(Note: These past few months have brought with them an increasing awareness of the importance of place and localism. Aiding me in an articulation of this conviction have been the writings of a few eloquent thinkers, in particular the journal Front Porch Republic and their recently published collection of essays Localism in the Mass Age. In response to this development, I have written here an account of my childhood years. What follows is a recognition of and reflection upon the local places that shaped me during those times.)
The living room window of my childhood home faces northward, peering out at a scene that was the backdrop for my younger years. In many ways, its presence mediates my recollections of the boyhood that played out within the contours of its frame. There it stood through each season, poised at the perfect vantage point, an active participant in the events that shaped me in those formative times. From that frame can be seen, slightly off to the right, the short driveway stretching down to meet the road which runs perpendicular to it. This small rectangle of asphalt was a vast world to me, upon which I spent countless hours playing basketball with family and friends, or riding bikes and scooters and skateboards. I relished each pedal and turn of the wheel, or heard the roar of the imaginary crowd as I delivered the game-winning shot.
Now gazing straight through the window pane, the maple tree my family planted upon moving into the house sits squarely in the small plot of grass that was my front yard, taking up a large share of the view. This differs from many of the neighboring houses within the track, which used to boast a few small ash trees in cookie-cutter fashion before the ash borer beetle swept through. Just as the driveway was more than its appearance would have hinted, so was this small share of grass, with the young and unassuming maple tree at its heart. To my boyhood imagination, it was a vast expanse, with a mighty tree dominating its center.
To complicate matters, the passage of time paints a changing picture from the windowsill. As one looks out from it now, past the borders of the small property, the towering oak tree that once sat just across the road has been erased from its view. This tree suffered no similar distortion by my young mind as its counterpart in my own kingdom did: before its demise it was truly ancient, a guardian keeping watch over the changing landscape. This almost aloof—yet deeply kind—character was reflected in its physical makeup. The lowest branch that it had offered to would-be climbers was too far off the ground to be truly accessible. And yet, as if it were making a gentle compromise, there sat a waist high rock under that elusive branch; from this platform, just the right combination of skill and determination granted a dedicated climber access to its ancient boughs. There it stood, daunting and huge, as the gatekeeper to the triple lot across the street, whose open and grassy field offered endless games of football, soccer, frisbee, tag or hide-and-seek. The childhood memories of games on this field have lingered with me, full of rich and vibrant colors, smelling of grass and dirt and free air, recalling the joys of young friendships.
Yet this change which the mighty sentinel had observed for centuries, from the farmland it had once been a natural piece within, to the alien housing which had crept in under its branches during the intervening years, finally cut right through its own heart. This occurred in a literal sense, a road materializing there that would divide the lot down the middle. That stretch of asphalt served as a connection between the main road and the cornfield that lay on the far side of the lot. Developers had purchased the land, eager to place housing on the large stretch of open cornfield that had been farmed ever since I could recall, and many years before that. After procuring the pesky lot that lay in their way, the road replaced the tree, slicing through the field I had played on, plodding its way to the empty cornfield on the far side. Its march through the lot also leveled the small set of apple trees that bordered the cornfield, trees we affectionately referred to as our little orchard. Those apple trees had afforded many hours of raucous climbing, not to mention hundreds of projectiles to mischievously launch at each other from neighboring branches.
That space belonged to us, although not in any legal sense; instead, it had been bought with countless moments spent and memories made. To watch from the window its transformation into something altogether different was heartbreaking, although in a confusing way: there were no grounds on which to protest, besides those of sentiment perhaps. But sentiment cannot stand against that machine; its cogs wind on and on, bending always towards the use of more woods and more land. That sense of loss still lingers when I stand at the windowpane, or when I return to it in my mind’s eye.
More disorienting still is the realization that occurs to me now: that same feeling of loss must have assailed some forgotten farmer looking out over the land upon which I myself had grown up. My own neighborhood had encroached on some previously untouched field, taking with it the trees and open spaces that perhaps belonged to some other young boy. This ongoing story I had been dropped into was anything but simple. Good had undoubtedly come with the arrival of houses filled with loving families. It had also come at a great price; one that I was paying in part as I watched the bulldozers do their work.
That cornfield—now filled with houses, not stalks—and what still lies beyond it, are worth mentioning in their own right as well. They too hold a special place in my boyhood memories. Before the arrival of the houses and driveways and roads, they were the scene of many adventures for our gang of brothers and friends. The field itself was easily seen from the window, and straining a bit after it was cleared away from harvesting, one could also discern on its far edge the thin line of trees which border the Genesee River, the water and woods snaking from west to east. The field dipped down in the middle, gently sloping towards the river’s edge before rising abruptly in a lip at the doorstep to the woods. The lowest point collected rainwater into a large pool, which eventually found its way to the river in a thin runoff stream that cut through the underbrush and trees perched on the water’s edge.
From the front door to the riverbank was perhaps a quarter or a third of a mile, but we preferred not to measure it with such silly units. Instead, with the canoe our family had acquired from church friends hoisted above our heads, my brothers and I would sing “ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall” as we marched across our short sliver of wilderness. We typically reckoned the distance at about twenty-five or thirty beer bottles long.
Upon arriving at the field’s edge, the water runoff served us well; over time it had cut a smooth descent down to the water, a boat-wide slice carved out of the high, steep banks that rose everywhere else along the river’s edge. This afforded us the only place for miles around to launch our waterborne explorations. It had seemingly been hewn out just for our use, and we revelled in the adventures it offered to us. As if conspiring along with the large oak tree, its inaccessibility was also overcome with one kind gesture, unlocking its large expanse for the spirit of exploration that animated my boyhood years.
Entering those woods, we dropped out of eyesight from the window for good, disappearing from even the keenest observer. Embarking from the bank, we often turned away westward, following as the river slowly made its way back in a southwesterly course. This brought us alongside fields and rolling hills that rose around us, with the occasional house or road visible from our low perch in the boat. We rowed along, eventually passing under the bridge that carried the I-90 highway over the river. The peaceful world of the meandering waterway underneath passed unnoticed by those above, the furious thunder and pace of countless cars careening towards their destinations filling the air. To pass under this bridge, caught between two worlds, was a strange feeling.
Farther along, we eventually would come across an intersecting T, where the murky flow of the Genesee met the clear still waters of Oatka creek. We often chose to turn up into its shallow waters, maneuvering around the many twists, pushing off the creek bed with our paddles rather than rowing, and sometimes even scraping the bottom of our boat. But our efforts were well rewarded: we were eventually enveloped in secluded woods and open, grassy banks.
Thus the river guided us deeper into the countryside, south and west, away from the city. Yet we didn’t always turn this way when setting out from our little launch. Sometimes we turned east, flowing with the river as it plodded slowly northward towards downtown Rochester. We never went that far—that was still many miles off, and the High Falls awaited us there—but the landscape certainly told the increasingly urban tale along the way. The Genesee brought us past more densely packed houses and buildings, with the Rochester Institute of Technology eventually making a prominent appearance off to our right. Cars whirred past us as the river drew alongside East River Road.
This was the same path the water had tread for centuries on its way north to Lake Ontario, named “Genesee” (pleasant banks) by the Seneca Indians who lived here long ago. Downtown Rochester had sprung up in the early 19th century around the High, Middle and Lower falls, these powering its many mills and serving as a lifeline since its inception. Although we never came within sight of it on any of these river outings, riding the very current that had helped to birth the city always felt like traveling back in time.
Perhaps the most striking sight that did await us even before reaching RIT was the abandoned Riverwood facility, a vestige of the international acclaim that once belonged to Kodak. The company had once been one of the centerpieces of Rochester’s economic success for decades, and the sprawling business park had served as a conference center and training facility for its many operations. Now it told the tale of Kodak’s decline: to my young imagination it was like a deserted outpost of the Roman Empire, still physically daunting, but devoid of the power that once animated it.
It was better explored on foot than seen from the water. This is what we often did, although usually arriving by bike rather than by boat. Either way, it was an eerie, unkept sight that greeted us upon arrival, like an entire ghost town evacuated at the drop of a hat. The empty buildings were set into the uneven ground, their rows of windows bared for our curious eyes. A few lights were kept running by whoever still owned the place, presumably to keep hooligans like ourselves from thinking it was totally free from surveillance. Some desks and chairs remained inside. Overgrown stretches of grass spanned the space between buildings, sometimes even breaking out through the cracks in the large, empty parking lots.
We embraced all of this with the gusto of youth, and yet there was always a slight impression of sadness that lingered in the air. This I can recall now with more clarity than my younger mind could have mustered. Back then it was simply empty buildings that I vaguely felt should be filled with people; now I grasp in a deeper sense the history of the place that it implicitly relayed. The abandoned sprawl of buildings told a tale of great success and eventual loss, imprinting onto the landscape the story of Kodak that in many ways mirrored the history of Rochester itself. Yet this is not the whole tale. The complex has since been purchased and repurposed, and the city’s economy has found other successes in the wake of Kodak’s recession from prominence. Like all compelling stories, this one is far from over, and full of interesting ebbs and flows.
These were the adventures we found on the river. Spring and summer offered many wonderful excursions, but fall was undoubtedly my favorite time to be out on the water. The silence there was so thorough it was more felt than heard. Deep browns and reds, sharp oranges and lingering greens all crowded the branches overhanging the water, the obstinate leaves still bravely clinging on in their fight against the changing of the season. Dancing reflections of the trees as they bent towards the river resonated upwards, past the water’s surface and out into the crisp air. Indeed, gazing down the corridor of the river at these reflections gave the impression of a forest under the water, reaching up to join its twin in the wider world above.
Perhaps it was here on the river that such an enduring love for New York falls seeped into my bones. Wordsworth, upon returning to a haven of nature that had supplied him with “sensations sweet” in “lonely rooms” and “‘mid the din of towns and cities,” speaks of its lingering effects:
“Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration. . .”
Such is fall for me. It is a sensation, not a season; a smell of cold and clean air, not mere weeks on the calendar. There on the river, my paddle dripping with cold water as it dipped from side to side, is where I truly felt its formative work upon my imagination.
Winter in those woods by the river held its own joys. Many moonlit nights found me there surrounded by bare trees, feeling an affinity with Robert Frost as I too watched the “woods fill up with snow.” I can still recall the slight movement of the wind between the empty boughs, and feel the quiet as it settled into the cold ground. The snow would lay a thick blanket over all in sight, sometimes even clinging to the trees and painting them white. This cold season holds a special place in my heart, and those woods have helped to put it there.
Such were the countless hours spent among the nearby woods and fields. The setting sun would often find us coming back across that field, the muddy boat on our shoulders, rarely with the energy to take back up the hearty song from earlier in the day. Yet no matter how far we roamed, regardless of the season, whether the adventure was on foot or by bike or boat, that window always waited to greet us as we returned.
As we approached again the home whose presence anchored our adventures, we looked back through the window from the outside this time. The view from this side was no less assuring, but for other reasons altogether. Inside it were joys of a different variety; the kind that infused the ones on its outside with all their meaning.