Sadly, the tree is dying fast.

I think of hemlock and I think of Burroughs’ derived “peace and solemn joy.” I think of the support teams struggling to save endangered species. We can reach out to them and create, perhaps, our own steps toward the goal of preservation. I once wrote the following poem: Hemlock’s inner bark was ground for doctoring scurvy, diarrhea, sores, and swelling. Needles, boiled for tea, induced the bleeding of colds and poison. Hemlock: to interpret dreams, to balance thought and action. Long before the sickness, the incurable business of procuring and possessing, rooted like a fungus on the world, the woodlanders sought an evergreen spirit for contentment and survival.

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