The Hudson Valley has witnessed America become a country, from woodlands to cities and from shacks to skyscrapers. Its importance in both New York’s and America’s history, as well as its convenient proximity, makes it one of the best places to take Riverdale Juniors on a series of trips as they relearn their country’s identity through Constructing America. Ms. Elizabeth Pillsbury, one of the leaders of these trips, explained how the trips tie geography and American history together. “Every class does the American identity unit. It’s when American writers and thinkers and painters start to wonder about what makes America unique… And they turn to the natural landscape as a uniquely American thing,” she said.
The beauty of the Hudson Valley has been described since the first settlers there were around to appreciate it, most famously in an excerpt of Rip Van Winkle read in the course. The Catskills, a branch of the Appalachian mountains in the Hudson Valley, are “clothed in blue and purple, and print their bold outlines on the clear evening sky; but sometimes, when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of gray vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory,” wrote Washington Irving, author of novel. Also covered in Constructing America are nineteenth century American artists, such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, who went to the Catskills to paint the American landscape after the Revolutionary War. Cole founded the Hudson River School, an American art movement (not an actual school) in the mid-1800s when artists depicted the Hudson Valley area. The themes of these paintings are the discovery, exploration, and the settlement of the American landscape, and they illustrate the tension between the beauty of the landscape and how the humans have already begun to destroy it for profit.
The Juniors’ trips to the Hudson Valley are a way for students to experience the awe and power of its natural landscape. There is a variety of historical places Juniors will visit, each with its own context of the Constructing America course. “Some students will go to Kaaterskill falls, and then take a bus to the Catskill mountain house, and on the way they’ll pass through Tannersville, which was the center of the tanning industry, not just for the United States, but for the whole western hemisphere… Students are going to go to sites that were painted by Hudson River School artists, who were all embracing this idea of depicting the American landscape in particular ways… It was the first American school of art,” said Ms. Pillsbury.
As Juniors embark on these trips through the Hudson Valley, they’ll be given an opportunity not only to escape New York City and immerse themselves in nature, but also to gain a better understanding of the relevance that the area has to American history and identity, as well as to the Constructing America course, which helps contextualize this area.