It should perhaps not surprise us that some of the most profoundly moving literary meditations on nature are inspired not by pristine wilderness far from human habitation, but by places in the borderlands that lie just, in Lord Dunsany’s famous phrase, “beyond the Fields We Know.” In the foreword to her new book Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days, Nina Shengold drily observes that even Henry David Thoreau’s iconic Walden Pond lay “down the road from his parents’ house, where the apostle of solitude often ate lunch.”
Shengold’s personal Walden Pond is the Ashokan Reservoir, in particular the dam and weir that divide its Upper and Lower Basins and the crescent of walking path that follows a stretch of its southern shore. Offering knockout views of the Catskills High Peaks without requiring any strenuous ascents, accessible to bikes and strollers and rollerblades, walkers and wheelchairs, the trail is a magnet for visitors from near and far.
The author herself lives only a few miles away, in the rural neighborhood tucked between Stone Ridge and Olivebridge known as the Vly. But she didn’t become a regular visitor to “the res” until a couple of Russian friends of her brother paid a visit and named it the highlight of their trip to America.
Finding herself at a crux point in life in September 2015, when she was about to turn 60, her daughter Maya had gone off to college, her old dog had recently died and her parents were in their 90s, their health beginning to fail, Shengold made a decision: She would commit herself to explore the edge of the reservoir, on a daily basis, even if only for a few minutes, for an entire year. Each day she would look for something that she hadn’t noticed before. She would take no photos, and only mental notes, jotting down her impressions upon her return home. Editing would come much later.
What took shape over the course of the following year was more than a nature journal, though the furred and feathered inhabitants of the shoreline become vivid characters, and the weather, the quality of light on a particular day, form much of her narrative. It’s the liminal aspect of this place, where human activity has simultaneously pushed back and preserved the wild environment, that makes it a portal to realms of deep contemplation and sudden insights.
Just prior to undertaking the project, “I’d been reading a lot of John Burroughs,” Shengold recalls, pointing out that the Sage of Slabsides’ essays regularly intersperse his encounters with his human neighbors with his rambles in the woods. Nature is the “larger community” of which our species is but one component.
At the reservoir, the legacy of human interference is inescapable – especially if you stop to read the signs marking the spots where the “Drowned Towns,” razed to create a water source to stanch the bottomless thirst of New York City, long stood. “There’s a layering of sorrow and beauty here,” says the author. “It’s gorgeous, but not a natural place.”
At first blush, what one might expect from such a diary is a litany of descriptions of sunsets and sunrises that quickly run out of color words. The ever-changing sky is certainly a main character, but the tactile quality of Shengold’s writing brings a freshness to each page, along with the jazz rhythms of her prose. Her similes are full of surprises, often quirkily humorous, even flippant – the well-ripened fruits of observation of a limited piece of the planet over an extended period. Topical and pop-culture references rub shoulders with literary allusions and painterly language. A tom turkey’s wattle resembles “a tie made of meat.” She makes up new verbiage as needed: As autumn comes on, “The last of the Queen Anne’s lace has gone Havisham.”
At times, the book evokes natural history classics of the past. Like Ernest Thompson Seton in Wild Animals I Have Known, for instance, she offers the reader English translations of the repertoire of caws employed by the murder of crows who become her daily companions. (Their comments about humans lean toward sarcasm.) Walking at her side, we get to know the resident pair of bald eagles, whom she dubs Fabio and Xena, along with the eagle paparazzi, the bevy of photographers who stalk them almost daily. The human regulars get their monikers; Shengold bonds with some of them over shared moments of beauty, develops a crush on one she calls Sunset Man, has to restrain herself from knocking cellphones into the water out of the hands of those who are walking but not seeing. “The human community is so much a part of the place that I was trying to convey,” she says. Convey it she does, in spades.
There are days, of course, when the self-imposed compulsory visit feels like a chore, when the weather is painfully cold or she gets soaked to the skin, or when she’s just not in the mood. But she quickly learns that walking on the edge of nature, being in the moment, is exactly what gives her a lift when she’s feeling surly. Noting that her parents were always big “fans of winter hikes,” she observes, “Bad-weather days are usually when the reservoir is at its most interesting. Bad-mood days are when you most need it.”
Nowadays, with the trails overrun with day visitors escaping the close confines of New York City under quarantine, she visits less frequently: “I go at weird times, like when the thunderstorm was rolling in yesterday.” So much has changed there since she completed her project, just a couple of months before the 2016 election that turned the world upside-down. Surveillance cameras have been installed, for instance, just in case terrorists want to toss LSD or something else into the water supply. “It feels different,” she says.
Personal catastrophe has struck in the past year as well: Shengold’s father Leonard died in January and her mother Margaret on August 4, a month after Reservoir Year was released. Creating the book, nourishing herself on the beauty of the outdoors, was mental preparation for what she knew was coming, she says. “I was tanking up for a time when I’d really need it. I found a place to grieve, a place that would make me feel better.”
The genius of this work that may endure is the balm of her observations rippling out to wash the soul of the reader on any private shoreline. “I hope it makes this place vivid for people who’ve never been there,” says Shengold. “Even if you live in a city, the sky is different every day. It’s just being awake, being aware.”
Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days, ISBN# 9780815611240, is available from Syracuse University Press and your favorite bookseller, priced at $24.95 in softcover. It’s beautifully illustrated with hand-colored linocuts by Carol Zaloom, map and line drawings by Will Lytle and a cover painting by Kate McGloughlin. Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck will host a virtual author talk on Eventbrite on Wednesday, September 9 at 7 p.m., featuring Nina Shengold in conversation with Akiko Busch.