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