In the Spanish film El Bosque Animado (The Enchanted Forest), a spirit instructs the protagonist that “Every forest has a right to its ghost.” As a student of environmental and ecological thought in college, that is a lesson I have learned first-hand; I have lain on my back, as if invited, and stared up at a grove of Adirondack white pines taller than the Statue of Liberty that somehow escaped the whims of nineteenth century lumber barons. Yet I have also stumbled through a vine-tangled oak savanna not far from where I grew up in Connecticut. The latter forests’s ghost did not seem keen on my intrusion.
Two weeks into my stay on Shelter Island, I think it is more than appropriate to say that every landscape has a right to its ghosts, and one would be hard-pressed to locate a tract of American land whose ghosts are as multitudinous as those that inhabit Sylvester Manor. There are the obvious resident specters – those of Nathaniel Sylvester and his 10+ generations of descendants. There are also the notables of American history – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mary Dyer, Asa Gray – who have left imprints on the property in the course of pursuing their own life’s work. Yet, like the family historian motivated solely by a desire to trace his lineage back to Henry VIII (or Marie Antoinette, or Genghis Khan, or whoever you fancy), enumerating all of the past luminaries associated with Sylvester Manor misses the point. Human history is an ecology of stories, and we can only do justice to that ecology by understanding the multiplicity of lives, big and small, that have crafted the world of today simply by having once walked this earth.
So, as a start, it helps to remember Isaac Pharaoh, a Montaukett man who was indentured to the Gardiner family in 1829 at the age of five and ended up spending the rest of his seven decades at Sylvester Manor. There is also Julia Dyd Havens Johnson, born circa 1810, whose step-father, Comus Fanning, was a manumitted Long Island slave; Julia served as Manor housekeeper for three generations of Gardiners and Horsfords. There is also the Colored Burial Ground, a fenced off parcel of woodland where multiple generations of enslaved Africans and impressed Manhansett laborers are interred. Such are the beginnings of Sylvester Manor’s historical ecology.
But what to make of these lives, these Manor ghosts whose stories are integral to the landscape? Sometimes at nightfall, after a long day of work in the Windmill Field, I may be walking among the garden’s ancient boxwoods or by the north lawn’s copper beech, and feel compelled to stop and contemplate. When I do halt in my path, I become aware of a presence, a collective calling to attention that says “We were here.” I suppose the presence I’ve become familiar with at Sylvester Manor is a spirit of sorts, born of this parcel of land’s particular ghosts. They are ghosts of loss, injustice, and sorrow. Yet they are also ghosts of contentment, joy, and the mundane experiences of human life lived on a day-to-day basis. They have a different story to tell of American history than the occluded, amnesia-ridden tale most of us were brought up with. And, like every history grounded in a cultural landscape, they can tell us something about the human condition. Regardless of what stories we unearth, though, the ghosts of Sylvester Manor implore us the living to pay attention and listen close.