Rutgers University Press’ just re-released “The Hudson” brings to life a major natural wonder that is significant to our region as well as brings to mind the opportunity to take a brief day trip to see some of its scenic wonders.
The book is subtitled “An Illustrated Guide to the Living River,” and the writers — Stephen Stanne, Brian Forist, and Maija Liisa Clearwater, all connected to the Hudson River Sloop Clearway, and retired Fordham history professor Robert Panetta — say when they began to work on the book 25 years ago it was designed mainly for teachers.
Then, “over the years, we have found that this book fulfills a larger role, providing information to anyone inclined to be a student of the river, whether or not the inquiry takes place in a formal classroom.”
And why not? In addition to being an historic waterway that many of us encounter regularly on the way to New York City or along 21 miles of the northern section of the state, the Hudson constantly gets our attention, the writers argue.
As proof, they point out the U.S. Airways Flight 1549’s “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency landing in 2009, a humpback whale’s 2016 swim to the George Washington Bridge, the opening of the Hudson River Park in Manhattan, the growing kayak tours industry, and the Walkway Across the Hudson — that happens to be the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge, just about 125 miles away from our region.
“Hand in hand with all this attention, research and scholarship has generated a wealth of new data and interpretation of the Hudson, providing a corresponding trove of fresh material to include in a revised book,” say the writers.
They then quickly caution the reader while they use research and scientific and history-related terminology, their book is not intended to be an academic or scientific work, but rather a book that reinforces a fascination with the river and strengthens a “sense of the Hudson’s vitality and importance.”
And while the book periodically has the feel of a textbook, its guidebook quality makes it appealing and allows the reader the option to take a quick dip or a deep dive into the 315-mile river’s lore.
While I skimmed the short chapter briefs opening each section, my approach was generally to fish around the book and looks for topics that interested me or just caught my attention.
The former includes the Hudson River fjords. As the writers note, “With its great depths and cliffs slanting steeply into the river, the Hudson’s route through the Highlands reminds many observers of the scenic fjords of Norway. Fjords are troughs eroded below sea level, often to great depths, by glacial ice. They are deepest not at their mouths but upstream, where the ice was thickest and its erosive powers greatest. A sallower, less eroded sill of bedrock is usually present at their mouths.” While the fjords technically start near the George Washington Bridge, the more dramatic looking fjord can be found between Bear Mountain and Newburgh.
Another topic that interests me is the Hudson River School of Painting that, as “The Romantic River” chapter’s brief notes, arose when Americans looking for a national identify “turned to the landscape where they found God’s blessing manifest in the land. The celebration of nature by painters and writers transformed the Hudson River and its valley into a sublime and picturesque landscape dotted with the great estates of the wealthy and Revolutionary markers, a source of pride for the young nation.”
The irony is that the painter who is credited with starting the movement was English-born Thomas Cole, who saw the scenery as something with a soul.
To show Cole’s importance, the writers reproduced his circa 1827 painting “The Clove, Catskills” and pointed out that the work “contains some of the main elements in the painting vocabulary of the Hudson River School: a blasted tree and picturesque rock formations in the foreground. Tension between dark and light portions of the middle ground, and a distant horizon filled with sky, clouds, and light.”
And then there’s the section on the river’s history that the writers say “is often said to begin with its ‘discovery’ by Henry Hudson in 1609. This Eurocentric view of events has neglected the ancient history of the American Indians who lived along the banks of the Hudson and in the valley for 10,000 years. They first named the river ‘Muhheakanuck’ sometime in the Woodland period (1000 B.C. to 1600 A.D.). The loss of the name is symptomatic of the erasure of the region’s native history. Even in places where native names have survived, such as “Esopus, Neperhan, Nyack, Ossining, Pocantico, Poughkeepsie, Tappan, Wappinger, and Weehawken, the meanings behind these names are not often remembered.”
Something that should be remembered — and celebrated — is the chapter devoted to the rhetorical question “Is the Hudson Getting Cleaner?” The writer’s reply is that what once was called an “open sewer” is on the mend, and “the (1972) Clean Water Act, which requires sewage treatment and funds treatment plant construction, deserves much of the credit.” And while they say overflows from combined sanitary and storm sewers remain a problem, they credit the Act with helping control both point source and oil pollution, the latter being “a major concern given the volume of oil transported on the Hudson and New York Harbor.”
As for discoveries, the following item caught my attention when I was skimming over the section regarding animals on the Hudson: “In recent times whale sightings in ocean waters just off New York City have dramatically increased, from five in 2011 to 272 in 2018. These were almost all humpback whales, probably drawn to the area by swelling stocks of Atlantic menhaden, a favorite food.”
And although the writers say porpoises, once a common sight in the 19th century, are no longer seen in the Hudson, they say seal sightings are increasing. The reason is that seal populations are swelling in the North Atlantic and that the animals are straying into the Hudson estuary and following shoals upstream — even as far as Troy.
Rich with history, science, and images of the great river, “The Hudson” still has a text-book-like tone and shape. But it is also a fun reference to pick up and explore one of the great waterways and maybe make a visit.
“The Hudson: An Illustrated Guide to a Living River,” 368 pages, $29.95 paperback, Rutgers University Press.