This Land is My Land

Like many rural areas in the US, the Catskill Mountains and surrounding Hudson Valley of upstate New York has a long and complicated history that illustrates competition between the needs of agriculture, industry, tourism and the desire to preserve the intrinsic natural beauty of the landscape. In the early 19th century, forests were cut down and cleared of rocks to make way for farms while timber and minerals were harvested and manufactured into furniture and concrete. At the same time, large hotels were built to cater to a nature-loving bourgeoisie and eventually to the newer population of urban middle class. The region was praised by Romantic era artists and writers as an Arcadian paradise that should be preserved and maintained for future generations and much of the area was set aside for public use.

 

However, during the late 20th century, demographics and economics began to shift and the use of land continued to evolve. Most larger scale luxury hotels, farms and industries were eventually abandoned or destroyed to make way for new competing ways of life and the forest slowly began to reclaim the remnants of a forgotten past. Suburban developments replaced makeshift homesteads; private vacation homes infringed on public lakes and hunting grounds; abandoned farms became vacant lots used to dump concrete rubble from old highways and store gravel for new roads; old forests either became protected wilderness or were mined for gravel; abandoned pastures became young forests which eventually were harvested and cleared to make way for new vacation homes and condos; some small rural towns became fashionable tourist destinations with thriving arts and culture while hunting lodges slowly disintegrate into the surrounding landscape. On the surface, the complexity of the 21st century way of life barely resembles the past, and yet there are clues everywhere in the landscape that refer to the ongoing historical struggle between competing public and private interests. The very idea of land ownership itself is at the heart of this conflict.

 

I’ve lived on and off in the Catskills and Hudson Valley for nearly 25 years, and have been a homeowner several times over. However, the more experience I gain with land ownership, the less I seem to understand it. I’ve witnessed my own relationship to the land shift from romantic reverence to selfish coveting to indifferent utility and back again many times and have also observed the same complex contradictory feelings in my friends, family and neighbors. By documenting the evolving landscape scenes from my everyday life, I am trying to reconcile my own relationship to the land as I struggle to maintain a home and ecologically conscious lifestyle within a rural setting. The scenes I photograph are hidden in plain sight, often transient and easily dismissed, and yet in many ways they are the most concrete evidence of how changing behavior and attitudes, both individual and collective, can transform the landscape and shape our consciousness. Although we may believe that land can be owned and controlled by us, we can also witness how nature itself degrades and destroys even our most monumental efforts to build and maintain our own living environments.