Poets’ Walk is one of those places in the Hudson Valley that remind us that the Romantic view of nature took root early in our region, perhaps before it did anywhere else in America. If the Catskills were, as some have called them, “America’s First Wilderness,” it must be remembered that in the 19th century they were most often admired from the banks of the Hudson River. The great estates that were built along the Hudson at that time were designed to afford their owners a view of both the great river and the mountains beyond it to the west.
Even a casual walker at Poets’ Walk senses that the landscape he is moving through was carefully planned to provide an experience of nature unspoiled by human concepts of order and grace. The “picturesque” school of landscape gardening, popularized in this country by Andrew Jackson Downing of Poughkeepsie and others in the mid-19th century, saw rugged irregularity and wildness as desirable qualities to be emphasized in a landscape, as in a Hudson River School painting, not subdued or erased to create a formal garden. In other words, landscape gardeners like Hans Jacob Ehlers, working at the Rhinebeck estate owned by Franklin H. Delano and Laura Astor, strove to design without appearing to design at all. Ehler’s “landscape gardens” at that estate were given the name “Steen Valetje” (“Little Stony Falls”) in honor of the area’s Dutch heritage. Scenic Hudson, after taking over the property and opening it up to the public in 1993, renamed it “Poets’ Walk,” in tribute to the writers Washington Irving and Fitz-Greene Halleck, who were said to have enjoyed strolling there.
Of course there would have been no expansive views at Poets’ Walk if farmers had done the initial hard work of clearing the forest. The farmers in this case, as the trailhead interpretive panel explains, were 18th-century German immigrants forced to rent from rich landowners like Robert Livingston Jr. because they were unable to obtain their own land for farming. Dissatisfaction with the land rental system up and down the Hudson Valley and west to the Catskills flared up in the “Anti-Rent Wars” of the 1830’s and 40’s. When the tenant farmers at what is now Poet’s Walk left, Ehlers shaped their crop fields, hayfields and pastures by letting woodland grow up on three sides of each clearing, creating a sense of artistic framing and enclosure. Viewing these “outdoor rooms” along the wide mown lane that leads toward the Hudson, I was struck by the ways in which a landscape like this can (or could) serve agricultural and aesthetic purposes at the same time. I thought of the hayfields and pastures, also enclosed by trees and shrubs, at Stony Kill Farm, downriver from Poets’ Walk, where I used to work for the DEC as an environmental educator. At Stony Kill, as at many farms, hedgerows were planted between fields not so much to please the eye as to cut the force of the wind. But now I wonder what the cows and sheep were thinking as they grazed there, looking out of those “outdoor rooms.”
If one had any doubt of the romantic sensibility that informed the development of these lands, it would be erased as soon as the large, compound-roofed outdoor pavilion, framed with rustic cedar posts and branches, came into view. From its lofty perch, the pavilion has room enough for several families to admire the river view from the shade of its benches. Nearby, a rustic bench for two out in the open offers the same prospect, and a smaller gazebo near the river, the “Summerhouse,” offers a closer, more intimate sojourn with the beauty of the Hudson. The Summerhouse is reached by a path that winds through second growth forest where a few large, open-branched trees stand out as “pasture oaks,” having been left standing to provide needed shade for livestock when the woods were cleared over a century ago. I followed this path across two rustic bridges, one wooden and one of stone, that spanned streams whose sinuous ravines must have pleased the landscape gardener’s eye.
On my return, crossing one of these streams again near its mouth above a river cove, I noticed a DEC sign explaining “Trees for Tribs,” a program that recruits volunteers to plant tree and shrub seedlings along stream banks to reduce soil erosion. I spotted several orange flags where seedlings had been planted. A young dogwood’s slender, bright red stem seemed a hopeful emblem of our ongoing conservation movement, the natural successor to the Romantic movement, moving from appreciation to stewardship of wild nature for its own sake, as well as for ours. I was also pleased to see, heading back along the lane, that quite a few bluebird nest boxes had been placed in the fields. Along with the yearly mowing that Scenic Hudson does to maintain grassland habitat for bluebirds, bobolinks and other species, these nest boxes are helping to restore bluebird populations, replacing the natural cavities often missing from fields without wooden fence posts or taken over by more aggressive, invasive birds like starlings and house sparrows.
I had hoped to sight a bald eagle on the river, or at least a red-tailed hawk wheeling above the fields, or hunting from a perch. I saw no raptors that day, but did glimpse the sky-blue wings of some overwintering bluebirds passing along the woods’ edge in their fluttering flight. Glancing at the ground, I noticed a labyrinthine pattern, like a miniature subway system, of runways among the brown, matted grasses. These were the tunnels of voles, sometimes called “field mice,” which had been exposed by the melting of the snow above them. These little creatures spend much of their short lives inside these runways, where they are relatively (but not absolutely!) safe from predators such as hawks, owls, foxes and coyotes. It was nice to see these other, outdoor “rooms” that usually go unnoticed by passersby en route to sweeping river vistas, and whose presence we may suppose the landscape designers of the Gilded Age did not take into account.
To get to Poets’ Walk: After crossing the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, take the first left onto River Road. Poets’ Walk is 0.6 miles on the left.