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.

 

 

 

The Amsterdam Connection

When the Manor house was refurbished in 1908, Cornelia Conway Felton Horsford, the Manor’s mistress at the time, chose to embellish the front parlor’s fireplace with delftware tiles – an apparent nod to Nathaniel Sylvester’s upbringing in seventeenth century Amsterdam’s community of exiled English Separatists. The parlor delftware constitutes one of the more visible attestations to the Sylvester family’s time in the Dutch Republic. When a team of historical archaeologists from UMass-Boston began excavating the Manor grounds in the 1990s, they unearthed a surfeit of Dutch-made tobacco pipes and yellow bricks that resembled the bricks fired in Gouda kilns which were used as ballast in vessels sailing out of Amsterdam.

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Delftware trim, front parlor.

I am interested in the Netherlands of the 1600s. One could argue that the global order of things as we know them today – our world of intercontinental commerce, service-oriented economies, and staggering material wealth, all powered by growth-based economics and investment capital – was first realized in the damp, peaty lowlands of the Rhine delta at the turn of the seventeenth century. Intriguingly, Yale anthropologist James C. Scott also speculates that the year 1600 marks the point in world history when the concept of ‘the state’ came to predominate human social organization. It just so happens that no state at that time had a wealthier population than the Dutch Republic.

Nathaniel Sylvester’s parents, Mary and Giles, migrated with their Separatist families across the English channel to the relative safety of Amsterdam in the first decade of the 1600s. By Nathaniel’s birth in 1620, Giles was a well-regarded member of the Ancient Church (Englelse Kerk) and an up-and-coming merchant in a country that was willing to tolerate foreigners and religious iconoclasts rejected by the rest of Europe for the potential economic and entrepreneurial benefits such outcasts might bring. As such, the Amsterdam Nathaniel grew up in was one of satin-clad housewives and colorful row houses fronted by spotless stoeps which resounded with the raucous footsteps of children engrossed in neighborhood play. It was a port city from which more than 100 merchant vessels might disembark and set sail across the IJsselmeer in a single day. Such an ’embarrassment of riches,’ as Simon Schama puts it, was made possible by the Dutch Republic’s subordination of Spain and Portugal in the realm of Atlantic shipping. Absent the mercantilist royal bureaucracies which helped contribute to the demise of Iberian transoceanic hegemony, Dutch exploits in the New World and Asia were financed primarily by private investors via joint-stock companies – the forebears of today’s transnationals. Raised amidst so much commercial ferment, it is unsurprising that Nathaniel and his four brothers followed their father into the merchant trade.

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Profile of Amsterdam Seen from the IJ by Pieter van der Keere (1618)

All of the Sylvester sons returned to the English fold, either settling in Britain or one of its colonies just as the English began challenging Dutch turf. Yet part of the Dutch Republic’s inheritance in wealth came with an unquantifiable human cost, a cost that the Sylvesters were also complicit in exacting in their drive for personal fortune; by the 1600s, the Dutch were the most active European slave traders. Northern Europe’s growing taste for sugar shifted the flow of African slaves northward from South America to the French and English-dominated Caribbean, where Constant Sylvester, Nathaniel’s older brother, established a Barbadian sugar plantation. And, as all who are familiar with Sylvester Manor’s history knows, Nathaniel acquired the 8,000 acres of Shelter Island in order to establish a plantation of his own for the purpose of provisioning his brother’s operation with horses, salted beef, and any other goods that could not be produced in a tropical colony whose entire bonded work force of several thousand was engaged solely in the production of a confectionary.

This is to say nothing yet of the presence of slaves at the Manor (upon his death, Nathaniel Sylvester bequeathed 23 enslaved Africans to his wife, Grizzell, and their children); the marginalization of Indians on Long Island’s East End (the system of debt bondage and impressed Manhansett/Montaukett labor under the Sylvesters was slavery in all but name); or the wealth inequality among Europeans themselves as a new economic order took shape (1600s Amsterdam had its districts of grinding urban poverty, while Sylvester Manor possessed its share of indentured servants from the British Isles). But it is not my purpose here to recount every human injustice associated with Sylvester Manor’s past – as I have already noted, the human toll of the patterns of commerce and statecraft born in the 1600s is beyond quantifying.

Instead, I wish to reflect on how Sylvester Manor serves as a relatively intact index of the social trends and revolutions of the past 400 years whose cumulative effects are manifesting in what I like to refer to as the Crisis of Now – the interlocking environmental, economic, and spiritual emergencies that define the 21st century (see my “About” page). Despite the Manor’s bucolic rural character, situated as it is in Long Island’s tranquil Peconic Bay, it took the labor and wealth extraction on the margins of three different continents (four, if South America is included) to make its existence possible. Now, in 2018, the infamous Triangle Trade of the Atlantic has evolved into the globally-connected society in which we all are enmeshed, and Sylvester Manor is one of many regional nerve centers that were vital in catalyzing that transformation.

So it is that when I look across the north lawn towards the white wooden gate and Gardiners Creek, I find it impossible to ignore the global reach of these 240 acres on the edge of North America. The white gate, which now opens onto a land bridge, marks the landing where barges and longboats unloaded wares from Europe for Nathaniel Sylvester’s provisioning operation before loading Barbados-bound cargo. In the wake of those ships of yore, I try to discern the skeins of connective historical tissue that link this place with the slave castles of the Guinea Coast and the tribal councils of Eastern Algonquian Indians just as much as with the windmills of Holland or the sheep pastures of Somerset, England, where the Sylvester family originated. Here multiple human trajectories and the fates of nations collide, and today our lives are thoroughly etched by that collision.

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Gardiners Creek Landing

This is intellectual rumination, an attempt to make sense of the entanglements of the injustices of the past with the lives of the 7.5 billion humans living right now. These are not jolly thoughts to be preoccupied with, but I believe that parsing and understanding the knotted interface of past and present are necessary if we are to see through our converging global crises. And from deposits of yellow Dutch bricks to a burial ground for the enslaved, from archived documents bearing the signatures of Long Island sachems to parlors decked out in cosmopolitan colonial opulence, Sylvester Manor offers a unique vantage point from which to begin that work of belated comprehension.

 

 

 

Manor Ghosts

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 grand projects. 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 virtue of 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.

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Burying Ground of the Colored People of the Manor

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.

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