Eden Without Snakes

by Paul F. Jamieson | From the Archives

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. Today’s selection, from 1977, is by Paul F. Jamieson, a scholar, canoeist, and author who taught English at St. Lawrence University. 

The 1960s were a little late for an argument
over whether Lake George belonged in the Adirondack Park. A major extension of the Blue Line had enfolded that lake, which Francis Park­man once called the most beautiful in America, as early as 1931. But old men have long memories.

The Adirondacks are big and diverse. It is no wonder that notions about the true Adirondack experience vary widely with place, time, and person. Kenneth Durant, who was 83 at the time of his death in 1972, had spent the summers of his youth at a family camp on one of the headwater lakes of the Raquette River. Ironically, this area might have become the Lake George of the central Adiron­dacks if trends started by senior mem­bers of the Durant family had continued beyond the turn of the century and fallen into hands of less discrimination and taste.

The Durants were landowners and entrepreneurs who for 30 years turned the Raquette headwaters into one of the leading resorts of the East. Dr. Thomas C. Durant built the railroad from Saratoga Springs to North Creek. His son William West Durant further improved communications with the cities and built luxury camps for the wealthy, an effort in which he was assisted by two nephews, Charles W. Durant, Jr., and Frederick C. Durant. The latter, Ken­neth’s father, was the builder and first proprietor of the Prospect House on Blue Mountain Lake, a colossus with a capacity of over 500 guests. On its completion in 1882 it was the first hotel in America, perhaps in the world, to have electric lights in all guest rooms. The full story of these developments is best told in Harold K. Hochschild’s Township 34.

The Durants were courtly gentlemen equally at home in society and in the backwoods. Their railroads, luxury camps and great hotel, their stage, telegraph and steamboat lines did not diminish by one whit their love of open woods. For their own personal camps they chose remote lakeshores under the pines. They were skilled in woodcraft. But a wildfire of promotion ran through their veins.

No one understood this paradox better than Kenneth Durant. With an incisiveness sharpened by many years at the cable desk, he put it this way in a letter of 1962: “IF this be paradox, make the most of it. They all had it—George Washington, Ethan Allen, John Todd, Joel Headley, all the Durants except me—sitting on the piazza at Saratoga Springs dreaming of wealth in wild lands…. This is the normal state of the American countryside: to pioneer, to settler, to farmer, to subdivider—all with the developer’s urge. It is not so much that the wilderness and Christian living are incompatible, but that the parable of the talents teaches us that undeveloped land is a sin.”

“All the Durant except me” comes to mind whenever I think of K. D. and his forebears. While they were engaging in large ventures and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, he was enjoying an idyllic boyhood on the shores of Forked Lake, several miles away from the razzle-dazzle of his father’s great hotel. After graduation from Harvard in 1911, he became a journalist. He served as aide to Col. Edward M. House during the Versailles Peace Conference. Later he was press secretary to Ludwig C. A. K. Martens, unofficial Soviet envoy in America. After Martens returned to Russia in 1921, K. D. became the first correspondent in this country of the Soviet news agency later known as Tass; he founded the Tass bureau in the United States and managed it from 1923 till 1947.

His place in time and his career as journalist made him a critical observer of the movers and shakers in his own family and in the world at large. Almost the only thing he never questioned in his letters to me was the quality of life in an Adirondack family camp at the tum of the century.

He grew up, summers, at Camp Cedars on Forked Lake. His earliest memory was the back of a guide’s neck as he rode in a packbasket while too young to toddle over uneven ground. At the edge of the camp complex was a bounding rock. Until he was deemed old enough to handle himself in the woods, he was not allowed to go beyond it. The woods therefore came to mean freedom and adventure. Later there were fishing expeditions with the family guide, a handsome constable whose family name had been anglicized from Charbonneau to Cole and whose legend of killing a rapist made him a hero to the Durant children. The range of exploration widened with trips by guide-boat down the Raquette or into the Fulton Chain. The buildings at Camp Cedars had a rustic exterior of log siding, but the interiors were ornate. The then-current fad of Japanese deco­ration was Victorianized into a clutter, but K. D. never mentioned these plush interiors. The structure he dwelt on was the camp lean-to, or “open camp,” as he preferred to call it. The foot-thick balsam bed was laid and kept fresh with the authentic woodcraft of those days. The memories most often evoked in his letters are the “subtle pleasures” of the guide-boat and the pleasures of the open camp, which, as adjunct to the closed camps, was not used as back­packers use it but for family sings or picnics and first experiments in love­making among the young.

It was to these two Adirondack artifacts, the lean-to and the guide-boat, that he was devoting research when I knew him. He was living then in retirement on two old farms in the Vermont hill country, surrounded by 400 acres of fields and woodland along the West River. With his wife Helen van Dongen Durant he went traveling several times a year to research libraries and to many places in the Adirondacks, where he examined old guide-boats and interviewed the descendants of their makers. He became a connoisseur of Adirondack motels and had a chain of favorites that combined comfort with a rustic setting. He once theorized that the motel was an outgrowth of the lean-to. But I never knew him to repeat this theory, probably for lack of substan­tiating facts. I sometimes suspected him of generating theories simply for the pleasure of knocking them down.

He first wrote to me in 1960 in connection with an article of mine on the backpacker’s lean-to. We soon discovered that we were both preparing anthologies, his Guide-Boat Days and Ways, published in 1963, and my Adirondack Reader of the following year. Our purposes were distinct enough to avert awkward questions of mine and thine and yet closely enough related that we could be mutually helpful.

We were severe with each other. Even K. D.’s compliments were often barbed. He said that the introduction to one section of my anthology was “excellent—with just the right degree of semantic and historical confusion to make for suspense and arouse curiosity—which we shall satisfy in a later volume.” (This last was a reference to a plan of collaboration which never came about.) I looked hard for semantic and historical confusion in his manuscript. Finding little, I fell back on an excess of dots where omissions were indicated. Instead of the conventional three or four, there were sometimes six, sometimes 20, and in a few places a whole line of them. In reply came a classic among writers’ complaints over their typists: .. As for what you so indulgently call dot trouble ……… Take a middle-aged woman with a youthful background of gangster films; arm her with an electric type­writer; when the full-stop key is de­pressed, it shoots a continuous stream of dots like slugs from a submachine gun and keeps on till the finger is off the key. Then you are going to have dot trouble and plenty of it; the more if the typist has an indulgent, permissive employer and if, perhaps, she suffered from pistol-envy in her girlhood. Rata-­tat-tat!”

K. D. was attached to his wooded acres on the West River, though they were less wild than the woods of his youth. But he was unhappy about recent trends in Vermont. Unlike the senior Durants, the modern breed of developers seemed bent only on maxi­mizing profits. Comparing the Vermont of his early retirement with that of the 1960s, he wrote: “Then, in Jamaica, there were few summer people, few retired city folk. It was an independent farming and lumbering community­ albeit very poor …. This village … is now in a furor of speculation, of buying and selling in expectation of ski-lodge development. … The city folk crowd in, the farmers die or commit suicide, and the great ski corporations take over control of the state legislature and town governments. The air of Vermont loses the quality which appealed to me. I would just as soon be back in the Adirondacks—perhaps preferably.”

Since 1931, however, the Adiron­dacks have meant Lake George, too. And for K. D., Lake George was the end product of all that had gone wrong inside the Blue Line since Dr. Thomas Durant had introduced his iron horse and his fever of promotion.

Our Lake George argument arose over the first section in my anthology, which consisted of excerpts dealing with Lake George and Lake Champlain as a path of empire during Colonial times: a piece from Francis Parkman’s “history of the American forest,” as the author liked to think of his history of the French and English in America; Father Jogues’s account of his capture by the Mohawks; Cooper’s story of a canoe chase on Lake George following the fall of Fort William Henry; and Ethan Allen’s account of surprising the British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga and de­manding surrender “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.”

After receiving the outline of this section, K. D. wrote on Oct. 25, 1962: “When I was half as old as I am now we could say unctuously, ‘There are no venomous snakes in the Adirondacks,’ reciting a bit of nature lore: ‘Rattle­snakes do not advance beyond the oaks.’ Then, when I was not looking, someone moved the blue line around Lake George and took in oaks and rattlesnakes—and worse. You may as well face it—though you don’t—Lake George village of Sunday in midsum­mer is in the Adirondacks. Put that in your anthology!

“So you will understand if I—most unreasonably and ungeographically­—reject the whole of page 1 [of the outline]. Ticonderoga and the Great Jehovah are simply not in my Adiron­dacks. But if you insist, as you have every right to do, you will explain somewhere that ‘the setting’ refers only to the ‘storied path’ and does not define the Adirondacks which include also the headwaters of the Black River valley, Moose River, Fulton Chain, etc.

“And if you further insist, as I am sure you will, then I shall retreat to one last point of resistance and protest. You have been for a too brief moment among us. You must have seen that we of the Vermont hills are not hillbillies—perhaps not even heroes. The first settler of the land on which we live here fought at Bunker Hill and deserted from the Continental Army. No hillbilly, no hero—just a tired soldier. Ethan Allen was a land speculator, a shrewd operator and a Deist—and what was Benedict Arnold?

“I pass on from Ticonderoga, as did the French and the British in their day, pausing only to wish that the storied path might [not] pass through Lake George. I am not sure I can accept the assumption that the Adirondacks and the Blue Line are conterminous. Lake George village on a Sunday afternoon is more than I can take.”

This was what I called one of his “blasts from Jamaica” and what he called “gentle zephyrs.” (He was really a very gentle person, and his apologies, when he was convinced he had offended, would melt Adirondack anorthosite.). I replied on Nov. 1: “Don’t try to talk me out of that first section—and Parkman, the best interpreter of the American forest. … Up to 1775, when section I ends, that region was authentic wilder­ness, and the extension of the Blue Line to take in all shores of Lake George and most of the west shore of Champlain gives legitimacy to the thing. There are some places in that region that still do no discredit to the Park. . . .

“The hillbillies are vestigial, and I apologize on any account. In the first draft of the plan I selected a passage from F. F. Van de Water, a citizen of your state I believe, who burlesques the story of the Green Mountain Boys. Later I decided to substitute Allen’s own narrative but neglected to remove the offending hillbillies. There is not one in Vermont, and never has been.”

This apology did not disarm K. D. On Nov. 4 he wrote: “I shall not try to lure you from Lake George and Ticon­deroga—though for me these are out­lands. I preferred, and still prefer, Eden without snakes. If you insist upon including the rattlers, I shall walk warily and taunt you now and then with Lake George of a summer Sunday. With the snakes, you may recall, came knowledge of good and evil. You may have your heroic moments and your martyrs and cover the naked fat thighs of our own Lac St. Sacrement [Father Jogues’s name for Lake George] with a discrete silence. But there is a tendency which you might ponder-which indeed you have touched upon. Why did White [in Adirondack Country], having prom­ised to respect the Blue Line, run over the border for a Bonaparte? Why does Curtis prefer Lake Como? It was Rupert Brooke, I think, who found American forests empty, no tradition, no romance, ‘no ghosts.’ Where did you get the ‘dark unstoried woods’? I have no need for Ethan Allen, Father Jogues or Clyde Griffiths. I like the ‘woods’ as we always called them—never ‘Adiron­dacks.’ That is my prejudice.”

I replied that he had shifted the argument from aesthetic to theological grounds, and that I was prepared to meet him there too: “Have you forgotten your Milton, with his scorn of a cloistered virtue and his sturdy Christian humanism that asserts it is only through evil we are able to recognize good and make the choice that strengthens the will? So let us accept Lake George, remembering that the Creator did ‘even with Paradise devise the Snake.’ To go back to aesthetics, I wanted to follow Curtis’s piece on Como-George with a passage from Parkman’s letters saying that he much preferred the wilderness lake he had seen in 1844 to the shores now disfigured by the nouveau riche, but the passage was too short. ‘Our dark unstoried woods,’ by the way, is Park­man’s phrase, a canny advertising blurb for his books because he fills the woods with fine stories.”

“I do not hold with Mr. Milton regarding snakes,” K. D. replied. “I find Eden adequate without poisonous snakes. I believe firmly that both the Serpent and the Angel Gabriel were later additions to what had been charm­ing rustic tales. I think of paradise as a pleasure park—so it is described in my dictionary—where charming girls ap­proach with bright red apples. ‘Ah, wilderness!’

“Our differences continued. I put Lake George with its rattlers into the anthol­ogy on the ground that a flawed paradise is the best we can hope for. But I sometimes wonder. K. D. spent his youth in an Adirondack family camp before World War I; I did not. Is it possible that life was actually like that once—Eden without the snake?

K. D. was not alone in thinking so. Mildred Phelps Stokes Hooker, a near contemporary of his, who grew up in a family camp in another part of the woods, recalls a youth much like his in essence. “As a child when anything went wrong,” she concludes Camp Chron­icles, “I would say to myself, ‘Never mind, we’re going to the Adirondacks,’ and just the thought of this place would make me happy again.”

Rereading K. D.’s letters preparatory to turning them over to the Adiron­dack Museum, I found floating up from the pages images of an unflawed Eden. Maybe the senior Durants didn’t know it, or the senior Anson Phelps Stokeses. But foreign visitors to Adirondack camps caught wistful glimpses of it looking into the faces of the young.

In case you set out to find Eden without snakes, a likely place to search is the mature memories of those sons and daughters who grew up around the turn of the century in family camps at the headwaters of the Saranac, the St. Regis, and the Raquette.

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