Nina Shengold (above)
The interview took place on August 5, 2020 on Zoom. The following is an excerpt from the interview, and has been edited for print. Thank you to Alyona Glushchenkova of the NYPL’s Tomkins Square branch for hosting the interview and making it available to us at The Commons.
Please also see the short excerpt from Shengold’s Reservoir Year, courtesy of Syracuse University Press, available here.
DAVID VAN BIEMA: I have here Nina Shengold’s Reservoir Year: A Walker’s Book of Days. And I have here a glass of water. A glass of Manhattan drinking water. The source of both of these things is a large body of water near where Nina lives, called the Ashokan Reservoir, and the book, which is truly marvelous, is the story of Nina’s daily visits to the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskills every day for a numerical year, from September 2015 to September 2016. Hence the Walker’s Book of Days. And I guess the obvious question is: How did you come up with the idea? How did you come up with the approach of going to the Reservoir once a day and writing about it?
NINA SHENGOLD: Well, I actually started doing it before I knew it was a book. I went a couple of days in a row, just at sunset, which is one of the times when the Reservoir is at its most beautiful. And I wrote down what I noticed most. That was really the challenge for the book. And at a certain point, I thought . . . I’m going to do this for a year. I’m going to set myself a challenge and do it every day. No matter what. And write down whatever is different that particular day. The idea was to go back to the same place again and again, and see something new every time.
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DVB: There was a gorgeous description of a sunset over the Ashokan, in the first or second day of the book, and then on the fifth day of the book there was another gorgeous description of another sunset, and it suddenly occurred to me – oh my God, she’s going to have to do 20 or 30 of these things. How is she going to manage it? And the fact of the manner is she does manage it. There are 20 or 30 descriptions of sunsets, and each one of them is different from the others, and each one of them is gorgeous. And I think that goes both to the challenge and to the triumph of this book.
NS: Oh, thank you.
DVB: That you resolve to come again and again, to roughly the same place, and write what you saw, but you never wrote the same thing twice. And I guess I wondered whether you perceived yourself as writing the same thing again and again (“oh, another sunset”) or whether each one sort of came to you, so uniquely, that you didn’t have to worry about repetition.
NS: I think that’s one of the lessons of doing this project for me – and I hope of reading the book as well – is that the closer you look at something, the more there is to see. And sunsets vary. Dawns vary.
DVB: The wonderful thing about the book is that it does open out at a certain point. But there’s also kind of a wonderful sort of Groundhog Day experience. And I was wondering, in order to be able to describe the same thing repeatedly, I mean, I don’t think I could do it. I take the same walk every day to the Rite Aid. And I gain nothing from it. But I guess the question is: What’s the difference between me doing that and you doing what you’re doing? Is it mindfulness? Or how would you describe it?
NS: I think the fact that the Reservoir is one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been is not incidental. I think the walk to the Rite Aid – I honestly do think you could see something different every time, just in terms of the passers-by in New York City. And the epigraph for the book is from the great naturalist John Burroughs, a local boy from the Catskills. I’ll read it to you, because it really is to the point.
The place to observe nature is where you are: The walk to take today is the walk you took yesterday. You will not find just the same things. Both the observed and the observer have changed.
So sometimes it’s what’s going on that’s different. Sometimes it’s what you bring to the observation that’s different.
DVB: Is there a school of nature writing that involved coming back repeatedly to the same place?
NS: Is there a school of nature writing? One example – one of my favorite books in the world – is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This is literally the book that made me want to be a writer. There’s a particular description she has of picking up a mole, and the loose baggy skin, and she says it’s like holding a beating heart in a paper bag. And I thought . . . Okay. I literally felt the hair on my neck rise, and I thought, I want to do that! I remember that so distinctly, because I was pretty young when I read it. Walden is an example of somebody who writes about the same place. He’s much more of the essayist bent, Thoreau: likes to go from the observational writing to larger human questions. I don’t think of myself as either a great naturalist or a great philosopher, so I slipped that in around the side, here and there. But what was most interesting to me was what I saw, felt, smelled, tasted, sensed, felt on the Reservoir. And to make that as vivid as possible, on the page.
DVB: We called this [interview event] Walking and Writing. Right? So how do you actually Walk and Write? How can you see what you’re seeing when you’re writing in your notebook?
NS: You don’t! You walk and then you write. At least, I do. That was one of the few ground rules I had going in. Was that I would not stop to take notes along the way. That I would just try to remember what I could. I’m a playwright. I’ve developed a pretty good flypaper for the way people speak, and for sort of mentally recording it. And I tried to do the same thing with the visuals. And I would sort of memorize a little set of keywords. And I had a notebook. It was in my car, when I finished the day’s walk, I would scribble down a few keywords, and sometime during that day or that night, I would write them up in more detail. It was the editing that took the longest. That’s why it’s a book from 2015 to 2016.
DVB: Right. I think you had a very interesting answer to a question that you said was put to you often, which was: Do you take photographs as you go? And you said something about… About things that we have intrinsically.
NS: Well, I think what I said was that we are recording devices. I think when you’re looking for something to photograph, you’re looking very differently — or when you’re taking notes — it’s a little less three-dimensional. And a little less 180 degrees, than just the experience of being there. And the walking is key too. I think if I sat on a bench, I wouldn’t have the same book. It’s moving from one place to another, and seeing the landscape change, as you move through it. And moving at a very slow pace. It’s not a bicyclist’s book.
DVB: There’s one passage that just blew me away. Where you attain almost like a hallucinogenic level of attentiveness. And you say:
I try to become heron-still, heron-patient. The dense, layered music of bird calls and frogs separates into strands, and then individual voices. This bullfrog. That blackbird. A tenorish croaking, a deep strangled gulp. Two mourning doves, not quite in unison.
Not without drugs! I really do think it’s incredibly rare. I’m being a little flip about the book, but I think the combination of that kind of observing, and that kind of writing is extremely unusual. And it crops up in the book remarkably frequently.
NS: But that is something that happens quite naturally, if you slow down and really spend time in a place. And also, if you try to engage – this is something I always told my writing students. I’m teaching creative writing at Vassar right now, but any time I teach anywhere, I always talk about using the non-visual senses. I think most of us are primarily visual, and when you can evoke a smell or a sound, or a texture of something, it really helps to make that landscape, or that object alive.
DVB: Right. Yet, for all of the beauty and the aliveness, and the aliveness of your writing, there’s also a kind of this melancholy undertow in the book. Which actually – the part that I’m thinking of right now is sort of built in, because of the history of the Reservoir.
NS: I think that’s true. There’s a sense of . . . It’s a really beautiful body of water. And it gives you something that you would not naturally have – it would all be mountains and valleys, and you would be in trees, and even if you were on top of a mountain peak, you would be looking across and down. Having this kind of reflecting pool for the mountain range, you know, a mile of water to look across, and a big, wide horizon, and the fact that there’s a dam there, so you’re up high above the tree line in many places, you really can do a kind of Sound of Music 360! And see in all directions. And that’s a tremendous gift. Because it allows you to see the mountains from a distance, while you’re in the mountains. Is that clear? I’m not sure that’s what I mean.
DVB: But it came at a tremendous price.
NS: It did. It did.
DVB: That was what I was thinking of.
NS: It’s a beautiful place, but it is not a natural place. Although it did – because the watershed around it is now protected land, and nothing is built on it, it looks very wild. But before the turn of the twentieth century, that was a populated village. There was the Esopus Creek, which wound through this valley. There were actually 12 small towns and hamlets there. And the land was bought up by the City of New York. This history is told, and told very well, in the book, Last of the Homemade Dams, and a film called Deep Water, by neighbors, people who really know the details of the history more than I do. It is a haunted place.
People were uprooted from land that their ancestors had farmed for generations. Kate McGloughlin, who painted the cover, is a twelfth-generation Esopus Valley resident. Her ancestors came there. Yes, the settlers who had been there for generations lost their land in the teens, I think 1909 to 1916 [Ed. Note 1907-16], something like that. I’m kind of date-averse. But early in the twentieth-century. But that land had been somebody else’s before the colonists moved in, in the 1600s. So there’s a displacement on top of a displacement. It’s a very layered history. And the fact that people were actually paid to exhume the graves of their own ancestors, their land was grubbed, they chopped down the trees, they razed the buildings, except for the people of the Glenford Church, the congregation decided the city might own the land under the church, but they didn’t own the church, so they rolled it out on logs with a yoke of oxen and put it on higher ground, so the church is actually still with us, and is actually now an art gallery and performance space. Which just thrills me.
DVB: With COVID, you know, we’re all sort of learning about the elastic nature of time. Although not necessarily in the way that we would like. Can we talk about what the Reservoir – what Reservoir Year taught you about time? And do you think that any of the lessons that you learned about time can be helpful to us in the situation that we’re in?
NS: Well, the first thing I want to say about COVID is that I’m sort of . . . unintentionally relevant. I’ve never seen so many people walking in my life. And it’s one of the things that we can still do. Being outdoors is a way to socialize with neighbors, whose houses you can no longer go to. More people are working from home, so their hours became flexible. I’m a teacher and freelance writer and editor, so I was able to visit the Reservoir, at all kinds of odd times. The sense of time slipping past us, very fast, or going incredibly slowly, is something that I think has changed for all of us. As the routines of our lives got disrupted. In the same way that storms, being without electricity, say, in a winter storm, can completely change your feeling of how long a day is. It forces you to slow down. And I don’t know that that’s a bad thing. I think that puts us in touch with the natural rhythms of daylight. One of the things I noticed is that sunrises and sunsets are at such wildly different times during the year. So going out to watch the sunrise might mean getting up before 5:00, or it might mean getting there at 7:30 in the morning.
DVB: It was – I mean, reading it, I’m getting the bends in general, and then I got a different kind of bends reading your book. And it was kind of interesting, reading the book. Like all things, when you read them, they feel a little bit – you’re a little bit more in control. And you feel like – oh, I can see this from the outside, and it looks very interesting, and it tells me a little bit about what’s going on in my own life. At one point, you said: Mindful walking is a meditation, a spiritual practice, in the non-deity sense of the word. Or, if you prefer, “world as God” sense of the word. Would you stand by that? Can you talk a little more about that?
NS: I think I would stand by that. That must come very late in the book. I think that might even be in the afterword.
DVB: I mean, we can all use a Practice.
NS: It does really come down to that sense of attentiveness. One thing that I noticed is that I had driven across that bridge that sort of bisects the Reservoir at its narrowest point. That’s my shortcut to many of the places that I go all the time. And I’ve driven across it a million times. And until I was maybe two thirds of the way through this book, I never noticed that one side of the bridge – on the northern shore, right before you enter the bridge, there’s a highway sign that says: Notice! Why? But it was wonderful! I thought . . . I want one of those!
DVB: In the second half, the book becomes more introspective. And it deals more with grief. And the passage of time. Which, again, we’ve been talking about. Which preoccupies, takes on a deeper meaning, in connection with grief. How do you feel about the book’s having become witness to that aspect of your life?
NS: Well, as I say, it’s a book that I started – the one thing I knew when I decided to do this for a year, and write about it, and see if it turned into a book, I didn’t know whether it was just going to be a kind of journal practice for me, or whether I would turn it into something for other people to read – but the one thing I knew would happen during that year – God willing – was that I would turn 60. So I think the darker tone in the second half of the book might have to do with having crossed that milestone. With . . . there’s a lot of loss in the book. Around the margins. Mine and the world’s. And in other ways, it’s a kind of time capsule of an impossibly distant and innocent time, that was pre-COVID and pre-Trump, and pre-all kinds of things. It’s amazing how long ago four years can feel.
DVB: Was the book helpful at all? In the course of the book, there are moments when things look very bleak. And there are moments when some of the most enchanted stuff seems to . . . there’s one entry where some of the most enchanted stuff seems much less enchanted to you. And you kind of pull out of it. Was it helpful at all, to be doing it, writing it?
NS: Well, one thing that I did find was that the days that I really resisted going were almost always the days that I needed it most. When something would really kind of slap me upside the head, and pick me up out of my gloom, and put me into a wildly different place.
DVB: I wonder if it was . . . not cathartic . . . that’s the wrong word. But whether having to give your attention in that kind of concerted way, on a regular basis, is at all helpful, when you’re going through things that have their own narrative. Does it break up the narrative? Does it give you a sense that there’s something else going on? Because I think at the moments when we’re saddest, the moments when it seems like there’s nothing else going on. And the book, at least, my impression – from the experience in the book – was that it narrowed and then it widened out again. I don’t know.
NS: I wasn’t aware of that in writing it. But I will say that nothing gives you perspective like nature. Like mountains and water and sky. It’s just good for what ails you. There’s a Japanese concept I’ve always loved, called “forest bathing.” The idea of going for a walk as a sort of cleansing, and a kind of anti-urban toxin. You can forest bathe in Central Park, but just the idea of being among trees, in a place that’s not built.
DVB: My next to last question was: I’m David Van Biema. I live in Greenwich Village. I have a river, which is about eight blocks away, but if I’m just walking and don’t have a bicycle, that’s probably all I’m going to do. The eight blocks there, maybe go to the Lower East Side in the other direction. Can I have a practice that’s anything like your practice in this book? Can I do what you did?
NS: Yes! Look up! Look at the sky! That’s a quote from Alan Amtzis, who is listening on this call and appears in the book a few times. He says always remember to look at the sky. And I quoted him. But, you know, Greenwich Village is full of trees. New York City is altogether. We don’t always look at them. I think that’s the point. There’s another one of the many wonderful books that I read while I was researching this, and while I was writing it, by Alexandra Horowitz. It’s called On Looking. And she walks through a New York City block, with a variety of experts who all see things she hasn’t noticed. Somebody who is interested in typography will see something different than somebody who is an architectural historian, will see something different from somebody who is a zoologist. So as I say, again, I know your photographic walks. So I know you are looking. And that you’re noticing things.
DVB: It’s interesting. If I engaged in the practice that you engaged in, I think I would see it yet differently again.
NS: Of course you would!
DVB: And maybe it’s worth trying. Because I think the kind of concentration that you’re involved in is very special, really something.
NS: Well, you know, it’s something that I used to love about walking my dog. As he got older, he slowed down. And you could either be impatient with that, or you could think . . . Okay. We’re standing very still, while everything in the radius is being sniffed. Oh! What just bloomed over there? That wasn’t there yesterday. You know? Look at the colors of the maple. Why are some of the leaves turned and some others not? Right? Why does the same tree have branches that are vivid orange and branches that are yellow and branches that are still green or a little mottled? Is that like a golf tan? Why does that happen? It’s just slowing down enough to look. There’s no trick. There’s no wisdom involved here. It’s just not being in a hurry. I’ve driven across that bridge a million times, and never seen the sign that says “Notice.” But when I was looking, I noticed Notice!
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David Van Biema is a religion journalist currently writing a book about the Psalms for Simon & Schuster. He is co-author of a book about a medieval prayer wheel and the author of a short book about Mother Teresa. Before that he was the chief religion writer at Time Magazine.
Nina Shengold’s books include Reservoir Year (Syracuse University Press), Clearcut (Anchor Books), and River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers (SUNY Press). She won the Writers Guild Award for her teleplay Labor of Love and the ABC Playwright Award for Homesteaders, and teaches creative writing at Vassar College. More at https://ninashengold.com/