Congers Lake

When I was a kid, I didn't own any black magic markers. I had every other color, except black. My father used them all for protest signs.

In the early 1970s, we lived in Congers, New York, a small town in Rockland County. My dad wasn't a stranger to political activist; he had been involved in anti-war and civil rights protests. But he took protesting into high gear, when the problem was down the block. Reynolds Aluminum tried to pay off local officials to build a aluminum processing plant next to Congers Lake, which was a few hundred yards from our house.

Dad did all sorts of things to stop the project. He laid down in front of a bulldozer. He wrote lots of letters, organized protests, went to town meetings. He formed his own third party and ran for office. My parents also met a bunch of like-minded people — some of whom they still are friends with today.

Many in the "Save Congers Lake" coalition were part of the early organic food movement, including Eugene Carpovich and Joan Gussow. Gussow was heavily featured in Michael Pollan's book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. When I read the Pollan's book, I heard echoes of my childhood throughout the pages. 

After my parents got involved with the "Save the Lake" crew, dad dug up our suburban front lawn. We had a modest bi-level and a sloping front lawn. He planted twelve fruit trees and surrounded them with chicken manure. We used to dig for huge earthworms in the manure. He planted grape vines and tomatoes. He built a compost heap. Every fall, we picked baskets of plums, apples, pears, and peaches. Our front lawn was an eye sore, but it yielded a good crop.

With a thick Russian accent, Dr. Carpovich used to give us kids long lectures about the importance of using natural compost and avoiding chemicals. He would explain how to battle worms in the peaches and fight rats in the compost heap. Then he would hand us a plum. As he became older, Dr. Carpovich became so concerned about health and food that he only ate boiled potatoes and lamb from New Zealand.

After we moved out of Congers, my dad's enthusiasm for organic food dimmed. We moved to an even smaller suburban lot in New Jersey that was too shady to grow fruit and veggies. Dad became involved in other political causes. I think my mom was relieved. She had never really bought into Dad's chicken manure and crusty breads. We went back to store-bought produce.

Dad is vaguely amused that his 70s friends and interests are in vogue. Joan Gussow is featured in today's Times. He still grows tomatoes in his backyard, and we'll share a bag of chicken manure for our gardens, but his organic food passion went with the side burns.

When I picked up my vegetables from the CSA this week, I told Jonah how the radishes in our salad were grown in clean soil. I sent my nieces to the backyard to pick some tomatoes from the yard, and they came back smelling the warm fruit in their hands. Dad may not be an organic gardener any more, but maybe his grandchildren will take over.

Related: The Enemies of Health, My Life in France with Julia, Fish Sauce and Tater Tots,


10 thoughts on “Congers Lake

  1. I am going to dig up my front yard as soon as somebody creates a plausible excuse to keep the neighbors from yelling. Either than, or I’m going to pave the whole thing. Just so long as I don’t have to care about shrubbery.

  2. We’re looking at landscaping our yard with edibles. Like MH, I can’t be persuaded to care about an “ornamental” plant, so hiring one of those crunchy landscape firms might just be worth it.

  3. My front lawn has direct sun for most of the day. That’s another reason I’d like to fill it with tomato plants. In the back, I have a great deal of moss without even trying. Last year, I tried flowers in the back and they were eaten by slugs. This year I put pepper plants in the spot with the most sun in the back, but I’m only going to get four peppers.

  4. Well, I thought you were the cutie in the really short white dress. I can’t believe we looked like that in the 70’s, or that those pictures have faded so fast. I love the fruit trees in the front yard, though.

  5. “No snark about my plaid pants.”
    There are toddler pictures of either my sister or me (or both) in much louder plaid pants. I can’t beat MH’s matching vest, though.

  6. Noticed this article two years ago, and am finally replying. Steve D.’s house is in the background, my house was to the right of the picture diagonally across the street. We loved your family and the activities of your dad and mom. They did a lot for the town.

  7. John – Thank you so much for your note. I remember your family very well. Your dad used to tell us stories about taking the trolley between Congers and Tenafly. You had an enormous chestnut tree in your backyard, and one year, we gathered a bucket of chestnuts off the ground, and my grandfather make it into chestnut stuffing for Thanksgiving. I’m not sure that we actually asked your mom’s permission to gather the chestnuts. I suspect that I owe you a bucket of chestnuts.
    I passed your note onto my parents, and they were very pleased.

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