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Landscape is Destiny: A Talk with Historian Vernon Benjamin

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Amenia as in Amenia, Dutchess County?

Exactly. And the growth of art and culture here mirrored and to a large extent abetted New York's rise as the cultural capital of the world. Some very notable aspects of modern times—the Sixties, the rise of Feminism, the Great Migration, the development of nuclear power (commercially and in the military), Storm King and the rise of environmentalism—all of that happened here.

I had no idea The Feminine Mystique was written in a house on the Hudson in Rockland County, or that Betty Friedan was so involved in the local school system. Lots of surprises in this book, like Margaret Sanger talking about birth control in terms of eugenics in 1917—

Right—she's not as squeaky clean as we all think.

What about other milestones? As your book makes clear, the region is filled with them.

I think for all of American history the biggest one was the death of Lincoln. Here in the Hudson Valley, a milestone in aviation history came on May 29, 1920, when Glenn Curtiss flew an airplane from Albany to New York, demonstrating the viability of long-distance air travel. I personally think Aaron Copland's composition of the Piano Variations in a rented house in Bedford was another milestone. And December 19, 1980 is a big one: the day the Hudson River Peace Treaty was signed, ending Consolidated Edison's 17-year effort to build a bulked storage generating plant on Storm King Mountain in the Hudson Highlands. That was the beginning of the American environmental movement.

You give a harrowing description of the 1912 fire that almost obliterated the Capitol building in Albany, including the irony that it was the soaked paper mache ceiling—the "scandal ceiling" that should have been oak but was a cheat—that saved the building from being completely destroyed.

The wags on Park Row—the cynical journalists in the state capitol itself—joked that it was saved by corruption.

It's not a quiet place, our Hudson Valley. Definitely not just cows, trees and country houses. More like: boardrooms, infrastructure, road-building.

It was certainly a milestone when Governor Thomas E. Dewey broke ground on the first section of the New York State Thruway in 1946. That changed everything. But what's also interesting is how the highways follow the primal geography of this place—they're essentially the same paths taken for centuries by the Native Americans, the settlers, animals. We are a people ultimately defined by our geography.

Yes—you've talked about landscape as destiny, geography as destiny. You also write about the contradictory nature of the Hudson Valley, of its people.

Consider that Benedict Arnold, the hero of Saratoga, was also the betrayer of West Point. We honor and admire Sojourner Truth as one of our own, yet she was a slave when she lived here. It took 150 years for the medieval manorial land tenure system to die out in the Hudson Valley, but only one crazy weekend in August to bring on the apotheosis of Abby Hoffman's Woodstock Nation. Poultney Bigelow, a touchstone figure for this book, was a walking contradiction. He was the son of the co-editor of the New York Evening Post and minister to France under Lincoln and Johnson. He was a respected international journalist and a friend of Jane Whitehead of Byrdcliffe fame. But he was also a nasty racist and a louse who tossed his wife into a wheelbarrow and buried her in the front yard when she died.

So what does the future hold? More contradictions, perhaps. You noted that a thousand shopping centers were built in the Hudson Valley between 1950 and 1970. Recently the owner of one of the newer ones, the Hudson Valley Mall in Kingston, defaulted on a $49 million debt. Is that due to over-population, over-development?

I don't know; certainly it's the result of bad business planning. But isn't it something? The malls arriveth and the malls taketh away. That's history for you. I remember that some locals thought it was crazy that the Hudson Valley Mall developers exposed that ridge with the fabulous Catskills views, only to move the whole complex so far away from the edge that no one could enjoy them. Maybe it was the view that killed it.

And what about climate change? Are we in danger of being washed away?

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