“I believe we have the noblest roaring blasts here I have ever known on land; they sing their hoarse song through the big tree-tops with a splendid energy that thrills me and stirs me and uplifts me and makes me want to live always. “
-Mark Twain, words penned during his 1901-1903 stay at Wave Hill
Is it decadence I love? Decay? The grinding action of ivy on stone? Or is it the bigness of this place, the sweep of these hills, the relative silence so obviously lacking in the city?
I’m sitting on a bench next to a rock wall, stone’s throw from a portico’ed belvedere overlooking the Hudson, snow to my shins on this sunny Tuesday in January. A light wind tickles; the baby sleeps.
Across the ice-scabbed river, sugar dusts the Palisades, tracing the foothills and capping the columns as it would do to Mt. Everts, I remember, glossing that already regal mountainscape with wintry definition.
I’ve written here before, written about here before. I began coming here almost two years ago and was coup de foudre romanced: by the birding, the champion trees, the river views, the well-thought-out gardens and uninterrupted woods.
Here at Wave Hill the human touch is thick, complex, Victorian, teetering between awe and honor for the natural world, and a sense of ownership of, and domination over the same. Its heavy houses and stone gardens, some dating to the middle 19th century, are a testament to the idea that architecture was once meant to last, and that these sweeping riverside spaces were valued and valuable so long as they could be claimed.
Much of Riverdale is this way. Its homes are not humble. While Manhattan grew up a dense grid of crowded human spaces, Riverdale was settled around and not against its topography, with sprawling hillside villas rather than sky-high cubes and rectangles. Riverdale was and is the release after the tension and compression of its southerly urban neighbor, and it offers a glimpse of what one will find in even greater scale and spectacle as one heads further up the Hudson: mansion after mansion, in varying states of preservation and decay, speak the history of captains of industry claiming “countryside” space for private retreats. The city was for business, the country for respite.
I love these stony structures, built both to last and to crumble. Orange leaves cling to ropes of summer ivy, catching glints of snow-sharpened sun, wrapping the stone fence like Christmas lights. Greenhouses burst with color, inklings of tropics and desert. A watergarden stands cold, barren, drained of its lilies for the winter.
Here I visit the perpetual questions. Is this place wild? Is there wildness—that is, more-than-human willed-ness, biological and atmospheric and molecular agency—here at Wave Hill, here at the Botanical Garden, here in the city, here all up and down the Hudson, despite these places’ culture of cultivation? And to what degree? Is it wild enough here, and, for whom? For itself? For us? What will be my baby’s sense of the physical and natural world, if its spores are planted in the railroaded and bemansioned, stone-fenced, belvedered Hudson Valley?
We can extract from the vision and essence of this place that beauty matters, to humans and to the world. Is “appreciation of beauty” something of a human niche in this ecosystem? Can we find a way—gradually and lovingly—to perform that niche without leaving such heavy tracks?
Is it the river I love, or the stately old mansion I watch it from? Must the latter cheapen the former?
These are not new questions, but they are mine, on this snowy, sunny Tuesday in January.