Vying for the vista: Carleton Mabee’s final opus, Saving the Shawangunks

Saving the Shawangunks is no mere scrapbook history composed of the minutes of meetings, newspaper clippings, interviews and condensed timelines of various assaults and defenses of the Shawangunk mountains. (photo by Nora Scarlett)

Saving the Shawangunks: The Struggle to Protect One of Earth’s Last Great Places is the last manuscript completed by the Pulitzer Prizewinning historian and long (long, long)-time Gardiner resident Carleton Mabee. An avid outdoorsman and amateur naturalist, Mabee finalized the text not long before he died in December of 2014, just one week shy of his 100th birthday. Mabee’s labor-of-love swan song – a rich and acute ecological/cultural/political narrative of his beloved Shawangunks and their preservation – was signed and sealed, but the project still required much stewardship to be delivered. It was published this week by Delmar’s excellent Black Dome Press, which specializes in books of regional and natural significance. It features a stunning full-color portfolio of photographs by Nora Scarlett and a smart introduction by Cara Lee, senior conservation manager at the Nature Conservancy and herself an important player in Mabee’s narrative of resistance.

​ With a light touch, the publishers and Lee frame Saving the Shawangunks as the story of committed grassroots activism fending off moneyed development, in various forms, again and again over the course of decades, providing a case study for savvy and efficacious environmental action that would resonate far beyond the tracts of land that are Mabee’s explicit concern. The book is thus positioned as a celebration of nature’s fragile ecosystems and of the David v. Goliath community members (for David’s tactics, in this case, were largely litigatory) banded together to protect them.


​ But in the moment-to-moment of the prose and in the very consciously balanced, 360-degree management of his facts, Mabee reveals himself mostly as a fastidious historian and no polemicist at all. In fact, if the editorial polarity were reversed and the title modified, isolated but sizable portions of Saving the Shawangunks could almost be used to lionize the “other side:” those who struggled, in vain, to advocate for desperately needed economic development and to protect native ownership rights against an influx of well-to-do recreationalists with little meaningful investment in the region’s economic health and little reliance on its tax base. Or so the story might have gone.

​ We can safely assume that Carleton Mabee did not feel that way; the point is simply that he plays by the strict rules of the historian/observer. He is subtly analytical but never overtly opinionated. If his narrative sways the reader toward a heightened desire to protect the environment, in general and in our neighborhood, that is perhaps due more to the reader’s own moral awakening than to any proselytizing on Mabee’s part. Certain interpretations of these facts are inevitable, others wide-open to debate.

​ Kudos to Black Dome, too, for positioning Nora Scarlett’s portfolio of Shawangunk photographs as a block of unnumbered pages more than halfway through the book and not distributing them evenly as narrative support (additional images and artifacts are plentiful). This both recognizes the integrity of Scarlett’s work as a standalone, modular complement to Mabee’s and reminds us that Saving the Shawangunks is not a coffee-table book. It is a serious work of microhistory.

The story moves swiftly and chronologically from the early days of the Mohonk and Minnewaska resorts (and others), when environmentalism was a Teddy Roosevelt thing and the local balance of business and natural vigilance was more or less stable, untaxed by population growth and the earliest waves of urban flight. The first major disruption is the attempted Marriott purchase and development of the Phillips family’s Minnewaska property. The ensuing struggle over tax abatements, concerns over water supplies and the formation of local opposition groups (backed in several key instances by national watchdog groups) forms the centerpiece of Mabee’s story.

​ It strikes me as especially significant that in Marriott’s own version, as recounted by Mabee, the hotel giant’s withdrawal after six years of committed pursuit and millions spent is credited not to the work of the local advocacy groups, and not even to the assessments of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation and New York’s longstanding reputation as a thorny place to do business. Instead, Marriott blamed a single, un-appealable decision made in a federal court regarding space for the expansion of a golf course. On the one hand, the anecdote speaks of the corporation’s refusal to allow that grassroots efforts prevailed; on the other, it makes us question whether in today’s environment of deregulated slash-and-burn capitalism, that federal court would have reached the same instrumental decision.

​ With a catalyzed local and multi-organization environmental movement in full swing, Mabee goes on to document the formation of the area’s many rail trails and other protected spaces, struggles between New Paltz and Lloyd regarding retail development and the loss and protection of farmland. The second major narrative in the book regards the Awosting Reserve development proposal and its “Save the Ridge” opposition. Here again, Mabee’s narrative delves into details of protracted litigation, identifying all the players by name, many of whom are still our neighbors, teachers and leaders.

Saving the Shawangunks is no mere scrapbook history composed of the minutes of meetings, newspaper clippings, interviews and condensed timelines of various assaults and defenses of the Shawangunk mountains. Sometimes, Mabee’s hand is so steady, his voice so lucid in its aggregation of narrative bits and pieces, that it is easy to miss the fact that there is a good deal of active interpretation and historical contextualization going on here – regarding the dawning of environmental consciousness from Thoreau to the present, regarding the changing residential and recreational habits of Americans in the postwar years and regarding the chronic rifts in our community: a definitive struggle between growth and preservation and those vested in each.

​ That rift, never called such by the author, peeks through again and again in these pages, or at least will to local residents who are sensitive to the area’s complex cultural dynamics. It receives what is perhaps its fullest and most appreciable expression at the dichotomous conclusion of Mabee’s recounting of the Awosting Reserve/Save the Ridge conflict of the early 2000s. Following the sale of John Bradley’s Awosting Reserve properties to a conservation group, Mabee writes:

​ “Pam O’Dell, who was by this time was the Republican candidate for Gardiner supervisor, was appalled that now conservation groups were ‘poised to swoop down to purchase the property at roughly half its market value.’ [Full-value offers from other parties – including Robert DeNiro – were declined because the suitors wouldn’t waive the right to future development.]

​ “Save the Ridge’s [Patty Lee] Parmalee, while she was still holding her breath about the outcome, reported, ‘I walk outside at night by my house and I look up at the Ridge, all dark and silent, and I realize it may now stay that way forever.’”

​Concern for value and the fragile conditions of prosperity, and concern for the aesthetics of experience and the sustainability of living environments: In the way he engineers this moment of dialogue that never really happened, Mabee displays an intuitively deep understanding of the rift and the region. A lot of complex questions, implications, perspectives and futures begin, rather than conclude and resolve, in Carleton Mabee’s final work.

Saving the Shawangunks: The Struggle to Protect One of Earth’s Last Great Places is available at http://shop.blackdomepress.com.