Palisades Diarist

Stefan Kanfer
Neanderthals on the Hudson
Spring 2014
Photo by Dave Bledsoe

Standing tall on the Hudson River’s west side, the Palisades stretch from Jersey City to Nyack, protected by law from billboards and developers. Long ago, the silent-movie serial The Perils of Pauline was shot here. The heroine was constantly left dangling over rocks, hence the term “cliff-hanger.” On good days, these spectacular rock formations catch the rays of the lowering sun and assume a golden glow, accentuated by verdant pines and violet shadows.

But this winter, there were no good days—only cold and miserably drab ones, punctuated by relentless snowstorms. The Palisades turned the color of dirty ice and stayed that way. They’re visible from my study window, and instead of encouraging me to regard them with admiration, they caused me to look at my computer screen.

Raymond Chandler once described the Santa Ana winds of L.A. that “come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every house party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” In the Hudson Valley, the equivalent of those winds are the blizzards of the winter solstice. The first few can be aesthetically pleasing: flakes spiraling through the air, each a hexagonal jewel when examined closely; quiet nights; white-tailed deer silhouetted on the horizon. Then comes another storm. And another. The flakes become monotonous—seen one six-sided frozen water drop, seen ’em all. The snow itself turns ugly, descending from pure white to gray to grimy black, thanks to vehicle exhaust—then further defiled by dogs. The starving deer dig up flower bulbs and knock over garbage cans, strewing the contents over icy streets.

Drinks become stronger. Depression mounts. At cocktail parties, long-suppressed political differences are aired. There are loud, acrimonious debates about global warming as the thermometer dips and lakes freeze. Men call each other Neanderthals. Women stop speaking to each other. Couples argue on the way home. Anything can happen.

No wonder so many of our friends began to speak of leaving the Hudson Valley for good. “I can’t lift any more snow,” one said. “My back is going. I’m thinking about a transfer to the Seattle office. Yes, it rains all the time, but you don’t have to shovel rain.” A neighbor spent every weekend on the Internet, looking at properties in Tucson and Taos. California was extolled for its congenial temperature, its ubiquitous swimming pools, and its unseasonable vegetables—especially as Westchester’s icicles grew and its potholes deepened. By then, the only people who liked winter were those operating snowplows or repairing flat tires. The rest of us dreamed about packing up and moving on.

And then purple crocuses started to peek through the melting snowdrifts. Forsythia sprouted buds, and when householders clipped branches and put them into a living-room vase, they were rewarded with a cascade of yellow blooms. Daylight saving time returned, and SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder—diminished as the days lengthened. Tufted titmice and warblers appeared at the feeders. The Palisades emerged from their doldrums, and, as I admired them from my window at 7 PM, the sunset palette became as brilliant as a Fauve painting.

At parties, Chardonnay replaced single malt Scotch. Citizens spoke of school board elections, of second honeymoons, of Mets outfielders. Trucks, marked by the logos of chimney sweeps and painting services, rolled up to countless homes. The roughest winter in years was over.

Later this year, another dispiriting winter will appear on schedule, of course. But that’s an equinox away. Meantime, we’re free to enjoy the flora and fauna of the Valley and to praise it as one of the loveliest territories in North America. In doing so, we’re also praising ourselves for living here—and for our powers of survival. Sheepish now, we realize that until spring announced itself, we suspected that we were at the dawn of another Ice Age. In a way, nothing had changed from the Pleistocene Epoch, and the bellicose debaters were right all along: we were Neanderthals. We still are.

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