An early August road trip heading east from the city of Ithaca across New York State promises calm, pastoral progress. With farming in steep decline the forest has for decades been reclaiming large swaths of territory from the insurgent grasses. In this theatre, ground forces are losing their war 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. Heading east over rolling hills divided by the Tioghnioga, Chenango, and Susquehanna Rivers—the first two tributaries of the last—one comes to the graceful, dilapidated town of Greene. It was founded, a sign informs motorists, in 1792—that is, during the post-independence land rush Upstate. It is named after the Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene, Lafayette’s friend and fellow Freemason. As Commandant of West Point, Greene presided over the execution of John André, Benedict Arnold’s contact in the British army.
The Town of Greene’s glory days are behind it. The main street is called Genessee, a double avenue that must have once boasted a median lined with American Elms. They are gone and the area paved over for angled parking spots.
Farther to the east, the carless median remains. The Civil War monument was hallowed enough not to have been sacrificed to automotive expediency. Next to it, smaller slabs of granite commemorate later wars. The many American flags 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. This is Trump country now, and the abundant blue flags proclaim their own insurrectionary zeal.
Many shops are empty and many cornices sag atop the brick buildings. But there are a few positive signs of commerce. The Trojan Horse Deli is bustling with customers. (Is the name meant to encourage or to discourage you from asking what exactly constitutes the lunch meat?) At the southeast end of Genessee Street stands the grand nineteenth-century hotel with its columns and two-tiered veranda restored some years ago.
Continuing out of town towards the Susquehanna we come next to the town of Bainbridge and the entrance to I-88, a 120-mile slab of federal pork begun in the 1970s. The freeway cuts northeast from Binghamton on the Pennsylvania border to Albany. Along the way a historic marker at the rest stop tells 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 tone: “This area was once the gathering place for Tories and Indians bent on the destruction of American frontier settlements.” The failed peace negotiations between General Nicholas Herkimer and Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant are quickly described. Not long after their initial encounter, the two would meet at the bloody battle of Oriskany 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 sartorial ensemble accessorized with native American accoutrements—colorful feather headdress and tomahawk. He is handsome, light skinned (though perhaps the painting has faded), and stylish—a glamorous military hero and vital British ally. When the redcoats gave up the fight in 1781, Brant wanted to keep on with the struggle, but couldn’t continue his campaign without British supplies. With Romney’s portrait in mind, one can easily believe the historic marker when it quotes the outnumbered Brant telling Herkimer that he’s “ready for war.”
The plaque concludes with a classic formulation of collateral damage, cunningly passing over the details of Indian women and children being killed by torch and bayonet, the hand-to-hand predecessors of drone and rocket. The marker’s writer tries to explain American atrocities against innocent Native families as casualties 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 to 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 building.
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.
Among the music accompanying the drive over the green hills is 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. However charming this 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 1770. On the “classical” side, the Europeanisms lack refinement. Instead of Brant in all his multicultural hauteur, I hear dirty burlap.
Rather than searching out contemporary masters like Haydn and Mozart or going for the Supreme Commander of Anglo-American colonial music, Handel, still beloved on both sides of the Atlantic decades after his death, we vaulted ahead to English pastoral on the cusp of World War I. 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 cycle of that same title, one put to music by many English composers.
Listening to Butterworth’s luminous symphonic poem, I hear not simply an elegiac beauty that seems especially plainspoken and unthreatening when one recalls that it stems from the same year as the Expressionist cabaret of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. More than a century after its composition, Butterworth’s rhapsody makes peaceful Upstate New York shimmer with the possibility of future terrors.