The Catskill Forest: A History
by Michael Kudish
The Catskill Forest, A History by Dr. Michael Kudish is a book that those who know and love the Catskills have been waiting (and waiting!) for. Hikers, naturalists, teachers, and all those who live and work in the region and want to better understand their natural surroundings have long felt the need for a book that told the story of the mountains in a comprehensive, yet understandable, way. And the author does not disappoint us. The story of forests in the Catskills is the story of the mountains: one that includes not only the interaction of plant communities with wildlife, soils, rocks and climate but the impact of human activities as well. This book is a fitting companion to Alf Evers' landmark history The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock.
Michael Kudish is uniquely qualified to write a book of this kind. He has been studying these forests for over 30 years, beginning with his Ph.D. dissertation, "Vegetational History of the Catskill High Peaks," completed in 1971. Having been fortunate enough to acompany him on several hikes in the Catskills, I can testify to his ability not only to identify every plant he sees, but to read the landscape itself. Kudish is an indefatigable and endlessly curious observer. I have clambered through dense undergrowth, blowdowns, and nettles, and up steep mountain slopes with him, attempting to retrace routes through the woods described by John Burroughs over a century ago, or looking for ridge-top bogs.
Kudish's curiousity is contagious, and informs every page of his book. It is, in fact the opportunity to share in the writer's passion for the subject of his inquiry that most recommends this book. The Catskill Forest is amply illustrated, and almost incredibly well documented with tables, a list of plant species, and, especially of value to the hiker and traveler in the region, maps. These include maps showing the distribution of plant species such as black birch or three-toothed cinquefoil, the location of first growth stands and peat bogs, the sites of tanneries, bluestone quarries, charcoal kilns, sawmills and much more. Underlying all of this valuable information is the scientist's sense of discovery as revealed in passages like this: "My big discovery was a hemlock cone, wet in the peat with the scales closed; overnight the cone dried out and the scales opened to the light of day nearly 7,000 years later!"
The Catskill Forest is well organized: there are sectoins covering the reforestation of the Catskills and succession of forest types since the retreat of the last continental ice sheet about 13,000 years ago; the human impact from Native Americans through European settlement and the rise and fall of forest industries; and the past and present status of the Forest Preserve, including current environmental threats to its future. The largest section covers the Catskill Mountain ranges, interpreting the complex mosaic of natural and human events that have shaped the forests in each range. Although this book is a bit overwhelming to read straight through, its structure makes it easy to digest one piece at a time, or to use it as an invaluable reference. A helpful feature is the use of sidebars designed to guide the inquisitive hiker's own investigations, such as "Finding Bark Roads" or Identifying First Growth in the Forest." I can't think of a better way to prepare for a hike up Dry Brook Ridge, for example, than by reading the pertinent sections of Dr. Kudish's book. One is certain to see more, and to make more sense of what he sees, along the trail.
Kudish brought an intense focus to the writing of The Catskill Forest, as he did to the many years of research that preceded it. This is surely one of the book's greatest strengths, but perhaps also its major limitation. The avid birdwatcher or naturalist who hopes to find extensive discussion of bird life or wildlife activity will be disappointed, as will the reader looking for poetic descriptions of the mountains. What Kudish does here, however, he does about as well as one could wish: he unfolds, in clear, straighforward language, free of scientific jargon, the story of the Catskill forests since the last ice age. It is a story he has learned to read in tree rings, charred stumps, old pastures adn first growth forests and, most recently, in the radiocarbon-dated peat from bogs.
Michael Kudish gives us the best answers he can to the questions he has been asking about a subject that has fascinated him for decades, and he challenges us to come up with questions of our own. There is quiet excitement, a refreshing honesty, and a fund of knowledge in The Catskill Forest that will amply reward the curious and receptive reader. Reviewed by Richard Parisio, Kaatskill Life, Summer 2000
217 pages, paperback, ISBN: 9781930098022