Audacia Ray (they/she) is a queer nonbinary femme whose stories have been published in Necessary Fiction, Litro Magazine, NonBinary Review, and Stone Canoe. Their nonfiction work has been widely anthologized, most recently in We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival. She was an editor of $pread magazine and its respective best-of anthology published by Feminist Press. They spend their time in Brooklyn and also live part time in the Catskill Mountains in a cabin that has a labyrinth in the front yard. Photo By Anna Carson Dewitt.
Deeds and Intentions
after/against John Burroughs
Forever wild, with wounds.
Several miles of trails loop through the old Rochester Estate in the middle of the Catskill Park, where before there was a state park there was once a decadent home called Rose Hill, named for the mountain it was installed on. The evidence of nineteenth-century developments mark the land: a carriage road, rock walls that in some places stretch deeper into the forest than my eye can see, cement and stone foundations of buildings.
These loops make up one of my favorite hikes in the Catskills. It’s only a ten minute drive from my cabin in the hamlet of Phoenicia, which is part of the appeal, but really it's the ruin and reclamation happening here that bring me back over the seasons and the years. I first hiked it alone in the spring of 2015, when I was a weekend visitor to the Catskills, and since then I’ve hiked it solo, with friends, and have shared it with one lover, who would become my spouse. There aren’t any dramatic vistas and there’s no impressive summit to conquer. I like the closeness of the forest, the whelm of limited views, and thinking about what was here and is no longer, the ways the forest has taken it back. Because there’s no peak to bag, this hike is all process without celebrated destination, and it lends itself to introspection when solo and deep sharing when hiked with other people.
Every time I make my way up the first incline of the carriage road and walk between pillars that were once the support structures for the gate that shut outsiders out and the Rochester family and their staff in, I imagine how grand it must have been to arrive here in the early nineteenth-century by carriage, horseback, or foot. Or, grand anyway for the people with wealth who made the trip in style and comfort, much less so for the people who served them. Being a New Yorker and against it, Rochester didn’t enslave people, though he certainly exploited poor folks. I walk up the road that for two miles is parallel to a stream that sometimes trickles and sometimes rushes. This hike is known as “Catskills flat,” which is to say that it’s no rail trail, there’s 600 feet of gains over a half mile that always make me feel my heartbeat in my thighs.
Though it’s fun to play amateur archaeologist, I find it even more calming when I stop imagining what was here two hundred years ago and I take in what is here now. I think about how the land can heal over wounds that people have put on it. It takes some decades, but the trees move faster than you might expect. Buildings crumble rapidly when they aren’t occupied and maintained. Standing in front of the husk of what was once Rose Hill, when the leaves are sparse I can see the ski slopes of Belleayre, twisty scars down the side of the mountain. Looking out at those marks in the land, I know that if they remained unmanicured, it would only be a matter of years until the woods took them back and smoothed them over with tall grasses, then saplings, and finally mature evergreen and deciduous trees. Maybe it would reforest with some of the hemlock trees, which once blanketed this area until they were extracted for their bark, used to make leather tanners at industrial scale in the Catskills in the early part of the nineteenth-century. By the 1870s, there were hardly any hemlock groves left the in area, and the next extractive industry – bluestone mining – had taken hold. However, the stones have no chance of growing back.
Past the remaining foundation of Rose Hill, I make my way down the Eignor Trail, named for one of the farms Colonel William Rochester bought up and subsumed into his estate. This path slopes down into the area that was once pasture. I always touch the bark of the few large trees left on the south-facing slope of the land, which once provided shade for the livestock that grazed here when it was farmland. The grand old trees’ branches stretch out over the new growth straining for light around them, knitting together a complex root structure of old and new beneath my feet.
I opt to take the second loop off the main trail as well – the John Burroughs Memorial Trail. Burroughs, the great naturalist of the early twentieth-century, advocated for the idea that became the reality of these public lands. He’s like the East Coast John Muir; he is a little less impressive, but same general desire to preserve and conquer. Catskill Park is one of the manifestations of the idea of forever wild lands: 700,000 acres of protected state lands that would reforest and heal over the resource extractions that had happened here. Burroughs cared about the woods, fashioned himself into a beard-stroking gentleman nature lover and prolific writer about the romance of the forests. And like John Muir’s role in conservation, Burroughs made his own access to the wilderness a priority, and didn’t think much about (certainly didn’t learn from) the Indigenous people who had walked there before him. The Haudenosaunee and Munsee Lenape people who never ceded this land could have a bitter laugh about an effetely rugged white man claiming this land as forever wild, the same land they stewarded and cultivated within the boundaries of what the land could give. The rocks don’t grow back.
I am comforted when I think about the fact that the bold, ostentatious structures with stone and cement foundations that Colonel Rochester built on these lands are no longer here. I think about how the social and economic structures that supported him, bent to his will and his wallet, have shifted. I also think about how that could happen to the buildings and society that now stand in the Catskills and beyond, some of which are loved and lived in while others are already mid-crumble.
When I first started hiking this trail seven years ago, crumble and collapse didn’t feel as close, it was lurking but not ongoing, which is how it feels now, post-Trump and in the ongoing COVID pandemic. In a weird way, it comforts me to think that the earth is making its adjustments in defiance of or response to human extractive economies. I like to think that the earth will continue on if we mess things up too badly for humans to live as we do now. And maybe the idea of conservation that created our state and national parks will be reinvented, and that reinvention will not be led by bearded white cisgender men like John Burroughs, and instead will honor and be guided by the Indigenous cultures that didn’t need to diminish resources to the breaking point in order to thrive.
A land not for you, maybe for me.
I understand Rochester and Burroughs to have had great passion for the land in the Catskills, but also that these passions were patriarchal and controlling. When they wanted to preserve these lands for future generations, neither of them were thinking about the possibility of me: a bisexual nonbinary femme married to a nonbinary trans masc person, a survivor of intimate partner violence, a former sex worker, and a property owner in the Catskills. Though seven years ago I started out alone in these woods and made the mistake of buying unseasoned firewood for my first winter, during the early weeks of the pandemic I made this cabin my queer home here with my then-partner, now spouse. My quarter of an acre and 800 square foot cabin has not been handed over to me through men in my family. My partner and I won’t buy up the adjacent properties to make our own mega-estate in the woods that I can gaze at possessively. Instead, I cultivate a messy garden that invites pollinators and other wildlife to my yard, make jam from the fruit of my neighbor’s peach tree if the bears don’t harvest the fruit first, and my partner chats across the fence with our mechanic neighbor while they drink tea and hang out with our cats and dog in the backyard. This past summer I saw the loosening dirt of mole pathways threaded across my yard, and soft dark voles nosed their way through my compost. I’m now a person who knows the difference between moles and voles, and doesn’t regard either as a pest. I walk out into the state land that is mine, everyone’s, no one’s when I want a sense of largeness. I enjoy this idea of being a land-owning femme that those bearded nineteenth-century men could not have imagined and would not have approved of.
And yet, as a white person whose family money made possible my status as a landowner, I have plenty in common with them. My inherited whiteness and money makes this story possible for me; saying I earned it is to take too much credit. I want to align myself with the list of identifiers I wrote out in the previous paragraph, which mark me as an outsider, mark me as having struggled and overcome. It’s not the full story, though. My whiteness, and the way wealth has accumulated on my mother’s side of the family, through my grandfather’s construction company in Pennsylvania and real estate in Richmond, Virginia, ties me to a lineage that is enmeshed with Rochester and Burroughs. I am not so far away from them. Their white stories, in some ways, make mine possible. No one I know who is my age is able to buy property unless they’ve inherited money or won a lawsuit.
And yet, that lineage of whiteness can crumble, too. I believe it must, for people and our planet to survive. I won’t pretend I am totally brave and self-effacing in the wake of that statement; I like what I have. I know I don’t deserve it more or less than anyone else. I want anyone who wants it to feel the security of permanence and ownership in a place, or alternately for none of us to own this land and all of us benefit from living on it. Like the buildings that have crumbled and been overtaken by forest, the hold on land, culture, and money that Rochester and Burroughs had, which I both threaten with my queerness and uphold with my whiteness and property-owner class status – all of that is subject to crumbling and growth of new forests. That crumbling is passive for structures that aren’t being maintained, but it’s active for the organisms bringing the rot, bringing the growth into the next iteration of a landscape we can’t yet imagine.
Since the pandemic began, Rochester Hollow has become my most hiked trail. I drive there and spend a few hours in the woods when I am upset, angry, distraught, or craving the feeling of being absorbed and folded into these woods. I go there with my partner when we don’t have too many hours until sunset and want to spend it in the woods. This trail has been the site of some of our most intimate conversations, had while in motion, eyes roving over the path, as well as standing still while we confess, process, share under the canopy of the trees. I know the trails well enough that I can walk them with eyes blurred from tears. They aren’t so gnarled with roots that I’ll trip and fall, aren’t narrow enough that I need to be perfectly sure-footed.
One morning in July 2020, I got some solo time on the trail and decided to hike all three of the trails, the main one, the yellow-blazed Burroughs Memorial Trail, the red-blazed Eignor Trail. As I take the jug handle that is the Burroughs trail, looping off and then returning to the main trail, I am ecstatic to see my first ghost pipe in the wild. I am a few years into learning the plants of the area, but I haven’t seen this strange plant in front of my face, only on the internet. I know many people mistake it for a mushroom. With its lack of color and single, downcast uniflower, it gives the impression of a mushroom curling out of leaf litter deep in the forest. I see just one. I crouch and look at it closely, but I keep it to myself. I don’t take any pictures; I want to keep the experience of the ghost pipe to myself.
A year later, in the summer of 2021, I take a solo hike along this same path on yet another day when I have an intense need to be in the forest, to hear the rustling of the leaves of the nearly collapsed birch stand, the way they are in conversation with the stream. On the way up Rose Hill, I think I hear singing. I pass a campsite not far from the parking area, but everyone is either still in their tents or has gone on a hike already. I go to stand near the stream, certain I hear a sound that is soothing but a little siren-like, with the potential to be devastating. When I get close to the stream, I realize that there is a person another fifty feet into the forest, standing on a mossy log that has dropped over the water, and they are playing the saxophone. The sound rises into the leaves, lush and other worldly. I know sound doesn’t have color and it isn’t like a cartoon saxophone where notes dance out of the brass, but I feel like I saw the horn breathe out green air, call to the trees, dialogue with the water. It is enchanting. The person playing the saxophone, a tune that has a clear shape to it but is one I do not recognize, is absorbed in the sound, and does not acknowledge me as audience.
I take the Burroughs Trail and have a glimmer of hope that I might see the ghost pipe again. Its roughly the same time of year, so it’s a possibility. I keep my eyes trained on the leaf litter, but I also try to relax because I know that if I look too intently I will not see it. And then I see one, break into a smile as joyful as when I realized I was hearing saxophone in the woods. I crouch down. The plant’s stem is slightly bent. It has rained recently and the pattern of the rain in the soil has splattered the plant with mud specks. It is not a magnificent specimen, but I take it in, and then I continue on. Soon, on this southeast facing slope, I see more ghost pipes, dozens over the course of my hike. I am ecstatic. I have learned much more about these plants since last year, and I examine their surroundings more closely this time. The ghost pipe, if you look at them with colonized, individualist white human gaze, appears to be an outlier, an exception, a plant that stands alone without chlorophyll, defying the rules of nature. But it cannot grow alone. Some folks call it parasitic, but really its interdependent: the trees it grows beneath provide the nutrients that chlorophyll would bring the ghost pipe if it made its own, its roots are entangled with fungi that connect the flower to the trees. They talk, they share.
This summer, unlike the previous one, I recognize the way the ghost pipe is part of this forest ecosystem, not a unique creature that stands apart, but a piece of the whole. Last year, on that hike during that first COVID summer, I was seeing my isolation mirrored in this plant. This year, though I’m still isolated in the Catskills with my partner, I understand how this pale being (myself and also the ghost pipe) is deeply rooted and connected not just to other beings in this place, but to rot and revival.