Esopus Meadows

My favorite place for a winter walk is where land and water meet. In our region, this boundary zone is on grandest display along the banks of the Hudson River. We celebrated the New Year with a ramble at Esopus Meadows, now a preserve managed by Scenic Hudson and a perfect place to experience the beauty of the river and its shoreline at this time of year.

John Burroughs, who built his stone house, Riverby, not far from here, complained that his daily prospect overlooking the great river had grown wearisome to him, “too grand and imposing for one’s daily and hourly view.” But in another of his essays, A River View, Burroughs describes what the Hudson River School of painters depicted on their canvasses: “… a large river … idealizes the landscape, it multiplies the beauty of the day and of the season. A fair day it makes more fair, and a wild and tempestuous day it makes more wild and tempestuous.” After our walk, on a fair and pleasant day, we couldn’t agree more with this statement.

Besides reflecting and magnifying the blue sky and the sunlight that silvered the edges of its wavelets, the Hudson gave us another gift that day. It gave us the pleasure of beachcombing, nearly a hundred miles from the sea. We let our eyes wander among the vast and varied collection of objects stranded along the broad pebble beach to find the tiny whorled shells of snails and the weathered halves of freshwater mussels, their gleaming mother-of-pearl showing where the gray crust had worn off. There were many small rounded and pitted brick fragments, and one nearly whole brick bearing the maker’s name in stamped capitals, evidence of the brickworks that once thrived nearby. These bricks, and the “beach glass” we found, smooth and rounded shards ranging in hue from amber, milk-white, and aquamarine to cobalt, seemed to straddle the boundary between manmade and natural.

And of course there were thousands of “devil’s heads,” the spiny, purplish-brown seedpods of the invasive water chestnut that teems in the shoals here. These waters off the west bank of the Hudson are so shallow the bottom is nearly exposed at low tide, and they have been known as Esopus Meadows since the days when farmers let cattle graze the lush water plants they supported. A longtime hazard to boats, these shallows are important today as a nursery for the spawn of striped bass,

That shore afforded us many other delights, such as the fine views up and down the river, and of the nearby Esopus Meadows lighthouse, the “Maid of the Meadows,” built in 1839 and reconstructed in 1871 after damage by flood and ice. Ice was not only a destructive force on the Hudson in the nineteenth century, but also the source of an important industry. In A River View, Burroughs gives an engrossing account of the ice-making he saw on the river, with teams of men and horses out on the ice that stretched from bank to bank. Some men sawed the ice into blocks which others scooted along in channels with long hooked poles to waiting elevators. It was hard to imagine that ice industry as we stood on this shore in January and looked out over open water.

The only link with the awesome spectacle Burroughs describes of the frozen river, groaning and cracking as its thick ice expanded in the sun, was the stack of one-inch thick angular plates of ice on the beach. These made an interesting contrast with the 450-million-year-old tilted layers of gray mudstone buttressing the shore at that point. What better way to take in the immense span of earth’s history almost in one glance than to see the shining ice layers of today’s river cast up next to the weathered rock strata of deep geologic time?

Rebecca pointed out, as we turned from the shore onto the inland trail, that beachcombing is a natural activity for young children to engage in, one that satisfies their need to make outdoor discoveries, to rummage among the “loose parts” of a natural place, and to see and touch real things, not just watch images on a screen or press buttons on a keyboard. The absence of such once everyday experiences from the lives of many children has been called “nature deficit disorder.” It is a malady peculiar to our time, but fortunately the cure is close at hand: family excursions to places like Esopus Meadows are the perfect way to restore to a child (and to an adult) a part of what life in an industrialized society has taken away. As they are pushed more and more to race to the top in their schools, children (and their parents and teachers, too) need walks like these along the river more than ever before.

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