The Land of High Valley

By Elizabeth Cunningham

Invocation of The Land of High Valley

Inspired by Tom Cowan who taught me this poetic form

I invoke the land of High Valley:

High the valley where the trees keep watch,

Watching, the song birds in their branches,

Branching, the streams that pool in the lake,

Lake alive to the feathering wind,

Wind bearing blossom-scent and spiraling seeds,

Spiraling in and out the path of the labyrinth,

Labyrinthine the paths of deer and rabbit in the thickets,

Thick the leaves which make a green sky in the wood,

Green the greenwood where I live and love.

High Valley, two hundred acres of land in the foothills of the Taconic Range, ten miles east of the Hudson River, shelters no endangered or rare species of animal or plant, boasts no unusual geological formations, affords no scenic views. A not very scenic electric power line runs through the northern part of it (though underneath the lines is the best place for blackberry picking). For all these reasons no conservation organizations would help us preserve it.

How can you measure the value of relationship with the land? High Valley is a place where the trees and the people know each other; where all manner of plants and animals coexist, where the hawks, deer, owls, rabbits, foxes, turkeys, herons, snapping turtles, and snakes are neighbors. How to describe the myriad species of dragonflies that skim the pond, what it is like to swim eye to eye with them? High Valley is a place where the species communicate. One woman co-operated with the dragonflies, helping them hunt the deerflies that were hunting her. Once I found a dead snake by the spring; I burned incense and buried the snake, then sat still while twenty snakes came to sit with me, one even gliding over my foot.

And so we are preserving High Valley ourselves, we being my mother-in-law, my husband, and me. With our adult children’s support, we have put the land into conservation easements.

The story of High Valley as High Valley begins in 1945 when my parents-in-law, Olga and Julian Smyth, decided to move from Poughkeepsie to start a boarding adjunct to the school where they taught. At the time the land was a farm called Tall Trees for the spruces that still stand out front. The land had been farmed since the late 1700s, whether by one family or not, I don’t know. The last farmers apparently did not know much about soil conservation as they planted corn rows leading downhill. My husband was five years old when they arrived, and he remembers the now forested land as being all corn fields.

Olga and Julian, who ran a summer camp and eventually had their own school, changed the landscape quite a lot. The students planted pines on the soil depleted hill above a small lake Olga and Julian created. Although there is a spillway, the lake always looks to me as though it is meant to be there. Two streams flow through it, and numerous springs feed it. Cattails and loosestrife surround and protect it, and it is remarkably free of algae and full of healthy diverse fish, water snakes, and snapping turtles. It is frequented by blue heron, red-wing black birds, and many other birds.

Then there are Olga’s gardens everywhere—wild, unruly, colorful gardens. Though she was a teacher all her life, once she had her own school, Olga spent most of her time in the gardens. High Valley School began long before terms like special education existed and before most people understood dyslexia or other learning disabilities. All kinds of kids who for one reason or another did not fit in conventional classrooms (my older brother being one of them) ended up at High Valley, and all of them spent a lot time outdoors—as good or better a place to learn as any classroom.

I first came to live at High Valley when I was sixteen. I had just been thrown out of boarding school for a generally bad attitude and specifically for skinny dipping. No one knew what to do with me till my brother said: send her out to High Valley. Olga will find something for her to do. So I became a sort of maid of all work—tutoring, cooking, washing dishes, helping to thin the pine woods my as yet unmet future husband had planted, and generally spending a lot of time outdoors. My first spring at High Valley, I took up residence in a tree house in the woods on the hill beyond the lake. Nightly several boys ran away from school to join me—and I discovered to my astonishment that Olga and the other adults were not concerned in the least.

When I moved into a tiny shared room in the main house the following year, I used to get up two hours earlier than everyone else, so I could go walking and exploring alone. I remember walking up the hill through the woods to a high meadow, then down the steep slope of huge oaks to a stream. On the other side was a welcoming sunny glade. I couldn’t know then that I would spend most of my adult life in a passive solar house we built there without disturbing any trees.

After two years, I left High Valley and went on to other things, but I always visited Olga and

the land. On one of those visits, when I was sitting on the raft in the middle of the lake, I met Olga’s son; we married a year and a half later. We lived briefly in other places, but the land called us back, and in the greenwood we have lived and loved and raised our children.

When Olga closed the school—her hands thrown up over all the paperwork and regulations that go with any state money—we eventually realized it was time for us to find some new way to share the land. We tried a retreat center, but the buildings weren’t set up for it, and it seemed the land had its own ideas. High Valley evolved into a center for celebrations of the earth, and also for homemade entertainment—jam sessions, poetry and singing circles. We’ve held several juke nights. The community that has organically gathered over the years has built a labyrinth made of field stones in the sunken meadow by the spillway. We’ve also added to and cared for the gardens that Olga, at ninety-five, no longer tends herself.

In the last couple of years, in the midst of ecological crisis, and with the end of an oil-based economy in sight, we have begun to think about community-based agriculture. The old school playing field by the lake could become a garden. The old horse pastures might hold cattle or sheep. Most of the land will remain in forest, and we will take our farming venture slowly, listening to the land and working in partnership with all the neighbors—two-legged, four-legged, winged, scaled, finned, and rooted.

The land does not belong to us. We belong together.