The Helderberg escarpment — taking the long view

When European settlers first arrived in America, the wilderness was vast and seemed endless, inexhaustible.

The untouched land was often viewed as a threat that needed to be subdued, wildness that needed to be tamed.

Here, where we live today, the Helderberg escarpment, with its sheer cliffs, and poor soil for farming, kept the area a wilderness long after the Dutch had settled the Hudson Valley in the 1600s.

A decade ago, Hal Miller, who was raised on a dairy farm in East Berne at the foot of Cole Hill, delved deeply into Helderberg history and wrote the story of the German-speaking settlers, the Palatines, who came from the rich river-bottom land along the Rhine. They lived there before Germany was a nation, when the land was governed by separate fiefdoms.

The Palatines migrated first to Holland, then to England, and in 1709, finally, 3,300 Palatines packed into the holds of nine ships, heading for the New World.

Hundreds of them died of typhus. Church records of refugee marriages in 1710 show about half the marriages were between widows and widowers.

They were promised land in Schoharie but, in exchange for passage from England, had to work first near what is now New York City, making tar from pine resin to seal British ships.

In October 1711, one-hundred-and-fifty Palatine families had had enough and left for what they called the Promised Land. It had a literal meaning as the Mohawks had ceded it to Queen Anne.

“They weren’t allowed to take farm implements, cattle, even their guns,” Miller told us. They pulled their few possessions, by hand, on sledges with iron runners.

The Palatines began their journey in what is now Dutchess County and traveled up the Hudson River, settling near what is now Altamont for the winter.

A road went around the Helderberg escarpment, west of Altamont, up to Knox, then to Gallupville, and on into Schoharie. “They followed an Indian trail,” said Miller.

A third of them went that winter to Schoharie with nothing to eat but what they could kill or gather from the woods or get from the Native Americans.

To make homes, they dug into the ground a couple of feet and then built, with logs, shelters that stood two or three feet above ground. The pitched dwellings were covered with tree branches or deer hides.

“It was a terrible winter,” Miller said.

In March 1712, a late snow fell and the Altamont families immediately took off for Schoharie, since it was easier to pull their sledges on snow and they wanted to be ready for spring planting.

We recount this bit of local history because we believe that, all across our nation, the descendents of European settlers have taken pride in this pioneering spirit. But, since the Europeans did not travel lightly on the land as the Native Americans had before them, the balance shifted.

Wilderness is no longer a given, something to be conquered or even taken for granted. It will not be there forever unless we preserve and protect what we have left of it.

The movement for conservation and preservation has been growing for well over a century in the United States. The National Park Service began in the 1870s and now includes over 400 parks.

People like naturalist John Muir could see the threat that, for example, domestic sheep posed to the Sierras. He called them hooved locusts. His activism helped spur the movement for national parks and he founded the Sierra Club, which remains a force for environmental protection.

On his first trip to Yosemite, Muir wrote, “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” 

This personal connection to nature is important for each of us — it is something Muir shared with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

But beyond the joy any of us can derive from nature, we as humans now have a moral imperative to preserve what is left for the very survival of humankind.

The pioneering spirit that once tamed the wilderness now needs to be used to pioneer a future where we humans are not pillaging the earth in such a way that other species are going extinct.

In 2019, the United Nations released a report linking the near loss of a million plant and animal species to human activities. The damage is not just in distant places. The report points to a loss of diversity everywhere.

It also shows how those losses are undermining food and water security, as well as human health. The United Nations report concludes that more animals and plants are now threatened with extinction than in any other period of human history.

“Grave impacts on people around the world are now likely,” the report says.

The report also says it’s not too late to make a difference if nations around the world work together to bring about change.

For that reason, we’re relieved that the United States has once again joined the Paris Agreement as nations around the globe work together to try to lessen the human impact driving climate change to save us all from the severe weather calamities we are now experiencing.

We’re also pleased that President Joe Biden has committed to an initiative conservationists call “30 by 30” — protecting 30 percent of our nation’s lands and coastal seas by 2030.

That will help slow the rapid extinction of species as well as fight climate change.

Humans do have the power to undo some of the harm we have done. A wonderful success story can be seen in the salvation of the bald eagle, our national symbol since 1782 and a spiritual symbol for Native Americans long before that. 

The bald eagle was on the verge of extirpation in the United States by the late 20th Century. But with protective measures, including the ban of the pesticide DDT, the eagle has rebounded and in 2007 was removed from the federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.

In our Enterprise podcast this week, nature photographer Bill Combs Jr. tells of how New York State in the early 1970s was down to just one pair of nesting eagles but they couldn’t reproduce because the DDT they absorbed through eating fish and game made the shells of their eggs too thin.

Now, the state has 400 nesting pairs and Combs spends hours a day following the lives of local eagles, documenting in pictures the way they fly — with a wingspan of eight feet — and hunt and care for their young.

“They were here first, before us … We need to be respectful,” says Combs.

Indeed, we do.

While national directives are needed — like the ones that saved the bald eagle — local initiatives can also make a difference. 

So we’ll return to the place where we started this editorial — with the Helderberg escarpment.

We’ve documented since its inception the work of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy and continue to see the importance of the Helderberg Conservation Corridor it is building, one piece of land at a time.

The corridor helps with climate change and protects species that otherwise might be threatened. Much of the land that was logged by European settlers and cleared for farming has since become forest again.

Conservation efforts — something as basic as preserving a view — can work in harmony with human happiness. 

We wrote earlier this month about a resolution unanimously adopted by the Albany County Legislature that requires the county’s planning board to consider the Helderberg viewshed when making project recommendations to local zoning and planning boards.

Republican legislator Jeff Perlee of Altamont came up with the idea when he looked into an unpopular proposal for a massive solar array on Dunnsville Road. That project — solar is essential to combat climate change — has now been relocated so that the array won’t ruin the view.

William Reinhardt, a Slingerlands Democrat who worked on the resolution, notes that recreation and tourism are important to the local economy and the view is part of what fuels that.

We believe it is possible, even essential, to kindle enthusiasm, as Muir wrote —  “making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us” — by preserving the views that sustain and inspire us as the Helderbergs do.

We need the spirit of the Palatine pioneers who surmounted the rugged escarpment to surmount the problem we face now — preserving what is left so that humans and other species will survive.

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