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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 14, 2009

From the editor
As the Hudson River flows on, Bowen explores the places and people that fill its valley

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

In this year of the quadricentennial, much is being written in our valley about the river explored by Henry Hudson.

Lucey Bowen is doing some exploring of her own. Using a book her father wrote in the Great Depression as a template, Bowen is visiting many of the same places he did to write a book of her own.

She found me and my daughter Saranac in a way that her father never could have — on the Internet.  An essay I wrote about the late Lansing Christman — a newsman and poet who worked as the editor of The Altamont Enterprise in the 1930s — led her to our newspaper. Bowen e-mailed us a month ago, asking to meet us.

Saturday, she arrived in the parking lot behind The Enterprise at the same time we did. “You’re just the way I pictured you,” said Bowen. “With upswept hair and amber earrings.”

Bowen herself, who lives in California, had short-cropped hair and a direct and engaging style.

As she toured our newspaper building, she marveled at the century-old Intertype and enthusiastically photographed the drawers full of carved wooden letters. Perhaps she felt she had stepped back in time, to the era in which her father had explored the region. Framed photographs of Lansing Christman from that time still hang on the wall of our print shop.

Bowen shared her family’s story, telling us first of her father — Croswell Bowen, a photojournalist — and how he came to write his book, Great River of the Mountains: The Hudson.

 A recent Yale graduate, he worked for William Randolph Hearst’s International News Service in the 1930s. He, too, was direct, she said. When Sinclair Lewis was given the Nobel Prize in Literature, her father had asked him, “What are you going to expose next?” The question was apparently too direct for the great writer, who literally sidestepped the question.

Lucey Bowen, a Vassar graduate who studied linguistics and speaks seven languages, said of her journey, “Part of me is looking at this from a deconstructionist point of view...In the 1930s, people were trying to figure out who we are.” She described the period of a time between two world wars as a defining moment for Americans. Interest in regional folk songs and stories was high. Carl Carmer, who wrote the 1934 bestseller, Stars Fell on Alabama, an autobiographical piece based on his travels throughout the state, documenting myths and folklore from Alabama, was writing a series on Great Rivers of America. He asked Croswell Bowen to be his leg man and scout out good stories and places to write about.

“He did not like to drive. He asked my father to go up the Hudson and find the good stories,” said Bowen. “My father every night would write a letter about who he talked to...Carl Carmer is a master story teller. He would pick and choose from the letters to create a story.”

Croswell Bowen typed the letters to Carmer and made a carbon copy of each one. The originals, Bowen said, are with Carmer’s papers in Cooperstown, and the carbons are with her father’s papers at Yale.

“He made copies of everything,” Bowen said of her father. “He even made carbon copies of letters to his mistress.”

Croswell Bowen was a photographer as well as a writer. He studied documentary photography at the New School of Social Research under Berenice Abbott. “She focused on the built environment,” Bowen said, like cityscapes.

 When Carmer’s book, The Hudson, came out in 1939, it was a big success, said Bowen. That year, Life magazine had Margaret Bourke-White do a photographic essay on the Hudson. “They asked Dad and Carl to guide her up and down the river,” said Bowen. “My father literally stood next to her,” said Bowen. “She had a huge camera. My father’s was a Rolleiflex.”

Bowen has compared Bourke-White’s photos with her father’s and can point out the shared angles and the same people in the identical scenes.

“Berenice Abbott’s photographs were dark; Margaret Bourke-White’s were light,” said Bowen. “My father goes towards the dark.”

Bowen fished an original copy of her father’s book from her red satchel. The black-and-white photographs dominate the large-format book, some of them spreading across two pages. Landscapes are interspersed with pictures of people at work — like loggers and wine-makers and shad fisherman. There are also riveting portraits of people who don’t smile for a camera. (The book is available locally at the Albany and Troy public libraries but is not circulated, and can be used only on site.)

On May 2, Bowen launched a facsimile edition in paperback; proceeds from the sale of the paperback will go to Bannerman’s Castle Trust. The island is pictured in Croswell Bowen’s book. (Visit bannermancastle.org for details on ordering the book.)

An artist, Bowen is, like her father, taking photographs of the places she visits. She uses a small Cannon, which she describes as “a point-and-shoot.”

Bowen is posting photographs and her written impressions on a blog at greatriverrevisited.blogspot.com. She tells there, for example, of photographs her father took at the Saratoga Battlefield that she wanted to replicate. It turned out that several of the buildings had been removed. “It seems they were imaginative reconstructions,” she writes, “and archeology and research have replaced the myths and tales prevalent in 1938.”

Just before visiting The Altamont Enterprise, Bowen had visited Hudson, where her father had written about the brick-making industry. There, she met an African-American woman whose father had made bricks during the Depression. The pair mused about what their fathers would think of their meeting.

The woman told Bowen how the boundaries of race were ignored as people of different backgrounds, all poor, worked together. “When you lose the industry and then, with urban renewal, the community is broken up,” said Bowen.

Hudson now, she said, has an influx of artists from New York City who enjoy living in a place that has been described as a living dictionary of American architecture.

Locally, Carl Carmer had been enthralled with Helderberg farmer and poet Will Christman, Lansing’s father. Carmer wrote a tribute to Will Christman called “Three Crops,” explaining that Will Christman made three things grow — food plants, children, and poems.

Will Christman raised seven sons and two daughters as he worked the same rocky land his father had before him. Carmer writes, “He spent his last decade writing true and beautiful things about the sixty years of living that had gone before it.”

It seemed to me as I read those words that they applied to Bowen in the last phase of her life, taking pictures and setting down words that explained what had gone on before.

My daughter and I felt that we weren’t much help to her. We live in the Hudson Valley and write about the people in our towns — in the Helderbergs and in New Scotland and Guilderland — every week. But where are the stories and traditions that link us to our past?

We told Bowen, for example, of Everett Rau who farms the land his family has farmed for generations and passes on the art of building barns the old way. But we realized, as we told her, that the barn-raising tradition was no longer an inherent part of the community; it was valued by the few who wished to replicate it.

I recalled the journey I had taken in my youth to Scotland, following the footstep of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, and hearing the songs of the ploughman’s laddies, so similar to the songs of the American cowboys that flourished as men entertained themselves at sometimes lonely jobs. The function of those songs changed with the coming of radio and later television. Cowboy songs are now sung by people who have never been on the range; they’re no longer grounded in the culture that produced them.

In an electronic age, it’s often hard to distinguish what is rooted in one place, what lore defines a region. Bowen told an amusing tale her father had gathered from a Fort Edward resident in the 1930s.  Californians, the young man had said, didn’t know anything about history. His judgment was based on the fact that a Californian he’d met had never heard of a Fort Edward heroine, Jane McCrea. It was the view of the Fort Edward resident that she had won the revolution.

Now, for any of us, the story of Jane McCrea is a computer click away. But what do we know that is still part of our own oral tradition?

The talk on Saturday turned back frequently to Bowen’s family, particularly her father. After his book on the Hudson was published, Croswell Bowen took up his camera and, in 1941, sailed with the American Field Service to North Africa. In Egypt, he contracted polio, which left him with a lifelong limp. He gave up his dream of being a photojournalist and wrote for magazines, including The New Yorker. He also wrote several books. He died in 1971.

His three daughters have a continued interest in his work. Lucey Bowen’s younger sister, Molly, a farmer in upstate New York, has accompanied her on some of her Hudson River travels, following their father’s footsteps from the Adirondacks to Manhattan. Her older sister, Mary, who lives in Maine, is editing their father’s diaries on World War II and using his words to inspire modern veterans of the war in Iraq to write about their experiences.

As I listened to Bowen’s vividly told family stories — some of them funny, some of them tragic — I realized the oral tradition that still matters, that still defines us, is from our families. Here, at The Enterprise, these stories come to light each week as, crafting obituaries, we talk to the families of those who have died.

 The river for which our valley was named flowed before Henry Hudson sailed it. The native peoples that lived on its shore had traditions and stories that were displaced, just as they were, by the European settlers.

The landscape of the river has changed as the society around it has changed. And, sadly, the river itself has changed.

Bowen writes in her blog about a photograph her father took in 1938 when farms surrounded Fort Miller. “Forty years later, General Electric, in Fort Edward, just upriver,” she writes, “began discharging PCBs into the river.”

Seventy years after her father took his picture of a river surrounded by farmland, Bowen writes, “Now G.E. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have begun a dredging operation to see if removal of this hazardous material is possible.”

A small sloop sails the river, a re-creation of a boat from an earlier era. The sloop Clearwater is the brainchild of folksinger and environmental activist Pete Seeger. Bowen had just attended his 90th birthday party. Songs, Seeger once told me, are a powerful way that those in the rank and file have been able to move the government.

My daughter Saranac crewed on the sloop and remembers teaching children when the boat docked about the natural life of the river and the need to care for it. Her stories and pictures are now part of our family lore. I hope to pass them on to the next generation, along with my memories of meeting the remarkable Lucey Bowen.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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