Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fireflies on the Hudson

Carl Carmer (pictured to the right of William Carlos Williams and Charles Sheeler in this Smithsonian photo) was a historian, folklorist, and environmentalist. He was most famous for his bestselling Stars Fell on Alabama and was a founder of Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference, which was instrumental in saving Storm King Mountain from the evil drones of ConEd. Searching for some material about the Hudson, I came across his 1939 The Hudson. The first couple of chapters suggested it might be a bit cutsy, but Carmer seems to have had a touch of Popular Front in him, reminding us of the long struggles between tenant farmers and manorial elites. And he writes pretty well too:

The Hudson sloops had experienced much before they left the river. Their skippers and their passengers had seen many things once were beautiful and that, like the sloops themselves, have gone from the river now. They had seen clouds of pigeons so thick that the sunlight of a fair day had been shut out and the big shining surface had been turned to sullen gray. In the early days they had beheld the great autumn bush-burnings – to clear away the dead underbrush and make hunting and berrypicking easy—the Indians has set forest fires on both sides of the river and the sloops seemed to be drifting through the golden nave of a high cathedral pillared with towering flame. On some nights while they were scudding in mid-channel sailors saw by the black pine torches’ flare Indians and white hurling spears into the twisting flanks of leaping 200-pound sturgeon whose scales were aglitter with reflected light. Perhaps most beautiful of all were the quiet clear hours when the blue hills and bluer mountains of twilight had been lost in darkness and a little breeze brought swirling clouds of fireflies to dart downward and give evanescent imitations of the distant stars.

The Hudson River sloops were a Dutch innovation (one sailed to China from Albany in 1785), and often had slave and free black crewmembers, speaking Dutch well into the 19th century. The Clearwater, built in the late 1960s on the old Dutch plan, is the last of these workhorses of the river.


amarilla said...

Amazing passage. Thank you!

Dana said...

Fabulous, 'thew! Thank you!


VassarGirl said...

Carl could definitely tell a good tale! Check out my blog

and also the ones for Carl and Betty, which I've not done much with yet...

if you have any questions or want further references for Hudson River stuff, post me a comment and I'll try!

Also check out Brooklynite Jessica dulong's new book, My Hudson River Chronicles, just out!