Article excerpt


The 2000 New England Booksellers' Association Award for a body of work

The place, even at this distance in time, looms as a metaphor, a half remembered country of ruined estates, with canted terraces, broken balustrades and toppled pillars, and the whole of it overgrown with greeny, twisting vines.

There was once money in the town in which I grew up, but by my time all the old families had grown eccentric and were living out their days on dwindling trust funds. Some became collectors of birds' eggs, some kept donkeys in the old estate carriage houses and quoted Spencerian couplets to them at night. Some were totally undone by the Depression and walked off the cliffs that ran along the west bank of the Hudson River. The land here was in decline, it was a nation of decaying gardens, huge trees, brick walls, horse barns, and carriage houses, which by my time were deserted and accessible by means of broken windows and crooked backdoors and cellars.

High above the town, overlooking the Hudson River, corporate magnates of the nineteen twenties had constructed larger estates, most of which had been torn down or deserted after the Crash. Here you could find the overgrown ruins of formal Italian gardens, collapsed pergolas, fallen pillars, and cracked swimming pools half filled with green waters and golden-eyed frogs who eyed you from the detritus of sodden leaves and then ducked into the obscurity of the depths when you went to grab them.

Here, amidst the ruins, in the six miles of second-growth woods that ran along the cliff there was rich picking for the adventurous youths who lived otherwise normal lives in the lower sections of the town. And to this spot on any given Saturday morning in warm weather, we, the nomadic tribes of our neighborhood, would ascend to fight. We recapitulated history in this mythic landscape. From the battlements of the terrace balconies we defended our land against the attacking hordes of imaginary enemies with sticks and showers of stones and great clods of mud. We fought day-long battles here and only at the requisite hour-sundown-would we give up and return to our boring, albeit safe homes.

There was only one estate in the entire six mile stretch of woodland that had yet to be conquered by nature, let alone by our militant armies. The house was owned by a man we used to call Old King Cole and was a vast brownstone place with spired turrets and a mean-looking iron fence surrounding it, the type of fence with spear-pointed tips. The grounds, which purportedly had been laid out by the firm of Frederick Law Olmstead, were extensive and unmanaged, with two immense copper beech trees framing a briar-strewn entrance, a small orchard just west of the house, a sunken garden with a frog pond, and many species of exotic trees, including, I was later told, a rare Franklinia. …