The Heldeberg Workshop Preserve:  A Land for All Seasons

By Mike Nardacci

Since the 1960s it has been called--simply and not without a touch of reverence--”The Land.”  Though it once constituted around 260 acres, small parcels have been sold off in times of dire economics over the years, so it now consists of around 250 acres of amazingly varied habitat.  At its lowest elevation it is swampland, stretching along a section of Picard Road, part of the headwaters of Vly Creek.  At any season when there is open water it may harbor waterfowl, migrating or in residence, and aside from the obvious population of snakes, turtles, and frogs it has seen an occasional passing wildcat or bear.  Drive past it on a mild early spring night and you will hear the calls of what must be millions of spring peepers, their joyous, musical calls celebrating the end of the ice and evoking a Bach concerto for wind instruments..

Follow dusty Jean Pauley Drive up from Picard Road and you enter a venerable old orchard, where numerous species of apples--some virtually unknown even to most farmers today--grow in the shadow of the craggy escarpment high above them.  In spring they burst with blossoms, their fragrance carried for a mile or more, delighting The Land’s downwind neighbors.  Though the trees are no longer maintained for a cash crop, they dutifully produce great quantities of apples, luring deer throughout the fall and winter.  In the snowy months the deer bed down among them and get drunk consuming the now-fermented apples; it is said that their post-consumption inebriated antics are a sight to see.  The trees grow out of the rocky, clay-rich soil known as till, deposited ten millennia or more ago by the retreating glaciers.   
   
Then there is an abrupt increase in elevation.  The Land sheds its glacial covering and now the Talus Slope begins its precipitous climb toward the lofty limestone cliffs.  The lithology alternates between black shale and sandstone, both of which weather easily, burying the slope with great quantities of eroded gravel and boulders--known to the geologist as “talus.”  This area is heavily forested, with huge old hardwoods and hemlocks which in spring and summer cast the slope in perpetual deep shade.  But for a while in spring the slope bursts with all manner of wildflowers:  trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits, mayflowers, bloodroots, violets of a dozen shades and colors.  And for a short time the air is redolent with the pungent, onion odor of wild leeks, whose shiny double leaves seem to appear almost overnight and vanish just as suddenly.  Springs and seeps burst from the slope in all but the driest parts of summer, providing havens for newts and salamanders, counterpointing the sound of the wind in the trees with the music of falling water.

The Talus Slope ends abruptly with the vertical rise of the limestone cliffs, into which are carved numerous mysterious cracks and crevices and from whose diminutive caverns dribble scores of cold springs.  In spring and in times of heavy precipitation,  the cliffs may be  roaring with waterfalls, whose pebble-laden waters leap from the high cliffs and sink into the talus, to emerge again into the light hundreds of feet below, rushing in boulder-strewn streams through the fields and orchards below.

Though The Land is open to the public for hiking through advanced arrangement, as part of carefully-managed plan it is left to its own for much of the year.  From late August to early July it is more likely to be populated by deer, turkeys, and coyotes than humans--but during six weeks in summer (and an occasional spring or autumn weekend) The Land comes alive as activities of the Heldeberg Workshop begin.  School buses and cars roll incongruously up the old gravel road and deposit scores of children onto The Land from 9 AM until noon.   They gather around a pole building, astounding in their diversity:  kids carrying canoe paddles and kids hauling bags of weaving equipment; kids in miners’ helmets dressed in coveralls and kids who look as if they had just stepped out of the Eighteenth Century; kids carrying butterfly nets and insect traps; kids equipped with bow and arrows and kids in the garb of village blacksmiths.  Under an apple tree stands a group with musical instruments, and in the shade of the pole barn are fit-looking kids bearing backpacks and compasses.  There are little kids of pre-school age, earnestly discussing the snake or the salamander they saw yesterday; there are middle-school youngsters, anxious to get back to an art project or the drama they are preparing; adolescents eagerly planning a cross-country hike or a trip through a wild local cave; and teens of high-school age, some of them serving as volunteers in classes or enrolled as students themselves, pursuing what eventually might become a field of college study.

A couple of the classes leave The Land.  Students in the canoeing class load up on a bus with their paddles, lifejackets, and swimming equipment and head off to Lawson’s Lake near Clarksville. The “Spelunking” class must also shuttle to one of the caves in the nearby hills, and equipped with hard helmets, warm clothes, and daypacks stuffed with flashlights, kneepads, and gloves, the kids file on to a bus, eagerly anticipating the waist-deep cold water, the mud, and the bats.  What stories they will have to tell their friends when school resumes!

But most of the Workshop kids will remain on The Land.  Some may gather in the blacksmith shop, where the roar of the bellows and the crackle of burning coals will soon provide background for the ringing of hammers and the hiss of red hot iron.  Others will be found earnestly learning how to position an arrow in a bow as they pursue the ancient sport of archery.  Not far away, groups of young thespians will learn the thrill of a live performance (and perhaps know the heartbreak of forgotten lines) as they tread the boards on a wilderness stage.

Under the vast roof of the Workshop’s Pole Building, youngsters will be seen weaving on looms, assembling works of art from found objects, or perhaps mastering the proper use of a potter’s wheel.  Nearby where a rickety old plywood building has been converted to a darkroom, students will learn the wonders of developing photographs from negatives, the ancient craft that preceded digital photography.

Off in a remote section of the old apple orchard lies “Discoverland”-- isolated from the world of adults and “big kids”--surrounded by garlands of wild grape vines and tangles of sumac.  Lovingly built up over the years by Frieda Saddlemire, one of the Workshop’s longest tenured teachers, Discoverland introduces preschoolers to the worlds of science, art, music, in an environment in which every moment may lead to a new experience.    Earnest toddlers a year or two away from kindergarten may be observed collecting leaves, observing “creepy-crawlies” from under rocks or off of trees, or making music from simple instruments.

And there are classes in truly remote parts of The Land--classes in which just getting to the instruction site becomes a challenge.  Students may be hiking along the base of the escarpment, finding their way with compasses, and learning the skills of wilderness survival and cooking while searching the forests and fields for edible plants.  Others may be turning over rocks in streams, finding and identifying fossils, thus unraveling clues to the 400-million-year-old ecosystem that formed the rocks of the plateau.  In one of the many lean-tos that dot the Workshop’s orchard and forest, kids in Early American garb learn about the day-to-day life of the founders of the Republic.

It all constitutes an amazing display:  kids are climbing ropes or slopes, launching arrows, crawling through cave mud, and canoeing; they are digging in gardens, hollowing out fire pits, throwing pots of from clay, and excavating the ruins of a 19th century farmhouse; they are making sparks fly from red-hot iron, preparing delicacies from native plants, tracking and identifying the wildlife of the area, and setting their imaginations free to weave, paint, and sculpt.  They are city kids, kids from the suburbs, and kids from the farms of Albany County’s uplands; kids of many different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and they are there for fun or to learn or to have fun while learning; and while some may be one-timers, a surprising number come back session after session, summer after summer, and return years later as parents of their own children who are experiencing the Workshop for the first time.

But whatever their program at the Heldeberg Workshop, it is the experience on The Land that seems to stay most intensely with them--to give meaning to the Workshop’s slogan “Adventure in Learning.”  They may remember some of the more challenging aspects of taking a course out-of-doors:  the bugs that must be warded off, learning about poison ivy the hard way, that first experience with a genuine outhouse, taking shelter from the storms that come over the escarpment with such suddenness and intensity on a hot summer morning.  But mostly they remember the epiphanies:  a delicate rock formation, growing over the centuries in the darkness of a cave; the hands-on experience with wild creatures and plants; the joy of making art from simple materials; and the experience of meeting fellow students and teachers from backgrounds different from their own, learning to use The Land without exploiting or depleting it, having memories to last a lifetime shared with parents and new friends.

Yet at the end of August, The Land will be left unto itself.  Aside from the occasional weekend class offered by the Workshop in fall or spring and the few snow-shoers who will brave the fierce cold and winds in winter, The Land can almost be heard to sigh with relief in the breeze that blows through the hardwoods.  Grass will spring up and obliterate the bus tracks, the trails worn through the tall weeds in the orchard will be left to the prancing deer, and chipmunks and raccoons will scurry about the lean-tos where a forgotten bit of yarn or a lost headband provides nesting material for whatever creature will therein find winter quarters.  And in early summer, with the rumble of the first bus bringing in yet another generation of young people looking for their own adventure in learning, The Land will wake again.