Raking Leaves

“Who do you think you are? Andy Goldsworthy?” isn’t something you hear every day. So when my neighbor asked me that last fall,  I took it as a compliment.

If you told me just two years ago that the most rewarding part of my day, and my creative life, would soon be raking leaves, I would have wondered if I was on my way to drug addiction or maybe a head injury. But here I am most mornings, cerebrum intact, stone cold sober as a matter of fact, tweaking the piles of leaves in my back yard, nudging them into semi-concentric waves.

You have to do something with these leaves, and it seems like a lost opportunity to blow them into a pile in the woods once a week. And once you start – once you stop once or twice to appreciate it as a vision, it’s harder to stop than to keep at it.


My first intersecting line, with wind blowing toward the lower left.

You can create a soft line at the edge of a leaf-covered patch of grass by raking away from it – and a harder one at the edge of a pile by raking toward it, especially when the leaves are damp.

It was the 2017 documentary about Goldsworthy called Leaning Into the Wind that made me take leaves seriously as an artistic medium.  That film gives one a pleasantly weird feeling, partly because Goldsworthy himself is such a slow-talking hobbit of a man, and partly because it forces you to keep revisiting a question: “Is he dressing the set for a deceptively elaborate photo, or is this photo or video I’m looking at the documentation of an artistic practice itself?”

In my case it’s all about the practice. At least in October. It’s a little like cutting hair that grows back again overnight – and like the feeling you get when you leave a barber and tussle your own hair so it’s imperfect just the way you like it. It’s also about looking at the lines as if they’re in motion and imagining where they’re going – and then rake them there. In that way, it’s more like animation.


Is it art? Sure. Can you go public with it, give people the chance to appreciate it on a bigger scale? I suppose you’d have to find a bigger venue than my yard, and more people and more rakes.

One day the Fedex guy drove up and caught me in the act. “I can’t remember the last time I saw one of those,” he said, meaning a rake. A little overstating it, in my opinion: They weren’t steel sheep shears, after all; you can still buy a rake at the hardware store.


With lines from morning shadows.

Not a comment at all about the geometry in the deciduous piles around me, but I’m still good for a minute-long chat with anyone, and he kept talking, chipper as ever while dealing with a giant box of cat food that blocked his vision. Seeing a man struggle with a box with the word “Chewy” printed across it looked to me like an artistic expression.

So far, I figured, I’ve gotten few to tune in. But once you start, everything starts looking like art.



How Did I Get Here?

I’ve missed your birthdays, your anniversaries, and a few funerals. I chose to leave town and you’re excused if you never want to see me again. I moved from New York City to the Central Hudson Valley at the end of last summer. Since then, I’ve often asked myself, “How did I get here?” occasionally peppered with “Am I right? Am I wrong?”

Only once or twice did I say to myself, “My God, what have I done!”


Minnewaska Sate Park, with the Catskills in the distance. The English tried renaming them the “Blue Mountains,” but the Dutch name meaning “Cat River Mountains” stuck.

Mostly I feel like life started over last fall, and there was nothing before it, when I moved to a hamlet in Ulster County. It’s near Stone Ridge, which is near Kingston. When friends visit I take them to High Falls or Rosendale and limit my history lesson to the ten minutes it takes to get there, but I insist that they hear it, because you can’t get your head around the place without it:

You have to remember, I tell them, that well into the 1800s cities weren’t industrial, the country was. Most of the forests got leveled for farms and dairies, yes, but also for fuel for tanneries and ironworks. My area, the Roundout Valley, had its first boom in the 1830s after the Delaware and Hudson Canal came through.

So to ship coal from the Poconos to New York City you put it on a barge that crossed the Delaware on a viaduct and descended through the Western Catskills till it joined the Rondout Creek and followed alongside it for its last 25 miles before it reached the Hudson.

That’s going about 80 miles out of your way just to work with gravity. Railroads made this obsolete by the 1850s, and the area had its first bust. Then came the cement boom after the Civil War. Towns like Rosendale discovered that certain layers of their dolostone were perfect for making cement. Much of the cement that made New York City and monuments around the East Coast came from these canal towns. You can still see the kilns where they baked dolostone to prepare it for pulverizing at random places on walks in the woods.

Then that went bust when synthetic cements became more cost-effective, and finally the small-production dairy business, which was always up and down, went bust for good a generation ago.


The ruins of a cement mining operation, now flooded. Rosendale, NY.

At this point I try making eye contact, and my friends are either hooked, or we change topics to cooking and Netflix.

If there’s a pall of sadness around the Hudson Valley, even on a beautiful day, it’s because it’s been post-industrial longer than it was ever industrial. It’s the original depressed place, where artists have been going to get away from ambition for generations now.

In all the years I was a visitor here, I often got lost. As someone with a good sense of north, south etc., I can drive without a map in many places, but here I was easily disoriented. I realized one winter night while reading a history of the Ice Age (as one does up here), that we can thank the last major glacier 13,000 years ago for the geological oddities in these towns.

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Near the point of the lowest arrow the glacier breeched the western wall, creating odd southwest- to-northeast-flowing riverbeds.

The rivers run northeast! It defies the senses of most people who grew up anywhere else on the East Coast. The ice that was carving the Hudson Valley got too high for a time and broke through the western wall of rock in a southwestern direction, and now water flows out in the opposite direction…

..and that’s why gravity-based transport of the 1830s came this way; and why I get a text every time someone comes to visit for the first time saying they got lost.

We imagine that back in Brooklyn we’re remembered with tomb-like, pitiable epithet, “moved upstate.” Meaning we retreated. Couldn’t take it. Gave up. Nobody likes a quitter! And that’s all half-true.

Up here neighbors say, “This is not upstate,” meaning we haven’t reached the boonies yet. I have thousands of peers around me who work on the Web and now want to live a few hours from the city but no more, so that they can go in for a meeting or a day or so of work or play.

I still get in to the city once every 6 to 8 weeks, it seems, but more often when I get a free day I want to go further: further north, higher in the mountains, deeper into the boonies. To some perch where I’m more likely to get the feeling it’s just me and this big, living mountain range.

If you sit on my front porch and look in one direction, it’s the flat Roundout Valley. Look in the other, and it’s uphill. The foothills, where the Catskills begin. A good place to sit and think.