The Nature of the Hudson, by Frances Dunwell

The HudsonAmid the various celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s historic voyage, we thought we would re-publish Frances F. Dunwell’s essays. Dunwell is the author of The Hudson: America’s River.

Frances Dunwell will also be reading and discussing her book at numerous locations during September throughout New York state. For details on upcoming events with Dunwell.

In spring, I am often reminded of the feminine nature of the Hudson. It is now, when the shad, herring, striped bass and sturgeon ascend the river to spawn that we witness how potently creative she is. Maternal and nourishing, the estuary is her womb, where new life springs forth in predictable cycles of birth and rebirth. Yet the river’s womanly disposition is always on display for those to take the time to look. Throughout the changing seasons she labors, she nourishes, she vents her rage. She is cunning, temperamental, and wise.

Our relationship to her is complex. She is a queen, a dress-up doll, a benevolent grandmother, and an abused and neglected wife. She is Ursula the sea witch, Aphrodite the love deity, and Scylla the siren. She carries a magic wand, casting spells. Men are courting her at every turn, performing feats of daring, dreaming of conquest, or engaging her in tender conversation. Women venture off with her on high adventures or protect her in a caring embrace. She is part goddess, part tramp. Adorned with pearls, wearing bangles and bracelets—the hand-me-downs of past lovers we find her beguiling, resplendent, flirtatious, and mysterious.

The river’s personality, energy, and resplendent beauty exert a kind of magnetism. She invites intimacy, nourishes ambition, induces thoughtful reverie, and forces contentious debate. The river nurtures those who are attuned to her voice, inspiring visions, passion and extraordinary acts.

Creative people speak back to the river, casting the relationship in their own terms. National leaders from many fields have found their muse on the Hudson, and their imagining sets America’s future on a different course.

Inspiration takes many forms. People write about the river in a different way, paint the landscape in a new light, harness river resources to new economic advantage, or challenge these uses and revise national policies. The Hudson’s admirers may be presidents, folksingers, generals or janitors, but they share a sense of possibility and a belief in the power of their dreams. They see the river through a different lens in which their actions have larger meaning: a poem about the Hudson expresses a relationship to the Divine, a canal is a pathway to empire, a lawsuit is a means to social justice, a song gives voice to those who have not been heard. New movements are born, new precedents are set.

Our relationship to the river has changed the nation. The nurturing Hudson supported a rich culture for Native Americans who lived here for thousands of years and still do. The deep harbor enticed the Dutch to stake a claim in the new world, bringing their traditions of free trade and diversity to American shores. Visionary people understood how to use the river’s long navigable waterway to launch a transportation revolution and power the industrial revolution. A gateway for far flung people seeking freedom from tyranny, the mouth of the Hudson became the logical place for the French to place their Liberty statue, with its welcoming beacon of light.

Our nation’s great reformers have come from the Hudson River Valley, people who have absorbed a sense of our national history here and used it to define who we are and will be. George Clinton, New York’s first Governor, drew on this knowledge to fight for the Bill of Rights. New Jersey’s Women’s Clubs developed progressive ideas and applied them to conservation of natural and historic sites. Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor came to understand the value of human dignity on the river shores. They are just a few among many. The river’s influence is dynamic, never ceasing, swelling within us even now.
In turn, we change the Hudson as well. Indeed, no part of the Hudson has been left untouched by fantasy, need, and desire. Parks, mansions, battlegrounds, sky scrapers, highways, tunnels and gardens all reflect the stirring of human ideas about our relationship to the water and to this unique environment. The Palisades, seemingly as pristine and ancient as the walls of the Grand Canyon, have been re-natured to fit a vision of what the river should be. Even the wilderness of the Hudson’s source is a creation of human design, protected as “forever wild” by rules in the state’s constitution. The species of fish, the varieties of plants, the ebb and flow of tides have all been manipulated by human ideas and actions.

Yet the river retains her creative power. She changes us even as we change her, and this aspect of her nature is what has made the Hudson America’s river, for her currents run deep in our national character. In every era, it is the people of the Hudson River Valley who have provided a new definition of what it means to be American. The legendary rags-to-riches entrepreneur, the brash New Yorker, the rugged outdoorsman, the artist who sees beauty in wildness, all trace their roots to our relationship with the Hudson. For this reason, it is important for us to conserve it.

The river played the starring role in the rise of Manhattan and the Empire State. She has determined the trajectory of world trade and world wars and influenced the social evolution of America. The Hudson has streamed into political movements, environmental movements and the movement of people. She has floated in the consciousness of transformative leaders. The Hudson River is fluid force for change whose effects have rippled out to the nation and the world.

It is not necessary to be a poet or a president to be touched by this creative power. Anyone who is open to it can feel the river’s particular charm, and in spring she bombards our senses with brisk wind, salt air, and the soft red and white flowers of maples trees and shad bush. We see falcons hunker down on the girders of bridges to incubate their eggs. We see osprey and eagles lunge for a stray fish.

Fortunately, an expanding network of parks and trails on the water’s edge makes it possible to enjoy the spiritual refreshment that the river offers to all of us. These paths were built by people who thought we should come close to the river again, after a long separation. Take them up on it. Go for a walk, bring a fishing pole, cast a net, or just sit and watch the water’s changing hues. Partake of that magical quality of the river that inspires a renewed sense of possibility. The Hudson extends an invitation. A river dance awaits.

About the author: Frances F. Dunwell is the author of The Hudson: America’s River. She has devoted over 30 years to a career in conservation of the river’s natural and historic heritage in a variety of non-profit and governmental roles.

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