Conversations on the Hudson

28 July 2014 // Books //On Water

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An Englishman bicycles five hundred miles through the Hudson Valley, meeting artists and craftspeople along the way.

A book by Nick Hand, with illustrations by Jon McNaught
Princeton Architectural Press, Hardcover, 112 pages, 81 color illustrations, 24 b/w illustrations

One spring day in 2012, English designer Nick Hand set off on his bicycle from Brooklyn, New York, and pedaled north along the Hudson River toward its source in the Adirondack Mountains. His leisurely pace suited his simple agenda—to talk to the artists and craftspeople he met along the way. “On a bicycle you take everything in,” writes Hand in his introduction. “You can stop anywhere, you don’t miss a thing, and it’s easy to strike up a conversation.” His casual approach and curious nature encouraged artisans to eagerly open up their studios and workshops and share their personal stories. Conversations on the Hudson is a visual record of his five-hundred-mile journey through the hills, mountains, and countryside of the Hudson Valley. This one-of-a-kind collection pairs Hand’s lovely photographs with visits to a seed librarian, a printer and publisher, a brewer, a stone sculptor, a sheep farmer, a distiller, maple syrup producers, and a boat restorer, among others, offering a captivating portrait of the creative life.

Introduction

The river is shrouded in cloud as I roll back down the valley. Big green river, huge sky, gentle hills. Alive with birdsong like I’ve never heard before. Towns doing well; towns doing not so well. Along a path through the woods and on, with the weight of a heavily laden English touring bicycle, I roll down a loose gravel hill slightly out of control. I search out the River Road. I’ve found that anything called River Road in the Hudson Valley is generally quiet and tree-lined, a dappled sunlit road that at some point will open to wonderful river views.

My home is Bristol, a small city in the southwest of England. At the start of last year my wife, Harriet, worked in New York City for six months, which gave me the perfect opportunity to indulge in my very favorite pastime, a long bicycle ride, and one that gave me the chance to seek out interesting folk. For some years, I’ve been recording the work of artisans around Britain and have been inspired by the makers’ enlightened view on life. They learn a skill and make beautiful things, in a slow, considered way. The bicycle seems to bring out the best in people, not just me. I meet great people, with a good story to tell to a passing cyclist.

I arrived in New York City with my trusty Argos bicycle and started the ride from our temporary front door in Brooklyn, crossing the East River and Manhattan Island to set out north along the mighty Hudson River toward Hudson Falls.

On a bicycle you take everything in, you can stop anywhere, you don’t miss a thing, and it’s easy to strike up a conversation. A chance meeting in Rockland County is a fine example. I met Ted Ludwiczak at the end of a lovely ride through the wooded Nyack Beach State Park. Ted’s house was pretty much the first one built in the village of Haverstraw. A wooden painted building, pretty typical except for the rows of carved stone faces looking out to the street. A red car rolled up and Ted appeared, a brilliant old boy who told me his story over the next couple of hours. His daughter came by later and said how unusual it was for Ted to open up to people. I put it down to arriving by bicycle and not being in any kind of hurry.

I was already aware of the connection between this part of the world and Woody Guthrie, a personal hero of mine. At the start of the journey I had detoured in Manhattan to pay tribute to Joe Strummer, at his memorial mural on Seventh Street and Avenue A. Joe, who died ten years ago, was best known as the singer in the Clash, and at one point had called himself “Woody,” after Woody Guthrie. Later on my journey, I was really chuffed to meet Anna Canoni, Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter. I would also get to see Pete Seeger at a Clearwater tribute to Woody. Clearwater is a project set up by Seeger in 1966 to save his beloved Hudson River from the effects of decades of industrial pollution. Pete is a legendary folk singer and activist, and
has dedicated much of his long life to the Clearwater project. In 1969 he launched the sloop Clearwater, considered by many as America’s environmental flagship.

The Hudson River is wide enough in parts to not quite make out features or landscape on the far side. It winds its way up to the state capital, Albany, and beyond, where it finally narrows as it continues toward Hudson Falls. Away from the river, the lanes and highways are lined with painted wooden buildings with blue plaques detailing its history; the Revolutionary War or sometimes pioneering incidents from earlier days. On my journey up the vast river with its majestic bridges I heard stories of times past; of lone sharks, shad, striped bass, catfish, and huge leaping sturgeon. A river overfished and polluted for much of its recent history. The river is in recovery and thanks to the work of Clearwater, it’s gradually returning to its former glory.

The hills, mountains, and countryside are only partly tamed. Some areas, like the Catskills and the source of the river at Lake Tear of the Clouds in the Adirondack Mountains, are still wild in parts, where coyotes and black bears roam, and there are rattlesnakes and bald eagles and other huge birds of prey.

I snaked my way up the Hudson Valley on a five-hundred-mile journey using the guidance of Ken Roberts and his excellent Bike Hudson Valley website. I used Twitter as a kind of ongoing diary and wrote the occasional blog post. I recorded and photographed those people I was fortunate to meet along the route, and this book is a document of those remarkable artisans. I’ve let them tell their own stories. I hope that you’re as inspired by their words as I was when I met them.

A small selection of Jon McNaught’s illustrations from the book:

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Conversations on the Hudson is available in the Caught by the River shop priced £15.99

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