In the beginning of our time in the Cattkills, we became friends with the great Woodstock citizen Jeremy Wilber and his family — his wife Fran Azouz, and their adorable kids Abigail and Lee. I can think of no better introduction to the area than through the Azouz/Wilbers of Deming Street.
Jeremy had remodeled a rental cabin on their property in Woodstock, where legend had it Van Morrison once housed a paramour. It was tiny and perfect for us. We signed a year-long lease, or maybe we just shook hands. I don’t recall. But it became our first foothold in the area, and we loved it. It broadened our life, an auspicious beginning.
This was the early Nineties. We were a hardworking newlywed couple from New York City, and we’d reached a point where we could budget for a weekend retreat. I don’t recall which forces brought us into Jeremy’s orbit. At that time he was primarily a sought-after roofer and carpenter, but we soon learned he’d been a renowned bartender for many years, a famed storyteller, and was always writing, engaging his passion working on novels and plays. I’m guessing we learned all this information within minutes of meeting him.
Fran was a teacher, and the kids attended Onteora public schools. To us, a childless couple clearly at the beginning of a life, theirs was a situation we could look to as a template. They were very much of the land, dug in, with intertwined roots sunk deep, but they were also cosmopolitan, well traveled, fascinated by the world beyond. (In years to come, they would see much more of the planet.)
They were happy, but also somewhat wizened from whatever had come before. Aspects of life had toughened them, yet they still exuded palpable joy whenever they smiled or laughed. When Fran and Jeremy made eye contact, fathoms passed between them, vistas seen only by a shared inner sight. Their kids adored them, and took a shine to us, too.
Jeremy taught me a lot. He was the first to share with me the history of the terrain that would eventually become home to my family; the trees we walked beneath, the reservoir, those who populated the townships — the longtime locals, the old hippies, the newcomers, the city folk.
Standing on the tiny porch of the Deming Street house, he waved his hand overhead and told me, “This was once dense, dark hemlock forest. For millennia, sacred ground where the indigenous hunted, but would not live.”
I asked what had happened to the hemlocks.
“Tanneries came in the mid-nineteenth century, cut ‘em all down, used the bark to tan leather, fouled the streams, didn’t replant. They put themselves out of business by the twentieth century, left a big mess. Not the sharpest tools in the shed. Thanks to Mother Nature and the state, it all bounced back within a decade, and the modern Catskills tourism industry was born. Which is sort of where you and I come in.”
Why no hemlocks now?
“State planted Norway pines and such. Technically invasive species, but they’re hardy and they grow quite fast. And they glow like gold in the autumn.”
According to Jeremy and my subsequent research, the Catskills terrain we’ve all known for decades was, in fact, mostly planned, planted, and manicured by scientists over a century ago. We are, essentially, living in a horticulture experiment. We are an invasive species surrounded by other invasive species, making the best of what has come before, what was thrown at us without our asking.
One of Jeremy’s many gifts was in reminding us we are invaders, like so much of the flora, but once we connect with root networks and bud systems of other beings, and especially when we cross-pollinate, we are home.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.