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New Yorker, November 13, 1978

I THOUGHT I ought to take a look at it from the air, so I got hold of my friend Hadden, who has a plane-a little Aeronca Champ that he keeps, in partnership with six others, up in Dutchess County. You couldn’t have asked for a better day. There wasn’t a shred of cloud in the whole Northeast as far as I could see, just a little haze on the horizon. As we took off, a parachutist was hanging over the airfield like a spider on a thread. The dying rural landscapes of Dutchess and Putnam Counties opened below us. Some of the land had been in corn, but it was October, and the fields were brown and empty. Some had been let go, to be overrun with blueberries, brambles, and cedar. Desultory ribbon development lined the major thoroughfares. Up on the ridges and in the rest of the lowlands, it was most]y trees. To the south, it was nothing but trees. Our shadow was racing over the most richly diversified deciduous forest in the world: forty-two hundred species of plants, from ferns on up. The leaves had been down for several weeks now, persisting only on the scattered brown domes of oaks and the yellow fountainheads of weeping willows. Over the steeples and weathered storefronts of Brewster, Hadden steered the Champ on south. To the right was the Hudson; to the left Long Island Sound: two blue lines headed for a meeting at some point lost in the haze. Ahead of us was what we had gone up to see-Westchester County. The peninsula that narrowed before us is known as the Manhattan Prong. It is the tail end of a geological subprovince of the Appalachians called the New England Upland. The Manhattan Prong breaks off at Manhattan Island. Another prong of the New England Upland ends in Reading, Pennsylvania. Between them lies a younger subprovince, called the New Jersey Lowland. Most of the Manhattan Prong-four hundred and forty-nine square miles of it-is in Westchester County.We held to twenty-five hundred feet. Ahead, two red-tailed hawks were playing tag in the thermals. They seemed used to planes, and banked easily to a lower level as we approached. Our plan was to follow the Harlem Valley, which runs from Brewster clear to the Bronx and is the prong’s most pro mi n e n t geological feature. Civilization has always favored this valley. The main Indian paths ran up it, along the riverbanks. By I 847, the tracks of the New York & Harlem Railroad Company had been laid in it. A string of depots, many for picking up milk, came into being, and hamlets grew up around them. Today, their names are etched in the subconscious of every weary commuter who rides on Conrail’s Harlem Line: Bronxville, Tuckahoe, Scarsdale, Hartsdale, North White Plains, Valhalla, Pleasantville, Mount Kisco, Bedford Hills, Katonah. In the nineteen-thirties, the Saw Mill River Parkway came up the Saw Mill and Harlem Valleys. It was the golden age of road building, and the Bronx River and Hutchinson River Parkways had already been extended up the two other major valleys of the Manhattan Prong. The rive, parkways are not only efficient but beautiful, not just roads but greenbelts conserving important watersheds. From the air, the Har]em Valley was not the clean, straight trench I had imagined it to be. Winding and weaving at various elevations, it drains most of central Westchester, but is not the creation of one river. Several rivers, none named Harlem, cut in and out of it.Now we were over Somers. Hadden pointed to a knoll smothered with the elegant, earth-colored units of an adult condominium called Heritage Hills of Westchester. Each unit faced at a s]ightly different angle, and on each patio, gripping the armrests of their sun deck chairs and taking in the view, sat a motion]ess elderly couple. Still in the northern part of the county, we were beyond the gravitational pull of New York City.  Ninety-five per cent of the land, it seemed, was woods. The rest was open, with a few farms and orchards. To the east, in a distant meadow somewhere in South Salem, three riders in velvet helmets were taking a succession of jumps. Horses are to the Salems what sailboats are to the Hamptons. To the west, in Yorktown Heights and Baldwin Place, the landscape was more democratic: there were vast shopping malls and new subdivisions, with grass still coming in between rows of iden tical houses.

The valley beneath us bifurcated and became two valleys. The one to the right was filled with water-the long, shimmering crescent of the New Croton I{eservoir, held back by a mighty dam, which took fifteen years to build and upon its completion, in 1907, was the second-largest piece of hand-hewn masonry in the world. Thousands of Italians were imported for the job. Today, one out of every three of Westchester’s eight hundred and seventy thousand inhabitants is likely to have Italian blood, and many are descended from people whose first home in America was a shack beneath the Croton Dam.

We took the left-hand valley and followed it to Katonah, which looked like a quiet upstate town. South of Katonah, homing in now on north-central Westchester, we could no longer claim to be in the country. We were getting into that transitional area between the suburbs and the country for which the late A. C. Spectorsky invented the term “exurbia.”  It is, to use Senator William Proxmire’s characterization of his native Lake Forest, Illinois, “a very, very fortunate environment.” We could see signs of affluence everywhere: big houses, lush gardens, swimming pools, tennis and paddletennis courts. There was nothing garish about it. The pattern was quiet good taste.

“Look at this mansion coming up!” Hadden called, pointing to an approaching hilltop. The slate-tiled stone building below, with a long greenhouse, a squash court, and an indoor pool and tennis court, had been designed, I happened to know, by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who designed Central Park. It is one of the best of the big houses, put up by one of the great turn-of-the-century fortunes. But, like many of the other big houses, it lies empty. Nobody lives like that anymore, with flocks of servants and fleets of cars.

From the air, we could see how the social strata of the exurbs conformed to the geological strata. This is a fairly common phenomenon in the United States. One finds it also, for example, in Los Angeles and its foothills. Down in the valley is blue-collar Mount Kisco, with light industry, highrise apartments, housing projects, and mini-ghettos occupied by blacks and the more recent immigrants-Argentines, Greeks, and others in lower socioeconomic circumstances. They do things like clean houses and work in factories. On the hillsides, the petit bourgeois have collected in subdivisions. They are immigrants with more seniority Italians and Irish who have been around for a generation or two and run a grocery store or have cornered a service like plumbing. As you get higher, the people get fewer and richer. They belong to what sociologists sometimes call the lower upper class. The richest and most aloof live in big hilltop houses. They are known in the local nomenclature as hilltoppers.

Chappaqua. We were getting into the hard-core suburbs, the bedroom communities that form the image most people have of Westchester: Pleasantville, Thornwood, Greenburgh, Mamaroneck, New Rochelle. This is the realm of civic-minded wives and nononsense houses-one-third for living, one-third for sleeping, one-third for the car. But Chappaqua itself is an older, more gracious suburb. There is enough land-an acre or two per residence-to support a riotous biota and to provide privacy. A certain amount of eccentricity is tolerated. One doesn’t have to mow the lawn every week if one doesn’t feel like it. Trees are still the major component. We were still in the great forest north of the city. The development was still well adjusted. There was still wild land around Chappaqua-woodland lakes near Twin Ridges which could as well have been in the Adirondacks.

Below the Cross-Westchester Expressway, Route 287, the dividing lint between the northern and southern parts of the county, rashes of dots, each one representing a dwelling, began to get serious. “The land’s running out,” Hadden shouted back. But it was still surprisingly open-maybe forty-five per cent-considering that one-ttnth of the people in the United States lived within fifty miles of where We were. Only at the very lower edge of the county-Yonkers, Mount Vernon, Pelham-did it seem to be all concrete and houses. Here and there, we could see the cancer of urban decay and nice old neighborhoods going to seed. A few last patches of green asserted themselves along Hillview Reservoir and Yonkers Raceway; then it was all swallowed up by the dismal sprawl of the Bronx.

Having by now overflown Westchester, Hadden turned the Champ around and headed north above the Hudson River. We saw long barges plowing tediously upstream through muddy-brown water, the big General Motors plant in Tarrytown along the river, the sweeping curve of the Tappan Zee Bridge, an apple orchard, an osprey, a forest fire in progress across the river, side streams meandering through vast reedy marshes, swarms of seagulls at the Croton Point Dump. The Hudson Gorge, where the river narrows at Bear Mountain, was superb. Few people realize it, but the Hudson is a true fjord-a river canyon deepened below sea level by glacialaction. The Hudson is tidal as far north as Troy. The only other fjord in the northeast is in Maine. Before I knew it, the little airfield in Dutchess Contry had come into view, and, having got permission to land, we started to come in low over the Green Haven Correctional Facility. The last thing we saw from the air was some of the inmates out in the yard, playing basketball.
TWO hundred and thirty million years ago, there was no Atlantic Ocean. Africa was right off Connecticut, and its inexorable pressure against our continent was heaving up a forty thousand-foot mountain range, higher than any around today. In time, that whole range weathered away, and after Africa drifted east, about a hundred and sixty million years ago, only the igneous and metamorphic cores of those ancient peaks remained. They are now low, rounded knobs that seldom reach more than six hundred feet above the level of the sea. Neither heavily timbered nor affording wide open vistas, and several hundred feet short of qualifying as mountains, they are unspectacular but subtly beautiful, like most of the scenery in Westchester.

The rock on these knobs is often exposed, and it is usually either gray and white, in alternating, intensely contorted bands, or plain gray or salmon pink. The gray-and-white type is the most widespread formation in the county-Fordham gneiss. It used to be a sandstone containing considerable volcanic ash, known as graywacke, but the pressure of the mountains that had once been over it had caused the mineral components of graywacke-the quartzes and the micas-to metamorphose into white and gray bands. For some time, these remained plastic, and were deformed by all the thrusting and tilting and faulting and tectonic upheaval that the region was experiencing. Gradually, however, the rock recrystallized in the striking swirls We see today. One of the nicer side effects of the new, high-speed Interstate 684, which runs from Harrison to Brewster, is the magnificent road cuts wherever a knob was blasted through. The best place to see the bands of Fordham gneiss flowing White and gray is below Exit 4, where 684 goes between the sheer hundred-foot walls of what used to be Chestnut Ridge. I stop there sometimes on a clear night just to see the creamy folds glowing in the moonlight. In the north of Africa today, you can find graywacke with the exact same mineral constituents as Fordham gneiss-one of many indications that Westchester is part of Africa’s legacy to North America.

The two other major formations in the county also have their mineral counterparts in African sedimentary rock. The plain gray rock, peppered with black specks of biotite mica and almost as ubiquitous as Fordham gneiss, is Manhattan schist.  It used to be sandy shale. Most of the stone walls in the town of Bedford are Manhattan schist. The third kind of upland rock begins to appear around Pound Ridge and Cross River. Examine the road cuts there for pinkish dikes, several feet thick, running horizontally through the gneiss. These are intrusions of a granitic magma called Pound Ridge gneiss, which melted and thrust its way through the layers of metamorphic rock during roughly the same period in which the Fordham gneiss was formed.

Cross River Mountain, one of my favorite places in Westchester, is mostly Pound Ridge gneiss. At nine hundred and thirty-eight feet, Cross River Mountain is one of the highest points in the county-almost high enough to be what topographers call a “bald.”  Stunted oaks with a fragrant understory of mountain laurel grow on it; and on its south side pitch pines cling to exfoliated granite ledges on which pilot blacksnakes drape their coils during the month of May. On top of the mountain is an abandoned fire tower.  Graffiti festoon its girders, and the windows of the booth that crowns the structure, seventy-five feet up, have all been knocked out. On a good day, from the tower you can see Long Island, the jumbled beginnings of the Catskill Mountains beyond the Hudson River, and the needles of the N ew York skyline catching the sun fifty miles to the south.

A stiff breeze numbed my companions and me as we stood in the booth combing the early October sky with field glasses. We were half a dozen assorted bird-watchers looking for hawks. Tens of thousands of migrating hawks funnel down through the Hudson Valley at this time of year. But the sky that morning was leaden and hawkless. Only screaming bands of blue jays patrolled the oak canopy below, and a few brave monarch butterflies, on their way to Mexico, drifted past. The hawks were not moving, and we were getting cold.

“Too bad my brother isn’t here anymore, with his white-gas stove,” I said. In 1966, my brother had joined the New York State Conservation Department.  They’d given him a badge, a pair of binoculars, a map, and a radio, and told him to go up on Cross River Mountain and keep an eye out for smoke. For two seasons, he lived at the foot of the tower, in a small cabin heated by wood and illuminated by kerosene. I brought him food and helped him build an outdoor shower. This is how it worked: you climbed up a ladder on the side of the stall with a bucket of water which you poured into a washtub with a plugged-up hole in the middly of it. Then you stood underneath and pulled a chain that removed the plug and released the water into a second tub, with dozens of holes punched in it, and gradually the water filtered down and gave you a shower. But since my brother had to haul his water from the base of the mountain, he didn’t use the contraption very often.

One night in July, I was walking up the mountain to pay him a visit when a coyote stepped into the road fifty feet in front of me. The animal stood for a full thirty seconds in the moonlight, with its ears pricked up like radar scanners, and stared at me insolently; then it disappeared into the laurel. Fresh from the West, I was positive in my identification.

Up in the booth, my brother spent his time figuring out how to strum the Autoharp like Maybelle Carter and dealing with the public. Most people asked the same questions. My brother wrote down the answers to the twenty most common ones, and when someone would ask “Say, what’s that body of water down there!” he would answer “Number 6” and point to his list, and after Number 6 would be “Lake Kitchawan.” Sometimes, people would ask “Say, don’t you ever get lonely up here!” and he would mutter “No. Number 20.” After Number 20 was “How could you get lonely with a view like this!” One woman was put off by the numerical treatment. “He must work for the state,” she whispered to her husband, loud enough for my brother to hear. “The federal observers are more courteous.

After my brother left, the Conservation Department hired another observer, who couldn’t take the isolation and left after three months to join the Hare Krishnas. In 1971, it ceased to man the tower. Heavy vandalism during the November-to-April off-season, budget cuts that emptied a number of the state’s fire towers, and a growing reliance on air patrol prompted the decision. My brother now runs a nature museum at the bottom of Cross River Mountain, in the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, and that morning I was leading one of his scheduled “hawk walks.” My anecdotes about the fire tower drew a few dispirited chuckles but did nothing to alter the fact that there weren’t any hawks in the sky.

One man had driven all the way from the Bronx to see them. To avoid having the expedition turn into a complete bust, I suggested that we go into the woods and look for mushrooms.

“Would you believe,” I said as we were coming down from the tower, “that a hundred years ago there were fewer woods in Westchester than there are today!” We paused to look out. In every direction, the view was filled with trees; only a few houses, clearings, and reservoirs broke the dominion of the woods. It was not hard to believe. “Almost all this was clear,” I said, waving all around me.

Primeval Westchester, as the settlers found it, was, like the entire Northeast, deep forest. The trees were “of great magnitude,” John James Audubon wrote. It was so dark beneath them that there was “little under wood,” and there were few deer, because there was no browse for them except where lightning, wind throw, or Indian fire had made a clearing. On a typical acre would he eighty enormous trees. The settlers girdled them and, when they were dead, went at them with axes. It took one man one year to clear one acre. Most of the wood went up in smoke. By the eighteeneighties, after two centuries of persistent attack, Westchester County was eighty per cent clear, according to a land study conducted then. To judge from early photographs, it was a bleak wasteland of boulder-strewn pastures and long stone fences. Only on the ridges and hilltops and down in the ravines, where it was too steep and rocky to farm, were the woods intact; in the fall and winter the farmers would go into them with ox-drawn sleds and cut the trees they needed to see them through the winter. The land was so open, the late Gustavus T. Kirby, who raised horses in Bedford, recalled in his memoirs, that as a child he would sit on the top of Guard Hill, pull out the sections of a spyglass, and focus on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, forty miles to the south. Dudley B. Bonsal, a senior federal judge and a Bedford resident, remembers that from the porch of his father’s farmhouse he could look east and see the fishman coming over from Stamford long before he had crossed the Connecticut border. The visibility from the same site today is about fifty yards.

By 1880, though, agriculture was falling off, and the trees began returning. Each shift in the economy, as people in Westchester became more dependent on the products of industry and less on those of their own land, was marked by a resurgence of wood land. Some of the trees rose when farming was abandoned. Others sprang up when coal replaced wood for heating houses and fuelling locomotives.

The most important event, though, was the arrival of the car. Fields that had been kept open to pasture horses long after the demise of farming were let go when the car came. Harry Barbey brought the first car to upper Westchester, in 1905. It was an early open Model-A Ford, which, of course, had to be cranked. Christina Rainsford, a poet from Katonah of Judge Bonsal’s vintage, rode in it when she was about eight. “My mother wasn’t sure if she’d let me ride in the invention. We drove up to Cantitoe Corners and turned around and came back, going all of ten miles per hour.

Whenever we met up with a horse, we would have to stop, and the rider would dismount and lead his frightened animal on foot past the panting machine.” The motorcar was taking over by 1914, and that is the approximate birth date of most of the current woods in Westchester.

Now that the land is being used for “en joyment,” as one fifth-grader I know put it, Westchester is about eighty per cent wooded. Although the population, in the 1970s, is larger than ever before, it is possible in the northern part of the county to walk for many miles, as I have done, without crossing more than a few roads or setting eyes on more than half a dozen houses. Around Somers, the woods are deep and plentiful enough to have concealed for a period of three months to a year the body of a man of about sixty who had been shot once in the side of the head with a .22-calibre bullet. A rucksack beside his badly deteriorated remains, found by children in September, 1974, contained sketches of some birds, a whiskey flask, a topographical map of the area, and a few other effects that gave no clue as to his identity, Detectives hoped that his dental work might give them a lead, but up to now the case has not been solved.

From the base of the fire tower, we descended between walls of granite along a steep path that doubles as a stream after rain. The trees on the next level of the mountain were tall and in vibrant prime. The air was moist and mild. With rock blocking the north and sun pouring in from the south, it was like a greenhouse here, Clusters of honey mushrooms-golden, with scales on their caps-had sprouted beneath some of the older hardwoods. They are delectable parboiled to remove a slight bitterness and fried in butter. But underground the fungus was attacking the roots of the trees and killing them.  A burst of machine-gun fire, followed by a peal of maniacal laughter, rang out in the woods. “Pileated woodpecker!” one of the bird-watchers announced triumphantly. A century ago, at the peak of farming, the pileated was on the brink of extinction; now that there is a supply of big, half-dead trees to excavate, the bird is becoming fairly common. The tree this one was working on had probably been weakened enough by honey mushrooms to have been invaded by carpenter ants, the bird’s favorite food.

I have seen the red-bellied woodpecker in Westchester. It was larger than a hairy and smaller than a flicker. The red mane and ladder back were unmistakable j so was its call-a sort of juicy cluck. Red-bellieds are the latest in a long line of Southern species that have been expanding their ranges. The cardinal started to do it in the forties and fifties. The tufted titmouse followed suit in the sixties. So did the turkey vulture. Most recently, the mockingbird and the Carolina wren have moved up in quantity, and they’re no longer unusual. White-eyed vireos, blue-gray gnatcatchers, hooded warblers, and Louisiana water thrushes are doing it, too, but they’re here only in the summer, and not in significant numbers. There are several possible explanations for the presence of these Southern birds here: mitigated winters, the return of the forest, human encroachment on their habitat and birdpopulation pressures in their range, the sudden boom in suburban bird feeders. Mockingbirds, which have no trouble relating to man, have benefitted from the growth of suburbia and from the increased planting of holly trees, of or namental crab apples, and of multiflora roses along highway baffles. The cuckoo, uncommon under ordinary circumstances in the area, is enticed north in larger numbers by periodic outbreaks of the tent caterpillar. No one knows yet why red-bellied woodpeckers have suddenly found Westchester to their liking. Perhaps they are filling the niche of the red-headed woodpecker, whose numbers here have shrunk to practically nothing, largely because of competition from starlings for their nesting holes.

Lying on the leaf-strewn floor was the shell of an old log. Rock-hard and weathered silver, like barn board, the wood had resisted decay for a good fifty years. It was the remains of a chestnut tree. Once, chestnut trees were common enough that the woods in these parts were known as the oakchestnut forest. Their nuts were sought by squirrels, deer, and turkeys, and by people, who roasted them and sold them on sidewalks. Chestnut was used as “extract timber” for tanning leather. Its durable wood was the almost exclusive choice for telephone poles and railroad ties. The trees grew fast. Hundred-foot specimens were not. unusual. But by 1890 a potent fungus, Endothia parasitica, had arrived in the New York area, quite possibly with a shipment of trees from Asia. Spreading rapidly in the metropolitan area, its wind- and animal-borne spores encountered no resistance from the American chestnut tree. The epidemic had been identified in 1904 at the New York Botanical Garden, but, owing to public apathy and inaction by the Legislature, nothing was done about it in New York State. By 1930m the chestnut had been wiped out over most of its range. Somehow, though, in White Plains the blight missed one tree. It stood, at 279 Hamilton Avenue, beside the police station until a few years ago, when it was taken down to make room for a parking lot.

Around the silvery log, numerous shoots with long, drooping, large toothed leaves had sprouted from the roots of the fallen tree. Rich in tannin, the roots and shoots of chestnuts are resistant to the fungus. But when a sprout reaches about twenty feet it loses its resistance. Orange pustules, the fruiting structure of Endothia, invariably appear on its bark, and, girdled with hollow cankers, it soon dies. We turned the log and found a snail, a packet of slug eggs, and three worms in the rich brown earth. I picked up one of the worms and stroked it. It felt bristly. This meant that it was an Asiatic worm, and not one of the native ones. The Asiatic worm has a ring of setae on each segment. (Setae are hair like bristles which enable the worm to get around.) The native worm has ut two setae per segment. Longer and hardier, the Asiatic species has been steadily usurping the niche of our native worm since it entered Westchester, by way of the Midwest, twenty years ago.

The mountain descended in tiers, each marked by subtle changes in vegetation. We jumped a number of rushing brooks, some headed west to the Hudson, others east to Long Island Sound; Cross River Mountain is along a drainage divide. The lower We got, the younger the woods were, and the more they’d been tampered with.

Most of the trees were making their second, third, or even fourth comeback. Hardwood root systems are irrepressible: no matter how often the stems are cut, the roots will keep sending up new ones. The original single bole will replace itself with a “copse” of half a dozen sprouts. After a time, usually before they have reached a fiveinch diameter, one or two of the sprouts will take the lead, leaving the others to wither away and succumb to the attack of fungi, insects, and wood peckers.

Westchester is in a woodland known as the Sprout Hardwoods, which is in the Oak-Hickory Zone of the Central Hardwood Forest, which stretches from Boston to Washington and westward to Chicago and Tennessee. The Sprout Hardwoods are rich in species, because the ranges of many Northern and Southern trees overlap in them. Except for a few isolated stands, for example, the northern limit for naturally occuring sweetgum is in Rye, where it grows with heech in a rich lowland forest that is subject to the ameliorating influence of the nearby sea. American holly and Atlantic white cedar also have their northern limits in the Sprout Hardwoods. The holly is rare and occurs only in southern Westchester, but the cedar inhabits swamps as far north as Bedford. As you go north and inland, farther away from the “maritime effect,” enamelled white hirches make their appearance. There are scattered white birches as far south as Pound Ridge. Another common member of the New England understory, striped maple, grows in high places as far south as Chappaqua, and certain bog plants-sphagnum mosses and pitcher plants, which are typical of New Hampshire and Maine-also dovetail into Westchester. As a determinant of vegetation, elevation is as important as latitude: every thousand feet up is the equivalent of two hundred miles north.

We came to some woods that must have heen less than thirty years old. The floor was still grass, and there were still a few shrubs and “pioneer” trees-sumac, aspen, and gray birchthe first species to come into a field that has been let go. Short-lived and sunloving, many of the birches had already died, and their rotting stems lay wedged among the maple saplings that had begun to replace them. The site was filled with “escapes” from other parts of the world-winged euonymus, garlic mustard, Japanese honeysuckle, Oriental bittersweet. There are dense woods in Westchester without a native plant in them. Once, in Banksville, far from any house, I came upon a thriving hamhoo thicket. It was the temperate bamboo of Szechuan, which grows above the rhododendron forest.  Giant pandas eat it and live in it.

Even the airways have been usurped by aliens, as we were soon reminded by the raucous cackling of several dozen starlings that had flown into an ash. They were the descendants of eighty birds released in Central Park on March 6, 1890, by a man named Eugene Schieffelin. Toward the end of his life, Schieffelin, whose family liquor business is the oldest in the countrv, had become active in the Acclimatization Society-one of several groups that enthusiastically introduced exotic species into New York. Schieffelin had chosen as his contribution to bring in all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare, of which the starling is one. Starlings are now the most abundant bird in Westchester, even more numerous than another import from the British Isles, the English sparrow. They have helped send a number of native species, especially the bluebird, into sharp decline. Once, in Yorktown, during a Christmas bird census by the Audubon Society, a swarm of starlings flew over, darkening the sky for several moments. An experienced birder calculated that there were no less than sixteen thousand birds in the swarm. Murmuration of starlings-this was a blizzard of them.

While many places in Westchester have the feeling of wildness, traffic is always within earshot; and now, as we descended along Black Brook into Honey Hollow, the sound of cars was very near. The woods above the hollow were steep and rocky, and several huge granite blocks had fallen on each other in such a way as to make a perfect natural shelter. Once, my brother and I released a raccoon at the mouth of this cave, and, to thank us for its months of captivity, it chased us angrily all the way down the hill to our car.

IN Mount Kisco, where I was born, there are seven traffic lights, two supermarkets, nine churches, two temples, and nine banks, none of which has ever been robbed. On summer evenings, the local boys often get together at the diamond in the park for a game of slow-pitch softball. With their hair in headbands and muscles bulging under their T-shirts, they play on teams sponsored by Flynn’s Insurance, Mardino’s Restaurant, and fourteen other local businesses. On winter afternoons, the late sun lingers on the old corniced storefronts of Main Street and catches the slate shingles on the spire of the United Methodist Church, making them gleam like fish scales. With an active business district and quiet, tree-lined back streets, it’s a cozy little burg of about ten thousand-small enough for you to know your neighbors, big enough to get lost downtown among strange faces.

“Kisco” means “a muddy place” in the Delaware Indian language, and most of Mount Kisco is bottomland on the floor of the Harlem Valley. Until the seventeenth century, it was the hunting ground of two Algonquian tribes and the inundated home of large numbers of beaver. Not much is known about these Indians except that-unlike the Seneca, to the north-they didn’t eat the flesh of their enemies and became warlike only when the Dutch began to destroy their villages. An early document suggests that Wampus, an Algonquian chief, lived in an elm-bark lodge about where the lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks stands today. Arrowheads that residents of Mount Kisco have found in their back yards indicate that the area may have been a major camp site of an earlier tribe, between three and nine thousand years ago. By the eighteenth century, the beaver had been tra?ped out of the valley, and the Indians massacred or scattered. Their descendants live on reservations in Ok!ahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario. Only a handful can speak Delaware.

Around 1720, several families came up from Long Island and settled on the valley rim. One cluster of houses, called Kirbyville, sprang up about where the bowling alley is now.  A second, New Castle Corners, occupied the present site of Friendly’s Ice Cream Shop, half a mile away. About the only outside contact the settlers had was with a missionary who would come up from the Episcopal Church in Rye every so often and preach to them. New Castle Corners grew faster, because there a brook rushes steeply into the valley. During the nineteenth century, its water was turning the wheels of a grist mill, a cotton mill, a woollen mill, and factories where needles, bricks, women’s shoes, and men’s shirts were manufactured. The largest concern at the Corners was the Spencer Optical Works. It is supposed to have been, at one time, the largest optical works in the country. It burned in 1877 and was then rebuilt, before finally leaving New Castle in 1888. Children playing in the woods on Spencer Street occasionally unearth spectacles ground there a century ago.

In the eighteen-forties, the newly formed New York & Harlem Railroad Company decided to run a line of track up the Harlem Valley. By 1847, there was rail service between Manhattan and New Castle Station, as it was called. With the New York City market only about an hour away, the dirt farmers in the surrounding country became dairy farmers, leaving their milk cans at New Castle Station early every morning. Little frame houses spread block by block from the depot until soon the valley floor was covered with them. In 1848, the train depot took the name Mount Kisco, after the bold, rocky bluff on the eastern rim of the valley. In 1875, Kirbyville and New Castle Corners merged with the depot hamlet. On the western bluff, Captain Merritt’s Hill, there arose a number of impressive Victorian structures, on whose porches the well-to-do could sit of an August evening, listening to the katydids and gazing with satisfaction on the town that was burgeoning below.

Westchester’s period as an important center of dairy production did not last long. When the Erie Canal and the railroads opened up the fertile reaches of the Midwest, it wasn’t hard to persuade a farmer in the boulder-strewn Northeast to part with his spread and give up a life that had been difficult at best. By the eighteen-eighties, the small, subsistence farmer was virtually extinct in Westchester.

Even as the farmers were leaving, there was an influx of new people into the area. Much of the land was being bought up by New York businessmen who had done well enough to afford a place in the country. One country road outside Mount Kisco was bought up b)T a Wall Street firm and parcelled off among its senior partners. At the same time, thousands of penniless immigrants from southern Italy were arriving at Ellis Island and making their way up into Westchester. Mount Kisco offered them plenty of opportunit)T. Laborers were being hired to build the Croton Dam, to man the factories and build the stone walls that line the roads around Mount Kisco; some of the most beautiful stonework in the world is to be found in north-central Westchester. The Italians carted materials to the hilltops where splendid mansions were being erected. Some stayed on as gardeners after the estates were finished. Around the turn of the century, a man named Petrillo was the main padronc, or agent, for the immigrants. He would arrange for their passage, hire them out, and keep them in his boarding house for twelve dollars a week. Since they made only fourteen, and the balance was usually drunk at his bar, his proteges had few prospects. Then someone finally set off a keg of dynamite on Petrillo’s porch and put an end to his exploitative operation.

Many of the Italian immigrants lived in a bustling ghetto called Sutton’s Row. (The site was recently smothered by a new Shoppers Bazaar and its enormous parking lot.) From there, it was a mile or so to the Spencer Optical Works and the other factories in New Castle Corners, where many of them worked. A few old-timers still remember the sound of hobnailed boots as the Italians tramped through the village at dawn. Working conditions at the Corners were less than optimal, and during the eighteen-eighties the Italians staged several riots there. Then the jobs disappeared. By 1888, Kirby Pond, the lake behind the dam at the Corners, was stagnant and eutrophic, and the stench was becoming unbearable. Some people feared that it might become a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes. So Judge William Leonard, who owned the mill pond, had it thoroughly drained. Others were concerned about the “character hitherto unknown to the region” which the Italian “imports” were bringing to Mount Kisco. But even after the collapse of the industries at New Castle Corners, the Italians kept coming.

The square in the heart of town is named for Jefferson Feigl, a Mount Kisco man killed in France on the first day of the German drive from St. Quentin, March 21, 1918. Lieutenant Feigl volunteered his services to his country while a student at Harvard University, and he was the first American artillery officer to fall in the war. On an island in the middle of Jeff Feigl Square, surrounded by the continual flow of traffic, stands the painted zinc-alloy statue of an Indian. The Indian gazes east. His left hand grips an unstrung bow, and his left foot is slightly advanced. He ears buckskin breeches and a headdress of three up right feathers, and has a cape tossed over his naked shoulders. His long, flowing hair is anointed with pigeon droppings. The statue was donated in 1907 by a longtime Mount Kisco resident and temperance leader, David Fletcher Gorham. Water used to gush from its base, beneath a plaque proclaiming “GOD’S ONLY BEVERAGE FOR MAN AND BEAST.” It Soon became the town’s best-known landmark. Travellers were told to turn left or right, or to go straight, at the Indian. An oil truck knocked it from its pedestal in 1925; it was restored. According to local legend, Greta Garbo placed a wreath about its neck in 1932, and it somehow managed to appear in the seventeenth series of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

During the turbulent nineteen-sixties, it was vandalized several times and restored again. In time, the Indian became known as Chief Kisco, and people started to talk as if such a chief had really existed, not realizing that dozens of identical statues had been cast at the turn of the century by the J. L. Mott Ironworks, of New York City, and were available by mail order. The chance discovery of a picture of the same statue on a postcard from Schenectady, New York, led Ollie Knapp, retired telephone lineman, dispatcher for the Mount Kisco fire department, and local-history buff, to make an all-out search for others. He found Chief Kisco in Barberton, Akron, Cincinnati, and Lodi, Ohio; in Ishpeming, Michigan, where he is known as Old Ish; and in Calhoun, Georgia, where he is called Sequoyah. The statue in Cincinnati was described, rather uncharitably, in a W ,P .A. guidebook as “not worth a second glance from the standpoint of art.” Once when I went to South America, I was charged by Knapp to verify whether a statue commemorating Atahualpa in Cuzco, Peru, was another of Mott’s Indians. U nfortunately, I got to the square in which it had stood only to find that it had been lassoed by a couple of drunks three years before and had toppled.

Jeff Feigl Square is a good place to watch the Mount Kisco Firemen’s Parade. Most of the villages and hamlets in northern Westchester have a firemen’s parade, but, because there are four companies in Mount Kisco-the M utuals, the Hooks, the Independents, and the Fire Police-the parade of its firemen, in July, is particularly impressive. Having already paraded through a few villages that summer, the firemen were in top form the last time I saw them. The main streets had been closed off. Several dozen young girls belonging to the Most Holy Trinity Fife and Drum Corps of Mamaroneck, some of them playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on piccolos, led it off. Everybody gave them a hand. Another village’s chapter of the Lions’ Club followed. Paunchy, gray-haired, and unknown to most of the crowd, they received a more perfunctory kind of applause. Then there was a gap in the formal procession, filled by an assortment of kids on bicycles and a vender pushing a shopping cart decorated with gas-filled balloons. Suddenly, Mount Kisco’s own Ancient Fife and Drum Corps came round the corner. Thirty eighteen-inch fifes, three bass drums, and ten snares took up “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” Each child in the corps wore a scarlet vest and a black tricorne. The Ancients had already appeared twice, in May-once to march the Little League up to the park on opening day, and again on Memorial Day-but this was the moment fot which they had been practicing in the elementary-school parking lot every Wednesday evening since daylight-saving time had begun, and the crowd had withheld its greatest applause for them.

Between firemen’s parades are all the religious ceremonies: Palm Sunday, when the congregation comes out of St. Francis of Assisi late in the morning and the streets are filled with groups of two or three going home with the pleasant-smelling palm fronds; the funeral of a villager, whose casket may be carried down the church steps by six American Legionnaires; and Confirmation, when little girls in white dresses swarm around the bishop and kiss his ring as he stands in front of the church with his scepter and mitre, casting his blessing into the street. At Christmastime, each of the churches and funeral homes on Main Street usually puts out a creche. A few years ago, I counted six creches, each more imaginative and lifelike than the next. But I would have given first prize to the Nativity scene in front of the Lutheran Church, whose figures were real live people, motionless in the winter air except for the occasional plume of breath that would escape from one of them.

Mount Kisco’s largest institution is the Northern Westchester Hospital Center. Upward of a thousand babies are born and more than two hundred people die there each year. .It is a tradition with the local merchants to give presents to the first-born child each new year. One of the recent lucky babies was Michael Frank Nicolosi, who came into the world at 3: 34 A.M. on January I st, weighing seven pounds six ounces. He was welcomed with five half gallons of ice cream from Friendly’s Ice Cream Shop, three cases of baby food from Pantry Pride, and a savings account from each of the village’s banks. The proud mother received a twenty-pound box of no-phosphate detergent from Sears, a free shampoo and set from Thelma Hair stylists, and three free visits to Supersonic Car Wash. All told, the Nicolosis were showered with sixty-six presents.

Around the central hospital complex, an array of doctors and dentists have set up practice in smaller professional buildings and converted residences. In back of the hospital are four parallel tree-bordered streets-Boltis, Woodland, Spring, and West. It’s a quiet neighborhood, not built to any set plan and not significantly different from the architectual productions of ten thousand other American towns.  Some houses are stucco, some brick, some wood-frame with a modest amount of gingerbread trim and maybe a shed-type garage in back. Wings, porches, and other additions have been tacked on as the need arose, and every dwelling is masted with a teleyjsion aerial. The residents are Irish, Italian, and black. Families are close, but, since the arrival of television, neighbors don’t visit with each other or talk over the fence as much as they used to, although their children still play together in the street. The patterns of their life could be called provincial: the majority pass their lives on these four streets and are buried in cemeteries a few hundred yards away-in Oakwood, if Protestant; in St. Francis, if Catholic, the Italians with their long Mediterranean names chiselled in the headstones below photographs of themselves.

If there is anything exceptional about West Street, it is that it has a lingering Italian flavor, though not as pronounced as it used to be. A few of the houses have grape arbors over their back doors, and the back yards have been terraced with plain or whitepainted boulders. Some of the trees in the neighborhood-even Norway maples, which were planted for shade -have been severely pollarded, as if they were expected to bear fruit. Come springtime, almost everyone prepares a small plot for tomatoes, peppers, egg plants, zucchini squash, romaine lettuce. Later, in the fall, people put in escarole, which can stand the cold. Before the first frost, they wrap their small fig trees in old carpets or blankets and cover them for the winter with garbage cans.

Recently, the Bernsteins-Stan and Marcia and their children, Judy, Cyrus, and Hilary-moved into a forty year-old stucco Tudor house with an underhouse garage, on Parkview Place, on the other side of town from West Street. It is the Bernsteins’ first house; they have always lived in apartments. The move ended a process of extrication from the Bronx,  up through the crowded residential rings of lower Westchester, and finally to the relative country of Mount Kisco. Parkview Place is in a solidly white, middle-class neighborhood. The individual homeowner takes a great deal of pride in the appearance of his yard. Schneider, the Bernsteins’ neighbor, is an ingenious man who builds grandfather clocks in his basement and has a vegetable and flower garden that is the envy of the street. The other neighbors, who object to Max (short fo Maxima), the Bernsteins’ Great Dane, are not particularly friendly.

Stan Bernstein, who is about forty, commutes to the Bronx, where he designs ventilator systems for high-rise buildings. He was born in the Bronx and grew up there. “My ideal was to live on the East Side of Manhattan, but when we got married, in 1956, we couldn’t afford to live there, so we lived in the Bronx in a fifth-floor walkup right near the zoo,” he told me. “After a while, we became disenchanted with the Bronx. Although we wanted the urban life, we also wanted a little nature. There was an ideal location in Fleetwood. We didn’t ha ve a car, so we used the trains, and were less than half an hour from downtown Manhattan. Out back, there was a beautiful park with huge tulip trees, which they have since blasted out to make the interchange between the Bronx River Parkway and the Cross County Parkway. I would walk in the park every night, rain or shine. I had a bird feeder on every windowsill. We got them by the thousands. I grew orchids in a jerry-built greenhouse in the window. Finally, we were kicked out because we got a dog. There were other dogs in the building, but the management didn’t want any new ones. We could have taken them to court, but we decided it was time to move anyway, so we moved into the Cadillac Apartments, in Mount Vernon. Every Saturday or Sunday, we would make safaris to northern Westchester, exploring the area. We drove past Fox Lane High School, in Bedford, and said, ‘This is where we’d like to send our kids.’ We saw them building Diplomat Towers, in Mount Kisco, and said, ‘Here is an apartment house with a pool in the middle of the lovely country.’ From the apartment they showed us, we could look across the tracks to this magnificent marsh, which was beautiful in the summer with all the purple loosestrife. So we took it. The first day we got there, we left all the furniture in the middle of the room and went camping.”

Diplomat Towers, however, did not live up to the Bernsteins’ expectations. “The place began to deteriorate,” Stan went on. “The management made deals for rent abatement with many of the people who lived there. Light bulbs burned out in stairwells and were not replaced, the elevator broke down almost daily, and we were constantly having to walk the six floors. The incinerator caught fire on several occasions and gave off noxious fumes.  The management started renting to They took in a known pusher and several women of questionable morals. There were an awful lot of divorced families-just a mother or father and kids who went wild. There were people who started out straight at Diplomat Towers and ended messed up.”

“Things are better there now-the management has changed-but we used to go over to Diplomat all the time,” William J. Nelligan, Mount Kisco’s Chief of Police, told me. “Mostly for family fights, complaints of malicious mischief, or on narcotics raids. Several years ago, we intercepted a twenty-five-pound box of marijuana that was being delivered to two characters in one of the towers. They were living in a two-bedroom apartment, and their only furniture consisted of two mattresses, two Early Salvation Army dressers, and a hi-fi set. Their only employment was dealing in marijuana.”

Chief Nelligan was sitting at his desk in the Municipal Building. He had risen through the ranks to become, ten years ago, head of Mount Kisco’s twenty-four-man force. A collection of handguns and shooting medals was encased on the wall behind him. “I’m here till I retire, die, resign, or get fired,” he explained. I asked him to describe the village from the law-enforcement point of view, and he said, “Most of our complaints are family conflicts, both within and between families-people living together in close proximity. There have beep a few muggings. But big crime? There isn’t much of that. An arI1;led robbery at Friendly’s Ice Cream was the last one, and that was two or three years ago. We have a number of banks, but the difficulty of escaping through our congested streets and the high police presence make bank robbing a poor risk. Of course, there are your ordinary larcenies, like the one a little while back where someone stole a ring out of Grove Jewelers when the salesman’s back was turned and ran off with it. Shoplifting is hard to assess. Our philosophy is to leave prosecution to the merchant’s discretion. The kids who do the shoplifting are not necessarily the deprived. You go over to the kid’s house and he’s got everything from ice skates to a hand computer, and you try to figure out why he did it. There’s been a change in the last twenty years. You used to be able to call up the parents and say, ‘J oe, your son broke into a store and stoIc twenty-two cents,’ and Joe would come down, clip the boy in the jaw, and take him home, and it would never happen again. Now parents refuse to admit that it could have happened. They get defensive about it. ‘You can’t see him. He’s in bed.’ They accuse you of picking on their son.”

Controlling his anger, Chief Nelligan got up and took me to see the lockup. “This is a high-class can,” he said, showing me one of four cells for males. “We got mattresses on the bunks, a commode, and a sink in every cell. The inmates are inspected every half hour. We only hold them for twenty-four hours, until they are arraigned in court the next morning. Then they are taken to the county jail.” The female prisoners spend the night in a detention room and are looked after by a matron. “There’s no big problem with crime in Mount Kisco,” Chief Nelligan concluded, shutting the bars of the empty cell. “Thanks to me.” Then, after a little pause in which he looked at me to see if I saw that he was joking, he went on, “Actually, we have the highest concentration of criminals in northern Westchester except for Peekskill and Ossining Village, but they go and commit their crimes in other towns.”

The Municipal Building of the Village of Mount Kisco-fireproof, brick, and in the Federal style-is the largest town hall in the northern part of the county. In this building, the mayor, the trustees, and the village manager put their heads together every other week to legislate the further developments in store for Mount Kisco and try to make sens.e out of what has already happened. Although an architectural review board was set up several years ago to “maintain some sort of harmony between the buildings of Mount Kisco,” there isn’t much it can do about the many varieties of small-town architecture which have been contributing examples of themselves there for the last hundred years. Few buildings in the village have serious architectural pretensions. The United Methodist Church, with its soaring spire, louvred belfrey, pointed-arch window openings, and board-and-batten siding, is one-a good example of the Stick Style, or Carpenter Gothic, that flourished in the Picturesque Revival period, between 1840 and 1860. A number of ornate Victorian residences, embellished with spacious porches, mansard roofs, turrets, pedimented dormers, flaring eaves, cast-iron porticoes, porte cocheres, projecting bays, and iron finials, can be found on Captain Merritt’s Hill. But most of the structures in the valley-the gas stations, stores, diners, and residences-are examples of “vernacular” architecture: they’re just regular old American buildings. Lacking the self-consciousness and the formality of statelier edifices, they have an integrity and power of their own.

A few pieces of open land remain in Mount Kisco: a golf course, a reedy portion of the watershed, sixty acres of a former estate on Kisco Mountain. There are several schools of thought about this land. Some believe that Mount Kisco has already got out of hand, and that it might be wise to leave the last undeveloped tracts open. These people claim that the downtown streets are running double their capacity and I that the old character of the village is rapidly going down the drain. They fear that Mount Kisco, with the policy: of indiscriminate growth it has always I followed, may be taking what one of them called “a suicidal course.” A more powerful contingent wants to see Mount Kisco keep growing. They feel it must seek out development or the development will go elsewhere and the town will no longer be “the hub of northern Westchester,” as it has been called. “If it stops, it dies,” a woman at the Chamber of Commerce told me. Some would like the last open land to become the site of a big-name department store. Others dream of condom.iniums or a high-rise parking garage. Too many residents, a so-called townhouse faction argues, are now renters of apartments. Mount Kisco needs to get back to the owner; he would do more for the town. As for the traffic problems additional people might create, Henry Kensing, the mayor, did not seem worried. “Normally,” he said, “it takes five minutes to get from one end of town to the other.”

FROM about 1880 to 1940, a few people lived in a degree of material splendor that will never be known in Westchester again. The rich lived in mansions designed by the best architects, filled with the best art from Europe and the Far East, and looking out at the best views across carefully landscaped expanses of their own property.

James Sutton built one of the first big houses. He married the only daughter of R. H. Macy, which brought him a great fortune. In the eighteen-eighties, he bought several hundred acres in Bedford and hired a well-known French architect to build a big house for him on the top of a hill. The long allee leading up to it was planted with young maples that have since grown into magnificent specimens. The entire hillside was converted into a rolling lawn of perhaps twelve acres, which was maintained by a horse-drawn mower. The horses wore specia] leather boots to prevent them from marking up the turf. But the building of the house seemed to take forever. At last, the architect came to the Suttons, presented them with a key, and told them to meet him in the front hall at nine o’clock the following morning. The house was ready. At nine, the Suttons put the key in the front door, opened it, and were greeted by the sight of the architect hanging by his neck in the stairwell. “Despite this rather gruesome beginning,” their neighbor Gustavus Kirby wrote in his memoirs, “the Suttons lived in their home for many years.”

At the end of the nineteenth century, the big houses were built in a number of styles. There was a turning away from Victorian Gothic to a Colonial simplicity, of which the Van Cortlandt house on Guard Hill Road in Bedford, a farm house that was expanded and rebuilt by Stanford White, is a good example. In the nineteen-twenties, “bastard Norman” Newport and Narragansett houses, half-shingle and half-stone, became popular. After 1914-, people built French chateaux, and in the twenties they went in for the Tudor look. A few Regency houses went up, too, but the handsomest big houses were Georgian.

The house of Dr. and Mrs. Robert L. Patterson is a large Georgian, e]egant in the purity and simplicity of its lines. It was designed by the firm of Delano & Aldrich and was built over 1905 and 1906 for William Sloane, whose father had developed a family rug-and-furniture business into an enormously successful N ew York department store. The house, in Mount Kisco, was put up as a surprise for his wife. The Sloanes’ daughter Margaret became Mrs. Patterson. She was born in the house, and still lives there a good deal of the year. Inside the house are framed signatures of all the Presidents of the United States. Outside is one of the few grass tennis courts still maintained in Westchester. The lines are powdered with chalk, and the bounce is low, fast, and unpredictable. In a nearby coop are the Pattersons’ peacocks. Every time a ball smacks the net, the peacocks let out a squawk that can be heard in the valley below. The tennis court was responsible for bringing Dr. Patterson and his wife together. He was a young doctor from Georgia doing his residency in orthopedics at Presbyterian Hospital, in N ew York. During a weekend visit to his uncle, who lived nearby, Patterson was asked to the S]oanes’ for a game of tennis. Margaret, in a long skirt, slipped and scraped her knee. The young doctor offered to examine it. “I took one look at her knee and that was that,” Dr. Patterson said.

“It was a working farm,” his wife said. Her face became luminous as she spoke of her childhood. “We milked cows, kept pigs and chickens, cut ice and stored it in an icehouse, There were two root cellars-one for potatoes and the other for apples. Mrs. Hughes used to bong the gong for lunch. She hit it with a sledgehammer. Our working horses were Belgian. They were sorrel-colored, with white manes and fetlocks, and absolutely enormous.  They plowed and they reaped and they hayed, and they ran away and busted down the grapes once. I used to drive my high-stepping hackneys down to the station. I had horses way into the thirties. We had a big old Pierce-Arrow, too, with isinglass windows and a canvas top you had to buckle on and off. In the beginning, there was no one here. Then the Myers and the Cooks and the Strausses came and built their houses. Eugene Myer was my father’s classmate at Yale in 1895. He started the Washington Post. His sister m~rried Alfred Cook. Jesse Strauss was the Ambassador to France. They were very high-calibre people, who kept to themselves. Of course, they couldn’t get into the country club.” But the Tuckers had the greatest estate of all in the Bedford area. Threequarters of a century ago, Carll and Marcia Tucker bought all the land enclosed by three roads-something like five hundred acres-and hired Frederick Law Olmsted’s architectural firm to design an estate for them. The designers called upon the Tudor, Norman, Gothic, Romanesque, and several other styles to give the Tuckers Penwood-a group of weighty stone structures whose last detail, whose every crenellation and machicolation would evoke the best traditions of European culture.

Carll Tucker’s family had published a magazine called The Country Gentleman, and he was himself what was known as a gentleman of leisure. His wife was Marcia Brady, whose father, Anthony Brady, was one of Thomas Edison’s business partners, and left at his death one of the largest personal fortunes that had ever been accumulated. It was divided nine ways. Tucker managed his wife’s money very well. Besides Pen wood, they had residences on Park Avenue and at Hobe Sound, and a huge schooner called Migrant, which was one of the largest private vessels afloat until it was commandeered by the Navy in the Second World War.

Carll died a number of years ago, and Marcia died in 1976, in her nineties. The main house at Penwood has been closed and empty for about twelve years. The Tuckers’ son Carll, Jr., became active in local affairs around Mount Kisco, founding a newspaper called the Patent Trader. Near Pen wood, he built an enormous French chateau, on the scale of the mansions of the teens and the twenties, but the year it was finished, 1968, he died of a heart attack, at the age of forty-six. His son Carll III used to invite me to play squash in the court at Pen wood until he moved into the city, where he is now the chairman and editor of the Saturday Review. The Tuckers are one of the few intact dynasties in Westchester, and their status is eclipsed only by that of the Rockefellers of Pocantico Hills.

Several years ago, young Carll commissioned the architect Robert Venturi to build him a new house. The Tucker house, as it is already being called, looks very much like a large birdhouse. According to the architectural historian Vincent Scully, it represents “the ultimate reaction to Frank Lloyd Wright, the reassertion of the vertical.” Now that most of the level ground in Westchester has been spoken for, we are probably going to see a lot of vertical housing on the slopes-woodland dwellings with the upper story in the canopy of the forest-of which the Tucker house will be a classic example.

Shortly after the house was ready, I found Carll at home. Outside, two men with shovels were talking to each other in Italian while putting the finishing touches on what would be the front lawn. Inside, Carll was supervising the hanging of his pictures. Most of them were old prints of European landscapes, and there was an Elizabethan portrait in the dining room, where we sat and talked for a while about growing up at Penwood and what the move to a newer and smaller Tucker house represented. “Properties are smaller ,” he declared. “Wealth has become anonymous. When I was growing up, everybody knew my name. All the shop people.  It’s no longer the case, which is fine by me. We lived on such a huge place, far away from everybody.. I was alone but had lots to do. Horses and dogs were my playmates. I grew up in an adult world, surrounded by grooms and maids. At Yale, I was never much of a hail-fellow-well-met. I was clumsy socially, and didn’t know how to deal with my contemporaries until they became adults themselves. My way of keeping up the family tradition was to be an achiever-writer, musician, top of the class. My father chose to start a newspaper in the town where he had grown up, which was some kind of masochism. He wanted to prove himself not one of the idle rich. Make it in your own back yard. Go to people you had regarded as servants and ask for their advertising.”

Carll went into the bedroom and changed into his whites. He was off to the country club. “Tennis is an important part of my life,” he said. “I try to play some racquet sport as often as I can.”

A few months later, I met Carll at Penwood. He had become engaged, and his fiancee was as curious as I to see the inside of the main house. I had been only in the squash building and the greenhouse, the three long wings of which were maintained by a family of Italians who had kept Carll’s grandmother supplied with flowers throughout the year. The main house had been built between 1912 and 1920, with an interruption while the First World War was being fought. Sicilian stonemasons had been imported for the job. “The inner courtyard is Tudor, the outer part is Romanesque, and the inside is Gothic,” Carll said. The kitchen took up several rooms, in which only the great cast-iron ranges, with their metal hoods, and the long zinc sinks remained. In the dining room were a magnificent Delft fireplace and a dozen or so high-backed chairs with the Tucker crest (a lion’s paw holding up the motto “Nil Desperandum”). Baroque Italian frescoes showing pastoral maidens and shepherds romping in a misty hillscape panelled the walls. Our footsteps echoed down the long dark corridor of a hallway lined with stone arches that might have come from some Gothic cathedral. “The house isn’t known for its lightness,” Carll said as we felt our way into the study. Several shelves were still filled with leatherhound sets of Thackeray and George Eliot.  Twelve servants had been attached to the house. They were quartered over the kitchen, in small rooms whose size depended on the servant’s importance. The butler had been given the biggest one.

THE extent of the Italian presence in Westchester is not generally realized. The truth is that Italian-Americans form the largest segment of the population; that almost every artifact in some way reflects their shaping hand; that they dominate not only the construction industry but most of the services, including landscaping, catering, baking, hairdressing, law, politics, and practically everything else that makes the place run on a day-to-day basis.

In some parts of Westchester, where the paesani of one Italian village have settled en masse, the fiesta of its patron saint is still celebrated. Elmsford has a feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel; Port Chester honors St. Anthony of Padua; and in Verplanck there is a big feast of the Madonna. The town of Cortlandt, which includes Croton, Oscawana, Verplanck, and several other Hudson River villages, has the most closely knit Italian-American communities in the county. Mamaroneck is about sixty per cent Italian. On the main street, the movie house shows pictures in the mother tongue.

The first wave came in 1880, the year there were twelve thousand Italian immigrants. Before long, the figure rose as high as three hundred thousand a year. Four-fifths of them were from Sicily and the lower part of the boot, where the soil, denuded of trees since Roman times, had long been exhausted, and the social structure offered those at the bottom little more than a life of unremitting toil and misery. During the eighteen-eighties, a series of record-breaking droughts plagued southern Italy. In 1887, an epidemic of cholera broke out. Shortly aiterward, an economic crisis was precipitated by France’s imposition of a high tariff on Italian wines. The economy went into deeper decline as Italy lost the major importer of her lemons and oranges-the United States, which was developing its own citrus-fruit industry. In 1906, Vesuvius erupted, leaving thousands homeless. Then, in 1914, a world war broke out. Each of these calamities sent a wave of Italians over to America. To date, five million Italians have resettled in this country-a number surpassed only by the Germans.

Many of these new arrivals were drawn to Westchester, where a variety of menial jobs beckoned. The New York reservoir system was being laid out and there were dams to build, as well as bridges, pipelines, viaducts, aqueducts, and traction systems. The railroad was extending its track up the Harlem Valley from Mount Kisco, and there were roads to build, power, telephone, and telegraph wires to string, stone and sand to quarry, houses to put up, and walls to stack. This was the kind of work the Italian laborer was used to doing, and he became a ditchdigger, hod carrier, mortar mixer, or sandhog, believing that if he worked hard and saved his money he could set himself up in a business of his own in a few years, then go back to Italy and find a wife or bring over the one he’d left behind.

The great achievement of Italian manual labor in Westchester is the New Croton Dam, in Cortlandt. It was started in 1892 and was regarded at the time of its completion, in 1907, as the eighth wonder of the worJd. By any standards, it is an impressive structure: huge blocks of granite taken from nearby quarries rise in a tapering curve to a height of two hundred and ninety feet on a foundation sunk a hundred and twenty-four feet below the riverbed. A decorative corniced border runs along the top layer of blocks between two of the three buttresses and under the concrete road where motorists can get out, lean on the silver-painted guardrail, and take in the view. The great dam spans twenty-five hundred feet in all, looming over the Croton Gorge and a small county park with scattered maples and evergreens far below. It holds back thirty-two billion gallons, whose overflow, released gradually over a series of steps into a thousand-foot spillway, runs under a huge steel arch and then comes thundering down into the gorge in three stages, with natural outcroppings o~ rock to break its fall, throwing up mist, rainbows, and a fresh organic smell.

The people who built the dam lived at its foot and in the surrounding hills, in colonies with boarding houses, saloons, shops, and chapels. Many of the men’ were single and played cards, bocce, and amura (two or more people shooting out their fingers and betting on the outcome). The well-to-do would titillate themselves by driving through the Italian ghettos and labor camps that had cropped up around the county. Unsolved thefts and rapes were commonly pinned on “those greasy Italians,” and some communities, like Katonah and Chappaqua, were in ‘such mortal fear of them that they deed-restricted against Italians until only a few years ago. Sutton’s Row, in Mount Kisco, was one of the seamier Italian ghettos in the county. It had no toilets or running water, and it harbored gangsters. Three-Fingered Brown and John Dillinger both hid out in cellars on Sutton’s Row for a while.

Italians are still associated with crime in the popular imagination, and no account of the Italian presence in Westchester would be complete without mention of the Mafia. “You only hear about it when something bad happens,” a respected member of the Italian community told me. “As soon as someone is killed, they say, ‘It looks like a Mafia job.’ But the Mafia is really like a close brotherhood. If something happens to a family, like sickness or death, they’re known to help them out. On top of the list with the Mafia is trusting each other. If you double-cross them, you had better watch it. But as long as you keep your word they can be good people to deal with.”

Westchester County District Attorney Carl A. Vergari was less charitable about what he called “the Robin Hood mythology” that surrounds the Mafia. “

That’s garbage, he pronounce emphatically from behind his desk in the County Center, in White Plains. “All they are is punks, gangsters, hoodlums, who have these units called families, with an infrastructure. At the same time, it’s unfair that organized crime is presented as an Italian venture. Within the structure of the underworld there is a group that is Italian, but they are connected to a larger network, which reaches across the country. This Italian group is an important part of the total organized-crime picture in the U.S. but an infinitesimal part of the Italians in Westchester County.”

An imposing and well-spoken man in his fifties, wearing a black pin-striped suit, Vergari himself represents an interesting phenomenon-that of the Italians who have entered public office within the last twenty years and come to dominate Westchester politics. Vergari is a Republican, but the County Executive is a Democrat by the name of Alfred DelBello. It is not really surprising that a great many of the elected officials in the coun ty are of Italian descent, because the Italian vote is estimated to be between forty and forty-five per cent of the total.

According to Vergari, the two main operations in which organized crime has a hand in Westchester are gambling and loansharking. “Millions of Westchester dollars are involved in the numbers racket, and in bookmaking and sports betting,” he said; I told him that I’d been eating a hot dog in front of a lunchwagon the other day, and a man had pulled up in a sausage truck with New Jersey plates and placed a twenty-dollar bet with the owner of the wagon on the outcome of a horse race to be run that afternoon.

“He may have been an independent,” Vergari said, “but chances are he was a ‘writer,’ who turns his sheet over to somebody else. The next level, the first executive, is the ‘comptroller.’ He can have forty or fifty writers who turn in to him. The comptroller is usually a member of a ‘bank,’ where the bets are reviewed. Four to eight comptrollers belong to a bank. We busted a big bank in Eastchester six or seven years ago, in a building that had formerly housed the Chamber of Commerce. The seal was still on the front door. The comptrollers would get there after midnight and work through dawn getting ready for the day’s action. Subsequently, we broke up several other banks, and after that they moved out of the county. Recently, in con junction with the State Police, we busted a big bank across the river in Rockland County. But as for the man on the street placing a bet with a bookie, there’s no way in the world we can stop it. We don’t even try here. The local police departments are in charge of that.”

I mentioned a recent newspaper account of a Westchester drug bust in which it was reported that the operation had an “alleged Mafia connection.”

“Drugs?” he said. “I don’t waste my time wondering if it’s Mafia. The Mafia is not a big force in drugs. Its top level has long since ceased to be an active force in narcotics except as financiers. A man might come to one of them and say, ‘I have a chance to bring in a ship. It’ll cost a hundred grand, but I can get six hundred grand in two weeks.’ So the guy will lend him the money, at two and a half per cent a week. But it’s very hard to finger a loan shark. You have to prove that he knew what the money was going for. Most of the loansharking is with legitimate business people whose credit has gone dry. It’s risky if you can’t pay it back.”

I drew my first finger horizontally across my throat and looked at Vergari questioningly.
He nodded.

The private carting business in Westchester is also widely thought to be controlled by criminal elements. In 1974, the Times ran a story ahout the A-I Compaction Corporation, founded by Nicholas Rattenni, who has been ide n ti fi e d on the charts of United States Senate investigations as a soldato, or soldier, in the Vito Genovese family and the reputed head of the Genovese carting operations in the county. Rattenni’s adopted son Alfred runs the business now. It has been under intensive local investigation, but so far the District Attorney’s office has been unable to find any evidence of wrongdoing. Rattenni had bought up a number of small garbage-removal services, none of whose former owners, however, would admit that they had been forced to sell out. They claimed to have been offered a good price.

In recent years, Vergari explained, the tendency has been for the second generation-the sons of known underworld figures-to go into legitimate businesses: restaurants, apartment houses, clubs, and the like. So-called Mafia-operated night clubs have the reputation of being extremely well run.
CONTRARY to popular notion, New York is not where everyone in Westchester works. In fact, less than a third of the county’s labor force is employed in the city. According to a recent bulletin from the County Planning Department, there are ahout three hundred and seventy thousand johs in Westchester. Only a hundred and twenty thousand residents commute out; seventy thousand non-residents commute in, and several thousand new jobs are added each year. In 1930, only a tenth of the county’s work force commuted, although in bedroom communities like Chappaqua and Pleasantville the figure was as high as twothirds.

My father has been commuting with dignity for thirty years. For many of them, he boarded his train at North White Plains. The drive along Route 22, past the shimmering Kensico Reservoir and under the great dam, was a pleasant way to start the day. It took twenty minutes. Like many commuters, my father drives to the station in an old secondhand car, leaving the more presentable rig with his wife. Over the years, he has gone through eight station cars: two Ford sedans, a Hillman Minx, a Ford station wagon, a red Studehaker sedan, a green Studebaker Lark station wagon, a Corvair that was destroyed hy a flood in 1968 while parked in North White Plains, and a little brown Studebaker sedan. He went to North White Plains because there was a greater choice of trains and because the over-all journey was shorter. If you boarded anywhere north of there, you had to wait at North White Plains for several minutes while they switched from a diesel engine to an electric for the final stretch into the city. But in the early nineteensixties the New York Central provided the Harlem Line with FL-9 locomotives which can operate on both diesel and electric power. Now it s quicker for my father to get on at Bedford Hills.

While the commuting fare has multiplied by a factor of five since my father has been paying it, the commuting time has not improved since 1847. In the days of steam, when the tracks were new and the trains sleek and efficient it was an hour’s run from Forty-second Street to Mount Kisco.  Now the fastest express trams make it in an hour and three minutes. There used to be a gang every five miles who walked its section daily, making sure the ballast was O.K. beneath the ties so the trains didn’t bounce up and down the way they do today, and carrying long-handled wrenches to tighten any loose bolts. Now its done with mechamcal “tie-tampers” and “rail-liners.” There isn’t the human involvement, an employee told me, or the personal satisfaction that everyone who worked for the railroad once felt. The trains aren’t running as smoothly as they used to because for many years the tracks weren’t kept up.

Steam engines were much more exciting-especially the 3300 series, known as “hand-fired bombers,” which rushed through the night, sparks flying, passing one hamlet after another and consuming a hundred and thirty-five scoops of coal an hour. Arthur Bernhard a retired railroad man and a long time resident of Bedford Hills, never got over the time he was twelve and was allowed to ride in one of the last of the hand-fired bombers, sitting next to the engineer, Bill Healy, because Healy was a friend of his dad’s; during the construction of Grand Central Station Arthur Bernhard’s father switched tracks for trains laden with bedrock, which Healy drove in. It was just Arthur and Bill Healy, deadheading from Yonkers to Harmon. “That wail of the whistle, two long, one short, and one long,” Bernhard wrote in a reminiscence of the trip which he had printed for friends, “is a sound t?at one never forgets.” The 3300 senes was replaced by the 5200 series of 1926, which had automatic stokers, delivering coal to the firebox by means of a screw-type feeder under the floor. By 1947, the use of steam engines on the Harlem Line had been discontinued altogether. Today’s whistles are electric imitations of the old steam ones.

I was a regular commuter only for several months one summer, but I have often joined the commuters’ ranks. I’m on a first-name basis with Lou, a huge man who sells newspapers and coffee at the Mount Kisco station and enlivens the waiting room with foxtrot music from his radio. The station is a popular campaign stop for local politicians. In season, they can be found at the door, promising to reintroduce trust into politics and government, and handing out leaflets with pictures of themselves. Conversation is minimal. Some of the commuters are not yet awake. They stand like infantry at dawn waiting to be shipped to the front. F or some, the commute is only part of a larger, savage work pattern, like the man I know who is vice-president of a big company yet continues to catch the 6: 1 0 train each morning, arriving with striped tie, wings of collar pinned tight, and gold watch fob draped across front of vest, fully two hours ahead of everyone who works for him. For some, the commuting becomes addictive. Some even look forward to it. “Regular commuting is relaxing,” my father told me. “It’s the late hours that get to you.”

What the passengers do on the train has not changed significantly since a survey was made of their activities in 1942: “49% read, 82% of these read papers, 25% do nothing, 8% smoke regularly, 11% talk;  3% don’t even remember what they do or don’t do.”  To these activities I would add playing poker, drinking in the bar car, sleeping, looking through the dirty windows, and working. 1’he invention of the pocket calculator enables the commuter to play with big figures on the train and has been a boon for those who want to keep working. But the big thing is reading the paper. It is understood that one doesn’t talk in the morning, and the cars are silent except for the sound of the pages being turned.

After taking the train for years, one gets to know what’s coming around each bend-the garden plots just into Chappaqua, the elderberry clusters at Hawthorne, the blank headstones in front of the monument dealer’s at the Kensico Cemetery, the billboards in the Bronx, the ailanthus and the weeds along the tracks. The marshy expanse between Mount Kisco and Chappaqua is seldom noticed by commuters except in July and August, when it glows with thousands of spikes of purple loosestrife. Once, at dusk, I looked out there and saw the intent white form of an egret hunting among the loosestrife stalks for frogs. In winter, the journeys are made in darkness and the commuter may not see his home by daylight until the weekend.

Complaints about the rail service seem to monopolize conversation whenever two or more commuters are gathered together, and breakdowns happen regularly enough to stoke their ire. After one Friday evening fiasco, the railroad published an apology in the local paper:

To REGULAR PASSENGERS OF TRAIN No. 967 (the 5: 39 P.M. to Brewster) :

We apologize for the approximate two-and-a-half hours of delay many of you suffered last Friday evening before making your destinations between Hawthorne and Brewster. No “post-game” analysis can make that suffering easier, but you should know the separate incidents which contributed to your tribulation:Your II-coach, two”engine train lost 7 minutes in Grand Central Terminal because the brake would not release on the rear coach; another several minutes in traffic congestion because switch trouble near Scarsdale required using only one track.Both engines failed south of the White Plains station shortly before 7 P.M. because of a burnt power cable and other electrical malfunctions.Efforts to transfer you to the 6: 00 and 6: 29 P.M. trains to Brewster were frustrated by both those trains being already loaded to capacity; the 7:13 P.M. to Brewster took some of you.

At 7: 05 P.M. a relief engine was dispatched from North White Plains yards to accommodate you; it suffered its own engine failure before .leaving.

Finally, our dispatchers cancelled the southbound 7: 02 P.M. from Brewster at North White Plains (where its passengers could connect with other trains), and used its engines to turn and pull your disabled train. The heavy load cost you another 19 minutes. It all added up to 149 minutes late at Brewster.

Admittedly, a very bad night of service to you. We are very sorry.

But the days of the gray-flannel cattle cars could be numbered. Within the next few decades, The Economist predicts, the volume of commuters may be down to a trickle: “T elecommunications should gradually allow an increasing number of breadwinners to live in whatever communities they wish to form and to ‘telecommute’ daily into their New York offices from homes in Tahiti or the Alps.” The businessman will be able to conduct deals with people whose faces are projected on screens he has flicked on in his living room. If telecommuting does displace commuting, it will certainly have a drastic effect on Westchester life, on the housewife and the children who are used to the father being away most of the time, doing something dow~ there of which they have only a vague idea.

THERE is a distinctly European aspect to White Plains. The architecture, a mixture of staid Tudor apartment buildings, large department stores, and run-down row houses, could be that of Birmingham, Le Havre, or some other provincial capital. The vegetation, planted deliberately or escaped, is mostly European. London planes, copper beeches, Norwa~ maples, and ginkgoes, all capable of WIthstanding the fumes, line the boulevards. The old people who sit on the public benches, gather wild onions and dandelion greens along the river parkways, and search the last shreds of woods for mushrooms are European-Eastern European, for the most part.

How White Plains got its name is not immediately apparent. I have stopped a number of inhabitants on the street and asked them what the name refers to, but none could come up with an answer. A man named John Rosch once set to work to find out just how White Plains did get its name, and his monograph, which appeared in 1939, is still the most extensive treatment of the subject. But Rosch is forced to concede, “I think the first settlers were not wholly felicitous in christening their hamlet,” and he notes that “the prevalence of white balsam shrubs hereabouts” was offered to him as one explanation. For my part, I had ~ lot of trouble running down what whIte-balsam shrubs were-whether they were saplings of a kind of poplar known as tacamahac or balm of Gilead or were not shrubs at all but an everlasting herb in the composite family called sweet white balsam and more commonly referred to as cat’s-foot. Having seen both the silver undersides of the leaves in a vast stand of poplar fluttering up in the breeze and hillsides in the summer smothered with inflorescences of pearly everlasting like a blanket of frost, I can visualize either explanation. Now that most of White Plains is tarred over, we’ll never know. By the late nineteenth century, the meadows and pastures around White Plains were reportedly filled with daisies until they looked snow-covered even in the month of June. But there were no daisies, which are alien, in Westchester at the time the deed was purchased from the Indians, in 1683. The Algonquian name for the area was Qua-rop-pas, a word meaning “white marshes.” Maybe the explanation is that when the Indians first got there, there was a lot of snow on the ground. Or maybe tllere was an outcrop of some pale mineral, like the chalk that gave rise to the White Cliffs of Dover. Rosch’s own theorv had to do with a low-lying fog. “I’ve seen mist and fog rising from the swamplands in enveloping clouds that remained suspended in mid-air for days at a time,” he wrote. It’s possible, but there are not enough undeveloped swamps around anymore to verify it, and no gases now except th()se emitted by cars and the city incinerator. The plains may have been white once, but the only word for them now is gray. It is the pervasive, grubby grayness that lies like a film over the entire lower county, so palpable that the old people on the public benches customarily sit on sections of the Reporter Dispatch.

The last time I was in White Plains, it was Christmastime. Santa Claus in effigy was everywhere. Slick chicks, black and white, in boots and bandannas, hurried in and out of the department stores. White Plains is the place where career-minded Westchester girls flock. The tallest office buildings between New York and Albany are in White Plains. No other city its size in America-fifty thousand, t~ipling on a workday-boasts so many well-known retail stores: B. Altman, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, Sears, Alexander’s, Wallach’s, Brentano’s, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, and Abraham & Straus. In all, some eight hundred retail outlets generated four hundred million dollars in volume for White Plains last year. The only comparable volume is in Stamford, Connecticut, another satellite city of New York. What is even more important about White Plains than its being the county seat is that it is the shopping capital of Westchester. It sets the tone for ambitious smaller centers, like Mount Kisco. Members of the Mount Kisco Chamber of Commerce dream of having big-name department stores and four-story municipal parking garages like those in White Plains.

WHITE PLAINS is considered part of the so-called Lower Tier of Westchester. The Lower Tier is made up of the southernmost communities which border either the Bronx (Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and Pelham) or Long Island Sound (New Rochelle, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Rye, and Port Chester). Seventy per cent of Westchester’s people live here on thirty per cent of its land. Urban decay rages unchecked in some of the communities. Municipalities sprawl into each other, losing their integrity. You can’t tell, for example, where Mount Vernon ends and Yonkers begins. Most of Westchester’s blacks and Hispanics live in the Lower Tier.

It is hard to feel a sense of historical continuity in the Lower Tier, since most of the landscape has been built over three or four times. It is hard to realize that the immense Cross County Shopping Center, for instance, was once deep woods, or that there used to be secret lakes in Yonkers only a few neighborhood kids knew about. One place that has resisted change in recent decades is the Sacred Heart Monastery, which gives its name to the Monastery section of North Yonkers. I have always admired the view of the Monastery section from the Saw Mill River Parkway, particularly at night: thousands of lighted windows on the hillsides, thin slits shimmering from the people’s closely packed houses. Above the factories down in the valley, the red brick bell tower of the monastery dominates the hilltop.

For years, I knew it only that wayas a distant tableau. Then, one cold Saturday, I decided to go closer. I got off at the Palmer Road exit of the Saw Mill, drove down Stratton Street, and parked. The street consisted of a group of detached houses of varying vintage.

Some of them were still decorated with multicolored bulbs, though it was already February. Behind the houses were garden plots, goat sheds, and grape arbors. Halfway down the street, I came upon a man standing in front of a partly constructed frosted-brick house with a brown shingled mansard roof, not unlike the roof on a McDonald’s restaurant. He was a stocky man, and was wearing a three-piece beige suit woven in a pattern that was hard to look at for very long. His hands were in his pockets, jingling keys or change, and he was whistling briskly. He had a big, broad chest that stuck out, as if expecting medals, and his thick accent was Slavic. The hill we were on, he said, was part of a neighborhood known as Bryn Mawr. It was mainly a Slavic neighborhood-Polish, Russian, and Rumanian, with some Hungarians. Monastery, which he pointed to across the valley, was Irish working-class.

 went partway down into the valley and stopped at a pizzeria called the Capri, where I had a calzone. Two boys on skateboards were slaloming down the steeply graded sidewalk, maneuvering deftly through a course of parking meters. A number of unusually good-looking teen-age girls walked by. Yonkers has produced two Miss New Yorks and one Miss America.

I reached the monastery in time for five-o’clock Mass. Allover the hill, people were streaming out of houses, walking through yards that had Madonna shrines and lines of laundry, and heading toward the sound of the bells. I went up to a man who stood at the head of the center aisle clasping a black rosary. “Are you a member of this church? ” I asked.

“Yeah. You wanna buy it?” he answered, looking at me with sad, kind, watery, bloodshot eyes. He was an usher. I told him I just wanted to look around. He handed me a program and recommended the view from the balcony.  Upstairs, a handsome young man with a brown mustache who had a plaid scarf wrapped around his neck was seating himself at the organ. After ad justing his cuffs, he picked up a phone that was connected to the side of his instrument and told someone on the other end that he was ready. Then he pressed his fingers down on the keyboard, and the vaulted ceiling of the church began to resound with the strains of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

In the refectory, after the service, I spoke with a priest dressed in sandals and a brown habit. The hood that draped over his back is called a cappuccio in Italian and is the emhlem of the Capuchin-Franciscan Order, to which he belonged. “Yonkers hecame a parish of the Capuchin Order in the late eighteen-hundreds, when it was still farmland,” he told me. There are now twenty Capuchin-Franciscan priests and brothers at the monastery, nineteen Christian brothers, twentyeight Agnesian sisters, five Sisters of Charity, sixty lay teachers, twelve hundred children in the high school, and nine hundred children in the elementary school. I asked if any of the students entered seminary after high school. He lowered his eyes behind his gold-rimmed glasses and said that most of them went on to community colleges. “The celibate life doesn’t appeal to everyone,” he said.

AT the beginning of the century, there were only a few blacks in Mount Veroon, and they lived in the area around South Eighth A venue. The Italian district was around North Seventh. West Lincoln Avenue and High Street were predominantly German. The rich part of town was Chester Hill, where P. T. Barnum had had an estate. At the Bronx border, the old St. Paul’s Church, built in 1764, still stands, with tombs of Hessians in its graveyard. It was after the Second World War that Mount Vernon started to fill up. The old Italian neighborhoods became black ghettos, with the Italians retaining the property and the political control. Today, with almost eighty thousand people jammed into four square miles, Mount Vernon is the fifth most densely populated city in the United States. Until recently, it was tensely polarized, with the blacks on the south side of town and the whites on the north. The tension erupted into violence in the summer of 1968, after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Today, however, the situation has cooled. Mount Vernon is more integrated. Blacks now live on the north side, but the south side is still a turbulent ghetto, with its epicenter at Third Avenue and Third Street. Much of the current friction is between American. blacks and new arrivals from Jamaica.

Mount Vernon is the welfare dumping ground of Westchester County. One-fifth of the citizens are on some form of relief, and the streets are always full of people with time on their hands-hanging out. In the vacant lots, a couple of young men are always gathered, dribbling a basketball on the broken glass. Others are out souping up hot rods, soaping up GTOs, or simonizing old Cadillacs; unable to put together a down payment on a house, the ghetto black makes his car the focus of his self-respect.

I had a short talk, one Monday afternoon a couple of years ago, with a middle-aged black woman leaning against the door of Johnson’s Country Store, on the sunny side of West Sanford Boulevard. She’d come up from Pennsylvania fifteen years before and was working on a bottle of Wild Irish Rose wine that had set her back fifty cents. “It’s pretty lousy here and pretty nice,” she said cryptically. “You gotta make of it what you think of it. If you lousy, your community’s lousy. I think everybody gets along with me ’cause I gets along with them. If you be your own self, be your own thing, you be somebody.” Johnson’s Country Store stocked fresh chitterlings, liver pudding, cornmeal, sage sausages, and Souse meat, only it was closed. So was the billiards academy across the street. Many storefronts had their windows filled in with opaque collages of color and were now selling Jesus. Interspersed among a liquor store, a thrift shop, a soul-food takeout, J. C. Peace & Son Records, and J. & J. Refrigerators, I made note of the following storefront churches in a single block: Faith Tabernacle U.H.C. Inc. Church; Gethsemane Baptist Inc.; True Born Miracle Restoration Temple; and the Holy Temple Jesus Christ Penecosil Church. The only whites who come to this neighborhood, the woman with the wine bottle told me, are addicts, undercover agents, and Italian slumlords after the rent.

The police aren’t popular. They have set up a community-relations bureau on Fourth Street to improve their rapport with the people and to handle problems like drugs, child abuse, and prostitution. But nobody takes his problems to the police unless he’s at the very end of his rope. Mount Vernon ranks first in crime in the county. “It’s the hellhole of Westchester,” I was told by a man I got into a conversation with outside the community-relations bureau. “But most of the trouble now comes from the Jamaicans. You have some Jamaicans feel they’re more highly intelligent than the American blacks. They got a bad attitude. They think they’re above the law. ‘You can’t tell me anything.’ They’re anti-everything. When a fight breaks out between American blacks and Jamaicans in the big cafeteria at Mount Vernon High, they don’t let nobody in there to stop It.
WHEN Rome was at the height of its power, wealthy patricians had gracious villas and shady groves to which they could escape from the pressures and the pollution of city life. These early suburbs set the tone for the ones that followed in Europe, and by the end of the nineteenth century the pattern was ready to establish itself in Westchester. By that time, New York was well on the way to realizing its metropolitan destiny. A number of people had grown very rich, and impressive villas began to crop up in the still-green outskirts of the city.

In those days, lower Westchester was sparsely populated, and from White Plains north it was still mostly farms. Land was more expensive upcounty than down, because it had more. value as farmland. In Bronxville, just north of the city, there were a few old families with big houses. One of them was the Prescotts. They had a goodsized estate with a stone house that still stands. About 1890, a man named William Van Duzer Lawrence who, had been in the pharmaceutical business in Montreal, came out to Bronxville and, thinking he would more or less retire, bought the old Prescott place. Gradually, he got the idea of subdividing it into an exclusive community for prominent artists and illustrators of the period.

“I don’t remember exactly, but it was forty-seven, fifty acres,” Dudley Lawrence, William’s grandson, told me. We were sitting in what had once been the gatehouse of the Prescott estate and was now the offices of Lawrence Properties. The interior of the building was old-fashioned and rather Dickensian, with steep stairs and small, low rooms, in one of which, behind a swinging picket gate, several secretaries sat at their desks. Lawrence was a well-spoken, conservatively dressed man who appeared to be in his sixties. “Lawrence Park began in the late eighteen-nineties,” he continued. “The houses were built of stucco and stone, with a lot of round towers and peaked roofs. We built an inn-the Gramatan-and town houses. Little by little, we established a business district. The apartments came-the old English country type of apartment house that is exclusive to Bronxville. By 1920, it was a well-established suburban village.”

In 1905, seventeen artists were at work in Lawrence Park, and William Lawrence proudly published a booklet showing “the retreat at which Will H. Low wields his brush far from the turmoil of the outside world” and other Jacobean cottages with leaded windows, inhabited by an assortment of landscape painters, fashionable muralists, and authors of romantic fiction. The best-known artist was William T. Smedley, who illustrated Henry James’s books and later painted portraits that fetched as much as three thousand dollars. He lived in the Owl House, which William Lawrence had built for his own son. In 1946, the Owl House was bought by Brendan Gill, who lived in it, with his large family, for the next thirty years. “The feeling of the Lawrence Park hilltop-a suburban retreat-was something new,” Gill told me one afternoon. “In the eighteennineties, the idea of. a designed park was almost unprecedented. Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, in the eighteensixties, was the first, and Tuxedo Park had also been started. But Lawrence was taking a big speculative risk. Bronxville then was a trifling town, planted in what was still largely open country. The community that developed was linked to the s::ation. It was an invention of the railroad. It’s made up of the middle-class prosperous, rather than the rich-rich, who move out of Bronxville. It’s not as rich as Scarsdale, where it’s permissible for the rich to remain.”

Scarsdale developed along similar lines, but a little later. Like Bronxville, it has an attractive, homogeneous Tudor business district surrounded by beautiful private residences. Gill’s description of the grand residential bouleard of Rochester, New York, could serve equally well for Scarsdale: “The big houses sat ranged in self-congratulatory propinquity on their level green lawns, like so many stout matrons seated elbow to elbow, implacably chaperoning a ball.” With each mini-estate an island unto itself, Scarsdale has probably more captains of industry per square mile than anywhere else in the world.

Scarsdale-the word means “dale of scars,” or rocks-was granted in 170 I to Caleb Heathcote as one of the nine manors in New York State, of which six were in Westchester. During the Revolution, according to a historical booklet, it “knew well the tread of armies.” In the eighteen-nineties, Heathcote Park, a community of spacious and well-landscaped properties, was laid out by James G. Cannon. By 1922, the booklet continues, “threatened by an invasion of manufacturing, the village passed a zoning ordinance which was intended to keep Scarsdale a village largely of one-family houses.” It was during the twenties that the building of large homes on small plots began in earnest. “But most of all, perhaps, the community has plumed itself on the architectural quality of its homes,” the historical booklet concludes. “Few if any towns in the United States have sustained a higher standard.”

Another Scarsdale development was Berkeley Park-sixty-one acres of rolling farmland commanding extensive views over the valley of the winJing Bronx River and kept intact by their owner, Colonel Alexander Crane, who had, according to a sales brochure, “the vision and foresight to develop Berkeley as a private community of spacious homesites.” The streets wound tortuously, to discourage through traffic. “‘This careful planning is an important safety factor for children at play,” the prospectus boasted. All service connections-water, sewer, gas, electricity-were underground, eliminating the need for unsightly poles and wires that would have marred the rural atmosphel’e. Footpaths crossed and recrossed, in a series of picturesque footbridges, a brook that had been Jammed in two places to create ponds, and on whose banks weeping willows had been planted. Only thirty-four minutes from Grand Central Station, Berkeley Park offered “distinctive architecture landscaped harmoniously to the surrounding countryside” and “assured privacy by rigid, permanent restrictions.” A brick Colonial hm!se in Berkeley sold for twenty-seven thousand five hundred in 1936, while a distinguished French-type model with limestone walls and a Ludovici tile roof went for forty-three thousand. They would now fetch more than two hundred thousand.

Many of the houses that managed to get built in Scarsdale during the Depression were smaller. In Fort Hill Estates, the no-nonsense house was already evolving. “The modern home combines charm and beauty of design with comfort and convenience at LOW COST,” a prospectus proclaimed. “Our 1936 house outmodes in convenience the house or apartment built six years ago as completely as the latest model car surpasses the 1929 automobile.” Among its menities were “compact cheerful kitchens with their time and labor saving devices. .. garages with overhead doors… open fireplaces. ..large liveable rooms scientifically designed to obtain cross-ventilation as well as a maximum of light and air. ..a mechanical heating system which automatically keeps the entire house at an even temperature adjusted to individual taste… concealed radiation …two or three modern tile bathrooms. ..large cedar closets. ..innumerable electric outlets and many new construction features which make for efficient and economical maintenance.”  All this was available for $13,500, and, furthermore, was “situated in the heart of that part of Westchester selected by New York’s wealthiest and most discliminating families as the most desirab]e section of the metropo]itan area.”  Scarsdale isn’t the kind of place where you can just barge in. Near]y every house is equipped with an automatic a]arm system. My introduction to the village came at a cocktail party. Most of the guests were .J ewish. Scarsda]e is supposed to be running sixtyforty .J ewish-Gentile these days. The New York Social Register has no clout in Scarsdale; it is the Who’s Who sort of prestige that is operative here. What you do was the main subject of conversation at the opening.

“How do you do? And what do you do?” I learned to say while shaking hands.
“I sculpt.” This from a sensuouslooking woman of about forty.
“I counsel high-school dropouts in White Plains. That and home, and that’s it,” a pretty young wife told me somewhat apologeticaily.

Women in Scarsdale feel a great pressure to be involved in something. “They’re all getting Ph.D.s or have a job in psychiatric or paralegal work. Every woman’s amhition is to overpower her husband,” one resident told me.

This isn’t going to be easy, judging by the men I encountered. One was a poet who had composed what he called a fugue, a hundred and six sonnets long, and who also worked for a company, he informed me, “which makes enough carbon paper to go back and forth to the moon each year ten times,” adding, “We also make inks in up to one miilion colors. We can match to the eye’s discrimination. We have fifty factories that make ink.”

The house where the party took place had fourteen large rooms with leaded windows and frieze mo]dings. Outside, it was stucco over brick with a tile roof: “eclectic Mediterranean,” as the host described it. It had been built in 1913 and in its heyday it had an orchard, a greenhouse, and a staff of domestics whose quarters had been on the third floor and for whom buzzers had been instailed in every room.

I was given a quick rundown on the neighbors: “Let’s start at the bottom of the street. On the right, we have a man who has been very successful in the mail-order business. He’s also president of the Friends of the Library. His wife is a sportswoman and is active in the P .-T .A. and coaches sports at several local schools. Next, we have the senior executive of a New York corporation. We don’t see him often, but he has obviously done well, because he’s put in a swimming pool and added two wings. Moving up to the next couple on that side of the street, he’s a senior partner of a Wall Street firm. He comes to Scarsdale only on weekends and only for part of the year. He has four other homes-one in town, one across the river one in Miami, and one in Europe, I think. His living-room wall is lined with Boehm birds. He’s got a lot of alarms, which are going off all the time. His wife shows dogs. The couple on the corner are never here. It’s a two- hundred -and -fi fty-thousand -dollar house. She lives in New York. “Back to the bottom left. A doctor, and then a senior executive-buyer for a major retail store. His wife is a biochemist who has done original research in hereditary diseases. The next man is president of a management-consulting firm.  They’re an older couple. His wife is president of the Garden Club. In the next place, the man is a senior partner in a New York law firm. His wife is the administrator of a day-care center in White Plains. The last man is president of a New York textile company. The woman works in a travel agency and is an outstanding golfer.”

“That’s quite a lineup,” I said.

“They may not be the most relaxing people to be with,” my informant saId, “but they’re stimulating and they’re all high achievers. These are people who have made it and continue to make it. Nobody cuts his own grass or shovels snow. It’s not done. Your ‘landscape architect’ sends someone over to do it for you. As far as I’ve been able to tell-and we’ve been here nine yearsthere are no blue-collar people in Scarsdale. Everybody’s in business or is a professional. They’ve come out from New York, and, perhaps more than in any other suburb, New York is still, the major force in their lives-economIcally, of course, but culturally, too. E verybody’s a heavy patron of the arts. Money and culture are the touchstones. The money here is newer and more Jewish than in the Wasp communities, where it’s been in the family for years and is more decadent. It is not ostentatious, but it is not always in good taste.  One appears in one’s Bogner ski pants to play paddle tennis at the Fox Meadow Tennis Club, where the game was invented. On weekends, everybody plays tennis, and it’s very competitive. The last thing it’s for is laughs and fun.”

ONE afternoon, I went to have a talk with the County Executive, Alfred Del Bello. Like District Attorney Vergari, he was born into an Italian-American family in Yonkers. He was elected County Executive in 1973, at the age of thirty-nine, and is the first Democrat to have held the office. With glasses and a strong, handsome face, he struck me immediately as a relaxed, down-to-earth man who had the situation under control. I asked him what he thought was going to happen to Westchester County, and he asked me how long a period of time I was talking about. Thirty years, I said.

“In the next thirty years, you are not going to see much change,” he began. “It will still be spread out as a county-not be a City of Westchester. In the last few years, there has actually been a gradual decline in population. But in order to remain static we need to build about four thousand new housing units a year. Every year, we lose two thousand units to fire or dilapidation, and every year, too, the number of people in each unit goes down. In the last twenty years, the size of the average household has dropped from three-point-two to two-point-nine. We are losing people. They are very identifiable-the young marrieds who can’t afford it here, so they move to outlying counties, like Putnam, Dutchess, Orange, and Rockland. The number of jobs in Westchester is increasing, but many of the people who take those jobs can’t afford to live here, so we have more and more commuters coming into the county. Everything indicates that Westchester is going to become older and poorer-and the minorities will grow, because they’re usually the poor ones. This spiralling effect will tend to drive urban centers into a substandard state, which tends to feed on itself-to attract more poor and more minorities. In the first half of the next thirty years, you will see urban centers become more run-down. After fifteen years of this cycle, I think some of the initiatives that we’re working on will start paying off. Our redevelopment program, calling for new housing and housing rehabilitation-I think that will start taking hold.”

DelBello continued, “Seventy per cent of the population lives south of Route 287, on thirty per cent of the land, and that balance is going to remain. Most of the ailing municipalities-Yonkers, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Port Chester-are south of Route 287. Some of the river towns, like Peekskill, North Tarrytown, and Ossining, also exhibit symptoms of urban decay. But that’s pretty good for four hundred and fifty square miles of land. Peekskill, which has been receiving more money per capita than any other community in the county, is well on its way to recovery. And what’s nice is that our problem areas are all separated, except for the two cities to the very south. Mount Vernon and Yonkers compound each other’s problems. I believe they need major redevelopment. The old centers have to be torn down and rebuilt according to a design that will lead to a better way of life. As for the north county, I don’t think its character will ever change. It wi)l always be open and residential. You might see a few more industrial parks, corporate headquarters, and condominiums, but there will be no big growth in the north county. No more great subdivisions. The zoning, the high cost of construction, and social attitudes are making it hard on the developer. We’re reinforcing this no-growth trend with our master plan, declaring areas that are ‘forever rural.’ We will not be investing our capital dollars in ,the development of these areas.”

I CANNOT agree completely with DelBello’s prediction that nothing much is going to change in northern Westchester. It seems that every time I look, there’s another house furtively wedged in some corner of the landscape or another new shopping mall. It seems inevitable that the faceless suburbia of Hartsdale, Elmsford, and New Rochelle will eventually creep up into these parts. And while it is true that the northern communities haven’t yet experienced a great deal of physical change, psychological forces are at work transforming villages and hamlets into movie sets and caricatures of themselves. This has already happened to Bedford Village, Pound Ridge, and, to some extent, Chappaqua. Mount Kisco, Katonah and Bedford Hills continue to hold ~ut, but as a general rule, it seems to me, you can get an idea of what any given Westchester town will be like in ten years simply by driving ten miles south.

The road I live on, only a few hundred yards from the hospital in which I was born is called South Bedford Road, or Route 172. It starts in Mount Kisco, at the light in front of the Northern Westchester Hospital, and ends about four miles later at the light in front of Walter Ragonese’s Shell station, in Bedford Village. As you start up South Bedford Road from the hospital, the first thing on your right is the Finast supermarket. I spend a lot of my life in there, pushing my cart up and down the aisles and picking up gossip. There are other supermarkets around, but the Finast is the one nearest me and I feel a loyalty to it. I wouldn’t think of shopping anywhere else unless the Finast was closed. I’m on good terms with the girls at the registers and with the woman behind the grille who cashes my checks. We kid around.

The parking lot is usually filled, and cars constantly pull in’ and out. The average shopper takes forty-five minutes to an hour, depending on the size of his family and on how familiar he is with the store. Sometimes people approach you as you walk from your car to the doors of the supermarket to ask for a donation for underprivileged children or give you a free sample of some new product. I am still using my complimentary cannister of an antiperspirant. As you step on the rubber mat, an electric eye releases the door. You walk up to a string of shopping carts, shake one loose, and proceed, past the pink-veined caladiums-a bit of the Amazon-in the houseplant and garden-supply section, to the fresh fruit and vegetables. Two short, wide women in head scarves are chattering to each other in Italian, examining each cucumber carefully before making their final decision. In front of the celery case, a little come-on sign says, “Stalk no further-meet the best bunch around.” Sale items are usually displayed at the end of the aisles. Market research has proved that anything put on an end display will sell better, even if it is kept at the same price.

The music at the Finast is rented from a service. .It is chosen for its mood. It must be cheerful. “You don’t want to depress people,” an assistant manager once told me. “Keep ’em happy. Light Broadway shows, things like that. It’s kind of dingy without it. It keeps the help in a good mood, too. There are more than fifty employees in all. A lot of them are part-time. Highschool students who start work after school lets out and are home in time for supper. It’s an excellent place for them to learn a little fiscal responsibility and how to deal courteously with the public. You get to meet a lot of people. There is, of course, a lot of pressure on you. High above the aisles there’s a little booth, and some body’s always up there, watching you. He’s up there not only to keep an eye out for shoplifters but also to make sure the employees aren’t goofing off.”

In Westchester, small jars and cans don’t move as fast as medium-sized and big ones, because it’s a family-type population. Milk moves faster by the gallon than by the quart. In the cities, people buy the six- and seven-ounce cans of peeled tomatoes; here there is more turnover of the sixteen-ounce cans of pomodori pelati (of which, in recognition of Mount Kisco’s large Italian segment, the Finast stocks eight different brands). And, because this is an affluent area, the store sells more of the national brands than of its ownmore Maxwell House than Finast coffee, even though the Finast is cheaper. It also moves a lot of beer and club soda. At the end of Aisle 4, a small soul-food section caters to Mount Kisco’s black population.

Soon after the Finast, South Bedford Road leaves the world of commerce to spend the rest of its existence winding through beautiful, rolling country. After two miles, the road goes under Interstate 684, a six-lane superhighway pushed up from Harrison a few years ago. Interstate 684 cost more than a million and a half dollars a mile, and though the need for it was indisputable, it went through some of the best land around and got a lot of people upset. The most expensive stretch was probably just south of South Bedford Road, where the Interstate was blasted through Chestnut Ridge. Chestnut Ridge, as I have mentioned, is a great crystalline mass of Fordham gneiss, which is just about indestructible. Somehow, though, a great chunk of the hill was removed and bulldozed into a hollow just north of it. I remember that hollow very well. South Bedford Road used to go down into it, and the descent was so steep that in icy conditions cars would often go out of control, and there were a lot of accidents. Down in the hollow there was an imposing white-columned house and a pond with a little island that had a Japanese pagoda on it.

Interstate 684’s impact on the region was dramatic. South Bedford Road became its fourth exit, and, in no time at all, changed from a quiet country road into a heavily travelled truck route. Fifty years ago, it was an event for the people on the road when five cars went by in one morning. Not long ago, I took out my pocket watch and listened to the whooshes that went by my house in one minute, and I counted twenty of them   between 10:26 and 10:27 A.M.  South Bedford Road probably carries about fifteen thousand vehicles a day. One could learn much about what is happening to Westchester just from studying this road.

Every minute or so, a tractor-trailer runs by the house. The windows shake; the whole house shakes. It was built, like many of the old houses, not more than five feet from the road. The road was dirt then. The internal-combustion engine was seventy years from being envisioned. During the Revolution, a detachment of redcoats led by Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the dashing “Green Dragoon,” who left dozens of women brokenhearted in his wake, is said to have marched up this road on the way to burn Bedford. Recently, a large black mudguard with the word “THEURER” stamped on it detached itself from one of the trucks and landed in the pachysandra a few feet from my front door. I also have in my possession a red flag from the Wheatland Pipe Company and a collection of hubcaps.

One icy February morning, an eighteen-wheel diesel, headed for the Grand Union warehouse on the other side of Mount Kisco, jackknifed in tlle straightaway just below the house, careened into the embankment, sideswiped a passing car, flattened the guardrail, snapped a telephone pole in two, and finally came to rest o~ its side, wheels spinning. The driver, who was thrown fifty feet through the windshield, was miraculously “more shook up than anything.” Dozens of sides of beef that had been hanging from hooks inside the box were ejected onto the pavement. Within minutes, the police had set up flares and were directing traffic. Then two fire trucks and an ambulance came screaming up the road. The travelling salesman in the car that had been sideswiped was extricated in time to see his rented car and all his samples burst into flame. Three firemen attacked the blaze with their extinguishers. Then Walter Ragonese came, with one of his elaborately decorated Holmes tow trucks, extended the hydraulic boom, retracted it, and towed tl.1e wrecked car away. Someone came from McDonald’s, and everybody stood around drinking coffee and discussing between mouthfuls of Big Mac what they were going to do about the overturned truck. It wasn’t till nightfall that they succeeded in righting it and getting it out of the roadfirst the box, then the cab.

Starting at six on weekday mornings, the trucks are joined by legions of commuters hurrying to their trains into the city. I can see their tight faces behind the windshields, already set upon the day before them. A bit later, the school buses canvass the street corners of Mount Kisc,o and come lumbering up the road headed for the Fox Lane High School. The men who perform essential services-plumbers, carpenters, electricians, tree men, landscape-maintenance men-pass in pickup trucks whose doors are inscribed with their names, services, and telephone numbers. And by midmorning housewives have done their hair, donned their pants suits and dark glasses, and are ready to face the world. All day long, the road belongs to their big ranch wagons, to the mailman’s jeep, and to the brown van of the United Parcel Service. And up and down the road high-school students and dropouts lope along the shoulders, wheeling to stick out their thumbs at you.

The plant life along the shoulders is interesting. Almost every member of the community is an immigrant: the velvetleaf mullein, which sends up late in the summer a stalk higher than any other non-woody plant in Westchester except the wild lettuces; escaped day lilies and pachysandra; bittersweet, smothering the well-made Italian walls, running wild into the woods and climbing up the trees; and all the sun-loving composites, like the dandelion and the black-eyed Susan. These ruderal plants followed the migrations of man. It is this kind of marginal habitat-neither woods nor open field-where the sparrow hawk hunts, hovering in place some twenty feet above the ground. Red-tailed hawks also keep close watch on movements below them, from their posts in tall trees.

In summer, there is heavy blooming in the fields. Wild flowers litter the meadows like handfuls of confetti. The woods have had their turn. Now it is time for the forbs and grasses to come forth. In the brightest fields, the competition for pollinators is most intense. It’s all really for the bugs. And, because all fields in Westchester except for a few natural meadows are disturbed sites, half of the flowers are alien-the Queen Anne’s laces, purple loosestrifes, and butter-and-eggs of this world. Their colors, smells, and other strategies multiply the bees’ choices.

The most diverse fields are mowed only once or twice-often enough to keep the woody plants down, and seldom enough to let whatever seeds are in them make it into flowers. But land worth developing doesn’t stay clear around here for long. The taxes are too high. The only open fields left either belong to very rich people or are tied up in legal complications, like the seven fields behind me. Here’s a partial catalogue of what was out in and around the second field on a day in July: New Jersey tea, enchanter’s nightshade, feverfew, cow vetch, hop clover, chickweed, field milkwort, black ra sp be r ry, rose c a m pi on (mullein pink), spotted Saint- John’s-wort, onion grass, whorled loosestrife, fringed loosestrife, one blunt-leaved milkweed with curled and clasping leaves (a bee had got its legs stuck in the crevices between the tight flower petals 3nd died there), butterfly weed, pale-spike lobelia, bog orchis (a small orchid, easily overlooked, with inconspicuous green flowers), Canada lily, wood lily (an arresting trumpet whose narrow, blood-red, black-flecked petals face up), the berries of the Tartarian honeysuckle, spreading dogbane. I have followed with fascination the growth of several poisonous water hemlock plants on the field’s southern fringe. That July day, they were almost four feet high. The wet new leaves grew out from the purple-streaked stalks in fearfully symmetrical groups of three.

That same afternoon, my father and I tried to count as many butterflies as we could. Neither the swallowtails nor the monarchs were out in force yet, but we found one monarch larva savaging a milkweed leaf, whose lactic juices make the butterfly unpalatable to birds, enabling the tasty viceroy, in turn, to escape being eaten by mimicking it. There is very little butterfly habitat in Westchester, in any event, and conclusions were hard to draw from the exercise. Although butterfly numbers are down from the mid-nineteen-fifties, they are up from the sixties, when the pernicious effects of DDT were having their greatest impact on the environment. But the return of fully forested conditions is offsetting to some degree the discontinuation of DDT. Nymphalids (fritillaries, anglewings, hunters, red admirals) and satyrids (wood nymphs and little wood satyrs) are just about the only butterflies in the county that will go into the woods. We counted mostly in that second field, and probably spotted no more than a fraction of the butterflies in it. There were more than fifty of the following species: great spangled fritillary, aphrodite, little wood satyr, American copper, pearl crescent, northern cloudy wing, and silver-spotted skipper. Not having nets to catch them, we found the various species of Polites skippers and hairstreaks really hard to tell apart. But my father sifted through the field guide and picked out the minute markings that separate one species from the other. My father, who at one time considered entomology as a profession, has a rare s11bspecies of Jamaican hairstreak, found only in a few high sunny clearings of the rain forest, named after him-Shoumatoff’s hairstreak. So he felt more confident about the hairstreaks than he did about the Polites skippers. Just after he had decided that two we were looking at were gray hairstr~aks, a pair of men came riding up through the field-one on a bay, the other on a strawberry roan. “And what are we looking for today?” one of them said condescendingly. My father didn’t even bother looking up. We counted two red admirals, one question mark, two species of geometrid moth, a couple of dozen cabbage butterflies, a few Pocahontas skippers, and a coral hairstreak. In a verge of tall bracken, we came upon a swarm of Alcestis hairstreaks, ten of them fluttering around in frenzied little balls, landing on the bracken and resting with their foldedup wings held not vertically but, in the peculiar manner of hairstreaks, to one side. “That was quite a find, wasn’t it?” my father said. “Ten hairstreaks all at once!”

There are two swamps along South Bedford Road. Skunks, raccoons, opossums, and deer are often hit as they are crossing the road at night to drink in one of the swamps and are blinded by headlights. A lot of dogs get killed on South Bedford Road, too. The other morning, I heard someone hit the brakes, and I looked out and there was a young German shepherd lying on. the road. The pup lived another minute. His tail was wagging in his own blood. Then it stopped. I called the police, and they took the carcass away in a green plastic bag. I’ve lost two cats on the road. Cats aren’t very smart about cars. They’ll walk out on a quiet moonlit night and-bam! Crows know about cars, and so do mourning doves. I’ve never seen a dead crow or a dead mourning dove on the road, although both birds spend a lot of time flying up from traffic. Chipmunks are worse than cats. Squirrels aren’t much better. They’ll misjudge a leap from one branch to another, fall onto the road scramble to their feet, see a car coming at them, scamper frantically one way and then the other, and finally stand directly in the face of death, paralyzed by indecision. According to a recent survey conducted by the United States Department of Transportation, about one million “pieces” of wildlife are killed on the road each year. Cars are now the No. 1 predator of many carnivores and ungulates. The traffic on South Bedford contributes its share. The animals learn respect for moving metal objects or they die.

One thought on “Profiles: Westchester County”

  1. Was in a gas line at Walt Ragonese a lifetime ago as a kid with Fred Gwynne.Walt was friends with my parents; we lived in Pound Ridge. Walt was on SNL for a christmas episode as part of a chorus; probably due to how many TV people lived in Westchester. That was a lifetime ago when I was a kid

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