The Lands of Kats Kill is the second in a series of three interrelated experimental pieces that combine graphics, text, and hyperlinks based on themes coming out of my Crazy River project, for which I gave an interview on this website on May 16th. Crazy River takes a wide-angle view of the climate crisis, ranging from my own climate grief to an in-depth focus on the many causes and effects of rapid environmental changes on the West Branch of the Neversink in Ulster County. In this piece I investigate the idea of the Catskills as a region, and an incongruous bundle of contradictions and coincidences. The Lands of Kats Kill weaves three timelines together: the geologic, the historical, and the personal. This structure repeats throughout my Crazy River project. The previous piece in this series, Invaders, took apart the idea of invasive species. The following will explore the concept of the Golden Spike in stratigraphy as fact and metaphor.
Het Landt van Kats Kill
Roman-fleuve: the form of a long usually easygoing chronicle of a social group (such as a family or a community). – Merriam-Webster
The West Branch of the Neversink is just 20 minutes from Grossinger’s in Liberty NY. Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Jerry Lewis, and Woody Allen all worked the Borscht Belt. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s childhood self worries about the end of the universe. Maybe he should have worried about the end of all life through global warming, which could happen in the Sixth Mass Extinction.
That almost happened in the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, where a massive build-up of CO2 produced the greatest mass extinction so far.
The Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, 2021, acrylic on panel, 30” x 40”
About a hundred million years before that in the Devonian, the Catskills began as a river delta. Everyone’s favorite tetrapod-in-training, Tiktaalik pictured below was one of the predators that plied the delta’s rivers and shores. It had a flexible neck, wrists, and lungs. Justin Maiman, DJ of the Ginger Radio Hour on WGXC out of Cairo, NY, in Greene Co. thinks he would like to see one if he had a time machine to go back to the pre-carboniferous forests that once occupied where Cairo is now, but not too close. Tiktaalik got up to nine feet.
The delta got pushed up into a plateau during the Jurassic. Technically the Catskills aren’t even a mountain range but an eroded plateau. The glaciers in the Pleistocene covered the entire range. Only the top of Slide Mountain, at 4,190’ the tallest peak in the Catskills, poked out on top. Slide is 15 minutes from Frost Valley YMCA on beautiful Ulster County Route 47.
Heading due north on County Route 47 takes you over to NY State Road 28. Take a right turn right at Big Indian. Here is an excerpt from the book Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin People of New York by Evan T. Pritchard that tells the apocryphal story behind the name. If you want the whole story, get the book.
That will point you in the direction of the town of Woodstock, where the Byrdcliffe Art Colony was founded in 1903. The town of Woodstock is not to be confused with the music festival of the same name that took place in a completely different town, Bethel, NY. Max Yasgur was kind enough to loan his dairy farm there to Woodstock’s promoters.
Gramma Connell, aka Jenny Franklin Hovey Roof, had heard that there was going to be a music festival nearby and wanted to go. She was hoping it would be classical music, as she was an accomplished pianist who had studied with Ignacy Jan Paderewski. She would have gotten Jimi Hendrix instead.
We never got to go but I do remember drinking Yasgur’s milk.
Mr. Yasgur sold the farm in 1971 and moved to Florida. He died at 53 in 1973. The number of farms in the Catskills has plummeted since the 1970s. Farming is hard, and even harder if you’re a tenant. The Calico Indians fought the Ulster Co. patroons in the Rent Wars of 1839-1945. At least they had their personal freedom.
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree sometime between 1797 and 1800 to enslaved parents James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Colonel Hardenbergh had purchased the couple and brought them to his estate in Swartekill, NY. Growing up speaking Dutch, she always spoke English with an accent. A devout Christian, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843, spreading “the hope that was in her,” fighting for the rights of women and black people.
The marginalized seldom make it into history books. Anglers on the West Branch of the Neversink have named fishing spots for the farmers bought out in the early 1900s by Mr. Roof, Gramma Connell’s adoptive father. There’s Leroy Pool where I almost drowned, named after a Mr. Leroy that no one in our family remembers.
And there’s the Jones Flats, a wetland along the West Branch, where the Jones family farmed, hunted, and fished. They got into many confrontations with Mr. Roof after they sold their land to him, as they continued to use the creek as they saw fit. Mr. Roof couldn’t get the local courts to convict them of trespassing.
Who could blame the Jones family? The fishing was really good: big native brook trout. Such beautiful fish they were, almost tropical in their coloring as the naturalist and essay writer John Burroughs put it. He was good friends with Henry Ford, but had no idea how to drive a car. He fished the West Branch, and wrote about it.
Gramma knew him. She loved meeting celebrities, and often had dreams of doing so. She met him first at the Japanese-style resort Yama Farms in Napanoch, NY. She claimed he was at a gathering at her Addirondack-style lodge Wintoon when a dog came up and lifted his leg on him. “He smelled like a tree,” she said.
I wonder what Mr. Burroughs would have thought of the climate crisis. Would he have realized that gigantic storms like Irene that flooded both the Delaware watershed and the Esopus creek were caused by climate change? Would he have stayed friends with Henry Ford? What would Gramma have said? Born in 1887, she witnessed first hand the second wave of industrialization in America. She would have been conflicted. One of the last things she said before she died was, “It’s a pretty little river, isn’t it?”
Hovey Brock is a writer, art critic, and painter who divides his time between Claryville, NY and Brooklyn, NY. His Crazy River series has been in the works since 2017. The project consists of autobiographical paintings and essays about the impact of climate change on the West Branch of the Neversink. He also has done several salons about artists who make works about climate change and its effects. Most recently he published an essay in Appalachia Journal, “Crazier River: The Neversink Goes Rogue in the Climate Crisis.”