Saturday, January 31, 2009

`Time Wearing Out Memory'

For 19 years I lived in upstate New York, in and around Albany, and for most of that time I worked as a newspaper reporter. That meant I was on the road a lot and got to know more of the region and its people than many natives. The most beautiful place in all of that history-drenched area is Schoharie County, the sparsely populated northernmost reach of the Catskill Mountains, a landscape of limestone ridges and flat, black-soiled valleys. It’s the longest continuously farmed area in the state. If I could earn a living, I would live there.

How surprised I was to find a book in our library, a continent away, titled Time Wearing Out Memory: Schoharie County (2008), a collection of black-and-white photographs taken by Steve Gross and Susan Daley. They document the old Schoharie of hops-drying barns, churches, sap houses, smoke houses, Grange and Masonic halls, covered bridges, general stores, one-room schoolhouses and outhouses. Many have collapsed or sunk into earth and underbrush, though one wonders how today’s buildings will fare in 150 years.

The dominant architectural style is Greek Revival, which persisted through most of the 19th century. Gross and Daley found a clapboard-covered Dutch Reformed Church dating from about 1815 and located in the wonderfully named Breakabeen. Such place names – an American Esperanto of Dutch, English, German, American Indian and what not -- bring back fond memories of their places: Gilboa, Blenheim, Bouck’s Falls, Howe’s Cave, Argusville, Sharon Springs, Middleburgh, Patchin Hollow and Esperance. Some of the photos, particularly interiors, recall the work of Walker Evans and Wright Morris. In their “Photographers’ Note,” Gross and Daley, who have lived in Schoharie since 1987, write:

“The prints were made using traditional chemistry [I love that phrase] on gelatin silver paper. For this particular project, the medium and subject matter were especially in harmony. Using a wood, metal, and glass camera of nineteenth-century design, the process was slow and careful but not complicated.”

Here is their explanation of the title:

“In John M. Brown’s 1823 history of Schoharie County he used the phrase `time wearing out memory’ to describe how even back then there was the feeling that memory fades and places are forgotten, lost to time. These photographs are a record of our own moment of being here in this changing landscape of hills and curving roads and tenuous old buildings.”

Reading that, I thought of “The Mountain Cemetery,” a poem from Edgar Bowers’ first collection, The Form of Loss (1956); these lines especially: “What we of time would threaten to undo/All time in its slow scrutiny has done.”

Gross and Daley’s exquisite photos of an almost vanished America remind us of what Bowers elsewhere in the poem calls “The enormous, sundry platitude of death.”

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