From a very early age, I was told of a special bond that Russians have with their country, a deep appreciation for its nature and terrain. It’s a common belief that a good Russian fades away like a withered flower if uprooted from the motherland.
We were taught patriotism through worship of the land, even in literature class.
Many great Russian novelists have devoted pages upon pages to describing the enigmatic beauty of the homeland landscapes. I skipped those pages; they left me cold.
Some people are born colorblind, so I wondered if I lacked some vital sense that was in charge of nature appreciation. After all, that deep connection to the soil supposedly was in my DNA, as both my maternal and paternal ancestors were connected to the land.
My maternal relatives were noble landowners who for more than 200 years lived and died in Zavetnoe (“Treasured”), the family estate near the ancient city of Novgorod.
My paternal relatives, on the other hand, came from the serfs (the term for slaves in Russia before Emancipation Reform in 1861). They never owned land, but they worked it for generations.
I, on the other hand, was an urban girl, born and raised in St. Petersburg (a.k.a. Leningrad), and except for the summer vacations to the Baltic Sea and leisure visits to the tsars’ country residences, I never went to the countryside.
So, it wasn’t a big stretch for me to come to live in New York City. I felt completely at home surrounded by metal and stone. Whenever I felt the need for some greenery, a short visit to Central Park would fix that. My green thumb was dry, my root chakra unattached.
I might have stayed that way forever, but two things happened: In July of 2001, my son was born, and then September 11 occurred. Suddenly, the island of Manhattan seemed dangerously claustrophobic to us, and we wanted to find a way out.
And that is how on a sunny October day, our little family of three found itself in a rural part of the Catskills, in upstate New York.
We were accompanied by Chuck, our real estate agent, who was at the very end of his wits with us. We were his customers from Hell, as we didn’t know what we wanted.
At the end of a long day, tired and irritated, Chuck mentioned the last listing in the area.
There is a cliché of falling in love: Time stops, your heart skips a beat, it feels like a dream… And that was exactly our feeling the second we stepped out of the car.
Time faded away, the feeling of connection to the place was overwhelming, we were in love.
Like a bewitched forest in a fairytale that stays dormant and invisible to the outside world while waiting for the right people to come and bring it back to life, this home waited for us.
Chuck didn’t have the keys for the house, but it didn’t matter. We made an offer without even knowing what was inside. We were in love, and we were willing to overlook the shortcomings of the object of our affection.
Of course, in reality, the old house presented many problems: The boiler didn’t work, the first floor needed to be replaced, and the whole place was infested with flies, if not ghosts.
But for the first time in my life, I felt something within myself germinating, coming to life, taking root. I tried gardening; my son tried eating worms and snails.
My husband was the most skillful in our family when it came to country home improvements. He put both of his masters’ degrees (Industrial Design and Aircraft Engineering) to work and enjoyed it tremendously.
For myself, the greatest pleasure came from the most humble things, like watching seasons change…
…and realizing that even though all the seasons are equally beautiful, some are more beautiful than others.
The biggest learning curve, however, came from getting to know our neighbors.
Our neighbors introduced us to the Country Fair phenomena. That kind of fun felt very different than the familiar delights of BAM, New Way, and the Met Opera…
We learned to tell the difference between beef and dairy cows…
… but who that Bobby boy was, I will never know.
Living in New York — and working and hanging out with fellow artists, designers, and writers — created a wonderful bubble, but a bubble nonetheless. In our new town, I met more farmers, firemen, handymen, and hunters. I learned to appreciate their kindness, resourcefulness, and sense of community.
It is because of my neighbors that I could never despise people who vote differently from me. Even though it was quite a shock to discover…
Our place was once a dairy farm, but in the 1950s it had been converted into one of the Borscht Belt resorts — so there were many people who had owned this land before us. We learned about some of them, like Mr. Pidhorodecky, who ran the resort and had a drinking problem.
Some people say he drank himself to death… Some people say he never left the property… I often feel like there are other spirits in the woods to keep Mr. Pidhorodecky company.
In the land around our home, we found some strange stone arrangements, as well as a little man-made pool and a couple of mysterious split rocks. They appear to be from a very long time ago, left by indigenous people.
Next: Part Two. “According to legend, split stones are gates to the underworld…”