1986-1991 NYSDEC Years

For five years I lived in a dilapidated A-frame off a dirt road in Upstate Western New York.  I didn’t appreciate it fully at the time, but in reflecting, I see that this area of the country southeast of Buffalo, northwest of Cleveland and Erie, was a playground for the well to do from those urban centers, not in spite of the depressed standard of living that exists there (the median income in Cattaraugus County at the time was $9,000) but because of it. The business owners took advantage of the low wages.  It was part of the economic landscape of northern Appalachia.

Driveway at Tug Hill

This is taken from the cabin. The the far building is an abandoned house. Beyond the house is a private bridge and beyond that access to a secondary road.

Tucked in the far corner of an eleven -acre alluvial field and at the base of Tug Hill Mountain, Tug Hill was a long defunct, private ski area built by a group of doctors from Ohio for their children and abandoned in the early fifties when the kids grew up and left the nest. When I lived there (1986-91) it belonged to my friend, John Jones’s, father, who owned a controlling interest in the property and who allowed me to live there rent free in return for keeping it up and managing the 475 acres of forest that surrounded it. I went there filled with visions of a sylvan paradise where I could avoid the stress and tumble of life, escape drudgery, and have time for writing and reflection. In quiet solitude I would concentrate on matters of the soul, get in touch with my inner child, find my voice, and heal from Viet Nam. But old structures demand constant maintenance. The plumbing leaked and so did the roof. I spent my time between trying to earn money to make repairs and making them. The long New England winters are not forgiving to those who are less than fastidious about preparing for them. Whatever our powers of prophetic meteorological evaluation, in the north it is wise to seal windows with plastic, replace weather stripping, hook up power regulators to hot water tanks, close off unused portions of the house, strategically place electric space heaters near plumbing, wrap heat tape around the more exposed pipes, tune furnaces, replace or repair shovels, snow-blowers, and windshield scrapers, change the anti-freeze in our vehicles, fill fuel oil tanks and stockpile wood. During the summer I repaired and shingled the roof, rebuilt the rickety bridge, filled holes, built steps and dealt with the vermin who competed with one another for the rights to my garden and my rabbits. In five years I did no writing, but my writing was improved.

John Jones at Tug Hill
John Jones and me in front of my home in NY.

In keeping myself in running water I became a fair plumber. I learned to sweat copper pipes, replace worn gaskets, install water heaters, and repair kitchen and bathroom fixtures. I picked up tricks like packing damp or dripping broken pipes with bread so the solder will melt, and when to use plastic pipe rather than copper. In maintaining access to the road I learned how bridges are constructed; I learned that steel beams seldom outlast wooden ones, and that, although oak planks are very strong, it is impossible to drive a spike through them. In searching the tool shed for a screw or a length of chain I came to understand why farmers hoard odds and ends. It is far more prudent to toggle a temporary repair with the materials at hand than to make a forty-mile round trip to town every time some fixture or apparatus malfunctions. In dealing with vermin I learned the habits and social structures of coyotes, foxes, raccoons and weasels, as well as beavers and porcupines, which love to eat plywood. I acquired a huge respect for insects: wasps, hornets, ants, ticks, black flies, termites, mosquitoes, and especially cluster flies, those masters of proliferation whose final victory is to die in your milk. I learned that while it is sometimes necessary to control nature, it is foolish to try to defeat her. In a greater sense I came to understand what Emerson meant by “do the thing, and have the power.” For those who choose to live independently, life is a series of crumbling ledges, slips and falls. But with every skinned knuckle, frost bitten ear and bruised shin we learn to pull when we gain purchase. Our actions speak more loudly as we broaden the vocabulary of our skills. Sweet pain serves as part of the nature of our gift.

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