Getting to Know You

Molly O'Neill - August 29, 2012

By Aly Miller

Rensselaerville, N.Y.

Rensselaerville is 35 miles southwest of Albany, New York. It’s a tiny hamlet with fewer than 100 houses carved from the rocky, well-packed soil in a crease of the Helderberg Mountains. The Helderbergs connect the northern Catskills with the southern Adirondacks. Several days ago, I looked down while my plane began its descent and noted that the squares of farmland were a smaller checkerboard than the ones I know outside Madison, Wisconsin.

As a geographer, I knew that I was headed toward a hardscrabble place, with shallow soil that requires serious muscle and offers only a short growing season. Having spent the past year working as a farm and nutrition educator with AmeriCorps, I also knew that land shapes what people eat, how they work, how they build their homes, how they raise their children, and how they live.

I was hoping that my internship with LongHouse Food Writers Revival would help me understand the sorts of people who, generation after generation, choose the challenges of this sort of impossibly rough land.

I felt a kinship even before I landed. Doing undergraduate work in geography and sociology, I was drawn to hidden places and invisible stories. Geographically challenged spots are hubs of D.I.Y. Removed from the culture of convenience, people have to make things by hand. They build and preserve, grow and cook, knit and weave, create their own entertainment with music, dance and art. They imagine and they improvise.

Longhouse Food Writers Revival is all about imagination and improvisation. On the way back from the airport, we stopped at the LongHouse barn, a ghost of a hay barn on an old dairy farm—weathered and rickety. I tried to imagine 50 food writers taking the place of the 50 swallows that are currently in residence.

Gale DellaRocco, whose family tends the farm across the road from LongHouse, didn’t seem fazed by the birds or anything they’d left behind. Her eyes were shining as she raced around, describing the transformations that she and the rest of the LongHouse Crew have already accomplished as well as her plans for the 17 days we have remaining before the Revival.

Having just landed from a childhood in suburban Milwaukee, I imagined lots of guys in hazmat suits converging for the cleanup.

“We’ll just screen those windows and power-wash that barn,” said Gale. Her voice is soft and sweet, like a yoga or kindergarten teacher’s.

Gale’s been hauling rock and building gardens, pathways, and a pig pit for nearly a month. She recently completed her MFA in printmaking but when we met, all she wanted to talk about was the stone terrace that she wants to build on the foundation of the fallen barn that stretches between LongHouse and the larger barn that was used for milking.

Rensselaerville sits on layers of Marcellus shale, known around here as “Helderberg bluestone.” In the early 20th century, the region was known for its bluestone quarries, where workers broke through ten feet of top rock to uncover and cut the stone. Today, this shale is used to make gorgeous walls and pathways and, speculators hope, contains the fossil fuels that frackers dream of. Until the popularity of cement and artificial stone, the cut rock was used to create wall pastures and property lines and many of these 18th-century walls are still standing. Gale, however, has her eye on a section of wall that a century of snow has pulled to rubble.

“We can haul that all over here,” she said, excitedly. “I’m just learning how to lay it flat and build it up into walls.”

She seemed to be recruiting me. It seemed we were becoming friends. I wondered if I am strong enough. I wondered if there are enough hours in the day to gather the oral histories I am here to gather and build stone walls.

An hour later, as I unpacked, I was conscious of the effect of this place. I was moving faster, determined to make every moment of sunlight matter. Short growing seasons do this to people.