A Waking Dream: Novelist Russell Banks on His Adirondack Home

by | 50th Anniversary 2019, From the Archives

Photograph courtesy of Connie Bellamy

Nearly everyone can name a place or two or, if they’re lucky, three, that for them is like no other. Those are the places that generate the emotional resonance and mystery and power of a recurrent dream—the kind of dream that psychiatrists like to analyze, in which every detail down to the smallest reveals the dreamer’s secret inner life. Everything in that dreamed place signifies; everything one sees and hears and smells and everything one learns about the place possesses an intense emotional valence. It’s in the moist density of the air, or lack thereof; the smell of the soil and all that grows in it; the slant of light in every season at dawn and at noon and when the sun sets; the sound of the wind through the trees and the rain against the roof in the middle of the night and the flick of winter’s first snowflakes passing the window pane. That’s how it is for me in the region that surrounds my home in the hamlet of Keene.

And it’s not just the physical environment that feels charged with mystery and meaning. The inhabitants of the place, both human and non-human, they matter, too—their social and political history, their culture and economy. The geology and ecology of the region and its latitudinal and longitudinal relation to the planets and moon and the sun and the stars possess the emotional power to make one’s heart thump and bring one almost to tears. The towns and hamlets possess that same power. It’s expressed in the leftover Great Camps and the hand-built bungalows and double-wides along back roads, the diners and roadhouses and repurposed abandoned mills and storefronts, and the written and unwritten social history of how they all got here.

I sometimes wonder, why this place, and not some other? Why is this region almost sacred to me? The world, despite having been ravaged and pillaged by my species, is still filled with equally splendid spots that are just as layered with intrinsically interesting history. Over the years, I have traveled widely on five continents. I’ve climbed the Himalayas and the Andes and Kilimanjaro, and I’ve strolled like a latter-day flaneur along the streets of some of the world’s most exotic cities, both ancient and modern. I’ve hiked the trails and pathways of the English moors and the Scottish Highlands, the Appalachian Trail, the Sierra Maestra of Cuba and the Inca Trail from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. And I have resided for long periods in the college towns of Chapel Hill, Princeton and Tuscaloosa, and lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Boston apartments. Yet none of those places was capable of bringing me unexpectedly to tears. None of them held for me the undiluted emotional power and mystery of a self-revealing recurrent dream. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them have been used as settings for my stories and novels.

2.

Actually, in addition to the Adirondacks, there are three other places on the planet that have similarly stirred my imagination and thus are capable of bringing me to tears, and perhaps as a result— like Keene, Au Sable Forks and North Elba, plus some other thinly veiled, easily recognized Adirondack locales—they, too, have turned up as settings in many of my works of fiction. The first is rural New Hampshire, where I spent my early childhood. The second is Miami and the Florida Keys, where I landed as an adolescent, a road-tripping, beatnik dropout in 1958, and began my writing life. The third is the island of Jamaica, where I lived with my wife and three of my four daughters in the mid-1970s. At first glance, except for the fact that I have set many of my stories and novels in those spots, they would not seem to have anything in common with Keene and the Adirondacks.

But on reflection, when I took up residence in those places I was in a similar state of mind as when in 1987 I moved to Keene. I arrived in each of the three— rural New Hampshire, South Florida, the Caribbean—and took up residence there at a time when my inner life was overwhelmed by deep emotional turbulence and personal upheaval and change. In rural New Hampshire I was a freshly arrived visitor to the planet, a small child to whom everything was new and unfamiliar and scary and permanently imprinting. In South Florida I was for the first time truly on my own, willfully cut off from family and friends and everything that had become familiar, supportive and useful to me, and I was terrified by what I seemed to have done to my promising young life. In the Caribbean, as a white, middle-class, American writer in his mid-30s, I was finally, inescapably, confronted by my racial and class privilege. These three events were hugely disruptive episodes that got calmed only over time by the routine and repetition of work and domestic life.

3.

I was in that same turbulent state of mind on the rainy May night 32 years ago when I departed from my home and marriage in Brooklyn for the Adirondacks, to be greeted at the doorway of the house that would become my new home by the woman who would become my new wife. This was not my first exposure to the Adirondacks, however. That occurred in the summer of 1975, at the Saranac Writers’ Conference. But it didn’t take. There was nothing numinous or even luminous about it for me. The fact that I drove over from where I was teaching at New England College in New Hampshire and didn’t arrive feeling especially turbulent or chaotic and wasn’t standing on a life-changing cliff ready to leap may account for my relative disinterest. I didn’t get the magic of the place.

My first collection of short stories, Searching for Survivors, had been awarded the Fiction International Short Story Prize, sponsored by the literary magazine Fiction International, which was then based at St. Lawrence University. The magazine ran a summer writers’ conference on Upper Saranac Lake at a slightly down-at-the-heels Great Camp owned by the university, where well-known writers worked side by side with neophyte writers in workshops, with visiting, lesser-known writers like me coming for a few days to read from their work and sit on panels. I remember that the novelist John Hawkes, whom I revered, was there, along with Gail Godwin and the poets James Tate and Carolyn Forché. I was present mainly in order to receive my prize and give a reading from the book that had won it. I suppose I was too distracted by the proximity of these literary luminaries and by the ego-feeding acclaim my book was receiving to absorb more than superficial impressions of my surround and make from my impressions a coherent picture.

I didn’t know how to look at where I was. I saw it as a set for a glossy four-color Ralph Lauren insert for Vogue: tall silhouetted conifers, loons over the darkening lake at dusk, handmade guide boats, a wooden dock, log buildings with porches connected by covered walkways, and beautiful young white people wearing fleece vests who could have been, or maybe were, fashion models. One may well need a disrupted state of mind in order to really feel a place, but it takes a fairly long period of ongoing daily exposure in a locale before one can see it; and I was there and gone after only a few days. I neither felt the place nor saw it.

4.

A year later I brought my 12-year-old daughter, Caerthan, to Long Lake Camp for the Arts. As a child I myself had never gone to summer camp and didn’t know anyone who had. I thought that from the age of 12 one got a summer job in order to help cover one’s food, shelter and clothing costs or to start saving for college. Caerthan’s mother, who treasured her own memories of summer camp, thought otherwise. She did the research and decided that, since Caerthan was gifted artistically, she should spend her summers at Long Lake Camp for the Arts, located in upstate New York in something called the Adirondack Park —a seven-hour drive from our home. When we crossed Lake Champlain on the ferry from Charlotte and drove the narrow winding roads through Essex, Elizabethtown, Keene, Lake Placid and Saranac Lake on to Long Lake, passing through some of the most splendid scenery in North America, I was not, as they say, a happy camper. I didn’t get it this time, either.

I returned to Long Lake for Parents’ Weekend at the midpoint of my daughter’s six-week stay. The campers staged a three-act Broadway rock-musical, The Apple Tree, and put on an orchestral concert and exhibited their paintings and sculpture and ceramics and leather work. We shopped in town at Hoss’s Country Corner for treats not allowed in the camp dining hall and bunkhouses and had a parent-daughter luncheon at the old Adirondack Hotel across from the town beach and watched the seaplanes take off and splash down. When I drove away on Sunday, Caerthan cried, and as soon as I was out of sight, so did I.

We made the long drive back at the end of Caerthan’s stay, which overall was considered a great success, in spite of her initial bout of homesickness. So much so that the following summer Caerthan insisted on returning to Long Lake Camp, bringing her two younger sisters with her. Over the next five years, their mother and I alternately drove deep into the Adirondack Park to deliver our daughters to camp. One of us returned for Parents’ Weekend and three weeks later the other picked them up and brought them home. In an attempt to make what was for me a long, tedious drive more interesting, I tried different routes, crossing into upstate New York from the east at Whitehall, entering the Adirondack Park in Warrensburg and driving to Long Lake by way of Route 9, or coming across Lake Champlain from Burlington to Port Kent and stopping off for a look at Ausable Chasm. Consequently, from 1976 to 1982, I criss-crossed the Adirondacks many times, always distracted from where I was by my conflicted view of why I should be there in the first place. And so, again, I didn’t get it. 

5.

Then there came that romantically fateful night in May 1987, and while I had been to the Adirondacks many times by then, it was as if I had never been there at all. As if someone else had come in my place. But this time, finally, I got it.

Not immediately, however. I was sufficiently chaotic inside, utterly disrupted by the madness of new love and by the self-inflicted agony and guilt of separation and divorce, so that, yes, I felt it right away—the thumping heart and stunned wonder at the wild beauty of the forests and mountains and cold, rock-strewn streams and the sturdy sadness and charm of the isolated hamlets and small towns clustered by the lakeside bays and along the banks of the Ausable River. From that first night I felt a profound affection for this region that I had not felt anywhere in decades.   

But it took awhile, several years, actually, before I could truly see it and not just feel it. I first had to reside there, day and night, month after month, all year round, and I had to set up a corner of the property where I could work, where I could read and write every day as the seasons rolled around and the light brightened, then dimmed, then disappeared, only to reappear again. In the midst of steady, rhythmic change, I needed a daily constancy that only work and domestic routine could provide.

A single round of seasons wouldn’t do it. It took two, then three glorious autumns and dark, stone-cold winters and redemptive springs and the joyous return of summers tinged with melancholy because so brief. I could not be a visitor “from away,” as Adirondackers say. In order to make the place mine, as familiar to me as my own body, I had to make myself into a year-rounder. Only then would I be freed to leave when I wished, so that when I returned, I would be coming home. Only then would the recurrent dream become my reality.    

Russell Banks is the award-winning author of Cloudsplittter, Rule of the Bone, The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction, Voyager and numerous other novels and short-story collections. He lives in Keene.


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