Land in the Sky: Perpetual Joyous Care

A few weeks ago the musician David Rothenberg and I went for a hike in Rochester Hollow. It’s in the Catskills, where anything can happen but seldom does. Rochester Hollow was once the demesne of a wealthy man. He’s no longer around. Now the place is a patch of Forest Preserve favored by cross country skiers. When we arrived at the trailhead the snow was crusty and the ski conditions crappy. We put on microspikes and started walking up the trail.

We followed some hardened footprints in old snow. They were the trace fossils of somebody else’s walk in the woods. Even though a breach in time stood between us and them, we enjoyed their company, these people who made the footprints. They showed us the way. Eventually we came upon a huge snowball they had rolled and left in the middle of the trail. It was rock hard and looked like an abandoned love affair or something dropped by a glacier. We studied it and became the geologists of bygone fun. Then we were ready to move on. That’s when we observed the footprints had come to an end. The fun was over. Maybe rolling that snowball had tired them out. From this point, we were on our own.

It was lonelier now but we kept walking. It felt like a long time. Then we arrived at one of those inexplicable Catskills curiosities you often find tucked away at the end of a spooky hollow. Sometimes it’s a forty-foot golden Buddha shining in the sun, sometimes it’s an abandoned summer camp with the ghosts of a hundred years of campfire songs drifting among the bare trees. Today it was just another one of those monuments to the nature writer John Burroughs.

In this part of the state, memorials to John Burroughs are more abundant than employment opportunities. From the looks of it—half buried today in snow—this one had seen better days. A few generations of hunters’ potshots had taken their toll. The busted up words on the stone were teetering on the edge of meaning. It was language poised to become a homicide victim, a simple expression of grief shot up into an experimental poem:

          beloved naturalist, author American

          reforested by his neighbors

          direction of

          perpetual joyous care

We walked back to the car in silence.