Sensory Fieldwork

by | 50th Anniversary 2019

Former Adirondack Life editor Christopher Shaw excavates 50 years of change


M  
y friend Adam Welz, a South African naturalist and journalist, identified fish crows flying around an island in mid-lake when he was visiting our cabin on the Saranacs in the summer of 2012. I had never noticed them. He had kept up enough with his ornithology to recognize their thinner, reedier caw than our common crow, and knew that the smaller species was working its way north from habitats in southeastern U.S. salt flats and tidal waters. I had noted plenty of other signs of global change in the local ecosystem by then, but the fish crows, as something newly arrived rather than disappearing, drove it home.

But they were just an indicator of the global upheaval. What could I think of that, besides the headline changes—the Adirondack Park Agency, the Northway, the Olympics—most characterized specific Adirondack change over the last 50 years?

I became conscious of the Adirondacks as a distinct place around 1956 and moved here to live in 1969, long enough ago for considerable change to happen anywhere—dramatic change in most North American landscapes, though here the whole regional aesthetic and policy structure have been built on preservation, on resisting inevitable change. Consequently, the big lesson of the last 50 years should be, at least on the level of scenery, that land-use regulation works. Large blocks of roadless habitat remain. Dramatic visual changes are minimal—OK, everybody has their list of horrors, but from a running horse, at least, it works.

So much of our perception at a given time is conditioned by the stream of age, ignorance, familiarity, perspective. Memory is equally subject to change with the perspective of time and distance, subsequent interpretation. Subject and object, experience and perception, self and world evolve and morph simultaneously. Nothing is solid, fixed. You can’t legislate against that.

I’m not sure I can even measure real change through my own experience, since so much depends on how I myself have changed, on my attitudes, the evolution of my views, the accumulation of readings, scholarship, hiking and paddling. The Adirondacks and I have evolved simultaneously and interdependently, so any objective standard is questionable.

A lot of my earliest Adirondack memories are related to discomfort and fear, of animals in the night, of falling into the outhouse hole, of being lost, being cold in the sleeping bag. Being hungry and not liking the food, tired from walking or paddling, just wanting to get there. Others take place more in the shared and re-created memory of the time.

One thing I can tell you is that the Adirondack reality I came of age in felt completely different than the one we share today on the roads, on the trails, in our daily experience of place and season and the shape of the world.

Silence and darkness, for instance: in 1969 there was more of both. No prison lights, no snowmobiles. Chain saws were expensive, heavy, loud and rare.  Yes, there was always plenty of shooting. And people did drive trucks, Jeeps and various scooters and doodlebugs around in the woods. But there were fewer of them overall and not the constant political pressure to give them more trails.

Fifty years ago one of our chief concerns was whether we could find enough gas to get back and forth an hour to work. Highway departments used sand, which silted rivers and streams, rather than salted by default before every storm. People carried and used tire chains. You heard them ringing in the low-traffic silence of the road. Anybody with a truck carried a tow chain, bags of sand or ashes, a shovel.

The New York Times came a day late, when it came at all. Not everyone had a telephone, many no electricity. TV reception was poor to nonexistent. Radio stations were local and AM. There was no public radio. There was no Adirondack Life, in fact no broadcast or publishing organ at all that covered the region. That to me is one of the biggest cognitive differences between then and now: a feeling of connection, of shared belonging, over the whole park and surroundings.

Invisible changes to the objective reality, the measurable scientific ones, have been dramatic, and mostly bad, despite the apparent success of bald eagles reintroduced from Alaska and now as common as they once were, and the sweeping additions to the Forest Preserve. Moose are holding out, despite the depredations of climate and ticks, but that might not last long. We have more large charismatic species, but have lost immeasurably among the passerines and migratory species, reptiles, amphibians, insects. Their presences all add their living authenticity to the sensory field. Climate change should be called reality change.

Lean-tos had dumps. People frequently carried sidearms in the woods. Equipment was made of wool, canvas, leather, brass, ash, cedar, down, tin, aluminum and imparted their smells and textures when wet or cold to the sensory field of the moment. Nylon, plastic, Gore-Tex—all the polymers and composites of contemporary canoeing and camping, and their associated sounds, textures—none of that existed.

White-water rafting didn’t arrive until the late 1970s. The St. Regis Canoe Area didn’t exist. Even with recent bad court decisions we have better navigation rights on streams and rivers. The big additions to the Forest Preserve have restructured and expanded our mental maps, as though “place” itself were as contingent, ephemeral and unstable as the self, the one that carries the impression and thinks it does the viewing.

On a long hike you would stumble on abandoned lumber camps, everything left in place like the world had ended: enamel coffee pots, plates, huge pig- iron stoves, rusty stove pipes, the grain raised half an inch on the creosoted window frames. The creatures we now take for granted were gone, destroyed by DDT—the herons, lake trout, eagles and ospreys. At age 13, their absence felt real and tragic and planted the seed of my lifelong environmentalism.

Here is one highly subjective thing I can say with some certainty—that at times, places, in certain towns and seasons, you could sense the living presence of a previous reality, catch the whiff of cosmic dust left over from the colonial frontier and the industrial forest. To a dreamy suburban kid for whom conventional reality left a lot to be desired, that was a powerful draw, and intensified the sensation you had of just missing the Arcadian, originating time, whenever it was, and that maybe you could resurrect its good parts if you imitated its forms. Its echoes were still rolling around in the mountains. The old people we knew were still living it and, sometimes, talking to them, maybe during the gas crises of the ’70s, it bloomed into being between you and hovered there, the realization that they saw us as Martians, apparitions from an unknowable future time.

You hear their old Adirondack accent, the human music of glottal stops and unpronounceable diphthongs leftover from early Scots-Irish and French-Canadian immigrants much less often today.

We know much more about our indigenous and ethnic human populations than we did then. Today’s Native presence is more pronounced and its historical continuity more recognized.

The digital eyeball now penetrates the backcountry if not the non-human minds that compose its collective reality, the one that we can sense only subliminally. Their consciousness remains theirs, whereas we have offloaded much of ours to the care and custodianship of the corporate and battery dependent. So many of us have been hijacked by the experience of the device that we can barely perceive direct experience. That may be the most profound change of all. Before the Internet the only way to go deeper was deeper into the world as we found it, the wild one.

I sometimes get mental images, sensory pinpricks and fragments from the ’50s and ’60s. The smell of the unheated lodge in the rain, wet ashes in the fireplace. Branches quivering after an animal vanished. A dozen brook trout hovering on white fin tips over the feldspar bottom of a creek clear as vodka. Naked hippies passing a joint on the summit of Colden. The old-timer in his fire tower with his map, binoculars and range finder, his cabin well stocked a hundred yards below the summit. An oil lamp in a cabin window at dusk, tracks in snow leading to the door. Fish guts, deer paunch, cordite, outhouse, fresh snow, ice-out, smelly black mud, citronella, whiskey in a cup—with floating blackfly—evening primrose, the modulation of the trail. The freshly washed creekstone smell of spring runoff; the surrender to and deep immersion in a weeks-long stretch of atrocious weather and hardship; the first twilight of spring with the woodcocks zeeping and twittering and it’s like you were crawling out of your coffin. 

I know there are places near my cabin where the white-throated sparrows still penetrate the soundscape and my heart with their keening, but I don’t hear them at camp, or anywhere, in anything close to the numbers I did 30, 40, 50 years ago. That is a rupture in the sensory fabric. We have impoverished the world.    


Christopher Shaw, editor of Adirondack Life from 1986–1989, is author of Sacred Monkey River. He has written a forthcoming memoir about a 50-year Adirondack friendship.


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