Volume 5 Number 1-4
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Camping in the "Woods": Woodchuck Lodge, Woodstock, Woodland Valley
This paper was originally presented at the Sixties Generations conference, March 1993, Fairfax, VA.
In July 1992, I traveled north for a few days from my home in the Passaic River valley of New Jersey to the Catskill mountains of New York. My official destination was Woodchuck Lodge in Roxbury, New York, boyhood home of the nineteenth-century nature writer, John Burroughs. As a doctoral candidate in English, I had read a number of Burroughs' essays, had researched his biography, and was considering writing my dissertation on some aspect of his career. In addition to academic concerns, however, it was the summertime, and I wanted to take a break--to see Woodchuck Lodge, of course, but also to explore the nearby town of Woodstock and to do some hiking and camping at the isolated Woodland Valley campground southeast of Roxbury. At the time I hadn't noticed that I was visiting three "woods"--Woodchuck Lodge, Woodstock, and Woodland Valley. After my return, however, I began to recognize that, when seen from the standpoint of camping, each "wood" represents a different stage in our evolving philosophy of wilderness. Woodchuck Lodge was the departure point for many camping trips by Burroughs and his fellow outdoor enthusiasts; Woodstock gave its name to what may have been the most important camp-out ever, held at the turning point of environmental awareness in America; and my experience in Woodland Valley was evidence of all the contradictions a modern "wilderness" experience can bring about. What follows, then, is a travelogue of sorts, the narrative of a journey both spatial and temporal that attempts to come to terms with what we do when we camp.
My journey begins with John Burroughs, the ostensible subject of my visit. Author of more than twenty-eight books on natural history and literature, Burroughs lived from 1837 to 1921 and was the preeminent nature writer of his day, his volumes selling more than a million-and-a-half copies. Although Burroughs had been popular throughout the nineteenth century, it was really not until 1914 and the publication of Our Friend John Burroughs by Clara Barrus that a true cult of personality grew up around the then-seventy-year-old writer. Filled with stories of uninvited guests being welcomed with hospitality by Burroughs, the book sparked a barrage of visitors to Woodchuck Lodge that summer. "What shall I do to check this unwanted flood of company?" Burroughs complained in a letter to Hamlin Garland that autumn.1
The flood of company has since stopped coming to Woodchuck Lodge, and on the day of my visit in July I was the only one around for miles. After paying my respects at the gravesite just up the road, I sat down on the steps of the sun-baked porch to contemplate the diminished status of this man. Why is it, I wondered, staring out at the lush green fields of his Catskill homestead, that almost no one today knows who John Burroughs is?
Part of the answer, at least, can be attributed to the fact that Burroughs was no ecological saint. Boyhood companion of financial mogul Jay Gould, Burroughs was friends with many of the business tycoons of the post-Civil War expansion, including Thomas Edison, E.H. Harriman, Andrew Carnegie, Harvey Firestone, and Henry Ford. Although he wrote devotedly about nature's glory, he seems to have been at least partially blind to its potential destruction by the mechanization and industrialization promoted by his friends.
Woodchuck Lodge was the departure point for Burroughs' many camping trips, and it is in these trips, I believe, that Burroughs' appreciation of nature clashed most visibly with the growing threat of industrial progress. Consider, for example, the camping trip taken by Burroughs and Henry Ford in September, 1913, to visit Concord, Massachusetts, and the old haunts of Emerson and Thoreau. As Ed Renehan relates in his new biography of Burroughs:
A fleet of Ford cars and trucks complete with chauffeurs and attendants accompanied the two men on the trip. One truck was a traveling field kitchen. Another carried seven tents for Ford, Burroughs, and Ford's staff. Other vehicles carried Mr. Ford's wardrobe, newsreel cameras of the Ford publicity department, a portable refrigerator, a dining tent with an upright table that seated twenty, and gasoline powered electricity generators. Burroughs and Ford each had a private ten-by-ten tent complete with portable floor, electric light, folding cot, mattress, blankets, sheets, and pillows.2
Clearly, this was no average camping trip, although its grandeur appears to have been characteristic of a number of the outings Burroughs took--with John Muir and E.H. Harriman to Alaska in 1899, with Teddy Roosevelt to Yellowstone Park in 1903, and with Ford and Edison to the Everglades in 1914. Coincident with the rise of the national park system, Burroughs' trips also provide a vivid illustration of the way the American attitude toward wilderness was changing as a result of industrial progress.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word camp--in the sense I am using it here--comes from the Latin campus, or "level field." (Recall the Campus Martius in Rome, where games, athletic practices, and military drills were held.) An early definition of the word is its military sense, meaning "[t]he place where an army or body of troops is lodged in tents or other temporary means of shelter, with or without entrenchments." Connected to this definition is our more familiar awareness of camp: "The temporary quarters, formed by tents, vehicles, or other portable or improvised means of shelter, occupied by a body of nomads or men on the march, by travelers, by gypsies, companies of sportsmen, lumbermen, field-preachers and their audiences, or parties `camping out'; an encampment." (Interestingly, one of the earliest citations of "camping" in American literature comes from James Fenimore Cooper's 1823 novel The Pioneers, also set in the Catskills. Cooper describes "[t]he sugar-boiler, who was busy in his camp."3
I was born in May, 1969, one month before the moonwalk, three months before the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Needless to say, I don't remember either. But I grew up with that word ringing in my ears--Woodstock, Woodstock, Woodstock.
As anyone who was there knows, however, I should have been hearing Bethel, Bethel, Bethel, because that's where the festival was actually held--in Bethel, New York, about sixty miles southwest of Woodstock, and about as close to Pennsylvania as the true town of Woodstock is to the Hudson.
This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. Woodstock Ventures, Inc., the group that organized the festival, had first planned to hold the event in or on the borders of the town of Woodstock, as an expansion of "a small series of weekend folk and rock events" called the "Woodstock Soundouts" that had been held just over the town line in Saugerties.4 Since the turn of the century, when John Burroughs had spent a few weeks each summer in Woodstock, the town had grown from a thriving artists' colony to a mecca for musicians, hippies, and flower children. Pete Seeger; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Bob Dylan all claimed residence there at one point or another during the sixties.5 The result of such growth, however, was that "the town had few of the unwooded plains and gently rolling hillsides a large outdoor festival would need."6 This, combined with the resistance of the town's more conservative residents, drove the festival first to Wallkill in southern Ulster Country, and, when that site also fell through, to Sullivan Country and the town of Bethel.
Bethel, it is worth noting, means a holy or consecrated spot in Hebrew,7 and the three days of peace and music that were held there in August, 1969, were--in one sense--an attempt to bring about such a state of holiness in our relationship to the land. Ever since the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, concern for the environment had been growing in the United States, with the approval of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, and the creation of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System in 1968. The sixties also saw the publication of Murray Bookchin's Our Synthetic Environment in 1962, Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind in 1967, and Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb in 1968, to name but a few. On the one hand, then, this renewed emphasis on the environment came as a result of the increasing affluence of the American people, who were better educated about the perils of ecological collapse and who had more leisure time to devote to such a cause. On the other hand, it also came as a result of the many links that existed between the various social movements of the sixties, such as the antiwar, civil rights, Native American rights, and feminist movements. Woodstock offered the youth of the 1960s the opportunity to put their pastoral ideals into practice.
Stanley Goldstein, who was campground coordinator for Woodstock Ventures, recounted that
[t]he idea of the campgrounds, just like the idea, which was very, very, very early on, that if we drew the kind of crowd that we anticipated drawing for X number of days, there was no place that those people could have stayed, whether it was Wallkill or Monticello, NY. There just wasn't the housing in the area. But more than that, it was in the spirit of the times to get out and commune with nature and so on and so forth--be ecologically sound, live off the land, be a part of it. So the camping idea was just part of the plot.8
Due to the last minute site change from Wallkill to Bethel just a month before the festival, and also due to the overwhelming size of the crowd, the efforts at campsite location, path-building, and fire-pit digging were inadequate to handle the convergence of 400,000 people on the farm of Max Yasgur for three days. The experience of Alan Green, who recalls coming over a hill as he neared the festival site, seems to have been typical:
There were long, long lines of cars--I guess miles already at that point--but when you got onto Yasgur's farm there was still no idea... what was going on because there were people milling around; there was no sort of semblance of who was going to be doing what and where it was all going to happen even. We looked around and though, "Well, this should be fun. We'll camp out here for two days or three days and there will probably be a lot of people around." So we found a spot in the woods and we decided maybe we should smoke a joint.9
Compare Green's narration of the events with Joni Mitchell's version in the song "Woodstock":
Well I came upon a child of God,
He was walkin along the road,
And I asked him, tell me, "Where you goin'?"
And this he told me.
He said I'm goin' down to Yasgur's Farm,
I'm gonna join in a rock `n' roll band,
I'm gonna camp out on the land,
I'm gonna try and get my soul free.
What in Mitchell's version reads "gonna camp out on the land," became, in the version which Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang, "got to get back to the land." The change was less a shift in meaning, though, than a simple substitution of synonyms. "Camping out," in the sixties no longer meant the reproduction of industrial domesticity; it meant getting back to the land, getting back to the pastoral garden.
Paying too much attention to this pastoral vision, however, may obscure what were, in the end, the rather messy realities of Woodstock. In addition to the lack of adequate fencing to control the crowds, and the miles and miles of impassable traffic jams, there were the ever-present rainstorms, which almost destroyed what ragtag electric, water, and sewage systems were in place and which led to the memorable headline in theNew York Daily News: "Hippies Mired in Sea of Mud."
Still, after it was all over, not everyone remained focused on what the New York Times termed a "Nightmare in the Catskills."10 Not long after the festival ended, the Sullivan County Publicity Commission ran an ad to promote tourism in the New York Times Magazine of 26 October 1969. According to the ad, when the festival participants arrived in the Catskills, "They saw that [the Catskills] had lakes hiding in the woods. That they could stand knee-deep in crystal streams and have a waterfall rain down upon them. Or try to catch fish with their bare hands. They saw what it was like to camp out in the woods."11
When I went to the Catskills this past July, after visiting Woodchuck Lodge and Woodstock, I did some camping of my own in a place called Woodland Valley, an isolated campground run by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Today, of course, there are many, many different ways of camping--camping in the backcountry, the desert, the beach, or the snowpack; while hunting, fishing, or trapping; while bicycle touring, rafting or canoeing. Because of my own time constraints in July, I traveled in one of the descendants of Henry Ford's creation, the automobile, with a tent in the trunk and a change of clothes on the passenger seat. I paid my eight bucks, signed up for my site, and suddenly I was camping.
If the camping trips of John Burroughs exemplify the growing intrusion of industry into the life of all Americans after the Civil War, and if Woodstock was the most visible attempt by Americans to recover a more balanced approach to nature in the 1960s, my camping experience in Woodland Valley suggests some of the ways in which--since Woodstock--the nation has both succeeded and failed at preventing the tide of "progress" from overwhelming our wilderness areas.
Its success, of course, can be found simply in the continued preservation of isolated tracts of land such as that surrounding Woodland Valley. Though not inaccessible, this campground is far enough out of the way to prevent the casual visitor from happening upon it by chance. Though it can be reached by automobile, Woodland Valley provides access to a number of hiking tails that lead quickly from the pavement to the pine-needles, past streams that feed the Esopus Creek and Ashokan Reservoir, and up Slide Mountain, rising 4200 feet above sea level. Though the campsites are numbered and the latrines lined with cement, these limited changes--however "unnatural" they may appear--help prevent the further destruction of this special and fragile world.
The preservation of such spaces, however, while important for the human camper, should be tempered by a growing awareness that wilderness does not exist solely for human enjoyment. As Dave Foreman writes in Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, "Many conservationists and biologists recognize today that the primary value of wilderness is not as a proving ground for young Huck Finns or Annie Oakleys. It is to preserve native biological diversity, to allow room on this human-dominated Earth for the free play of natural forces, to leave things alone somewhere."12 Ecological wilderness, as Foreman points out, is big wilderness; many plants and animals require vast stretches of untouched land to flourish. Due to actions such as road-building, logging, grazing, mining, energy extraction, dam building and other water developments, power-line and pipeline corridor construction, and a host of other destructive activities, wilderness fragmentation has proceeded apace with preservation during the twentieth century. A Woodland Valley is one thing. Many woodland valleys, connected by buffer zones and migration corridors adequate for species preservation, are another.
When John Burroughs and Henry Ford camped in Concord with their servants, they brought with them all the trappings of industrial domesticity. They, however, were few in number. When 400,000 people camped at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, they brought with them only a pastoral vision. But they needed more than music to survive. When I camped at Woodland Valley, I was reminded that species preservation depends on keeping wilderness areas safe from human inhabitation. Now, although I wonder what preserving the human species will require. Perhaps camping has had the answer all along: wear good boots, watch your step, tread lightly.
1 Edward J. Renehan, Jr., John Burroughs: An American Naturalist (Post Mills, VT: Chelsea Green) 1992: 278.
2 Ibid.: 273.
3 J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, Volume 2 (Oxford: Clarendon) 1989, 20 volumes: 809.
4 Alf Evers, The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock (Garden City, NY: Doubleday) 1972: 710-711.
5 Ibid.: 708-709.
6 Ibid.: 711.
7 Ibid.: 712.
8 Joel Makower, Woodstock: The Oral History (New York: Doubleday) 1989: 156.
9 Ibid.: 11.
10 Makower: 28-29.
11 Evers: 716.
12 Dave Foreman, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior (New York: Harmony Books) 1991: 63.