“As if they had always been there”

After the homesteads have been seized, the villages disassembled, the valleys drowned — after the reservoirs have all been built — what do the landscapes look like?

This is the fourth and final installment in our series on the reservoirs of upstate New York. Constructed to supply water to New York City, these feats of engineering exemplify the social compact that undergirds ambitious public infrastructures even as they intensify divisions between city and country, wealth and poverty.

Fishermen at bridge, upstate NY.
Downsville Covered Bridge. All photographs 2020.

It has been more than a century since the Ashokan Reservoir was put into service, and more than 30 years since completion of the Cannonsville Reservoir, the last in the series of water infrastructures on the Catskill and Delaware watersheds in upstate New York. All the reservoirs have by now merged into their landscapes, as if they had always been there. During the summer of 2020, Tim Davis spent weeks photographing those landscapes, from close up, far away, and all points in between. Accordingly, his view of them ranges across the spectrum, from their unwitting role as calendar images of Arcadian perfection to the cultural undergrowth, gnarly or serene, that surrounds them.

Is it because we know the reservoirs are artificial that their very beauty can appear confected?

Is it because we know the reservoirs are artificial that their very beauty can appear confected? Selfie-takers perform for their camera; in the background the Ashokan looks like a matte painting from 1950s cinema. It can seem as if the reservoirs are engaged in supplying not just drinking water to consumers, but also an especially consumable type of destination, hyperreal. But then the waters reflect clouds that could have come from an old-master painting, and the apparently unspoiled wilderness feels primordial; a dam in the distance looks like a piece of tape incongruously stuck on the canvas.

Meanwhile, on the ground, despite humans’ best attempts to mark the landscape, the most evident litter continues to be produced by beavers. A tree is gradually swallowing a sign for Hidden Hollow, and maybe the hollow in question was already swallowed up. Bluestone quarries, exhausted long ago for the sidewalks of a dozen cities, can look like so many empty graves. And actual graveyards, set high in the hills, look as majestic as war memorials, while the highways are dotted with signs — “Former Site of Glenford” — that suggest grudging civic remembrance of something best forgotten.

The villages can seem unfinished or abandoned — but country people can always go fishing, in vast acreages of still water their ancestors never knew.

At the western end of the Ashokan, Snyder’s Tavern is a haunted house with neon beer signs in the windows; people have been seen butchering deer in the parking lot. On the eastern side is Kenco, a recreational outfitter that promises a “Safe, Healthy Outdoors” to city people who are wary of nature. Locals fly the collie flag and wave the Trump banner, work on their cars and populate their land with metal sheds, maybe because the wooden ones have fallen down and maybe because they keep accumulating stuff. The villages can sometimes seem unfinished and sometimes abandoned, but a town meeting — held outside due to COVID-19 — looks as intimate and involving as a farm auction.

A mere fraction of the farms from the time before the reservoirs survive, but reservoirs themselves are not the culprit. The topography is too variegated, plots too small, and soil too stony for the sort of agriculture that today’s markets demand. At this point, country people might keep a couple cows for their own use, while they go to work repairing roads or installing seamless gutters or tending their circuit as a home health aid — or doing landscaping on their ancestors’ land for the city people who now own it. Anyway, they can always go fishing in their regulation steel rowboats, floating in vast acreages of still water their ancestors never knew.

Editors' Note

This is the fourth and final installment in a new series, Reservoir: Nature, Culture, Infrastructure, funded by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

Photographs by Tim Davis, text by Lucy Sante, ““As if they had always been there”,” Places Journal, November 2020. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/201117d

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.