Artist and Bearsville resident Keiko Sono started ice skating on Yankeetown Pond with her daughter in 2004. “It was magical,” she recalled, her visual bent emerging as she described skating through “a maze of cattails and buttonbushes, getting up close to beaver houses, with the thundering sound of expanding ice. We’d skate into the evening, when the whole pond was glowing with golden light, and then a dark indigo blue would descend.”
Over the past five years or so, the mile-long pond, visible from her back yard, has changed to such an extent that she no longer feels safe skating there. “Organic matter and debris are caught on the surface of the ice,” she explained, “with strips and islands of spongy masses. I started to wonder — Is the pond disappearing? Is it turning into a bog?”
To investigate this question, she decided to undertake an art project that would involve taking daily photos of the pond from a single vantage point, documenting the changes over the course of a year. This simple concept evolved into a tangled process that generated many questions about human relationships with the natural world. The resultant video will be shown, along with a talk by Sono explaining her project, on Thursday, December 10, at 5:30 p.m. at the Catskill Center in Arkville and again on Wednesday, December 16, at 6 p.m. at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. A concurrent exhibition at the Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center will run from December 6 through December 20.
The high point of Sono’s skating experiences was an unplanned gathering that developed one bitter cold evening when a neighbor, Lenny Bee, built a small bonfire on the ice, and an assortment of skaters shared hot chocolate around the fire. “I felt something really profound,” said Sono. “I felt connected to history — not just local history but the history of humankind. This kind of spontaneous communal celebration of our connection with nature — it felt so natural to me.”
Inspired by the memory of that night, Sono decided to involve the community of pondside residents in her project. She obtained a grant from the Decentralization Program, a re-grant program of the New York State Council on the Arts, administered by Arts Mid-Hudson. With the funds, she built a wooden platform that she set up at the little dirt parking lot next to the pond, along with a sign inviting people to take photos of the pond through a metal frame on the platform and email them to her. She planned to assemble the photos into a time-lapse video. Before setting up the platform, she went to the Woodstock assessor’s office to get the addresses of the nearby residents who owned the parking lot in common. She sent each household a description of her project, inviting them to respond if they had any opposition, and received several supportive replies but no objections.
Nevertheless, the day she set up the platform, someone overturned it and left a note, calling it an eyesore. The protestor also left his address, so she contacted him. Apparently another set of residents also had rights to the parking lot, based on an agreement with the local residents’ association, but their rights had not been recorded by the town. In discussion with the protestor, Sono found they shared a love of the pond and a wish to preserve it. However, he did not stop turning over the platform each time she set it up.
She understood that he didn’t want to attract any kind of attention to the pond, but she felt the project would not draw an excessive number of visitors, since it’s not a prime recreation spot but rather a contemplative place. But given the controversy over hunting around the pond, which had just drawn ire from some residents, and the Internet publicity that had brought a ruinous number of visitors to a local swimming hole, she was forced to confront the issues raised by the protestor. “I had to ask — How can we enjoy something and enjoy sharing this feeling with others while protecting the serenity and original charm that attracted us to the place? Who has the right to beauty of the pond, and to this whole area? Is it the longer you live here, the more rights you have?”
Beaver dam breach
As Sono pondered these questions, she invited the residents to meet with her. “A lot of people showed up,” she reported, “including the man who flipped the platform. Every one of them had a slightly different view of these issues and a different attitude toward my project. Everyone seemed to think it was a good idea to take photos and document the pond, but there was no consensus on how to do it. Some people were so against the use of the land for hunting, they wanted to use the project to push that agenda. And just before the meeting, the beaver dam was breached.”
Through a communication error, the Woodstock highway department had removed a beaver dam that resulted in a lowering of the water level in the pond, raising an outcry among the locals. At the meeting, some people started throwing sticks and brush into the pond to help the beavers rebuild the dam. Later she discovered that even the beaver dam was a political issue, with people whose houses were close to the water preferring to keep the water level low. “So there was another question — Is there an ideal water level? What is the ideal water level for people, for ecology of the pond? After the meeting, I was more confused than before.”
Sono put the project on a back burner, throwing herself into her summer job running a children’s camp, then addressing her daughter’s needs as a senior at Onteora High School. When she sat down to finish her project, she realized she had to shift the focus from the pond to the human landscape. She started to think about the man who had flipped the platform and what it meant to him. “I was able to put myself in his shoes and imagine driving by one evening, finding that platform out of nowhere. I got it, how he must’ve been infuriated.”
She set up another interview with the man, and their conversation became the centerpiece of the project video. “It was not the most comfortable thing for either one of us,” she said, “but we felt good for having done it. We both feel a bit of ownership for this project. Because of him, it’s a whole different thing.” She also invited several old-timers to tell stories of growing up on the pond back in the 1950s, when two sawmills still operated on the banks. One interviewee, Kenny May, of the Wittenberg Sportsman’s Club, described walking several miles each day to the Wittenberg schoolhouse and told tales of the mischief he and his friends perpetrated to get out of school.
These storytellers said the pond had once been so deep that people drove motorboats across it and even went water skiing. Most people think that when the water was clear and deep, that period represented the lake’s natural state, now corrupted by water lilies that clog much of its surface, the legacy of a family who imported the lilies. However, when Sono interviewed Erik Kiviat of the environmental research organization Hudsonia, he pointed out that the water lilies are native. He suggested that the sawmills, which operated by damming up the water, might have been responsible for the previous depth and clarity of the pond. We don’t really know what its natural state should be.
Kiviat also explained that the organic matter on the surface, the peat moss masses that obstruct skating, are not islands but rafts that rise and sink depending on the temperature. Normally the cold makes them descend, but there could be activities going on in the pond that cause them to remain at the surface. Still more questions arose: Is there such a thing as an ideal condition for the pond? Now that the beavers have rebuilt their dam, with human help, and the water levels are back up, it seems the ecosystem is well within the boundary of recovery — but is it possible to go beyond that range?
Perhaps most important to recognize is the reality that humans are part of nature.
The project has changed Sono’s relationship to both pond and people. When she hears children’s voices coming across the water, she knows which house they belong to. When she walks down the road, she pictures Kenny May walking to school. She knows what peat rafts are. “In some ways, it makes my life harder,” she mused. “I think about plastic spoons. When I buy something, I think, how will I dispose of this? But my life has been made so much richer. I wanted to bring people together, but I didn’t know what that really meant. I’m really thankful.”
Keiko Sono will present the video of her Yankeetown Pond project on Thursday, December 10, at 5:30 p.m. at the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development in Arkville and on Wednesday, December 16, at 6 p.m. at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. Following each screening, she will share her experience, with practical suggestions for activists and artists who are interested in working with the community. A concurrent exhibition at the Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center will run from December 6 through December 20. For more information, see https://yankeetownpond.org.