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.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Toil, Part 1: Drudgery and Its Discontents

The following is from Jean Toomers poem “Harvest Song”:

 

I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown. All of my oats are cradled.

But I am too chilled, and too fatigued to bind them. And I hunger.

 

I crack a grain between my teeth. I do not taste it.

I have been in the fields all day. My throat is dry. I hunger.

 

These two stanzas speak with accuracy to the history of farming in this country on a number of levels. More immediately, though, I have been thinking about the hard task of working the land, and thought the lamentations of Toomer’s imagined reaper conveys the drudgery inherent to all agricultural labor.

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A wagonload of hay after harvest at Sylvester Manor, ca. 1900.

Last weekend I was bone tired. I slept excessively, my neck and back were sore, and I went about about chores with a longing for the next opportunity to sit down and rest. At first I was worried that I had contracted a tick-borne illness. But when my energy returned and my neck muscles relaxed after a stretch of languid non-activity, I realized that perhaps my body was only adjusting to and expelling three weeks of exhaustion from the constant, repetitive physical motions of farming. Granted, unlike the rest of the Sylvester Manor farm crew members, I only work in the field three days a week, with the rest of my time going to to my research and writing for this project. But as an individual with NF2 I have to contend with a different set of challenges when I am in the field, including the need to consciously coordinate all of my body movements so that I don’t lose my balance along with saddling extra work on my upper body and left leg in order to compensate for weakness in my right leg.

Yet I have voluntarily taken on the responsibility of working as a member of the farm crew, while for the vast majority of farm laborers in the world right now and throughout human history, agriculture has been anything but voluntary. In his 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott distills the findings of the last 20 years of neolithic archaeology to  demonstrate that human societies’ transitions to decidedly sedentary, agricultural means of organization was almost always accompanied by the coercive powers of a centralized state (namely, slavery and taxation). Intensive fixed-field agriculture devoted to the production of one or two cereal grains – the type first practiced by the kingdoms of Mesopotamia and the Levant – was associated with shorter life expectancies and lower overall health, greater inputs of intensive labor, and less individual agency than the diversified pastoralist-horticulturalist-hunter gatherer lifestyles of the region’s pre-state populations. Moreover, it is generally recognized among researchers that the latter lifestyle yields a greater caloric return upon energy invested than the former agricultural lifestyle, regardless of what region of the world one is examining. With this historical background in mind, it is little wonder that from its inception in the Tigris-Euphrates floodplain until well into the 19th century, the modern agricultural state has leaned heavily on the sweat of slave labor.

My point here is that when we lionize farming and a “return to the land,” even in the context of small-scale organic agriculture, we must do so while being mindful of what exactly we would like to return to. The Jean Toomer poem I quote at the beginning of this piece was written in the ferment of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement born out of the cosmopolitan centers of New York and Chicago at a time when whole communities of African Americans were leaving behind the impoverishment and state-sanctioned tyranny of the rural South for the opportunities of the industrial North. Toomer himself never worked in agriculture, but wrote ‘Harvest Song” in an attempt to capture the body- and spirit-crushing work of farming to which his enslaved African ancestors were bonded. Toomer is in fact writing writing about spiritual disenfranchisement, and nothing denies the humanity of an individual quite like staring down a chattel worker in a mono-cropped field (think ‘King Cotton’) and working him or her like a common beast.

The uncomfortable questions raised by the toil of agriculture extend beyond the slavery of yore. Today hundreds of millions of rural farmers in China and India are abandoning the countryside en masse in an attempt to elbow their way into the middle class, while farmers from Vietnam and Bangladesh to France and the United States are grappling with unprecedented rates of suicide. There are uniquely modern factors involved in this agricultural crisis; the demands of a globalized economy and social isolation, to name a few. Yet these unique 21st century challenges are only additional to age-old problems that have bedeviled farmers since the palace officials of Akkad and Shang Dynasty China established the world’s first state granaries. As Dr. Mike Rosmann writes in the journal Behavioral Healthcare, “Farming has always been a stressful occupation because many of the factors that affect agricultural production are largely beyond the control of the producers.” In an increasingly complex world where ever greater portions of our lives seem to be at the mercy of opaque bureaucracies and computer generated algorithms, can we blame the millions of used-to-be-farmers who have given up a way of life that is so thoroughly shaped by outside influences?

When we bemoan the emptying out of rural communities, we need to be clear-eyed about the drudgery inherent to agricultural life in many parts of the world. So, when small community efforts and organizations like Sylvester Manor Educational Farm set out to revive rural economies and ways of life, it is paramount to determine what was missing in the past. With that question answered, a life based on farming and that beloved character of “closeness to the land” can be reoriented around joy, justice, inclusion, and nourishment of both body and the soul.

These themes, and how they are being realized at places such as Sylvester Manor, will be addressed in part 2 of “Thoughts on Toil.”

 

 

Wampum, the Iroquois Connection, and Monetizing the Landscape

A couple of months ago a professor of mine and I were ushered into a spare ante room of the Akwesasne Cultural Center and Museum in St. Regis, NY. The room was dedicated to a single exhibit; a glass case containing a 250-year old belt made from white and purple wampum beads. Our guide, Sue, explained to us that the belt is referred to by her people as the Wolf Belt, and commemorates the peace between the various Iroquois communities of the St. Lawrence Valley and the English crown following the Seven Years War (which ended with the vanquishment of France from North America) . The Wolf Belt, which had been housed at the New York State Museum in Albany since the turn of the 20th century, was repatriated to the Akwesasne Mohawks in 2010.

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Wolf Belt upon its return to Akwesasne (©Indiantime.net)

At the time of my visit to the museum I was reading Katherine Howlett Hayes’s Slavery Before Race, and was aware of the possibility that some of the beads threaded into the Wolf Belt, if not from Shelter Island, may have been manufactured in the general eastern Long Island area. Wampum, which comes from the Algonquian wampumpeague, is manufactured from either whelk or quahog shells, depending on the maker’s desired bead color. Contrary to popular historical perceptions, wampum was not “Indian money”; that is, it could not be used to purchase goods or services. Instead, wampum was exchanged among coastal Algonquian communities as a gift that carried political undertones; several strings of wampum might be exchanged among visiting sachems as a substantiation of a diplomatic partnership. These networks of exchange penetrated inland into the eastern Great Lakes region, where the Iroquoian nations, especially Haudenosaunee (the confederacy between the Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Tuscarora, and Mohawks) came to value wampum as a means of declaring war or, in the case of the Wolf Belt, friendship.

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Spiraled whelk shells were used to make white wampum beads, which were considered to be less valuable than purple beads from quahog shells.

Europeans, however, did treat wampum as a currency. Dutch settlers used wampum as a means of procuring beaver pelts from inland Indians, while both Dutch and English colonial officials at times sanctioned wampum as legal tender in monetary transactions for lack of standard coinage. Given Shelter island’s estuarine location, it is unsurprising that the manufacture of wampum was one of multiple commercial activities that took place at Sylvester Manor during its plantation days between 1652 and 1680. A ready supply of Manhanset laborers experienced in the techniques of shell bead making provided Nathaniel Sylvester with an additional source of wealth, at least until overproduction of wampum (as a result of the introduction of European steel awls) ate away at its value. Excavations of the original plantation core have turned up copious amounts of tool-worked outer shell fragments that were discarded in favor of the inner shell parts from which beads were produced. Some beads stayed in the economy of Long Island Sound, while others undoubtedly ended up in Haudenosaunee territory in northern New York and the St. Lawrence Valley.

Sylvester Manor’s one-time status as a mass producer of wampum bears special significance on several fronts, not least because it represents an early, explicit instance of European commercial interests monetizing an indigenous cultural practice. As it happens, Nathaniel Sylvester’s great-grandson, the lawyer Ezra L’Hommedieu (whose daughter, Mary Catherine, served briefly as the mistress of Sylvester Manor in the 1830s) had a hand in determining how the state of New York dealt with its indigenous nations. As a member of New York”s Indian Affairs Commission in the 1790s, Ezra and his colleagues negotiated with constituent members of Haudenosaunee (which was still divided in the aftermath of the American Revolution) for the overwhelming majority of each nation’s historical lands in exchange for reserve territory. The commission also treated the indigenous population as citizens of the new Republic; not out of altruism, but because land belonging to a citizen could more easily be sold to settlers than land belonging to a sovereign nation.

The realm of monetary valuation is a topic I will return to repeatedly in my writing, for the relentless commodification of the natural and human cultural spheres is a critical factor in creating the Crisis of Now. Yet Sylvester Manor offers a unique perspective from which to consider how Anglo-Dutch speculation and investment in the 1600s created the monetary system me know today, and how such an economic model marginalized the lives and power of indigenous Americans. From its inception, the colonial project in North America was an economic endeavor aimed at extracting pecuniary worth in terms of raw materials that were growing scarce in Europe. Even the Puritans, those righteous “First Americans,” could not have established Plymouth Colony without the backing of the London Virginia Company and the Merchant Adventurers. It therefore follows that, where one year Nathaniel Sylvester is overseeing Manhanset laborers turn shells into currency, another year Ezra L’Hommedieu is paving the way for white Americans to establish homesteads in what used to be Haudenosaunee country. Since capital for such monetary claims of ownership flowed exclusively from Europe and America’s settled coast, it was almost inevitable that indigenous landholdings in the American Republic would be decimated by the market demands of a new transoceanic Western society.

The Akwesasne Mohawk, with whom I worked this past spring as part of this project, are engaged in a decades-long, incremental mission to regain historically Mohawk land that was sold to non-native settlers under questionable legal maneuverings, and the Mohawks are not alone in this goal. The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation in Connecticut has been trying to defend its land claims in the northwestern part of the state since the 1980s, while, here in the neighborhood of Sylvester Manor, the Shinnecock nation still disputes the legitimacy of the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. If the indigenous peoples of the world were among the first to feel the shock of global investment capitalism, then, by reclaiming their lands and removing them from the market, it is appropriate that they should be at vanguard of transitioning away from the economic system that has landed us amidst so many converging global crises. Yet they are joined by many allies, including Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, whose focus on reviving local cultural traditions; reconnecting island residents with the rhythms of the growing seasons; and shedding light on the American landscape’s true past surely constitutes a movement away from the dominant mindsets of the past 500 years or so. If the the repatriation of a revered piece of Mohawk beadwork is a part of this new movement as well, then all the better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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