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One Towns Environment

June 2024
8min read

The ebb and flow of tooth and claw, fifty miles from Times Square

One winter Sunday morning a few years ago, I happened to look out my bedroom window as I was getting dressed. There on the lawn below was the carcass of a deer, its hindquarters half-eaten by whatever had brought it down. Tufts of its fur were scattered across the grass. Its eyes, glassy in death, stared back at me sightless. A coyote, slat-thin and mangy, was taking furtive bites, looking up every few seconds as if expecting to be attacked. A few feet away three turkey vultures were walking about in that peculiar loping gait unique to vultures, waiting their turn at the carcass.

This nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw scene was so reminiscent of the “Nature” series on PBS that I half-expected George Page to come around the corner at any moment, camera crew in tow. But what is most astonishing of all, perhaps, is that I do not live in some remote part of the country. Far from it. I live in North Salem, New York, less than fifty miles from Times Square. That so vibrant a habitat could exist so close to the center of the nation’s largest city is powerful evidence that life is far more resourceful and tenacious than many environmental activists would like to admit.

North Salem is a small place. The town occupies twenty-two square miles (about the size of Manhattan Island), but only forty-eight hundred people call it home. Economically they range from getting by to Forbes -four-hundred rich. There is only one traffic light, a recent and much-resented addition. The hamlet of Purdys has a First Street but no longer has a Second Street. In the hamlet of Croton Falls, a local bank occupies a corner of the fishing-supplies store.

Although there is a town historian and an active historical society, precious little history beyond the purely local has ever taken place here. Ogden Mills, a major figure in California history, was born in North Salem, and his house still stands, now a small herb farm. General Rochambeau and his troops marched through in 1781 on the way to the siege of Yorktown. The expedition that resulted in the capture of the British spy Major André was supposedly planned at the Yerkes Tavern, whose foundation—all that remains of it—is on my property, and whose front door is now the front door of my house. But that’s about it, and even the Yerkes Tavern plot, alas, is almost certainly a myth.

Altogether it’s the sort of place where most people feel no need to lock their doors, where neighbors leave excess zucchini on your front porch unasked, knowing you don’t have a garden, where everyone calls the town officials by their first names, even when bawling the hell out of them at town board meetings. I suspect Thornton Wilder would have liked North Salem.

The crest of Keeler Hill includes the highest point in Westchester County, and from it one can see, across rolling hills and fields, clear to the Hudson River, twenty miles away, and even Bear Mountain on the far side. The landscape is peaceful, gentle, and apparently timeless.

It is not. The beautiful lake that you can see from Keeler Hill dates only to 1893, when New York City dammed the town’s major waterway, the Titicus River, and created a new reservoir for its ever-growing thirst. Even the spruce forest that runs up one side of Turkey Hill, a mile or so away, is only about sixty years old, planted by Tom Purdy when he wanted to cut down on the number of fields that had to be mowed during the Great Depression.

In the last three hundred years wave after wave of ecological change has swept over North Salem. Even in the not quite half a century of my existence, the changes have been many, and I have marked them. For it has been my pleasant fate to spend much of my life here, first as a constant visitor to the farm my grandparents used as a summer place and for the last thirteen years as a resident on a piece of that farm, living in a small eighteenth-century house that my grandmother lovingly restored sixty years ago, her own mini-Williamsburg project.

Like most of the rest of the northeast part of the country, North Salem before the arrival of Europeans was heavily forested with deciduous trees, oaks and hickories predominating on the higher, drier slopes, maples, sycamores, and tulip trees marking the wetter areas. The local Indians practiced agriculture using slash-and-burn techniques that created open areas and a good deal of edge, the part of woodlands most attractive to game such as deer and wild turkeys.

North Salem was first established by Europeans in 1731, but the effect of Europeans on its environment began a century earlier. The Dutch came to this area to trade for furs. By the time farming began in North Salem, beavers, martens, minks, and many other fur-bearing animals had long since been extirpated or greatly reduced. The major carnivores too, such as bears, mountain lions, wolves, and coyotes, soon vanished.

The farmers moving in girdled the trees to kill them and created pastures for their livestock and fields for their crops. By 1800 much of the original forest had vanished, replaced by open fields, meadows, and pastures. Only the wetlands and steeper slopes remained covered by trees. With the loss of most of the edge, game declined in numbers, and human hunters added to the pressure. Wild turkeys were gone by the middle of the nineteenth century, and deer became vanishingly rare.

But North Salem was never rich farming country. Its soil is thin in most parts of the town, for there is little bottomland and much hillside. The glacier that retreated about ten thousand years ago scoured the bedrock clean and left an infinity of stones behind as it melted. One boulder left by the glacier and weighing about sixty tons rests on five smaller stones. The Balanced Rock, as it is called, is the town’s distinctly modest—but only—tourist attraction.

While the glacier provided North Salem with what one local calls “our answer to the Grand Canyon,” it also gave the early farmers a big problem. Before fields could be plowed, they had to be cleared of the stones the glacier had left. At a cost in human and animal labor that staggers the imagination, the early farmers built hundreds of miles of stone walls on the edges of their fields, walls made so well that most remain to this day and provide the modern landscape with its most abiding characteristic.

Because the land was relatively poor, dairy farming and orchards were always the dominant forms of agriculture, and most field crops that were grown—principally hay—were for local consumption.

Like all towns before the Industrial Revolution, North Salem had to provide for virtually all its own needs. Individual households made most items. But blacksmith shops, slaughterhouses, flour mills, nail factories, and others supplied the rest. This local industry was powered mostly by the Titicus River, which runs east to west through the center of the town, and the Croton River, which forms the town’s western border. Both those waterways also, of course, served as giant disposal systems and were foul and smelly for most of the nineteenth century. The part of town where many of these small factories were concentrated, along what is now called Titicus Road, was known then as Bedbug Hollow. Today it is the center of the town’s most affluent area.

In the 1840s the railroad reached North Salem. New York City had been, at best, a long day’s journey away; it was now a two-hour ride. The railroads also soon connected the Middle Western grainlands and upstate dairy areas to the Eastern seaboard. Marginal agricultural areas close to the city, which had prospered by their proximity, prospered no more. North Salem’s population, which had doubled since the Revolution, peaked in the 1840s and then began a long, slow decline that lasted until 1950, when the town’s population was back to what it had been when Rochambeau marched through.

The railroads also spelled the slow death of the local industries. As manufacturing enterprises of national scope evolved in the late nineteenth century, the local factories shut down one by one. The Titicus and Croton rivers soon cleansed themselves and sparkled once more in the sunlight.

By 1900, 90 percent of the land was still open fields, but around that time agriculture began, slowly, field by field, to disappear from the town. The poorest pastures were let go and were soon tangles of brush, briars, and saplings, difficult to walk through but a paradise for many birds, such as song and field sparrows, whose numbers increased.

Soon the abandoned fields were second-growth forests, on their way back to the climax deciduous forest that had once covered the town. As this process, called succession, began, the habitat diversified, and more and more species of birds returned or increased their numbers. Just in the last ten years, as second-growth forests grew old enough to produce a substantial number of dead trees, the magnificent pileated woodpecker reappeared. Its strident cry and air-hammer-like drilling now resound through North Salem’s woods.

Today perhaps 70 percent of the town is forest, nearly a reversal of the situation at the beginning of the century, and agriculture is nearly gone. There is a vineyard, producing a variety of wines (memo to Mouton Rothschild: Don’t worry), and Outhouse Orchards, which produces vegetables as well as fruits and cider. But the last dairy farm closed down ten years ago, and today the farms are only horse farms, really boarding stables.

Still the horse farms and the open fields maintained by wealthy, mostly horse-loving landowners preserve much open space. This open land allows the continuation of a major fox hunt in North Salem, adding vast color and cheerful noise to the landscape and, because years go by between kills, doing little harm.

The patchwork of open fields and small woods that now characterizes the town provides much edge, and with the decline of hunting (only bow and arrow can be used), it has sparked a major revival of game species. Wild turkeys are once again present (just the other day a hen strolled across my back lawn as though she owned the place, as, in a sense, I suppose she does).

Deer, seldom seen when I was a child in North Salem, are now a thoroughgoing pest to gardeners and a serious threat to the habitat as a whole. For while North Salem’s ecosystem is a vibrant one, it is not a complete one. Coyotes have returned in numbers, and bobcats are to be found, but they are merely hunters of opportunity when it comes to deer. The major carnivores are gone forever. With human hunting light, nothing checks the population of deer, and they tend to breed up to the limit of the food supply, doing much damage to diversity as they extirpate favored species of plants and destroy the forest understory. It is not at all uncommon to see herds of twenty or more browsing in open fields.

Control of the deer population is largely a political problem. Hunters’ license fees fund the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and hunters’ interests—because there’s a rich supply of animals to shoot at —get first attention as a result. Many animal lovers, who apparently studied ecology only at Walt Disney University, fiercely resist any control measures at all. As a result, Westchester County has one of the densest deer populations in the country.

But except for the deer, North Salem’s environment is in better shape and more diversified and richly populated than it has been since before the coming of the Europeans. In my lifetime the improvement has been noticeable. Although I’ve been walking the town’s fields and woods with binoculars since I was old enough to focus them, I was thirtyfour before I ever saw a bluebird. Today the bird that wears the sky on its back (as Thoreau described it) is once again common, thanks to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of birdhouses that dot the town. Last year even a bald eagle was spotted.

Has anything gotten worse? Yes, two things. One, the night sky has seriously deteriorated. The glow of lights to the south, where the population has increased much more rapidly than it has in North Salem, blots out most stars in that direction. And today the Danbury Mall, although more than ten miles away, gives the northeast sky a pink glow as unnecessary as it is obnoxious. Towns with major astronomical observatories, such as Flagstaff, Arizona, have developed ordinances to protect the observatories while maintaining safety and convenience. The adoption of these ordinances nationwide would give us back the night sky and save very significant amounts of energy as well, a winwin situation if ever there was one.

The other deterioration is the noise. When 1 was a child, I loved to wander off into the fields of my grandparents’ farm. There, sitting on a stone wall or lying in the grass, I would listen, just listen. All I would hear were the sounds of the earth that Oscar Hammerstein II thought were music itself: the lowing of cattle, a distant dog, the rustle of the wind through the hay, the song of meadowlarks, the caw of crows.

Today human-generated noise always intrudes, like someone jingling coins at a concert. There is always the hum of traffic from the interstate, although it is three and a half miles from my house. Small planes buzz around the sky in astonishing numbers. Somewhere there is always a chain saw working, or a weed whacker running, or a police siren racing to the scene of an accident.

If there is a solution to this problem (beyond my increasing deafness), I do not know it. I do know I miss the silence that was so full of music.

—J.S.G.

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