Frederic Church and My Friend Heather
by Rachel Dickinson
Olana in Hudson, New York; photo: Rolf Muller
Every morning for the past decade I've taken a walk with my neighbor Heather. We walk along the abandoned railroad tracks that run through the swamp along the backside of the village and as we walk we look for birds and beavers and talk about our lives. Turns out Heather's childhood was far more exciting than mine.
When Heather was four her family moved from her grandmother's house in Hudson (a woman referred to as Captain Jack from her time in the Women's Land Army during World War I) to Cosy Cottage -- Frederic Church's first house on his estate. This was the house Church lived in while Olana was being built.
Heather's family rented Cosy Cottage for a decade -- from 1957 to 1967 -- and she and her siblings had the run of the place. Old Mrs. Church, the painter's daughter-in-law, lived in the big house and the kids knew to just stay clear of her when they saw her out on her drives.
Known for his sweeping landscapes of South America and the Hudson River valley, Church painstakingly created a living landscape surrounding Olana -- one that was dependent upon the careful placement and care of thousands of trees, and fields, and carriage paths. When Heather's family reached Olana, Church's vision became their playground. The landscape was overgrown but still intact, and the children ran amok through fields of coreopsis and wildflowers, sledded down the steep meadows, and tried to catch the golden koi in the man-made lake.
"Playing Robin Hood was a whole lot more fun in a place that looked like the English countryside," she said, and I just could imagine kids running with sticks with Olana rising like an exotic castle on the hill behind them.
Author Rachel Dickinson is the 6th generation of her family to live in Freeville, a tiny village in central New York State. Her travel pieces have appeared in numerous publications including
The Atlantic, perceptivetravel, and Smithsonian. In her latest book
FALCONER ON THE EDGE: A Man, his Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West, she follows a hardcore falconer through a hunting season in Wyoming.