Unimaginable Beauty. And Loss
By Brenda Reeser
It’s time to quiet down after tending to the responsibilities of the day. Preparations for dinner begin as my husband and I look at the glorious sunset over the Pepacton Reservoir. We are content in this time of solitude as we bask in the luxury of being surrounded by nature’s beauty, and on this particular evening we watch as eagles land in a tree that rests on the hillside. They sit in branches that are conveniently spread apart as their fat bodies silhouette against the sky. Doug, holding his binoculars, counts seven of them.
We are accustomed to the many experiences with animal life and this body of water. We see deer passing through regularly to drink. We’ve watched coyotes running on the ice of the reservoir in spring time. Are they in trouble? Crows caw cawing and other birds plunging, searching for food.
Doug reminds me that there are l40 billion gallons of water and the reservoir is filled to capacity (l00%). Water will be released to prevent flooding in case of a heavy rainstorm. The Pepacton’s omnipotent beauty defies sentiment.
Our view overlooks what once was the town of Arena, and remnants of another time begin to emerge in my head when there were towns underneath the reservoir. Towns called Arena, Shavertown, Union Grove, and Pepacton were thriving communities and the East Branch of the Delaware River flowed through them. New York City condemned these communities. Eminent domain was declared to build a reservoir to provide the citizens of New York City with potable water.
I can sympathize with, but can’t imagine, the pain and trauma that people experienced when homes were bulldozed, burned and buried. I can sympathize with farmers who lost valuable river bottom soil. Cows had to be sold at auction. Cows accustomed to grazing along the East Branch were truly happy and known for producing good butter. Families had to move. Traditions gone and legacies lost.
Parts of my childhood were spent in Arena at Lane’s Grocery Store and the Hardware Store run by the Sanfords. It was more convenient to buy a loaf of bread in Arena then to make the trek all the way to Bussy’s in Margaretville. My parents worked the hayfields along the East Branch in order to have extra hay to feed the cows on their farm on Dingle Hill. And I remember riding on the school bus on the winding old Route 30. The ride was long and in late fall it was almost dark by the time I got home from Andes Central School.
In her book, The Place You Love is Gone: Progress Hits Home, Melissa Holbrook Pierson writes about these towns now underneath the Pepacton. These are her comments regarding eminent domain:
“What we are is where we have been. That is all there is, at least from where we can see. They keep trying to convince you that there is some objective reality out there, but you know in your heart how much nonsense that is. It’s their way of trying to sell you on the idea that change, being an “inevitable” part of “progress” — being dropped on top of your head by some deus ex machina with a bad sense of timing — can’t be fought. You can be choking on it, turning red and beginning to perspire, seeing little things start to float before your eyes, and they’ll dismiss you. In fact, they never even bothered to ask……”
In her book Pierson suggests that progress entails loss. She quotes Andes own Dorothy Andrews, and Mary Belle Nohejl who have remembrances of Shavertown. They talk about their community, their churches, their stores, the swimming hole in summer and ice fishing in the winter. There was talk of the Shavertown Fair. Everyone knew and cared for everyone else. It was community.
I recently spoke with Evelyn Norris who reminisces, “I will never forget having to witness, my grandmother Anna, a quilter, and grandfather H.V. Dumond, crippled with arthritis, walk away from their home as it was being bulldozed waiting for the gasoline to be poured on it and then burned.” Her grandparents lived in Union Grove.
Evelyn remembers riding the six miles from Union Grove to Arena with her grandfather to Gus Gorke’s barber shop. She loved the abundance of comic books that were there. It was a special treat for her.
My neighbor, Grant Brisbane, used to walk the 2 l/2 mile walk from his farm on Dingle Hill along the Brook Road to Arena to listen to the fiddlers playing as they called dances. Some of the best times for Grant involved being around music. Bob and Alice Jacobson in their book, “Beneath Pepacton Waters” show pictures of fiddlers Kenneth and Emmett Bryden. I wonder if Grant made the trip to listen to them.
I realize that the past is where it is, and I am fortunate to have the memories of and experiences with some of the finest people who lived in these towns now gone. And I am fortunate to have a home overlooking this enormous body of water. Beautiful in its unwieldiness.~