Place

Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more quickly.

-Edward Dalhberg, from Because I Was Flesh

This piece originally appeared in the Webzine As it Ought to Be.

Mid-Hudson Valley, New York. The place to which I first belonged, which belonged to me then in flesh and belongs to me now in memory – memory visual, aural, tactile – was a 165-acre Hudson Valley farm. On the east bank of the river, just north of the village of Croton-on-Hudson, itself some forty miles north of New York City, overlooking the river from the crest of what seemed such a great hill to me then, the farm was no longer worked, but it was kept well.

Willard Brinton, a Quaker from Philadelphia, an engineer by training, owned the property with his wife. We had moved to a house that abutted the farm when I was four years old. Not long after I met two brothers, Mike and Geoff Sutherland – one older, one younger than me. They lived on the farm itself with their parents, who had bought a house from “old man Brinton”, as he was called behind his back. We became explorers and scouts, walking the property’s bounds, exploring hay ricks and caves, skirting the lake where, with our fathers, we would fish while our mothers sat on the steps of the cabin that fronted the lake and drank cheap sherry. We flushed a giant one early fall evening and went running to our fathers to tell them. Having encountered giants themselves when they were young, they did not discount our story, but instead went off in search of him. He was gone by the time we returned.

Ever restless, old man Brinton was always having something done on the property. One of the greatest of his works was a series of cascading ponds, formed by building a series of small dams on the stream that ran through the property and down into the Hudson. One was fitted with a diving board. There we swam, trying hard to jump on each other as we ran off the board. One day we spotted a huge snapping turtle in one of the upper ponds. “Big Mike”, my friends’ father, was able to lift it from the edge of a pond into a 55-gallon barrel filled with water. I don’t know why it deserved such confinement. We knew it could be dangerous to us, but his pond was not where we swam.

From the house where I lived, I could walk through the woods down to the railroad tracks that ran along the Hudson. Today’s parents would not think of letting their children do what we were allowed to do: cross those tracks to get to the river bank. But my father had grown up in New York City and my mother, an Englishwoman, had survived the Blitz in wartime London, so what harm could come to us? The tracks were a source of coal that fell from the steam engines’ coal cars and a source of the odd equipment – shovels, lanterns, mysterious tools and pieces of metal – that fell from the trains. One day my friend Geoff and I were standing on the river bank when a huge fish broke the water’s surface: its back seemed to go on forever. We ran screaming from the bank, flew across the tracks with no regard for what might be coming and fled through the woods back up to the house. Only years later did I realize that it was a sturgeon, probably one of the last of the very old ones that would migrate up the river.

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