Shimmers of Past Peace and Future Terrors
An early August road trip heading east from the city of Ithaca in the middle of New York State to southern Vermont promises calm, pastoral progress. With farming in steep decline the forest is reclaiming large swaths of territory from the insurgent grasses. Their once-ascendant ground forces are losing in thousand of battles with the trees: pastures and fields of corn and soy are in the minority against the thriving stands of maple and oak.
Though this swath of territory is peaceful, if poor, there are signs of past struggles. While traversing the high rolling hills divided by the Tioghnioga, Chenango, and Susquehanna Rivers—the first two tributaries of the last—one comes through the graceful if somewhat dilapidated town of Greene, its main street laid out with confidence and breadth. The place is, of course, named not for the American general killed this past week in Afghanistan but after a famous Revolutionary War general, Nathanael Greene, Lafayette’s friend and fellow Freemason, and the commander responsible for American successes in New York but remembered most for pushing Cornwallis out of the Carolinas and towards his eventual surrender in Virginia.
The Town of Greene’s glory days are behind it: the expansive avenue that constitutes the Main Street must have once had a treed median—one imagines the American Elms of yore—but this expanse is now ruthlessly given over to parking spots, and angled parking at that, a geometry that clashes with the classical balance and now-forlorn beauty of the place.
Farther on the old median remains, the fine Civil War monument hallowed enough not to be sacrificed to automotive expediency. Smaller slabs of granite commemorate later wars. The many American flag on front porches and buildings attest to enduring patriotism and the readiness to fight in foreign conflicts: the World War I stone lists some eighty names of Greene men, three of whom were killed in combat. Hundreds more from the area fought in the subsequent wars of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Many shops are empty and some cornices tilt sullenly, but there are a few positive signs: driving into town from the west the Trojan Horse Deli (is the name meant to encourage or to discourage you from asking what’s inside the lunch meat?) is bustling with customers. At the southeast end of the main street the grand nineteenth-century hotel, with its columns and two-tiered veranda, has recently been restored.
Continuing over more of the seemingly endless hills towards the Susquehanna we come to the town of Bainbridge and the entrance to I-88, a 120-mile slab of federal pork begun in the seventies. Some miles along the way northeast towards Albany the historic marker at the rest stop informs of frontier hostilities between natives and the American forces of independence. The marker, moved here from a rural route after the interstate was completed in the late eighties, begins in a belligerent, finger-pointing tone: “This area was once the gathering place for Tories and Indians bent on the destruction of American frontier settlements.” The failed negotiations between General Nicholas Herkimer and Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant are quickly described. The two would not long after their initial encounter meet at the bloody battle of Oriskany to the north at which Herkimer was killed.
Brant cuts a striking figure in George Romney’s magnificent portrait of him painted in his London studio in the spring of 1776 and now hanging in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Staring haughtily at the viewer while assuming a nonchalant contrapposto, Brant wears a ruffled shirt, colorful silk cummerbund and leggings of European vintage, his look accessorized with native American accouterments—colorful feather headdress and tomahawk. He is handsome, light skinned, extremely stylish—a glamorous military hero and vital British ally. When the redcoats gave up the fight after 1781 Brant wanted to keep on with the struggle, but couldn’t continue his campaign without British supplies. With Romney’s portrait of him in mind, one can easily believe the historic marker when it quotes the outnumbered Brant teling Herkimer he’s “ready for war.”
The marker concludes with a classic formulation of collateral damage as it cunningly passes over the details of Indian women and children being savaged by torches and bayonets instead of aerial bombs and shells from gunboats and artillery pieces hurled from great distance to knock out schools and hospitals in the Gaza Strip. The marker’s writer tries to explain American atrocities against innocent Native families as casualty of war rather than the object of ethnic cleansing and focused reprisal:
“After Oriskany, in 1779, American forces destroyed the Indian villages – real towns of stone houses with glass windows and brick chimneys – and burned the corn. This left the Iroquois homeless and starving – the unfortunate victims in a white man’s war.”
This seems, too, suggest that nomadic lodges of wood and hide don’t deserve the respect of permanent dwellings. Glancing over at the cinderblock rest stop facilities, one wonders where this structure sits on civilization’s scale. The torch and/or wrecking ball, not to mention a runaway big rig, would certainly make quick work of the thing.
Driving on through Albany we have a picnic at Peebles Island Park at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. Still visible at the north end of the island in sight of one of the easterly most sections of the Erie Canal are the breastworks constructed to check the invasion from the north by General Burgoyne in the summer of 1777. These were put up under the command of Thaddeus Koscuiszko, the Polish colonel in America’s Continental Army.
A decisive engagement in that same Saratoga campaign took place thirty miles to the east in Bennington, Vermont where a 700-man detachment of Burgoyne’s army made up of Germans, Canadians, Indians, and Loyalists was defeated by an array of colonial militants twice that size in the middle of August, 1777. A tall, but chubby obelisk constructed begun at the time of the battle’s centennial in 1877 stands guard on hill above the town—a monument both to Revolutionary War heroics on the onward thrust of nineteenth-century Manifest Destiny. We breeze by it, on marveling at the rather fascist hue and shape of the thing.
Obvious music for these stretches of green hills and Revolutionary sites might be Jefferson’s Fiddle, which draws together traditional tunes of the British Isles and American continent with more sophisticated pieces from the famed Virginian’s own music books. But however charming this ten-year-old recording is, it bathes the period in the wrong hues: the rustic numbers produce echoes of American folk of the 1950s more than the finely etched textures of the 1770s; on the “classical” side, the Europeanisms lack stylistic refinements: instead of Brant in all his multicultural hauteur, I hear wide-wale cords.
Rather than searching out contemporary masters like Haydn and Mozart or going for the Man Mountain of Anglo-American music, Handel, still beloved on both sides of the Atlantic decades after his death, we vaulted ahead to English pastoral written on the cusp of World War I as we too reflected on that conflict’s current centennial. George Butterworth was a promising a young composer emerging from the tradition of Elgar and Vaughan Williams when he was killed at the Somme in 1916 at the age of thirty-one. Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad Rhapsody is a weaving together of his song-settings of poems from A. E. Houseman’s beloved cycle of that same title, one put to music by so many English composers. Butterworth finished his glowing bucolic symphonic poem in 1912.
The piece was performed this week at the joint European solemnities marking the onset of the War to End All Wars. These rites took place at the St. Symphonien Cemetery in Mons, Belgium, and befitting the name of the place, the ceremony was attended not only by heads of state and various royals, but also by joint English and German musical forces of the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Simon Rattle: symphonies hallowing the fallen of St. Symphonien.
Listening to Butterworth’s lush music, I hear not simply a retrospective, accessible beauty, especially simple and unthreatening when one recalls that it stems from the same year as the expressionist cabaret Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. A hundred years on in the verdant summer hills of New England, Butterworth’s orchestral work emits an almost terrifying shimmer of past peace and future terrors.