Tag Archives: Catskill Mountains

Buck Brook #12 – Early Morning Pond

Our Florida retreat wrapped up and students would soon be returning to Buck Brook. By New Years, 1970, we were back in the Catskill Mountains dealing with the cold and snow.

The entire campus began every morning with Paul, the Headmaster, ringing the fire engine bell at 6am. We pulled on whatever pants and parkas we could find, and headed out for a brisk walk.

Yes — every morning. Even when the Catskill temperatures were well below MINUS twenty degrees!

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One of Paul’s favorite walks was up the little creek that ran between the girl’s dorm and the rest of the buildings. I don’t remember it being a terribly long walk but I do remember the winter cold and tramping down the ever increasing snow.

Our destination was a flat spot in the snow surrounded by trees. It was quite serine in a Robert Frost way, even with the noise of some fifteen students and staff shuffling about. As the seasons changed we came to enjoy this flat spot as the small mountain lake it was.

One cold January afternoon some of us actually returned to the pond voluntarily. One of the staff had an ice auger, hooks, and line and was determined to let us in on the fun of ice fishing. I have never had the patience to catch fish in a crowded barrel and I found waiting for a nibble through the ice did nothing to calm my impatience.

Buck Brook #4: First Ski

I got to Buck Brook in the fall of 1969 and it wasn’t long before the snow was gathering. Having been raised at the base of a ski mountain in the West, the staff and students figured I’d make an excellent ski instructor.

“Just take the kids out to the hill in front of the farm house …” was the Head Master’s solution to finding a place to get ski legs under folks from ten to twenty-two.

Well. The “hill” in front of the farm house was about fifty feet long. The snow by this time was close to two feet of powder. Less than a third of the the “hill” in front of the house was steep enough to pull skies through that much fluff.

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But you ski what there is to ski. So we got together on a sunny afternoon after rounding up boots and skis and poles. Kids and staff figured out the double-laced leather boots of the time and got somewhat used to tromping through snow in stiff boots while carrying awkward equipment to the front of the farm house. They struggled with the cable bindings, the bane of “safety” requirements until step-in bindings were developed. And we lined up on top of the hill.

I don’t remember having much to say but am sure I explained some principles of the snowplow turn. Mostly I remember just pointing my skis downhill and letting ‘er rip.

I’ve never been much of a powder skier and don’t know why I didn’t think to have everyone sidestep down the hill to pack the snow. The run was perhaps fifteen seconds long but enough to have me thinking this just might be a lesson that turns everyone off to skiing.

I stopped and turned and watched as Chaney, another staff member, turned to the hill, held her poles out, and started to slide. Within two feet she was in trouble and within four she was making a spectacular display of flying snow covering her face and getting into every possible opening of her less-than-ski-worthy warm clothes.

A complete disaster. What was I doing? What to do now? Failure, failure, failure.

Then Chaney popped up out of her white lump in the snow and declared,

“THAT WAS FUN ! ! !”

Everyone immediately pointed their skis downhill, held out their poles, and let the snow fly.

By the end of the day I was looking for the closest ski hill for a soon-to-enjoy outing.

Buck Brook #3: Library

Nutritious food and active tasks that impacted the immediate lives of students were important parts of the educational approach at Buck Brook Farm. But they were not the entire picture.

There was also the library.

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Are you thinking of a solemn space with green desk lamps and studious scholars? Fahgettaboutit!

Other than the dining room, the library was the only common area on the campus. About half of the library was dedicated to couches and comfortable chairs and plenty of open space. Reading was done amid energetic youths wrestling all over the floor and furniture, arguments, necking, board games, cards, making plans and general whooping it up. Just like an old fashioned family room!

The other half of the library was dedicated to reading material. There were four or five tall racks of shelves. All the bottom shelves were stuffed with DC comic books — and only DC comic books — because they were riddled with four- and five- syllable words of dialog. The next shelf up was dedicated to pulp fiction, teen novels, magazines and similar light reading. Then the shelf with kid’s science books and illustrated how-tos, geography, technology and similar material. Next shelf up would be more complex and so on, until the classics of literature and reference works were available to any hand that wanted to reach the top shelf.

And that was as organized as the library got. No decimal system. No check-out or check-in. No rules about books having to stay in the library.

And no assignments. No “you should be reading this.” No Reading Hour or any other incentive. Just things to read.

To graduate the students did have to present a plan to study, examine, and write a thesis on a topic that interested them. The library often got used in their research, but not even that use of  the library was required.

The only rules were, 1) an early morning walk, 2) a half day doing chores, 3) unprocessed food, and 4) no televisions on the campus. This last rule kept the library full of readers.

The vast majority of our students, many of them having come from backgrounds of mental hospitals, jails, and behavioral problems, graduated above the 85 percentile on collage entrance tests.

Buck Brook #2: Education

The approach to education at Buck Brook Farm was simple: our minds are made to learn, so give them the opportunity to do it.

First off, there were no televisions on the campus. Radios were not forbidden but I don’t remember any since the reception in the Catskill Mountains sucked. Food was sugar free, a simple act that cut down on much of the student’s hyper behavior.

Everyone, staff and students alike, had to get up for an early morning walk, often to a little lake up the stream that ran through the campus. After the walk breakfast was served, primarily whole grain cereals. I came to love granola. Then we all went off to our assigned or voluntary tasks until noon.

Unless we were on kitchen duty that week, the tasks at Buck Brook were dedicated to rebuilding the campus to meet codes and our needs. All these tasks were relevant to our lives since the gathering winter was reminding us we wanted to stay warm. Digging out a new foundation, remodeling bathrooms, retrofitting plumbing, modernizing the electrical – we staff and students did it all and learned it all.

At noon hot and cold food was served and the rest of the day the students were free to do what they wished. That often included visiting with one another and deciding to go finish what the morning task had started.

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Math? Well. Take a wall in a room that has been settling for fifty years on a poor foundation, so there is not a square angle in it. Run in new plumbing and electrical, install studs to code, and then cut sheet rock to fit. Don’t worry about studying obscure angles or subtracting fractions — you’ll have all that under your belt before you are finished.

Buck Brook #1: Introduction

Buck Brook was a campus of Green Valley School. Inspired by the principles of Summerhill School in England, Green Valley’s approach to educaiton was to feed our natural desire to learn.

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Summerhillian schools at the time catered to the wealty and talented, since public funding was not available and because their ciriculum appealed to parents pushing gifted kids. But the founders of Green Valley were convinced what is good for gifted kids is also good for every kid and, possilby, especially good for the “ungifted” — ie, the troubled and troubling students. By the time I joined the Buck Brook campus some of our students were from mental health establisments and some junvinile incarceration facilities.

With few exceptions we found most the troubled and troubling students had become bored and restless sitting in rows waiting for the teacher to again explain a simple principle to the same student. Labeled as a “trouble causer” in the teacher’s lounge, they were treated as such in the next grade. They then lived up to the expectation.

Also, with exceptions, we found kids from mental facilities had figured out the way to get lots of attention was to go for the fawning and special beds and bottles of pills that came with “commiting suicide.” If they had a pattern of suicide attempts in their history, they always tried “commiting suicide” once when they got to Green Valley.

Just once.

Rather than the fawning and drugs they expected, the reaction was scorn for not doing a good job of it. One was given a gun, shown it was loaded, and told it would do the trick. Another, having a second floor room, had a noose hung outside her window and was assured it would get the job done. They were then told if they want the attention and respect of the staff and students to come on down to the library and have some fun.

Now don’t worry, dear reader. They had just been programed for “committing suicide.” Every one of them were with the rest of the campus before the end of the day. The only successful suiside was a kid who had absolutely no history of attempts or speaking of it. And that is the pattern of most suisides.

Students got $2.50 a week allowance to spend as they wished and staff got $5 a week with all expenses paid except tobacco and alcohol. It was miles to a store or bar. It was one of the few times I’ve ever actually saved money.

Frost Valley #16: Final Days

Frost Valley #16 – Final Days

Bud was back in school, summer work was wrapping up on the Frost Valley estate, and I knew it was time to move on before winter made hitchhiking miserable. But there wasn’t a rush, so one day when there were no chores to do I decided to visit the Autumn-colored trail to Slide Mountain one more time. I went alone, so Bud was probably in school.

This time I encountered other climbers on the ledges overlooking the Catskills. They were young guys, mid- to late-teens. Long haired and dressed in jeans and t-shirts, they presented the perfect youthful hippie look of 1969. And they were interesting—talking of things from the planet to the stars, from books to road trips.

It was the middle of the week and well into September so I was curious about their not being in school. AHA! they assured me, but they WERE in school!.

It was a school based on Summerhillian principles named Buck Brook Farm. The school taught by doing, not lecturing. And camping in the Catskill forest was certainly something being done!

The more we talked the more they encouraged me to come and join the staff at Buck Brook Farm. The more I listened the more I came to think the Travel Gods were lining me up with a place to spend the coming winter.

One comes to trust the Travel Gods. I made sure to get directions.

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Within a week Stan and Bud drove me the fifty miles from Frost Valley to Roscoe, New York, and seemed to know the maze of backroads to Buck Brook Road and the unmarked drive at Buck Brook Farm. After fond fare-wells to Stan and Bud I hopped out with my pack and walked up to the old farmhouse across a small brook.

The headmaster happened to be in. Yes, the boys had told him about me. We chatted a bit. I was assured we were not there to be friends with the kids but to be the adults in the circus. And with that I was shown back across the small brook to the largest building in the compound. There I was casually introduced to staff and kids on my way to the second floor and a room overlooking the front drive.

I would stay for a winter and a summer.

Frost Valley #15: Color of the North

Fall was gathering ‘round us in Frost Valley and once again I found myself surrounded by natural wonders that were new to me.

Having been raised in the deserts and pine-covered mountains of Idaho I was not aware of tourist industries based on people looking at forests full of colorful trees. But now, as I fed the estate’s fish and mowed the fields and cleaned up the garden, I found myself increasingly scanning hills no longer green but pocked with reds and oranges and yellows. And then reds and oranges and yellows pocked with green. Eventually the green was gone.

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TrailOne of the estate’s grandkids and Bud and I decided to check out this splash of Autumn in Upstate New York. I drove the estate’s Suburban up Frost Valley to the trailhead at the ridge of the Catskill Mountains. From there we took off on the trail Bud and I had taken when we ended up freezing under the brand new invention of a space blanket. I believe it was the trail to Slide Mountain — at 4,180 feet the highest point in the Catskill Mountains.

Eventually rocky ledges began to appear. These were not above the treeline where no trees grow, like I knew from Idaho. Rather they were flat, solid rock ledges that jutted out from the forest before falling off at a cliff. These cliffs were higher than the trees below and offered views over the surrounding forest. Before these ledges all we had seen were tree trunks beside the trail with color between them. The old can’t see the forest for the trees …

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Well, folks, there is a reason tourists check out the hardwood forests of the eastern United States in the fall. The rolling Catskill were resplendent.

That night we were laying in our sleeping bags telling stories and feeling a mild wind when we noticed something odd in the sky. We got up and checked out faint, huge balls of glowing light fading in and out in the far northern sky. They were silent. Their light was like the eerie, soft light of fireflies. Their light also slowly increased and decreased like the light of fireflies but much bigger and, perfectly proportionally, much slower.

While firefly light is definitely golden yellow this light was a muted aqua green.

We got up and sat on the rocky ledge of our camp, tucked into a crevice that blocked the breeze. There, wrapped in sleeping bags, we listened to the wind and watched the Northern Lights.