Chapter 12 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life As a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “If You Don’t Build It, They Won’t Come.”

It’s a sunny day in June of 2002. My father and I are standing in the backyard on Duffy’s Creek in Valley Stream, on the property he and my mother had sold to me and Trisha just a few months before. We’re standing next to wisteria vines that have been there longer than either one of us. We both agree that this yard, along the banks of this creek, sure is a wonderful little spot, and it still sure is. We were sure glad to have it then, and we still sure are. But on that sunny day nineteen years ago, I tell my father that Trisha and I still had a dream of someday owning a place with a couple of acres upstate. 

My parents both grew up in two-bedroom tenement apartments near Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens. To them, a 60’ x 100’ plot on Long Island, especially one with a creek in back of it, was more than anyone could ever reasonably ask for. My father looks at me quizzically, and then he asks a question, seemingly with no sarcasm or irony. Something that he really wanted to know: 

“What would you do with a couple of acres?”

I actually like it when people ask me questions that I’m not ready for, questions that catch me off guard. This is why I’m one of the millions of people who watch Jeopardy five days a week, despite recent attempts to ruin it.  It activates the brain’s turbo button. When I was a teacher, kids that asked left field questions were always my favorites. Gordon Lightfoot had a great line in an old chestnut called, “The House You Live In”: “Be known as a man who will always be candid on questions that do not relate.” 

To me, my father’s question on that sunny afternoon didn’t relate. It made no sense.  Why wouldn’t we want a couple of acres upstate? Why wouldn’t anybody? I was caught off guard, and it was clear from my “candid” answer that the idea itself was really nothing but an abstraction that carried in my head. I hadn’t really done a whole lot of critical thinking about it.  

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Walk around on it?”

He smiled his Francis smile and we moved on. 

Fast forward through lots of working-like-a-dog years, where one of my occasional rituals was spacing out at ten o’clock at night scrolling through pictures of houses for sale in or near Copake Falls on Zillow. I noticed after a while that some realtors were more adept than others at staging the houses and surrounding properties, making them seem better than they were. Often a lot better. We’d always do some drive-by reconnaissance while we were up for our week in Taconic State Park in the summer. Invariably, the houses we viewed in real-life looked like strange fever dream versions of the same houses for sale on Zillow. 

One time in the Early Aughts, I was drawn in by a listing for a cape cod in Wassaic, with the Webutuck Creek running through the property. One had to cross a short wooden bridge to get from the driveway to the house, which at the time I found  kind of quaint. The older version of me finds it kind of stupid. And why Wassaic? Well, Wassaic is thirty minutes down Route 22 from Copake Falls, and it’s also the last stop on the Metro North line. As a matter of fact, the second to last stop, Ten Mile River, was just a stone’s throw over the little creek from the cape cod. In fairness to us, we were never that serious about the idea that Trisha could commute five hours a day minimum to Manhattan or that I could just fall ass-backwards into a teaching job in the Webutuck Central Schools, but the idea of escaping from Long Island taxes can make you think crazy thoughts.

We took a hairpin downhill turn off Route 22 on our way up to our week in Copake Falls to check out the house. We noticed signs pointing to a place called the World Peace Society, which I learned about later, but I kept my eye out for monks out walking along the side of the road. I don’t want to disparage the house and the surrounding area too much, as it’s the center of somebody’s universe and the setting of somebody’s Christmas morning memories, but from our Long Island perspective, we were scared out of our wits, especially when we saw what looked like someone peeking out from behind a curtain in the shed in the backyard. It was our first lesson in “nothing is what it appears to be on Zillow,” and we had to relearn that one over and over every summer.

The house and property which would become Trisha’s Mountain first showed up on my radar when it was posted for sale in September of 2017, two years before we stepped foot on it. The seller’s agent happens to be a very successful local businesswoman, but when it came to online Zillow presentations, she didn’t appear to put much effort into it. Case in point, she neglected to include a picture of the huge, park-like backyard in the listing. Or the finished basement or the back porch with the sliding glass door for that matter. 

I had passed the house a hundred times in real life and never knew it had a fat acre of open space climbing a hill into ten-thousand acres of wilderness behind it. The pictures of the house made it look like an old stick of margarine on a hill with nice hardwood floors. I said to myself, “Trisha wouldn’t like this,” and I didn’t bother showing it to her. 

Two years later, August of 2019, a listing right in the heart of downtown Copake Falls, with a kitchen that made us both drool like Mookie waiting on a Milk Bone, propelled us into the market. We had an upstate lawyer lined up and were working with an agent who could make a doghouse look like the Taj Mahal. 

There were many things to like about this particular house, and we’d passed it enough times not to be surprised by anything around it. But red flags were popping up everywhere. A guy who is notorious for renting slum properties all over Columbia County owned at least one of the houses across the street, which for some now-unfathomable reason we didn’t necessarily view as a deal breaker. The long-time owner ran a home junkyard business, and the guy who was trying to flip it had not gotten around to removing a half-century’s worth of crap in the falling-down garage and the falling-down shed. Still, the real estate agent knew she had us swimming around the hook. We’ve since incorporated one of her best lines into an inside joke: “It’s a nail biter!”

An engineer’s report full of more and bigger red flags, including the discovery that the charming red tin roof had been slapped on top of a decaying slate roof, and the further discovery that the house had been built on the foundation of an original pre-Civil War Copake Falls house that burned down in the 1950’s, somehow was still not enough to make us walk away from the “nail biter.”  

On the night before we planned to take one more walk through the house and make a significantly reduced offer, we had dinner at the Taconic Wayside Inn, just up the road. The “TI”, as it’s known to the locals, is a beautiful old restaurant and tavern, established in 1857 and famous for being a place where Babe Ruth and his friends could hang out for a couple of days and get comfortably shitfaced in the 1930’s. Legend has it that he would organize friendly games with the locals in the ballfield next door, now home to Copake Falls’ largest, and only, garden apartment complex, and that one time he was joined by Lou Gehrig. So the Babe knew that Copake Falls was a great place to hide long before we did. 

Another little red flag was that the TI was for sale, and still is as far as I know. It could be yours for a cool $750,000. You wouldn’t think that somebody investing that kind of money in Copake Falls would not let the TI turn into a dive, but then again. More than likely it will be scooped up in the course of time by Berkshire Hipsters and turned into something trendy and expensive. There’s was a restaurant at the base of the Catamount Ski Mountain for forty years called The Swiss Hutte. They had a billboard on Route 23 with a smiling European couple inviting you to dine there. We never did get the chance to take them up on it, but the existence of the billboard and the Tudor-style sign at the top of the Catamount road was always a quirky comfort. 

Last year, The smiling European couple retired, and the Hipsters that bought it recently changed the name to “The Cat Lodge”. 

No strudel for you! 

Meanwhile, we had a dinner at the TI that couldn’t be beat, happily enjoying the surroundings that haven’t become something else yet. We told the waitress, who knew lots of people we knew, that we were probably buying the house for sale down the road, and she thought that was wonderful. Meanwhile outside, a ferocious summer thunderstorm was raging. Rain and hail were pummeling Route 344. We waited it out then made our way back to the cabin, not realizing it would be the second-to-last night of our last week-long stay at good old Taconic State Park. 

As all people who grow up Irish-Catholic are, we’re convinced that we’re assisted by the constant intercession of the souls of the departed, on whom, along with an army of saints and guardian angels and the Big Guy himself, we rely for help. So we’re pretty sure somebody up there pulled some strings to send down one or two inches of rain that night. The next morning we met our real estate agent over at the house, where the cozy little enclosed back porch smelled like a bathing suit used to swim in a farm pond then wrapped up in a wet towel and left unattended in a washing machine for several months. The floor squished sadly when we stepped inside. The pre-Civil-War cellar had a large puddle of water surrounding the oil tank. We decided that we had no choice but to stop biting our nails and move on. We were kind of bummed that it didn’t work out. 

But we’d gotten close, to the point where now we had an upstate real estate agent and an upstate lawyer. When the souls of the departed and all the angels in heaven interceded on our behalf yet again, and what would become Trisha’s Mountain went back on the market not three days later, they both said to themselves, independently of each other, “I oughta tell the Duffy’s about this.” The lawyer sent an email to me and the real estate agent called Trisha, possibly at the exact same time.

Freshly back on the creek, I checked the listing, and the pictures were pretty much the same pictures from 2017. But by this point Zillow had added aerial views of the property lines, and Google Earth was now a tap away on the rectangle. So now I knew that the house had its own park out back, bordered to the east by Taconic State Park, which in turn is bordered by Mt. Washington State Forest in Massachusetts. Five miles of mostly unbroken wilderness from the backyard all the way east to Sheffield, where I got my first cup of Berkshire cahffee almost thirty years before. 

To the south the property looked over nine and a half acres of cornfield and distant mountain views under a great big sky. This time I showed the Zillow listing to Trisha, and she showed it back to me. 

We took a Saturday in September to make the drive back up to Copake Falls that I’ve made about thirty times since, both to meet our agent at the house, and to have an audience with the seller’s agent that I might fashion into a one-act play someday. Trust me on that one. Over the next month, we went through our due diligence, a much more optimistic engineer’s report, valuing the “comps” and all that stuff, but we had pretty much made up our minds to buy it the second we got out of the car. 

The house was owned by the family that owns the local tree farm, which holds huge tracts of land all over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley. One of their holdings is the former Orphan Farm, which starts across the road at our mailbox, and where the Colorado Blue Spruce tree in your backyard might come from. The story was that they had bought the stick of margarine with the nice hardwood floors as housing for a family of their workers, then decided for whatever reason (perhaps that it was 50 years old and in the early stages of falling down) that they didn’t want it after all. But they weren’t budging on the price, and we knew we’d have to pour a lot of money into it, so we weren’t budging either. We got the sense that negotiations between the real estate agents were getting personal, and our initial offer was declined with no explanation. 

It was our upstate lawyer, who also serves as town judge and often as town bullshit detector on Facebook, who cleaned up the mess. During a prep period at work one day in November, three minutes before a class, hiding in the back of the auditorium, I listened to her voice mail informing me that we had a deal to buy the property “as is.“ 

I let out a big, private “whoop!” and went back to work, my last trip around the sun as a middle school English teacher, trying to keep as much of my brain as possible in Ozone Park as my spirit floated up on that hill behind the house. I kept thinking about Kramer, when George asked him if he were really going to California: “Up here? (pointing to his head) I’m already gone!” I entertained myself by making up little songs about it while Mookie and I took our South Valley Stream evening walks. 

He was born in the summer of his 57th year.

Comin’ home to a place he’d often been before.

He left Valley Stream behind him,

Might say he was born again,

Found the lockbox by the new glass siding door.

When he first came to the mountains

He was walking with his dog 

Past a house suffering with mold.

But the deal’s already broken

And his lawyer wrote a note

There’s a house for sale on North Mountain Road.

And the Copake Falls, North Mountain high

There ain’t no sounds of jet planes in the sky

The weed store’s in Great Barrington 

And the Rail Trail runs nearbyyyyyy

North Mountain High, Columbia County

North Mountain High, Columbia County…

There are three more verses, but you get the idea. We were pretty psyched about the whole thing. The closing was scheduled for five days before Christmas. We were very happy to have heat in the sub-zero wind chills surrounding our rental cabin at Taconic State Park, then very disappointed to find out that the boiler wasn’t working on North Mountain Road. Our lawyer had to explain to me that the legal term “as is” doesn’t include the lack of basic human necessities, like heat and water. That’s a good rule to have. At the closing that wasn’t, we talked about all sorts of escrow arrangements, then finally left it with get somebody in to fix the damn thing and we’ll see you when they do.

By the time we got back to Long Island, where the live Christmas tree we’d left standing had not spontaneously combusted and set fire to the house, someone had gone down to the basement on North Mountain Road and flipped the reset switch and the boiler hummed to life and the pipes didn’t freeze. So back we went the following Thursday, when it wasn’t quite so bone-chilling cold, to sign all the papers and finish the deal.

Thus began a six-month stretch wherein I drove the 236-mile round trip back and forth between Duffy’s Creek and Trisha’s Mountain at least 13 times, meeting a lot of guys in work vans and lugging up everything from ready-to-assemble furniture to a combination pool table / ping-pong table, which in itself was the fulfillment of a life-long dream. 

On March 8, 2020 we went to Sunday Mass at St. John’s in the Wilderness Episcopal Church, where as always, they welcomed us, just like they said they would on the sign. We all decided to refrain from shaking hands, as there was a virus going around. By the end of that week, the World Health Organization had declared that COVID-19 was a Pandemic. By the end of the following week, I walked out of the school where I’d spent 16 years for the last time. 

Now that we were all working or going to school virtually, it occurred to me that we could pretty much live up on The Mountain, where the wi-fi flows like wine, except for three little sticking points: One would be relocating three pissed off cats. Another would be a lack of furniture. But the most important sticking point was that we were coming from an area where the virus was running rampant to a place where it was still mostly contained, which would make me Columbus and make the nice folks who work at the Hillsdale IGA and the Great Barrington Big Y the indigenous peoples. 

Apparently, many other people with second homes in Columbia and Berkshire Counties decided they didn’t really give a rat’s ass about the locals and came up anyway, and when they got there, they shopped brazenly and clogged up every outdoor amenity. This is why I have to be extra nice to the locals. I don’t want to be associated with the uncouth droves who are colonizing a place that we’ve been spiritually connected to for 22 years. When somebody mentions us in Columbia County, I want somebody else to say, “they’re all right.”

So stupid lucky as we are, we bought the house eleven weeks before the Pandemic hit New York. By the summer of 2020, hordes of yahoos who would otherwise be annoying each other in a shopping mall or a public pool somewhere in the greater New York Metropolitan Area were invading Taconic State Park and Bash Bish Falls just to get out of the house for a day, and suddenly everybody and his bitchy wife wanted to buy a house in Columbia County. 

The city of Hudson, a place where 23% of the population lives below the poverty line and many of the other 77% like to go antiquing and sip lattes at sidewalk cafes on Warren Street and pretend that those 23% don’t exist just around the corner, experienced the largest increase in population by percentage in the entire United States in 2020. According to the Albany Times-Union, “197 people moved to the Hudson area during the pandemic for every 100 who moved out — the largest increase in the country for a metro area in the nationwide analysis.” Furthermore, “while 412 people changed their address from New York City to Columbia County in 2019, the data shows a 204 percent increase in 2020, with 1,254 people moving there.”

Somebody even bought the house across the road from the slums of Copake Falls and started pouring money into it. Another nearby wreck where kids would do wheelies in ATV’s on the lawn all day, which we had nicknamed “The Mud People House”, got snapped up as well. 

Jesus H. Tap-Dancin’ Christ, as a friend of mine recently said. 

Meanwhile, we waited until the beginning of May before we started going up again. By that time, COVID had infiltrated Columbia and Berkshire Counties to a point where nothing would be my fault, which is always the most important thing of all to me. We navigated our way through all the obstacles that the pandemic threw at us. By the end of the summer, we had made amazing progress towards making The Mountain feel like home. There was furniture and pictures on the walls and air conditioning and color TV and 21st Century electricity and a roof and vinyl siding and everything.

So there I was on a September weekday morning, just me and my good friend Mookie, while Trisha and Jack went to work and school from different rooms 118 miles away on The Creek. I was very much both enjoying and feeling a little guilty about the fact that I wasn’t teaching in Ozone Park on a September weekday morning, but I’m getting over the guilt. When I told Trisha that 58-year-old people are generally not retired, she replied, “the smart ones are.” So there’s that. 

I was sitting on our brand-new La-Z-Boy reclining loveseat in the office, part of a matching set with the reclining sofa and the reclining chair in the living room, all of which, along with a comfy club chair, had taken eight weeks to deliver. Even though I was trying to write something that September morning, I wasn’t sitting at the desk in the office that I had hauled up and assembled the previous month, because while I manage to get things done, I’m ultimately lazy and weak, so reclining on a loveseat seemed easier than sitting upright at a desk. 

And because I was sitting on the loveseat, I was looking out the window at the cornfield rising up the hill. The cornfield is home to all sorts of birds and critters, so you never know who might fly by or emerge.  There’s a crest at the top of the hill that’s even to our backyard, but while the hill rolls gently down the yard it drops sharply in the cornfield, so that the bottom is actually about fifty feet lower in elevation than the front porch of the margarine stick. When you look out the window from the office, the cornfield seems like it’s almost at a forty-five-degree angle, and when you look at it from the porch, you’re floating above it.  

At the time when we bought the house, we had no idea who owned the cornfield, and it occurred to us that instead of looking out from the back porch at Washburn Mountain against a waving field of corn under a big sky, someday we could be looking at another McMansion like the one that stares down at us from behind the trees on the opposite side.  Or three. But the idea of somebody buying the cornfield and destroying it was something that we had convinced ourselves was not worth worrying about. It would have been like worrying about a deadly virus suddenly spreading rampant through the country, or like worrying that the population of Columbia County would suddenly increase by 204%. Crazy talk, yo. 

If we had given it a little thought, it would have been obvious who was growing the corn, and what kind of corn it was. My friend the electrician, my first guest on The Mountain in January of 2020, a lifelong resident of Ancramdale, NY and a prince of a man, who not only upgraded us to circuit breakers from little glasses fuses, but also pulled a yellowjacket hive out from under the front porch on his way out to the truck, explained to me that it was feed corn. When I asked him how he knew it was feed corn, he smiled and said, “I don’t know.”

Well, if it was feed corn, I had a pretty good idea who was it was feeding. Our cow neighbors live about three-quarters of a mile north, up, down, back up and around North Mountain Road, at Berkshire Valley Holsteins and the Elite Dairy of Copake Falls, perched on the prettiest hillside you ever did see, looking out over beautiful downtown Hillsdale, but close enough to drive farm equipment directly up to the cornfield, which explains the guy on the tractor that we saw out there in when we came back up in May. 

I had met these cows many times as they grazed behind fences along the road. I wave to them and yell “mornin’, ladies!!!!” as I drive by because I’m an idiot. The sight of black and white Holsteins grazing in a field is iconic in Columbia County. But the sight of the Brown Swiss cows of Elite Dairy is a rarity if you’re not in the Alps. They are beautiful creatures with big expressive eyes and ears that stick out almost perpendicular from their heads, making them look sort of like cartoon cows, hence Elsie the Bordon Cow (who, incidentally, came from Wassaic). Elite Dairy happens to be one of the leading breeders of Swiss Brown cattle in the country, home of cutting-edge genetics, according to their sign, and they have all sorts of awards to show for it. 

So I was very happy that a successful farm was using the field to grow corn, and there was no reason to think that they wouldn’t keep growing it for years and years. And as we settled into our alternate life up on The Mountain, we began to realize how integral the cornfield was to the whole gestalt of the place. Looking towards the south to southwest from our yard, Washburn Mountain stands looking back at us across a wide-open sweep of corn during the growing season, and a wide-open sweep of nothing the rest of the year. In the background are the tops of mountains stretching all the way to the Catskills, which are thirty or forty country miles and a big river away. 

And that’s the view I was enjoying from the office window on the quiet September morning when I got the helpful “FYI” message on my rectangle  from Bob at the Depot Deli with a link to a Zillow posting of 6.4 acres of undeveloped land for sale on North Mountain Road.

A little aside. Trisha and I have defined roles in the business of sustaining our little family. For example, I do most of the hunting and gathering at the King Kullen (or the Hillsdale IGA or the Berkshire Co-op or sometimes the Great Barrington Big Y, which is the most beautiful supermarket I’ve ever seen). I also do a fair amount of cooking and cleaning and yard work. I do these things happily and willingly to avoid having anything to do with finance, insurance or taxes. I knew we had something of a nest egg left over after having made The Mountain into a second home. At the moment I opened that message, I had no idea exactly how much it was, but I knew my not knowing was probably for the best. 

So when I saw the Zillow listing, I said “shit.” And I looked out the window and I saw three big, stupid Modern Colonials set on three big, stupid swatches of heavily fertilized grass. (Turns out there could only be two, as the Zoning Board of Copake Town – where The Land of Rural Charm will be maintained as such or it’ll be somebody’s ass – was smart enough to change minimum residential use requirements on North Mountain Road from two to three acres sometime after the stick of margarine on the hill was built in 1970. But still). 

I saw the painful deaths of hundreds of displaced living things and I heard two years of construction noise followed by unrepentant assholes from Long Island driving up long, stupid driveways in white SUV’s, setting up DJ equipment and setting off fireworks. And I said, “shit” again. 

And then I said to myself what I always say to myself. It probably won’t be as bad as you think. And then I said, “shit” again and I sent a message to Trisha with a link to the Zillow ad. 

There are lots and lots of things that I love about my wife. One of those things is that she is very in touch with her own emotions and she’s not hesitant to say what she’s feeling. In contrast, I’ve spent the better part of my life denying my emotions, as I’m convinced they’re just trying to mess with my head. When we first got together, she had to train me to be less of a wiseass and keep my cheap shots to myself. She would simply say, “that was hurtful,” and I would have no choice but to agree, apologize and shut up for a while. In that regard, she’s made me a better person. I even have to work harder at being funny, although she’s still funnier.

She found nothing amusing about the cornfield being for sale. She was not interested in hearing my, “well, we knew this might happen” nonsense at that moment. 

She simply texted, “that makes me very sad.”

It made me very sad, too. But I was too cool to say it out loud, which is why I’m something of a lost cause. 

My reaction from there was to stare out the window some more and think ridiculous thoughts like there had to be a way to save it, just like in the movies, or something like that. While I sat around drafting impassioned letters in my head to the Copake Town Supervisor or the State Parks Department, Trisha checked the nest egg and she made a phone call. 

The man who answered the phone was somewhere in the suburbs of Boston. He and Trisha would go on to have many lovely phone conversations, especially after she offered to give him his asking price on the cornfield in cash. 

Turns out that the land had been in the man’s family for over a hundred years. His father had held onto it in case any of his kids wanted to stay in Copake Falls but none of them did. A gentleman’s agreement with the local dairy farmer to maintain and use the land in the meantime was passed down through the generations. Now his father was gone on and they were selling off a flaming hot commodity and dividing the profits divided among siblings. 

It further turns out that he didn’t actually own the whole cornfield, just a little over two-thirds of it, and the other three acres may or may not belong to the people whose house on Burdick Road is the only structure visible from our view across the cornfield. There are survey marks that designate the property border, but you can only see them in the winter, because corn.

As the deal progressed, we learned a few interesting tidbits about buying a big piece of undeveloped property adjacent to property one already owns. One thing we learned was that it would be a smart idea to get a perc test, which determines whether a site has the permeability to hold a septic system, and therefore determines whether the land can be built on. We might do that someday, but we didn’t do it before we bought the place, one because perc tests cost a lot of money and we’d just spent a lot of money, and two because the whole idea of buying it was to keep it from being developed. Personally, I figured that  if they built Kennedy Airport over a swamp, there would ultimately be a way to build a house or two on a 6.4-acre rolling hill in Columbia County. I’ve seen it done. 

We also learned that we could move our existing property line to encompass the entire 8.3 acres that we would now own, or we could just snip off a couple of acres as a buffer zone and sell the rest.

We actually got an offer on the property while we were still in contract. A nice man who was directed to us by the sellers wrote us a nice letter about how he and his wife were nice people who were looking for a nice piece of property on which to build a nice little house somewhere in the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley and he promised he would be a nice neighbor and we felt sorry for him because he really seemed like a nice guy and we had to say no fucking way. 

Meanwhile, Trisha was not in fact in the cornfield when she heard the voice, but she heard it loud and clear: “If you buy it, they can’t build it. And if they can’t build it, they won’t come, because you don’t want them.” The last thing she did before we officially pulled the trigger was to talk to the farmer, because the person who handles the money gets to talk to the farmer, the owner of the Elite Dairy Farm, one of Copake Falls’ most important citizens. As you might imagine, I was a little bit jealous of that. 

After a few lovely chats between Trisha and the farmer, we were assured that the cornfield would continue waving in the summer breeze and sustaining local wildlife for the foreseeable future. 

And the only problem remaining would be the nagging bug up my ass.

Because here’s the thing: I always had a secret wish to be a farmer. While it looks like hard work, not to mention the heartbreaking caprices of climate change, I always had a feeling that I would have been a happy farmer more than I was a happy teacher, and I wasn’t an unhappy teacher. Hell, I was already up way before dawn. At least I would’ve been outside, away from fluorescent lighting and amplified announcements. 

I know that I don’t have the temperament needed to raise animals and slaughter them. That would be way out of my league, though I seem to have no problem creating the mental separation when I’m cooking and eating the poor things. There are lots of other kinds of farmers. I could grow vegetables, or berries, or even sunflowers. When we first noticed tree farms all over the Peaceful Roe Jan Valley, I was overtaken with just the notion that one could be a tree farmer in the first place. I told Trisha, “It’s perfect! They don’t stare into your eyes while you plan when to kill them, and you don’t have to check on them every day.” 

Now that I’ve seen the operation of a tree farm up close, I wouldn’t want to be a tree farmer. It looks backbreaking and complicated, not so much fun and lots and lots of tied up capital. And the Tree Farm didn’t want the cornfield, so they probably know something about it that we don’t know. 

So much for the apple orchard idea. 

I do know that planting corn on the same land every year has almost certainly degraded the soil on our land, and I’d reckon that not everything going down on our cornfield is necessarily organic, so we have to trust that our local famer with the stellar reputation is not going to harvest anything off that field that would poison his cows and just leave it at that for now. 

Still, if one wanted to grow anything else on our 6.4 acres, say a giant field of blueberries or strawberries, the land would need lots and lots of remediation, which would mean hiring guys with big machines and trucking in lots of organic matter, probably building a greenhouse, establishing a crop and preventing the local wildlife from eating all of it, never mind protecting that crop from insects and diseases, then figuring out a way to harvest it economically and finding a market for it. 

All while spending much of the time 118 miles away. 

Alas, Duff’s Berry Farm. A thrilling and completely impractical dream that would eat up every remaining cent we have. 

So much for being a farmer. When I cross the Whitestone for good, I could always work on somebody else’s farm. Then if I find I don’t like it, I could just say I ain’t gonna work there no more. 

Sometimes I ask myself, if this had all developed ten or fifteen years ago, would I have wanted to get off Long Island, give up my tenured teaching position and my cushy public pension and devote my life to berry farming? Would that have made me happier and more fulfilled? Sure. But I wouldn’t have, for the same reasons I won’t be doing it now. 

1) I’m too chicken shit. 

2) it’s not really my decision to make

Still. Nice dream, eh?

I have another one. There are upfront costs to this dream as well, but the benefits would last into eternity. Ultimately, my dream for the two-thirds of a cornfield, of which I only own half, a dream which I have shared with the person who owns the other half, is a wildflower meadow.

Of course! A wildflower meadow! You somethin’ of a bird guy, after all, ain’t ya? 

Yes, yes I am. 

The first thing we’d have to do is clear all bramble between our yard and the cornfield. Every weed that grows in Upstate New York is represented in the bramble, many of them invasive, sumac to wild grapevines to bittersweet to multiflora, to name but a few. I know a guy with a giant land clearing machine who would jump at the chance to take it all out. 

Of course, all the bunnies and groundhogs and catbirds and wild turkeys and every other living organism that calls this bramble home would be evicted, and I’m afraid there might even be casualties, but they have a whole damn protected wilderness to go to right up the hill, and while they’d probably come to the planning meetings holding signs and chanting slogans, they wouldn’t be able to stand in the way of progress. 

The cornfield does not have any irrigation. I did see a giant water truck there once. So the wildflower meadow that would start on the side of the house and stretch across 6.4 acres of  hillside would have to rely on the rain. 

Once the soil was remediated, I’d have to let it go fallow for a couple of years, while I grew even older, both to build up natural nutrients and to see what grows there naturally. Last year, I noticed large plants with yellow flowers coming up in April, which I determined was Bok Choy. I could have harvested some, but I’m a Boston lettuce guy. Some wildflowers would establish themselves, but one could create a rainbow of color by broadcasting a truckload of wildflower seed.

A feast for the birds, the butterflies, even the deer and the bunnies. Lots of wildflowers for everybody, with the mountains and the sun going down behind them. 

And to top it off, we bequeath it to adjacent Taconic State Park, who can then invite people to hike up to  “Trisha’s Mountain Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary” directly from the campground. After we’re dead, of course. While we’re here, stay the hell out of it.

Another nice dream, huh? But to fulfill it, we would have to spend a lot of money that we don’t have because we spent it keeping people out of the cornfield in the first place. Plus we would inconvenience the most famous cows in Copake Falls, and a lot of bunnies. And we love bunnies. 

It cost a nice chunk of change to keep the droves out of our cornfield. And we still don’t own the three acres furthest from our house, which could still be McMansionized. But anyone who wants to do anything besides grow feed corn for Brown Swiss Cows on our 6.4 acres has to come to us, and just like Shoeless Joe and the 1919 White Sox responded to Ty Cobb when he asked if he could play, we’ll tell ‘em to stick it.  

There is one guy who could conceivably negotiate a couple of acres out of us to build his Copake Falls dream house someday, but if he has any sense, he won’t want to live next door to his parents. Still, it’s his if he wants it. He can pay for the perc test.

We took a walk on snowshoes up there last February, me and him, on his 17th birthday. There was a good foot and a half of crunchy snow. Perfect snowshoe conditions. Like walking on frozen air. It was bone-chilling upstate cold but absolutely still and magically clear. Through my binoculars at the top of the hill, I could see John Burrough’s ancient peaks across the river in the Catskills. The setting sun turned all last year’s corn stalks into thousands of gold bars sticking up out of the snow. I felt blessed beyond belief. 

That’s another thing I love about my wife. If it’s broke, she makes sure it gets fixed. And if it isn’t broke, she doesn’t try to fix it. 

The bramble needs to be trimmed back a bit, but the cornfield is going nowhere, and that’s that. The farmer has a son, too. Farmland is disappearing in Columbia County all the time, and while the loss of 6.4 acres wouldn’t break the Elite Dairy, there’s no reason why they can’t keep farming it. Just because one owns land doesn’t mean one has start messing with it, nice thought the wildflower meadow would be. I’m slowly coming around to that realization.

So now that we have a couple of acres of land upstate, I have a definitive answer for my father’s question. 

Between May and September, whenever I get the chance, I watch corn grow on it. 

Between October and April, whenever I get the chance, I walk around on it.


Copyright 2021 by John Duffy

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