Story and Photos by Madeline Cottingham


ost days I carry a fear inside me. I struggle between alarm and hope, and finding a balance between the two. But when the animals are fed and there’s dirt under my fingernails, the air around me seems to quiet down and I’m often left wondering if my home is an antidote or merely a fiction, a stillness masked as stability.

My mother left New York City for the Hudson Valley nearly thirty years ago. She moved into a farmhouse built in the 1700s and set about transforming the property into her own miniature realm, governed by sustainable living. Hers was a protest constructed from dirt, water, and wood, where a community would ebb and flow like the nearby Wallkill River. Some brought pottery wheels, some brought bow drills, but all carried an unquenchable thirst to live responsibly, to create a self-reliant corner of the country where Americans still grew their own food and harnessed their own energy. In a push against public schooling, my mother joined the many at the time who chose to home school. Classes were conducted on the living room floor or in the woods behind our house. Along with mathematics and history, I studied the arts of horsemanship, canning vegetables, stacking firewood, as well as butchering deer, pig, and sheep. My mother always reminded me it was up to my generation to ‘save the world.’


Decades later, the world seems wholly beyond saving, at least the world I grew up in. Algae blooms have rendered the Wallkill toxic and beavers no longer dam its banks. Bees struggle to maintain their hives, replaced by an influx of disease carrying ticks pushing further northward. The summers are hotter, the winters wetter and I’m beginning to wonder if our pond will ever freeze again. Meanwhile, monoculture farms and McMansion compounds further entrench their dominion over the Hudson Valley, creeping closer and closer to our land. Everything my mother built seems on the verge of collapse.


Such is my inheritance. A realm meant to be a beacon of an imagined future, now threatened to become merely a window into a diminishing past. And here again I am hung between distress and optimism. Do I continue my mother’s protest? And if so, for whom? For the earth that will outlive us? Or the society that shuns us? Or has it always just been for us? My family’s buffer from the outside world, where reality hides just beyond our driveway?


I raise my camera as an open inquiry. I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answers, but my husband and I have moved back to the farm, hoping to see it into its next chapters no matter how unsure we are of our abilities. Time will tell just how naive we may be.

Madeline Cottingham is a New York based photographer,
dedicated to examining environmental and human rights
issues. Her photography has taken her across the globe,
from gold mines in Tanzania and the ruins of Hurricane
Sandy, to the front lines of the natural gas revolution
in Pennsylvania. She received a BA in Photography and
Environmental Studies from New York University and is
currently living in upstate New York.  |  instagram

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