Catskills Conversations: Leigh Melander

© J.N. Urbanski

© J.N. Urbanski

JNU: What first brought you to the Catskills?

LM: I wanted to create this magic place where people could come, play and plan ideas, celebrate stuff and figure out who they were in the world. I had been living in California, being originally from Pennsylvania, having bounced around the country a bit. I had finished my doctorate in California and was doing something called the Imaginal Institute, which was the precursor of Spillian. It consisted of programs around myth, imagination, story and narrative. We would do weekend conferences for which I was renting other peoples’ places and I didn’t make any money at all. I figured out that I needed to own the building that it was happening in. We had been out in California for about 10 years at that time and I was really getting homesick. My family is still on the East Coast in State College where I grew up. I missed them, the east coast, the water, the history and the hemlocks. It came into relief when 9/11 hit, because it became clear that things could happen where I couldn’t get home.

I wanted to create this special place where people could have really rich intellectual, creative experiences but also to do it in a way that was epicurean and a little hedonistic and not like most of the places that you go to that are beautiful, but you go and you stay in a dorm room. I’m a hedonist and I wanted to do it…

JNU: With wine…?

LM: Yes, with wine and really good food! And I wanted to do it in a way that was really beautiful: I wanted people to come and see beyond themselves and see abundance in a very particular way. I was looking and thinking about this off and on for a long time ever since school. It’s really all about getting back to my childhood [laughs], getting back to the really cool things I used to do as a kid! And figuring out how to make a living doing that.

I wanted to land somewhere that was close to a major city, but not within commuting distance, that was rural and was going to stay rural.

I looked really from Vermont to Virginia, at that whole North East corridor, and I wanted something raw, that wasn’t plastic. I didn’t want big box stores. I wanted something more essential than that. I eventually hit Andes, which has a ruralness and sophistication that I love, and thought this will work.

So I went back to my long-suffering husband and said, so I really want to do this thing! And he told me if I can earn enough money to get us started we’ll do it, knowing full well his flakey, artsy-fartsy, dreamy wife. But I said, really? OK, challenge! A year later I went back and [mimes laying dollars out on table]. And he went, oh shit!

What were you doing in California?

Doing a PhD.

How long were you there for?

Well, it ended up being 15 years. I fell into some really special experiences in California, and one of them was grad school where I got a doctorate in mythology and psychology.

What college?

At a very small institute called Pacifica, in a building, in an estate that Max Fleischmann built, who was the nephew of the Fleischmann who owned this house – Spillian – who spent most of his childhood going to his house where the meadow is now. I didn’t even know that until I bought this property.


Yes, this weird little synergistic thing, right? I totally fell in love with the Catskills. I had known them a bit because as a Pennsylvanian, if you travel to the North East, you wander through them. I always found them and the cultural and creative history here intriguing. I’m a myth kid and Joseph Campbell spent five years here living outside Woodstock.

What is your connection to Joseph Campbell?

He’s one of the grand daddies in my academic field certainly and at this point I get to serve on the Joseph Campbell board and do events with them, some here at Spillian.

Tell us about Spillian

The building was built by Max and Johanna Fleischmann of the Fleischmanns yeast family. There were five siblings and two younger sons that eventually built houses up here. It was a big compound, kind of like the Kennedys’. It was a house that they came to every summer where they played, celebrated and were families together. They had a great deal of money, but it’s not an ostentatious house. It’s not quite 8000 square feet and this was actually one of the smaller ones because Max and Johanna were based out of Cincinnati, so they didn’t come for as long as the New Yorkers did.

Spillian means to play or to revel or to jest and it comes from the same word that spiel comes from in German and my mum’s name is Spiller, so there’s that family connection, which means I get to say that it’s all genetic. It’s not my fault. It’s my DNA. [Laughs] It also connects to the fact that I wrote my doctoral dissertation on frivolity as a way into imagination. The word frivol comes from the same root as the word revel, and also the word rebel. So there’s something about light reveling rebellion that is at the heart of who I am. It’s at the heart of what Spillian is trying to do. My elevator pitch is that we try to help people imagine past what we think is possible. That’s the goal here. That’s a really broad umbrella. It comes in many forms, like formal workshops where we do retreats. Our goal is to do more of those. It’s come kind of accidentally through weddings, which I didn’t know was going to happen. People started knocking on our door and asking if we do weddings. If we were empty on certain weeks, we would say yes. We have a commercial kitchen and a liquor license so were set up to do it.

[The wedding events] have developed into us focusing on what the food and family stories are; what both families bring and how you use that as one of the metaphors in this experience of two people finding each other. That’s been really fun

Food is a really big subject up here. There are new restaurants coming up. The hipsters are moving in and farmers are still struggling. I feel like that’s a huge deal up here and it’s most of the economy: entertaining and feeding people.

Production and hospitality: what other industries are there here really?

Do you think you might retire here?

I think my husband may argue vociferously for somewhere warm to go to in the winter months and the first couple of years I loved the winter here, but then we had that really cold winter a couple of years ago and that broke me. So I’m yearning for a little bit south. I don’t know when Spillian will end. I feel like we’re trying to birth something here that’s bigger than us. We are only stewards here: one of a series of generations of stewards of this place. I could change my mind at some point: we’ve got this funky little farm twenty minutes away in Andes that I adore. I’m looking at it thinking, well could we put the bathroom on the first floor, so that I don’t have to keep walking up the stairs when I’m a hundred years old?

I interview a lot of people around here and I see people writing about how cities are the best places to retire because you have all the amenities around you. What happens when you’re eyesight goes and you can’t drive anymore, for example. You walk more, thus getting more exercise, etc. There are care givers around the corner in the city. I think about that a lot as I get older about how isolating it can be up here.

It can be, but at the same time, I have a deeper sense of community here than I’ve really had anywhere I’ve lived since I was a kid. I think partially because it’s not easy to be here.

True. It’s not easy at all.

It’s hard work to be here. It’s so beautiful and magic and part of that is that it has escaped the plasticization of most of the US. This is like the US of 60 or 70 years ago in a lot of ways. So part of that is, I think, people lean in. If people need help, they lean in and you can be arguing with each other and it doesn’t matter. There’s a deep sense of community. I think probably the experts are right on some levels, and on others, I would argue that there are things that you get here that you wouldn’t get [in the city].

Like what, for example?

Well, I think the exercise thing is a choice. I walk my fields and run my dogs every morning.

My hills are really steep. Sometimes when I’m huffing up the hill at 7am after the dog, I think why – why am I doing this? [Laughs] There’s my dog prancing up the hill like a spring chicken.

That’s when you need the little dog sled to pull you!

Good idea.

I think it can be isolating here, but I can tell you when I moved here, we had sold our house in California but the deal fell through. We had made all these arrangements, so we agreed that we would move me, the dogs, the cats and the horses first and Mark would come later. It ended up being almost nine months that I stayed here alone and I didn’t know a soul. I can’t tell you how gracious people were with me and invited me to dinner and events. I know people intimately in a way I never did when I lived in the city. Here I have friends that I call on.

If it gets really horrible, we’ll close Spillian down as a business and set it up as a retirement community! [Laughs] We’ll just spend our last years in an alcoholic haze and it will all be good.

Excellent. These are the sort of things I think about though: how easy it is to be isolated. For many years, I just sat at home writing and stared out the window.

I remember you saying that and thinking, shit! There are people!

I’m an introvert, but I decided to just go out one evening on my own and then that opened up a whole world for me and I do feel a lot more integrated, but still worry about being old, a little bit. Driving everywhere also takes some getting used to.

That’s definitely a thing, but this area fascinates me because there’s so much here and it also can struggle so hard. It feels to me like in the six years that I’ve been here that I’m seeing this amazing energy burble up. It’ll be exciting to see if it’s enough to hold. These mountains are fierce.

They are. It’s tough. I talk to a lot of people who say they’re just working all the time. If they’re producers, at the weekend they’re selling and during the week, they’re producing.

No, this is not slow country living up here if you’re trying to earn a living.

City people don’t realize that. Somebody once asked me if I get bored up here, which is laughable.

We work all the time. That said, however, I look at all the ingredients of this place and I’m finding it easier to build the work that I want to be doing – again – more than anywhere else I’ve lived in my life. So there’s something about the nexus of the energy of these mountains and the creative energy of the people who have either chosen to be here or stay here, like the DiBenedettos. Bud Gladstone who is a fourth generation dairy farmer, is my hay guy and is the Supervisor and is a magic guy in his own way. And, for example, going to Bovina Farm Day.

I loved that event. I won a basket in the raffle.

It was totally cool. It was long-time multigenerational farmers and a new generation of farmers at the same time finding this communion. The challenges of being here strip away the pretenders. You don’t stay here if you’re a dilettante. Maybe you have a second home and you wander in and out, but you don’t land here. People who land here make a commitment and as a result, I look around at my friends and my community and my peers and there are so many people who are world class in what they do here. I think that I have to run as fast as my little legs will carry me to keep up with these people. How cool is that?

I think the hardness of it is part of the tempering. I don’t know that the hardness is ever going to go away and – this is just occurring to me as I’m saying it – I think that that’s maybe what accounts for the depth of the creative energy that’s here and the life force that’s here.

So what’s your day-to-day like?

I usually wake up at the sound and feel of my dog Riley, waking me up just as the sun is cracking the horizon because he’s been waiting for me. Then most mornings, my sister calls and we chat on the phone for half an hour, which we started doing after I moved here. I have two sisters and I adore them both. We’ve been close, but when I moved back from California and I spent all of those months here by myself, Lynn would call in the morning to make sure I was still alive [laughs] and it’s become a ritual.

Then I feed my 30 chickens, four horses, two dogs and one and three quarters cats. (Zelda is missing a leg). Most mornings I take a walk on our not-quite-30 acres over in Andes. Our house is halfway up the hill and we’ve got these beautiful meadows with these great views of the Pepacton reservoir. In the summer, I know all where the raspberries and blackberries are, so it’s this culinary trek. Then I start working and keep working sometimes there (Andes) and sometimes here (Spillian) until about 11pm. The weekends are events at Spillian. I do all of our marketing, all of our long-reach programming and planning, plus two radio shows on WIOX.

I don’t know how you do two radio shows every week.

I’m realizing in my galloping old age that I’m an improv artist and I’ve always sort of known that, but I’m really discovering that with radio. I do two shows. The first called Myth America is going deep into this intellectual stuff and more often than not, it’s Sunday or Monday and I’m thinking about what’s been cooking culturally. The way I define myth is sort of like the big meta-narratives that are sitting in the background for us, so that I’m not just caught up in Greek myth. It’s about how to think mythically, so there’s fodder everywhere. I think: what’s been bugging me this week and I get to go riff. I also have amazing people to come on, who come from all sorts of different disciplines.

Some days I fall on my face and sometimes I ride that edge and its really fun.

The other show, The Reveling Radio Hour at 5pm on Sundays, is completely nonsensical and half way between a variety show and a TED talk. When I wrote my dissertation on frivolity, the whole exercise was seeing what I could get away with as the child of academics who both love academia and have been rebellious about it. I did a cartoon about The Adventures of The Queen of Frivolity and she had these three aunties: Aunty Matter, Aunty Establishment and Aunty Gravity. The show is about how you make these crazy ideas happen in your life. I thought one day that it would be great to have the three aunties show up [on the radio show]. I thought it would be great to have someone come and do them, but nobody knows them better than me, so I played them myself. And I get to do this every week! I’m having a blast and it’s free! It’s cheaper than therapy. I’ve added Aunty Dote, who’s Irish and she’ll take care of you. Then there’s Aunty Establishment who’s very posh. There’s Aunty Inflammatory who’s a cockney. She shows up and plays The Clash and she steals the board. I’m goofing. It’s ridiculous.

What inspires you most about the Catskills?

I think the intersection of the beauty of this place and the deep creativity of this place. I wanted to make Spillian in a place where it would matter. I didn’t want to there to be 97 flavors and we were the 98th. I wanted to go to a place where bringing this kind of energy to a community would actually be helpful and bring the resources and the revenue. Part of what I loved about the Catskills in general is that it felt that this was the right place.

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