07.05.2015 All along the Bays

By John Ryle  •  Tivoli, NY  •  7 May 2015  •  1,855 words

Yesterday I walked from Tivoli, a village in upstate New York where I live part of each year, along the railway track that runs beside the Hudson River, towards Cruger Island.

The Amtrak route from Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan hugs the curves of the river all the way up from the city. Soon after it arrives here in Dutchess County—a hundred miles to the north—the shining rails and hard-wood cross-ties straighten out for a mile or two on a causeway that runs across a lagoon, like a steel rule on a mirror. This is part of the Tivoli Bays Wildlife Area, a precious redoubt where steep woods drop down to reed-lined wetlands—home to various species of turtle, some uncommon fish, and a vast conference of birds.

The village of Tivoli lies just north of the Bays—a main street and a few side streets of the friendly clapboard pattern-houses characteristic of many settlements in upstate New York, where timber has historically been easy to come by. This time last year, when the weather was just starting to get warm, I set out from here to go canoeing with my friend Susan Rogers—a naturalist and small boat aficionado—on the stretch of the river lying downstream from Tivoli. (When I first came to Dutchess County it was Susan’s memoir of life on the Hudson, My Reach, that was my introduction to the natural history of the area, and its human history.)

That day we paddled through the Bays to Cruger Island. This is not strictly an island, but a narrow, rocky peninsula linked to the mainland except when the tide is high. It’s named after a nineteenth-century Dutchess County landowner who built a folly here, shipping casts of gigantic Mayan sculptures from the Yucatan to astound visitors. Later these were moved to New York, to the American Museum of Natural History, and incorporated into one of the dioramas in the Hall of Mexico and Central America.

Only a few stone walls remain of Cruger’s folly today, but there are panoramic views from here of the Hudson and the Catskill Mountains to the west. There in the lee of the island, in the glow of the afternoon, we rested on our paddles, drifting and gazing at the hills and the river, till it was time to return to shore.


Tivoli Bays. Photo by author, May 2015.

Like a turbo-charged harmonica

Yesterday I set off for Cruger Island again, on foot this time. As I made my way down to the river from the village in the early afternoon I could see the hazard light by the railroad crossing flashing red. Then I heard the warning bell begin to ring. A northbound train came speeding through, en route to Albany or Canada—siren wailing like a turbo-charged harmonica, the mournful sound intensified by the Doppler effect of the passing train, which eclipsed the ringing of the bell—leaving a sudden silence and vacancy when it passed.

The cry of the train is a sound you hear across the continent, on still nights and quiet days, from far off, across the empty spaces of the land. In musicological terms the siren blast is a four or five-note chord—normally an E chord—formed by composite horns. The horns sound almost simultaneously, but not quite, with a hint of syncopation.

In his book, The Absent Therapist, the poet and novelist Will Eaves has this to say about them.


A sculpture originally from Uxmal in the Yucatan. Image courtesy of Egbert Benson, Historical Society of Red Hook.

“All over North America,” he writes, “the trains sound an added sixth in its first inversion when they blow their horns.”

“It’s an E chord, so that would be G sharp, B, C sharp and E, in that order.”

You can hear the echo of the locomotive horn in a swathe of American music—in harmonica fills in the blues and in country music too. It’s a national lament, the sound of ceaseless movement.

On the far side of the railroad track near Tivoli, echoing the lonesome cry of the train, a graffiti-laden wall proclaimed AMERICAN HEARTACHE in ornate, yard-high lettering. (American heartache—distinct from other kinds, US exceptionalism applying even to the lovesick and lonely.) Below the wall, on the steel rails, gleaming from the passage of rolling stock, another message had been spray-painted, in less epic lettering, though for whose benefit it was hard to tell. It said: you’ll forget it if you don’t write it down.

So I wrote it down. Seemed churlish not to. It’s good advice. And someone had risked their life—and the wrath of Amtrak—to linger in the space between the rails and inscribe it there, hidden from all but the brave.

The rough stone sidings of the railroad lead on south from here towards the causeway. Fishermen, alone and in pairs, were stationed on the banks of the big river, indifferent to the passing of the train. They were casting for striped bass, which fetch a decent price in the burgeoning restaurants of the Hudson valley (though fish from the lower Hudson have lingering traces of industrial contaminants). To the west of us lay the first of a skein of islands, Magdalen Island, a dark mass of greywacke sandstone that is the site of authentic pre-Columbian remains—that’s to say, not the imported repro-Mayan statuary of Cruger Island, but repositories of arrowheads made in situ by native Americans over the past three or four millennia. (Many have been looted; the island is pock-marked with pits dug by treasure-hunters.)


Railway track by Tivoli Bays. Photo by author, May 2015.

A huge whirl of birds

A mile or so further on is the turning for a narrow path that leads through a thicket and a swamp to South Cruger Island. The way was blocked, though, by a sign proclaiming it to be an Endangered Species Critical Area, with entrance prohibited from January to September. I’d been warned about this, but I’d forgotten—I should have written it down, like it said on the railroad track. Access to the south part of Cruger Island from the landward side is banned during all but three months of the year in order to protect the nesting site of a pair of bald eagles—the US national bird. This was formerly an endangered species, though numbers have revived and it is less endangered these days. For this reason, in winter, spring and summer, South Cruger is legally accessible only from the river.

Rather than trespass, I took the muddy causeway that leads back across the lagoon to the Tivoli woods. There, from the corner of my eye, in the shallows to the side of the causeway, I registered a stately writhing and waving of flippers. After a moment I realised that what I was looking at was a pair of mating turtles. (By human standards it was sex in slow motion, like making out when stoned.)

There are several species of turtle that live in the lagoon. Were these snapping turtles? Painted turtles? Or the rarer map turtles, whose shells, on close examination, appear to be inscribed with mysterious cartographic runes? Identification would have required close examination, though, and it felt rude to stare.


Photograph by John Ryle. May 2015.

Near the culvert that links the river to the lagoon an aluminium canoe lay beached on the levée. The canoe was chained and padlocked to a tree; otherwise I might have taken it for a spin. The view from a canoe is salutary: further from the land and closer to the water. And closer to the sky too, or so it seems when you are there. Canoeing here with Susan a year ago I had watched an osprey diving to catch fish, hurtling a hundred feet from the sky straight into the water of the bay, slicing the air like a blade through silk. Today on the Bays there was a blue heron. And a flight of geese. And in the woods warblers, woodpeckers, sparrows and wood ducks like you wouldn’t believe. A huge whirl of birds.

Back on the mainland, in the Tivoli woods, at intervals along the trails, there were Wanted posters to be seen, pinned on trees and fence posts, with the imprimatur of the Dutchess County Sheriff’s office on them. An artist’s impression of the fugitive showed a pudgy-faced male in a baseball cap. He was described as 25 to 35 years of age, six foot tall, weighing 200 pounds.

The signs were newly printed and posted; the crime, though, took place nearly twenty years ago. Back in 1997, two women, a mother and daughter, were assaulted and tied up and raped here in the woods. The assailant has never been brought to justice. In these parts, where crimes of violence are rare, public memory of the incident is still strong. Each spring the Sheriff’s Office pins up new copies of the original Wanted notice. It seems unlikely, though, after nearly two decades, that the perpetrator any longer bears much resemblance to the picture.


The balm in the day

At the northern end of the Tivoli woods, on the track that leads back towards the village, there’s an old, collapsing red-roofed barn, the remains of a Utopian community established here in the 1970s. The interior walls of the barn, if you brave the high fence and the warning signs that surround it, are revealed as dense palimpsest of antinomian slogans and psychedelic graffiti, the residue of raves and the like held in the years since it was abandoned in the 1990s. Guarding the approach to the building is a pair of huge boulders. And guarding these boulders is a careful pile of flat stones that looks like a miniature chorten, such as might mark a shrine on a pass in the Himalayas. Or it could be a hommage to Andy Goldsworthy, the rock-stacking British land artist. Or a Jewish grave, with its tribute of memorial stones.

Over time, in the Tivoli woods, these ziggurats of stone outside the old barn, the repro-Mayan ruins on Cruger Island, the arrowheads of Magdalen Island, the graffiti on the railroad, the distant moan of trains—even the Wanted posters in the woods—come to form an outdoor installation, a Wunderkammer without walls, a collection of small marvels and mysteries that complements the plenitude of nature all around.

As I drew close to home that evening, with the sun setting behind the Catskill Mountains and the air beginning to cool—as it does each evening at this blissful time of year—liquid light poured over the river and the bays, embracing birds and fish and turtles, and rocks and ruins and trees. What is the special balm in this moment of the day? How does it ease the harshness of the world? We don’t know; yet it does.