Stephen Mather of Darien

In July I paid a visit to Darien’s historic Mather Homestead on Brookside Road. Built in 1778, the history of the Mather Homestead resembles that of Sylvester Manor; it was privately held in the same family over the span of several centuries before being incorporated as a historical nonprofit and opened to the public in recent years (2017, to be precise).

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Front of the original 1778 structure.

The stories of many New England towns are animated by a narrative arc that stretches to the origins of the American republic, and Deacon Joseph Mather, the original proprietor of the homestead, features prominently in Darien’s own foundational mythos. Joseph’s father, the Reverend Moses Mather, is related to Increase Mather (of Salem Witch Trial infamy) by way of Increase’s brother, Timothy. The Yale-educated Moses arrived in Darien, then known as Middlesex Parish, in 1740 at the age of twenty-five in order to take up his post as the town’s first Congregational minister. Moses was staunchly anti-Anglican, and during the Revolutionary War he cultivated a reputation as one the most fiery Patriots in the Stamford-Middlesex area. On two occasions, he and his sons were captured by Loyalists from Long Island and imprisoned in New York City. In a separate raid that took place in March of 1781, Tories stormed Joseph Mather’s home while only his  wife, Sarah, was present, and confiscated valuables that were hidden by friends in the family’s well.

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The well where Patriot friends of the Mathers hid valuables like silver and clothing, hoping that the homestead’s relative distance from Long Island Sound would keep the items safe from raids.

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This Depression-era WPA mural in Darien Town Hall depicts the July 1781 Tory raid on the Middlesex church and meetinghouse during an afternoon service presided over by Moses Mather.

Joseph Mather’s property on Brookside Road was occupied by his unmarried daughters until the death of Rana Mather in 1880 at the age of 96. Thereafter, the homestead functioned primarily as a summer residence for the family of Joseph Wakeman Mather (grandson of the elder Joseph), a San Francisco businessman who eventually relocated to Brooklyn. Joseph’s son, Stephen Tyng, became the first director of the National Park Service in 1917. Despite Stephen’s early years and college studies in California, plus a career path that took him to Chicago and Washington, D.C., he considered the house on Brookside Road to be his permanent home. In fact, Stephen was the sole inheritor of the Mather Homestead in 1906, and continued to use it as a summer retreat until his death in 1930.

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Stephen Tyng Mather

I wonder about what impact the setting of southwestern Connecticut had on Stephen Mather. In The Last Undiscovered Place, David K. Leff reflects that Connecticut’s lack of open horizons or sweeping mountain vistas allows for a more nuanced appreciation of the beauty and underlying processes that animate the other-than-human realm, and Stephen seems to have cultivated this appreciation. Mather was instrumental in persuading Congress to expand the park system beyond the dramatic scenery of the West, and by the end of his tenure at the the Department of the Interior, Mount Desert Island, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Great Smoky Mountains were encompassed by national parks.

Stephen Mather would not be the first influential figure in American conservation/environmental thought to carry into adulthood the imprint of a youth rooted in the Constitution State. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed designer of New York’s Central Park, grew up in Hartford County, and he attributed his vision as a landscape architect to the complementary patterning of the built human world and natural scenery that characterized his birth state. Henry Chandler Cowles, a botanist who pioneered the study of ecological succession, grew up exploring the countryside around the town of Berlin, where he first appreciated the reality that the landscaped is an ever-changing mosaic.

I’ve written repeatedly in previous essays about unearthing sights of natural wonder and  gems of discovery hidden in the overlooked corners of Darien. Using his position of power in Washington, Stephen Mather seems to have instilled that expanded definition of natural wonder in the broader American consciousness via the National Park Service, while Olmsted achieved similar ends by offering a green respite in the middle of Manhattan. Our foundational mythos does not have to rest solely on the pomp and patriotism of exploration across oceans or a war for independence. When we tell ourselves stories of origin and identity, I think all cultures operating in the industrial, hyper-connected world would do well to acknowledge the quiet, humble workings of the land we inhabit.

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Waterfall in Ledge Park, Darien

8:39 to Grand Central

Several days ago I took the train to Manhattan for one of my Avastin infusions at NYU-Langone, and thus joined the roughly 300,000 commuters who rely on Metro North Railroad on a daily basis.

Let me begin by saying that I like riding Metro North. Whether it be Amtrak or commuter rail, I enjoy the rhythm, the feel – the atmosphere – of trains, and believe railroad travel offers the most logical means of transporting large numbers of people between population centers. Yes, passenger railroads in this country has become more than antiquated, especially in the Northeast, and trains are occasionally delayed or cancelled altogether. But nearly two decades of never-ending military campaigns in the Middle East plus a distinctly American aversion to reasonable tax policy and infrastructure spending means that our roads aren’t in much better shape. And whereas one can read a book, pull out a laptop, or take a nap before the local service arrives, there’s not much you can do when stuck in rush hour traffic except wait for the cars ahead of you to ease up on the brake pedal. If you happen to ride Metro North into Manhattan, there’s also the added bonus of rounding out your morning commute at the unequivocally grand Grand Central Terminal.

On this most recent trip into the city, however, I found myself thinking about the unquestioned modes of living that undergird our modern commutes in all their forms, and how radically novel the idea of the commute is. The rhythms of our days are shaped according to necessity, and for the vast majority of human history the biological imperatives of energy conservation have bound our days within an overland radius that rarely exceeded ten or twenty miles. Yet this physical limitation of a day’s or week’s tasks cultivated an exceptional depth of knowledge of one’s immediate surroundings. The Tri-State area’s Lenape and Quinnipiac inhabitants knew just which springs yielded the sweetest water, which valley’s soils were best suited for maize and tobacco planting, and which coves were populated by reliable shellfish beds. They had to possess this knowledge in order to make a living with what was available.

Life today in the New York greater metropolitan area are governed by an entirely different suite of imperatives. Will traffic be heavier on the Merritt Parkway or I-95? Tomorrow will be rainy; should we take the kids to the aquarium instead of the zoo? Many people, my parents included, end up in Darien because they’ve pondered the long term: which suburb has the best schools? Will my home be worth more after I’ve paid off the mortgage? These are the sorts of questions that the Industrial Revolution and the combustion engine have made possible. The automobile, expressway, railroad, and airport means we can work and live wherever we choose, regardless of the logic of the landscape, and count on civil engineers to smooth out any wrinkles. Destructive storm surges? Higher sea walls should do the trick. Chronic drought? Start digging those aqueducts.

Being a relatively old city that predates interstate highways and mass landscape modification, New York and its periphery aren’t saddled with quite as many design follies as America’s newer megalopolises. It isn’t sinking like Miami and Houston, or desiccated like Phoenix and LA. Instead, New York owes it’s status as a global financial capital to it’s natural deep water harbor, a fact of the terrain that immediately caught the attention of the commercially-minded Henry Hudson, who sailed through the Verrazano Narrows under the flag of the Dutch Republic in 1609. But, of course, Europe’s Age of Exploration was a commercial endeavor. The Dutch and English, followed by the American Republic, transformed New York Harbor into a nerve center of Atlantic shipping, and the rest is history. So the reality remains that New York sits at the helm of corporate globalization, and the increasingly financialized nature of the world economy means that the five boroughs and their outlying suburbs have become even more untethered from biophysical reality.

When I’m waiting at Noroton Heights Station, the closer of Darien’s two Metro North stations to my home, it’s not uncommon for me to cross paths with a smartly dressed former high school classmate of mine. We’ll catch up on what we’re up to, and my classmate will invariably tell me he or she has an internship/job at a financial firm, or a marketing firm, or consulting firm. I never remember the specifics names, and I sometimes perform a mental eye-roll at the cliché. (“You grew up in Darien and work in finance? How unique!”) But I know my snark isn’t justified. My classmates are only making a living with what is available, and in 2018 in Fairfield County there is no shortage of jobs related to servicing the corporate world’s finances (My classmates are also working at least. I’m still a student.)

So it is that on this most recent commute in and out of the city, I found myself looking out the window and wondering how many of Westchester and Fairfield County’s 1.9 million residents really know this place when we see most of it while in transit, when the necessities of our days orbit around Manhattan instead of the nearest springs and shellfish bed. Sure, I fancy myself a pedestrian naturalist, and I can point out the sugar maples and shagbark hickories leaning over the railroad tracks. But can I tell you off the top of my head how all of those trees are pollinated? Er, no. What about the sexual habits of the eels who used to surge up Connecticut’s tidal rivers every spring? Ditto. I don’t have much on my fellow commuters in terms of deep ecological knowledge.

Readers of Thoreau, that Yankee contrarian who insisted that “the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot,” and that “We do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us,” will be more than familiar with my musings. Almost every American environmental thinker since the Transcendentalists has decried an estrangement from the landscape wrought by our fixation on profit. But what of it? Should I refuse my Avastin treatments and instead wade through the salt marshes of Long Island Sound while schwann cells multiply unchecked throughout my body? Should my high school friends ditch their suits and take up ornithology? Or maybe we in the West should cut to the chase and flagellate ourselves for the original sin of the steam engine? Human life, like ecology, is complex, and the responsibilities that give shape to personal habits and decisions span our families, our communities, our culture, and even history itself. Such a web of connections cannot be dismantled in a day.

So the question remains: if we are committed to reversing our dislocation from the land, what to do when faced with the rigid scaffolding of the status quo? In “Homebound, Once More,” I recount the richness that has been added to my life by exploring the cracks and interrogating the commonplace of Darien, and here I’d like to suggest that such a practice of probing the contours of one’s own locale is a first step towards bridging the divide between our lives and the physical places where we live. Anyone can do this. You don’t need to claim Native American ancestry or live sixty miles from the nearest post office to forge a deep connection with stone and water. Learn to identify the shrubs growing in the abandoned lot down the road. Spread out a blanket at the nearest park and observe the birds, insects, and people coming to life on a sunny day. Or marvel at the way the roots of a mature oak will chew up and mangle a neglected stretch of sidewalk. If Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island teaches us about righting the injustices of history, and the Mohawk people of St. Lawrence Valley offer a model for commitment to a single landscape through centuries of dispossession, then a study of Darien suggests that a re-enchantment with the wider world is possible in the most unassuming of places. Thoreau famously found spiritual correspondence in the thawing sand of a railroad embankment, and we can do the same if we look hard enough.

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Tilly Pond Park with the Darien train station in the background.

Home, Again

What does it mean to be back in Darien at the age of 23, to have the architecture of my days once more be molded by the place where I grew up? To begin to answer that question I recently reread an essay I wrote at the close of my first semester of college. The essay, which I titled “Commonplace,” verbalizes my then-newly crystallized belief that the places we are most familiar with on a day-to-day basis have the potential to yield the most profound insights and discoveries about the world at large. In “Commonplace,” I recall a bike ride to a local beach one cloudy September Saturday during my senior year of high school:

Long Island Sound was a drab, grey monochrome. The unbroken clouds overhead sapped the trees of any bright hues. A wind blew off the water, just crisp enough to forebode a change in seasons. In short, it was the type of day my suburban neighbors would use as an excuse to stay inside and do chores around the house. But, standing there alone on the sand, looking across to the opposite shore of New York, the thought came to me, “How could I ever turn my back on this?”

Because it is scenes like this, times when the world shows its capacity for the unabashedly mundane, that catch me the most. My earliest vivid memory rooted in the coastal Connecticut landscape where I grew up is of swimming in a neighbor’s pool with my brothers and some family friends one summer evening and insisting that everyone look at a sunset-streaked cloud that happened to be passing directly overhead. I was interested not in the sunset itself, but that one small stratus cloud, brushed with pink and purple. As I got older, no matter what interests took hold of my attention and state of mind, I always found time to stop and contemplate the perfectly commonplace interplay of the naked natural world and the built, suburban environment I called home. And in those mundane scenes and moments, sometimes as unremarkable as a dull orange twilight horizon set against a foreground of dusky houses and maple trees, I have found sources of wonder comparable to looking across the Grand Canyon or out at a panorama of the Rocky Mountains.

Where I grew up is in many ways a mundane place, easily written off as a mere bedroom community where an absence of definable local culture is paralleled by a lack of distinction in the natural or ecological sense. My town’s woods, where they exist parceled between roadways and residential development, do not erupt with orchids and wildflowers in the spring, nor are its horizons animated with the melodrama of snowcapped sierras. Yet it is precisely this mundane landscape that has left an imprint on my psyche. It was amid the suburban spread I called home for the first eighteen years of my life that I learned to appreciate not just the occasional scenes of ostentatious natural beauty, but also the world in its simple, unremarkable manifestations, be they a mellow twilight or a cloudy, colorless day at the shore.

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Weed Beach, November

I typed those paragraphs five years ago. Five years! I had no idea then in the fall of 2013 the scintillating path I would take in the next stage of my life: two brain surgeries, hearing loss, a season of peripatetic farm work, two experimental rounds of chemotherapy, and a bout of major depression. And I am still working towards my college diploma. Darien and my parents’ house on Thomasina Lane has remained a constant this whole time, and that constitutes a generous mercy. Any measure of stability is helpful in a time of transition and turbulence.

Yet I am grateful for my anchorage on the north shore of Long Island Sound not just because of the consistency it has provided. In “Commonplace” I conclude that

On that grey September day at the beach, I did eventually turn my back and let my future take me wherever it may. Because these moments of mystery and silence are not exclusive to a pebbly stretch of New England coastline. Rather, they exist everywhere and every day as the inherent beauty of this world.

The knowledge that profound insight – mystery and silence – are present everywhere has sustained me on a spiritual level through my setbacks and disappointments these past five years, and by regularly returning to Darien I have kept that knowledge fresh.

I don’t mind that I never got a chance to study abroad or spend a summer backpacking through the latest haute ecotourist destination; I don’t need mementos from far-flung places to make my life richer. Through the first 18 years of my life, followed by all of my recent convalescences and languid vacation days away from school, the shingled rooftops and hardwood woodlands of Darien have been the stuff of my world, just as cattle paddocks and baobab trees are the stuff of a Herero’s world, or freeway underpasses and chaparral hillsides are the stuff of a southern Californian’s world. Wherever you happen to make your life, there are layers of discovery waiting in the cracks between the most unassuming features of our natural and human landscapes.

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Casement Street, sunset

Several years ago while walking in Darien’s Woodland Park I picked my way through underbrush and encountered an army of shrimp-like arthropods marching across a scummy pond margin. Last summer I kayaked to a cove in neighboring Stamford and explored 1 acre-square Vincent Island, where the mason shell of a house that burned down before I was born is being swallowed by poison ivy and other sun-loving herbaceous plants. I don’t have as much time to explore the woods or go kayaking this summer, but only a few days ago, on a visit Darien Town Hall, I saw a justice of the peace presiding over an outdoor civil wedding ceremony between a young couple dressed in shorts and t-shirts. These are the sorts of discoveries that lie in wait if one chooses to interrogate the commonplace and see what happenings unfold behind the static of the day-to-day.

While I could sigh with regret or resignation that I am now well into my third decade of life and still bound to the address where I grew up, I don’t really feel regretful or resigned. I will leave Darien for good at some point, likely sooner rather than later, then end up in a new locale whose commonplace is just as fertile as any other. But in the meantime I can explore the endless crevasses and cul-de-sacs of my immediate environs and try to understand Darien as much as I can.

Amber Hours

I am no longer on Shelter Island. Instead I am writing this from home in Connecticut. But physical distance sometimes provides greater clarity when reflecting on a geographic place, and I am not done thinking about Sylvester Manor.

During my last week on Shelter Island high summer arrived thick and sagging over the northeastern US, and the moderating effects of the Atlantic were not enough to spare Long Island’s East End from the wet dog pall. It is important to realize that working in the sun on a farm is not like being at the beach, even if said farm is within striking distance of the Hamptons. Out in the field, with your neck and back to the sky for eight hours a day, anything over 78 degrees in the afternoon and 66 degrees at night is hot, sticky, and uncomfortable. During my final week at Sylvester Manor, high temperatures ranged between 84 and 90 and never dropped below 70 at night. For the first time in my life I found myself slowing down my speech and bodily movements so as to conserve energy; not just while working in the Windmilll Field, but also when climbing the Manor staircase to my bedroom, where I only had an electric fan for cooling off. Come night I remembered my aunt telling how when she was a girl in the late 1950s her family visited relatives in Missouri in August, where whole neighborhoods would gather at nightfall to munch on watermelon and drink lemonade until it became cool enough to fall asleep (usually sometime past midnight). Lying in bed on the second floor of the Manor with my top sheet flung away and sliding to the floor, I understood why watermelon was my aunt’s favorite food.

Even walking through the boxwood garden between the house and the detached kitchen became a somnambulant chore. On those walks, which most often took place in the late afternoon, I was nudged by breezes that felt as though they had arrived direct from Pamlico Sound or Gullah country. These subtropical drafts were more than just warm; they carried a scent I can only describe as “decadent bloom,” with special emphasis on the Latin origins of ‘decadent.’ Decadere: to fall, sink, to decay. That is, these late day breezes that slipped north across Sylvester Manor were laced with summer’s floral exuberance just as much as they bore the traces of moldering springtime biomass. Any denizen of or traveller to those parts of the American South that have not been sterilized by urban sprawl will know exactly the dioecious musk I am trying to describe.

A green shoot ascending from the previous month’s rot, death begetting life; these are common pastoral tropes because they are the natural ordering of things, and spirit resides in a landscape where the dualities of growth and decay harmonize. But the light of my last evenings at Sylvester Manor is what I really want to tell you about. “My god, the light!” I’d wager good money that sighs and exclamations of that sort have been uttered on countless occasions at Sylvester Manor since the plantation days of Nathaniel and Grizell. Early evenings between the end of June and the first half of August – when the sun reposes at a slant which turns the air to an amber syrup that slicks every surface with grandeur – has probably drawn out the greatest share of wistfulness from the Manor’s residents and visitors. An environmental historian might caution against ascribing aesthetic tastes like an appreciation of the quality of sunlight to different eras. But when I stood rapt on the lanes of the Manor as that deep, deep syrup seeped through overgrown yews and drooping lindens, I could feel the presence of the generations before me who possessed an innate human reverence for beauty. That I beheld the same Georgian dormers from which Julia Dyd Havens Johnson and Isaac Pharaoh once witnessed the waning day, or the same boxwoods that Cornelia Horsford and Alice Fiske spent long afternoons fussing over, made the imprint of those past lives all the more poignant. They said “this light was ours.”

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But then the glow wanes in intensity and depth throughout the growing season before fading with the harvest moon. For Joan Didion the dwindling of summer and the ends of things is presaged by the long blue twilights of the northern mid-latitudes. For me the annual decline is signaled by the thick, bright early evenings of high summer, and I could not articulate why until I smelled the breezes of Sylvester Manor. Life on these continents and islands of ours is fecund beyond comprehension. Yet all fecundity returns to humus or oceanic muck, and the amber hours of the warmest months serve as a reminder of that law. The sighed message of, “this light was ours as well” was also a warning: “It won’t be yours forever.”

In retrospect, I’d say that amber light was pregnant with melancholy, with a human forlornness towards the unalterable ways of the world. Because no matter what the last wills and testaments might say, the land upon which we make our living is not ours to claim, not really. Cornelia Horsford must have known that one day her garden would go to seed. Even Nathaniel Sylvester, who parceled out Shelter Island in his will to his sons and sons-in-law so as to establish a cloistered Sylvester colony, must have sat alone in old age one summer late afternoon, possibly with the tidal shush of Gardiners Creek lulling his thoughts , and realized how frail a piece of paper is compared to the stone and water of creation.

All life falls, and we the living borrow our sustenance from the departed beneath us.