I wanted to share with Arboretum fans a memory of a long time back, almost forty years ago. It was the early eighties, and I had just started working at a nature center in Albany. My boss said that he’d gotten a request for one of our naturalists to do a nature walk at a local Arboretum. It was way out in Esperance, and since I had just moved into the Amsterdam area, I was elected.
I had never heard of the George Landis Arboretum, but I took Route 20 heading west, and then followed a winding and very bumpy road up to a white farmhouse on a hilltop. Waiting for me in the driveway was an elderly lady who was head of the brand-new Education Committee, and she was the one who had requested the program.
She wanted to know what kind of nature walk I might do at the Arboretum, and I proposed a wildflower theme. “Wild flowers?” she said dubiously, glancing at the huge perennial garden in front of the farmhouse.
“Yes, all these summer wildflowers,” I said, indicating the daisies and clover that lined the dirt road.
“Those are weeds,” she said firmly.
But she eventually agreed to my choice of topic, and we scheduled a wildflower walk for later that month. Then she said that Mr. Lape would like to thank me for doing the program.
I had assumed that the Arboretum must belong to a Mr. Landis, so I had no idea who this Mr. Lape might be. She led me inside the big white farmhouse. It was a little run-down but looked homey and lived-in. We went into one of the rooms – it seemed to be sort of an office, with armchairs and walls of bookshelves, and piles of books and papers on every surface.
A pale, whitehaired gentleman stood up as soon as I entered. He towered over me, tall and very thin. He took my hand and bowed over it with an old-fashioned elegance. Courtly was the word that came to mind as he thanked me for coming with an old-fashioned courtesy. Our meeting lasted only a few minutes, and I never met him again — at least, not in person.
The walk was well attended, although plainly the education committee lady still wasn’t quite on board with the topic — she gave the program the title “Weeds Can Be Interesting.” Anyway, afterwards I went back to the nature center, and I didn’t return to the Arboretum for a long time.
It was many years later that I came across a copy of Fred Lape’s memoirs. He had passed away in 1985, not long after I had met him. In our brief encounter I hadn’t gotten to know him at all.But it’s amazing how we can meet a person in the pages of a book, isn’t it?
As I read his reminiscences, I was fascinated with his warm and enthusiastic personality, and his vivid memories of his youth. He told stories of the town of Esperance, and how the wooden bridge across the Schoharie was so noisy it sounded like a thunderstorm when a horse-drawn wagon went across the planks. He described the steep winding road, and how a snowfall would bury it in deep drifts, and how the white farmhouse would be snow-bound for weeks at a time, much to his mother’s disgust. He remembered berry-picking, and squirrels, and summer afternoons.
Most of all, I liked his tales of the great oak tree. As all Arboretum fans know, there was once a huge white oak, estimated to be hundreds of years old, that stood on the knoll overlooking the valley. Before this land was called the Landis Arboretum (named for George Landis, a friend of Fred Lape) it was named Oak Nose Farm, for this giant tree that grew on a “nose” of land jutting out from the hillside. The oak’s mighty skeleton is still there, with a hopeful young sapling standing beside it, and another big oak nearby. In Fred Lape’s childhood, the “Oak Nose” was one of his favorite spots.
Next time you’re there on the Oak Nose, imagine a ten-year old boy lazing in the grass below the magnificent oak, looking out at the world that he would someday travel, dreaming of trees and flowers that he would plant on his lonely hilltop.