ASHOKAN

Ever since my first taste of the outdoors as a tiny infant, and my introduction to New York City at age five, the bustling stimulation of big cities and the primal beauty of wild places have had equally powerful holds on me. As a teenager stuck in the suburbs I dreamed of city life, and fled to New York as soon as I could. Living in New York City, I longed for big, open spaces. It was a tough longing to fulfill, with truly wild places being far from the city.

In 2004 I took a job with New York state that required traveling within a hundred mile radius of downtown Manhattan, where my department was headquartered near the present day Freedom Tower. When I could schedule work upstate I was so happy. I knew I’d have a chance to steal an hour or two in a wilder place, and reconnect with nature.

The Ashokan Reservoir was one of those special places. Set down among the soft folds of  the Catskill Mountains’ eastern edge, the reservoir isn’t far from Woodstock, Mount Tremper and  Phoenicia, places many city dwellers fondly recall from upstate jaunts. The Ashokan settles across miles of beautiful rolling countryside, hiding the remains of several communities abandoned over a hundred years ago, when it was created as part of a vast system to collect fresh water for New York City.

These days, the giant silver-blue basin supplies up to 40% of the city’s drinking water, and it’s a long journey to city apartments.  From the reservoir, water is shunted south through ninety-two miles of aqueduct to a holding reservoir closer to the city. The water settles there, flows south to yet another reservoir, and finally travels through two very old tunnels into the city water system. It was not a modest project, but then most projects associated with new York aren’t small scale.

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Hours from home, standing at the reservoir’s edge, I could breathe in the essence of the landscape that surrounded and held my own drinking water. The quiet spread out and enveloped me. Herds of grass-grazing deer and the occasional sight of a Bald eagle tearing at a fish on the shoreline, refreshed my city-sore brain cells.

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On a primal level, the reservoir was simply space – wide and plain and rolling out beyond the imagination. It was undulating hills, cold, deep water, sharp air and wildflowers at my feet. It was bigger than I was. I needed that.

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Is the name Ashokan familiar? It probably is if you’re American and you watch TV. Ken Burns’ popular TV series about the American Civil War featured a haunting lament by the name of Ashokan Farewell. Composed in the early 80’s by Jay Ungar, an American folk musician, the song came to signify all the troubled emotions and regrets of our Civil War years.

These days Jay Ungar still makes music and directs the Ashokan Center, the oldest environmental education center in the state, located just south of the reservoir. Listen to the song in a pure rendition by the composer and his family. And by the way, Jay is a Jewish boy from the Bronx. Go figure.

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For me the song conjures a poignant longing for deep connection, symbolized in the hills and valleys around the Ashokan reservoir, where there is something I can’t quite put my finger on, something that seems at once lost, and present.

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The photographs were taken in the summer and winter of 2010 and summer of 2011, from the causeway separating the reservoir’s two basins.


26 comments

  1. The name ‘Ashokan’ made me think of the word ‘Ashkenazi,’ so I was especially tickled to find the note that Jay is “a Jewish boy from the Bronx.” A little exploration into the name turned up this: “[Ashoka] means “without sorrow” in Sanskrit. This name was borne by Ashoka the Great, a 3rd-century BC emperor of India.”

    However the town of Ashoka got its name, the aspect of being without sorrow certainly fits with your post, and your lovely photos.

      • The arm gets better all the time, and I can hold the camera up now, and drive…that’s good! Funny association you made there. I knew it was a Sanskrit word, too, but didn’t know what it meant. In one place online it says it’s a corruption of the Lenape place name for a good place to fish. Lenape are the local indigenous people. Hope you’re having a great road trip!

    • New York has so much! I’ve always thought that. But what about you? Are you posting on Instagram more? I miss your WordPress posts, and I just haven’t gotten into the Insta-habit, nor Tumblr. Hope all is well with you Patti!

      • Hey Lyn, great to catch up with you & your great shots and hope your shoulder is getting better by the day! Thought of you when we did an NY state road trip, a rushed one but so much to explore. Now just back from a baby road trip through Colorado & Kansas which was great fun. As for posting pics, well, I’m at a bit of a cross roads & not sure what to do. My laptop broke down months ago & found it so clunky using WP on mobile or ipad, horribly frustrating in fact with Instagram and tumblr so much easier to use. Having said all that, it’s not as though I’m posting loads more there. I’m rambling here when the truth is I go out & shoot, come home & think I’ll post soon but then I get tired so soon then becomes later and before I know it I’m out shooting again. I’m thinking of starting a slow blogging movement! Enjoy your weekend Lyn and happy shooting to you!

  2. Very good to hear of your past life, Lynn. You write well and its always a pleasure reading your posts. I especially like “It was undulating hills, cold, deep water, sharp air and wildflowers at my feet. It was bigger than I was. I needed that.” – very well put. And I agree with composerinthegarden, the first and last shots are my favourites too – blue, misty and mysterious. I hope very much that your injuries are healing well. Take care! Adrian 🙂

    • I appreciate your compliments, Adrian. I will say, it does not come quickly. But it’s worth doing, and I’m sure if I write more often it will gradually get a little easier. I do keep making progree with the arm, better range of motion and stronger all the time. thanks for your thoughts.

  3. I’ll go with composerinthegarden and Adrian: First and last are my favorites. I also hold with Adrian about your writing, but I guess I’ve already told you that. As soon as I saw the title of your post I thought “Ashokan Farewell” but figured it was just my associating mind at it again. What fun to find your link to Jay Ungar and Molly Mason and family performing the song. Their version is so sensitive—absolutely the best—and I have heard many versions on my Pandora stations, where I keep giving that song a thumbs up. Now when I hear it, I will remember your photographs.

    • Oh, that’s nice to hear, that you might think of these images when you hear the song again. It’s a good spot on the earth, and it helped me stay sane, the few times I got up there. Yes, a very pure and straightforward rendition of the song, this one.


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