August 8th marks my would-have-been fiftieth wedding anniversary. In September, Richard and I would have been partners for fifty-two years. A few weeks ago I began writing a much longer piece about the Sawkill stream as a piece of memoir for my own pleasure. I realized I wanted to submit it for Kendal’s magazine and so shortened it a great deal. It is still probably too long for the magazine, but I thought I would put it here in two parts.
The Sawkill is a stream located in Ulster county in upstate N.Y. The banks of this stream hold the flow of my entire life before I moved to Kendal at Oberlin.
The Dutch settled the Hudson River Valley leaving behind many place names. Besides naming the Hudson River itself, countless streams and waterways flowing down the Catskill mountains often bore the suffix kill, the old Dutch name for all manner of waterbeds. The Sawkill is sourced from Echo Lake high in the Indian Head Wilderness between Overlook and Plattekillmountains. It tumbles through valleys right past Woodstock, N.Y, my hometown. It eventually flows into the Esopus river watershed and then feeds into the Hudson and on down past Manhattan into the Atlantic.
The near bank of the Sawkill was accessible to me through the field across from my grandparents’ cottage in a hamlet of Woodstock, appropriately called Shady. A mile or so up the road stood a large converted house that was the original sawmill, where a waterwheel powered the saw. A few fields up from my grandparents’ home stood a tumbled down barn- a former glass factory that used the cold waters of the stream to quench hot glass. My grandparents’ refurbished cottage was originally built to house a glass blower. My older brothers and I would meander among the tufts of grass and mounded dirt to discover glass tailings. I still have one of them, a lump of green glass sitting on my windowsill.
Getting to the stream was a trek for my little legs, crossing the country road with my grandmother, then through the field, into a strip of woods, and down the bank to reach the chilly waters. My grumbling grandfather would sometimes come with us to heave and lever boulders and rocks out of the way to make a swimming hole, bordered by a small dam. Every year the stream bed looked different due to the powerful spring snow melts that roared and boomed displacing everything in their path. Once my brothers and I were drawn to investigate such compelling intensity from a spot upstream from the sawmill house. My foot slipped down the bank and the fierce waters caught my leg. My brothers quickly yanked me back from certain doom. I pondered the stream’s dangerous nature as I squelched my way back to the safety of my grandparents.
The Sawkill was my best playmate when I was an older child and stayed overnight with my grandparents by myself. In the summer, I’d walk there carrying my grandmother’s smallest speckled blue roasting pan. The hot July smells of tiny alpine strawberries, the abundant daisies to make crowns for my head, or the sure sight of fairies flickering among the butterflies slowed my progress but eventually, the wet aroma of decaying woods and leaflitter led me sliding down the steep bank to my destination.
Once there, I shed my shoes and clothes to stand in my bathing suit up to my ankles in the cool water. I waited until curious minnows nibbled at my toes. Then I gathered my “Indian” painting rocks carried down to me from miles away. I’d search the stream bed for just the right ones. Depending on the minerals in each pebble, I could assemble a palette of whites shaded blue to green, or reds to purples, and ochres to oranges. I’d climb aboard the flattest boulder I could find and scrub the wet stones into a thick paste. First, I’d decorate my own body, face to toes, and then set about adorning the rock. When the colored mud became too dry and crackly on my skin, I’d slip under a convenient low rippling waterfall, watching the colors swirl away downstream. My rock canvases lasted forever- until the next rainstorm.
Because the far bank of the stream was at the bottom of a steep mountainside, there were no houses or any visible human activity. The Sawkill itself was below the level of the woods and fields so I felt entirely secure in my private amusements. I dried off sprawled on top of the hard, sunbaked stones and immersed my being with the sights, sounds, and smells of the stream life and woods all around. Then came the most daring moments of my day- to race against the ever moving waters alongside one bank, leaping and running as fast as I could from stone to stone, to small pebbly beach, to the next waiting rock, knowing all the while if I fell I would be scraped badly on the unforgiving rough surfaces, or worse, I could break a bone. It was exhilarating, even though the stream always won the race. I never did injure myself, and in those days, no one thought to stop me from spending hours there all by myself.
I searched high and low to find the perfect materials for my final project. With exquisite care, I’d arrange a clump of soil holding a tiny rooted tree seedling, tufts of three different kinds of moss, and small replicas of boulders and climbing rocks to line the bottom of the roasting pan. I added some stream water for pools. Overturning rock after rock in the shade I’d uncover an orange eft or salamander to become a tiny fiery dragon. Introducing him to his new home, I’d retrace my steps to my grandparents triumphantly holding my dragon in his new accommodations.
My grandmother came outside to admire him and his fantastic dwelling. Then she patiently explained that I just had time to return him to his own real home before it was time to wash up for dinner. Though I pouted and frowned, I knew this was coming. Not understanding what a salamander might eat, and unable to prevent his inevitable decline if I kept him even overnight, I brought him near enough to the stream at the edge of the woods to find his own way back. The elements of his would-be dwelling returned to the forest floor. The sun set early behind the high mountain and the Shady valley grew dim and cool at the end of my long summer day.