From Cuba to the Catskills

Three years ago I attended the Catskill Center’s annual summer picnic held on the lawns of its white house in Arkville, a gathering for speeches under the lawn tent and handshaking among members, often older people with a particular passion for the Catskills, be it forestry, fly fishing, weekending, or recalling their own family history in the region. To be honest, I’ve never quite figured out what the Catskill Center does, save to embroil itself in controversies every ten years or so by trying to split the difference between conservation and development, its twin goals. In the latest hoo-hah, the Center had raised the ire of purists like me by helping to negotiate an agreement for a somewhat scaled back golf resort proposed on Belleayre Mountain. In a classic case of feeling betrayed by your allies trumping staying focused on your opponents, I’d written heated letters and quit paying my $50 membership. But no matter. The Center had a new director, the promise of a fresh start.

I greeted Sherret Chase, one of the Center’s founders almost forty years earlier, whom I’ve long thought of as a living conscience of these mountains. Flinty, white-haired, commanding, he’s had a distinguished career as a corn geneticist and has advocated bold ideas for the Catskills for decades. Years ago, for instance, he helped persuade National Geographic to profile the region. He’s old enough to remember the great chestnut trees killed by the blight of 1918 two years before his birth but still standing on his family’s property on Ticeteneyck Mountain overlooking the Ashokan Reservoir, where he still lives in a compound with his grown children, now white haired as well. As kids, he and his friends would peel huge pieces of bark off the dead chestnut trunks to make pup tents. Nowadays the chestnut saplings that you occasionally find hardly grow thicker than your thumb before dying off.

I said hello, as well, to Mike Kudish, the Catskills forest historian, who has mapped more original growth forest in these mountains that anyone might have expected, given the rapacious history of tan barking the hemlocks and clearing the hillsides for pastures. For decades, he has drawn his own maps of what he’s found on hundreds of surveys far off the trails, hand printed diagrams like treasure maps revealing the locations of old stone walls, bogs, perhaps even a hemlock grove that has never been cut. They’re an invaluable resource, so he keeps backup copies at the Center. But sensitive to loud noises, Mike scampered off with his hands muffling his ears moments before the noon whistle blew at the neighboring firehouse.

Later, after visiting the indoor facilities, I paused in the white entryway converted into a gallery that displayed artworks done at the Platte Clove Preserve, a rustic red cottage at the top of one of the wildest and steepest canyons in the Catskills, where I’d once spent some time as a writer on retreat.

“You’re Will Nixon,” announced a short woman standing before me under a bushy helmet of curly red hair.

Indeed, I was. And her?

Inverna Lockpez,” she said, introducing herself as the director of the Catskill Center’s Erpf Gallery in which we now stood, as well as the Platte Clove Artists-in-Residence Program. She recognized me by a poem I’d written at the cottage that now hung on its wall, a fanciful update on Rip Van Winkle entitled “Insomnia.” Needless to say, I was flattered to be recognized for my poem. And so the Catskills Poetry Festival was born.

Inverna proved to be a master at getting loose confederations of people to get things done. I became the talent scout, though we invited poets whom I knew and poets whom I didn’t in an effort to connect writers from the eastern and western sides of the Catskills who otherwise never crossed paths. Lisa Rainwater, the Center’s new director, took our ambitions a step further by publishing the Catskills Almanac 2009 with poems, essays, and print reproductions from Platte Clove painters. In her eloquent introduction, Lisa praised the contributors for helping readers appreciate the restorative value of the Catskills, “America’s First Wilderness.”

“So often we are flung into the currents of our daily grind that the individual notes of the forest fail in their solo auditions to delight, jar, intoxicate. The scintillating scents of the seasons permeate our skin but evaporate without notice. And our painted valleys and mountaintops blur in the mist of monotony.

“And yet, they are there.

“Peeping. Chirping. Whirling. Pungent. Ambrosial. Balmy. Veridian. Pearl. Umber.”

The job of artists and writers, in other words, is to nudge us out of ourselves back into the world.

On a steamy Saturday in mid-August a little more than a year after I’d met Inverna we crowded into the Catskill Center’s assembly room for our Festival which featured nine poets and four musicians performing for an audience of several dozen. Given our diverse backgrounds and styles, which ranged from Native American to African American to Native Catskillian to Buddhist to Beat to lyric to narrative to prose poems, we covered lots of terrain. As thanks for hosting the event but also as part of my campaign to anoint the porcupine as the signature critter of the Catskills—much the way the loon represents the Adirondacks and the moose the north woods of Maine—I gave Lisa and the Center a linocut print of a porcupine portrayed as an adorable bundle of quills under night stars as big as those over Bethlehem. Afterwards, the event had the buzz of success—no less than a New York State arts funder in the audience had praised it—though we agreed that a cool autumn afternoon would be a better date for a second Catskills Poetry Festival.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Lisa Rainwater resigned as the Center underwent further gyrations. The poets and musicians scattered back to their respective lives. And Inverna Lockpez? Haven’t talked to her in ages. Which is why I’ve been so affected by reading about her earlier life, which comes as complete surprise, in Cuba: My Revolution, a graphic novel written by her and illustrated by Dean Haspiel. Little did I know that this spunky arts administrator was a refuge from the hellish collapse of her youthful dreams for a better Cuba. You think the nasty letters to the editor in our local newspapers are bad? Try imagining a country in which those people actually run everything, where paranoia and hostility rule.

I had known of Inverna as a terrific painter. Before the Festival I’d seen her handsome book, The Noble Barn, which has reproductions of her paintings done over half-a-dozen years of roaming Delaware County’s farm roads. In these works, the barns look monumental and austere, almost like land versions of great wooden ship hulls turned over to dry. They’re set against blurry forest backdrops under yellow or white skies. These barns have endured. They’ve outlasted the daily ephemera that preoccupies the people not shown in the scenes. The paintings themselves look weathered and scratched like the sides of the barns. They’re captivating artworks which combine Inverna’s passion for the Catskills, where she’s had a home for twenty five years, with her professionalism as an artist who’s had a career in New York City since the 1970s. For a long time, she directed the INTAR gallery, where she curated more than one hundred shows.

Now comes Cuba: My Revolution, a book that I couldn’t put down. Though fictionalized, it’s Inverna’s story. Seventeen at the time Castro came out of the mountains to take power, she was devoted to the revolution despite her parents’ hardheaded skepticism and the country’s worsening troubles. Though ambitious to be an artist, she became a nurse to help the cause and wound up near the Bay of Pigs fighting. Because of an inane but brutal bureaucratic mistake she was thrown in jail as a CIA collaborator, striped naked, and tortured by a water hose for days until her father bribed the prison for release. That’s when I paused from racing through the graphic panels showing feces and rats and thought, “My God. I know this woman. I never would have guessed she endured that.” Yet still young, headstrong, and idealistic, she remained in Cuba for another five years, enduring artistic repression at art school and the general climate of fear. Especially for those of us who are Lefties, this book is a valuable reminder of how badly Castro’s regime turned out. Cuba: My Revolution is a heart wrenching book. What fortitude Inverna has shown in making a new life for herself in the United Sates and in the Catskills.

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