For twenty-two years Peter Schjeldahl and his wife Brooke Alderson have hosted a Fourth of July picnic at their summer home in the Catskills, New York. Schjeldahl is better known as the art critic for the New Yorker and an acclaimed poet, but his annual fireworks display has become a performance art piece of epic proportions. This explosive show is soon to be turned into a documentary film by Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz of the Beastie Boys fame along with his team of twenty distributed camera men and women, who documented this year’s festivities from start to finish from every possible angle and detail.
“I have cultivated my hysteria with delight and terror” is a line from the French poet Baudelaire that Schjeldahl uses to describe his own obsession with fireworks. And for the thousand odd people who were privileged to witness the show there was delight and terror in abundance. The cultivated hysteria, however, took many months of preparation by a rag tag team of other pyrotechnic enthusiasts, who return year after year to be part of this Schjeldahl’s exuberant potlatch.
Peter and Brooke’s farm lies in a valley along a small tributary to the East Branch of the Delaware River in Bovina, New York. The stream bisects the property running south to north with the farmhouse and gardens on a gentle hillside to the east and a small flood plain on west side that then rise several hundred feet into a mature stand of hemlock, maples, beech, and oak. Laid out on compass points, the property forms a natural amphitheater for spectators and a canvas on which Peter and his cohorts paint a unique fireworks display.
The gardens are sufficiently generous to provide space for the many guests who break bread and drink wine in an enormous potluck picnic. Picnickers start arriving at 4 PM to stake out front row seats on the lawn. A large contingent of creatives from New York City are in attendance. Other pilgrims come regularly from as far as Louisiana and Illinois. Most are neighbors from the Catskills. Children played in the farm pond during as the late afternoon sun fades.
The gardens are dominated by sculpted Hawthorn trees, an invasive weed species which Peter has domesticated over many years of pruning, the annual clippings from which join other detritus to form an enormous bonfire to be lit at the end of the evening. The burn pile, about thirty feet in diameter and piled almost as high, was itself the lone labor of the 68-year old Schjeldahl.
The planning for the performance begins at the end of the previous year’s show. Instead of launching from a single site, the canvas extends from the east bank of the stream near the farmhouse, to the mown flood plain on the west bank, up into the trees on the mountainside. In the days prior, tree climbers have placed charges high in the branches of over a dozen trees. The moisture in the trees in the Catskills at this time of year is such that there is very little risk of forest fires, which is a good thing because at various moments in the show the woodland is ablaze with explosive light, color, and sound.
Peter himself sits at the control center part way up the mountainside with several miles of wires running in various directions to manage the ignition of explosions aimed to shoot up, down, and sideways to create the desired effects on the dark backdrop of the mountain. Some thirty accomplices manually light the reloadable mortars and other pyrotechnics on what turned out to be a near perfect night.
I was privileged to be part of the team on the firing field, which provided a unique perspective on the performance, given that I was literally at the center of the action, albeit mostly lying on the ground looking up. At 9 pm the thirty plus assistants gathered to review the program and to assume our stations. As a newbie, I was taken under the wings of a veteran, Paul Roossin, my friend and one of the organizers. We were assigned to man the reloadable mortars in the flood plain.
In my teens, I was quite a pyromaniac, building all variety of Estes rockets and home-made explosives, including the homemade design of rockets that exploded. It was all part of growing up as a son of a Hercules Powder Company executive in Wilmington, Delaware and a child of the Apollo Space Program and Vietnam War in the 1960s. I suppose adolescent male hormones may also have had something to do with my fascination with things that explode and, of course, my sense of invulnerability and immortality.
The decades since have made me more conservative and cautious. Up until the afternoon of the Fourth, I had thought that I would pass on the opportunity to be part of the production with Peter, Paul, and the others. I counted my ten fingers, my two eyes, and gazed at my intact, unblemished face in the mirror. The risk, I thought to myself, was not worth the rush. My wife concurred. Prudence dictated a more remote view of Schjeldahl’s hysteria. However, within minutes of meeting Peter and seeing the venue, I was swept away. The camaraderie of the assembled geeks was intoxicating –– all of us pretend warriors in the sport of explosives, all of us hungry bit actors on Peter’s 120-acre stage.
The show began with the Star Spangled Banner as red, white, and blue hot air balloons were lit, the five-foot tall lanterns floating slowly up into the sky until they were no larger than the stars. When the audience sang the last line of the National Anthem, the home of the brave, I was feeling quite cowardly, holding the bottom of a six foot long PVC pipe, attached to a tank of compressed air, and a charge of lycpodium powder (club moss fern spores) at the top, designed to create an enormous fireball. We were not sure how well the contraption would work, and for a brief moment, my cohort and I hugged the ground as we were engulfed in flame. Check the documentary footage on that one.
On hands and knees, Paul then dropped a charge into the mortar and I lit the fuse. We rolled away on to our backs to watch the first rocket trail off into the sky and a star burst directly overhead. Then we rolled back to launch the next one. On either side of us were five other mortar teams illuminated intermittently by the overhead explosions. The thud of the mortar charges reverberating in the ground underneath our backs, the explosions overhead vibrating on our skin, and the adrenaline rushed through our veins. Elsewhere around us, Peter was remotely igniting other fireworks, though we were too preoccupied to notice.
When our charges were expended, some forty in all, we became spectators as a hawthorn tree in the meadow ignited, silver sparks shooting out in all directions, followed by a ring of charges set on angle to bisect the flood plain on which we sat. Red, white, orange, green, and blue projectiles raced a few feet over our heads from the north and the south, such that we frequently ducked into the tall grass to take cover.
The audience, sitting on the hillside no more than a hundred feet away, certainly had a similar tactile feel of this explosive performance by virtue of their proximity. They also had a better view of the entire canvas of light, sound, color, and movement painted on the topography of the valley. Being in the middle of Peter’s masterpiece was perhaps not the best place from which to judge the artistic effect, but it is an experience that I will never forget. From our vantage point in the flood plain, surrounded by concussions and explosions, we could still hear the wild cheers from the spectators. I look forward to the movie, which will require some amazing editing and artistry of its own to capture the performance.
Peter himself was rather disappointed that 40 percent of the charges planned never ignited due to electrical failures. None of this mattered to the audience, or to me, who had witnessed the most remarkable fireworks display in our lives, up close and personal, inside of Peter Schjeldahl’s artistic obsession with much relieved terror as the evening ended around the enormous burn pile with the stars above in the cool Catskills night. And that delight lingered on into the next day like the smoldering remains of the bonfire the next morning around which we recounted the festivities and made plans for next year.