Ten Years Later

August 27, 2021

Couldn’t schedule my post yesterday due to internet outage. Spotty broadband reliability is one of the issues with rural living.

This weekend marks the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Irene. An incredible amount of rain (17 inches where I live) was dumped here in about a day, plus all the runoff from the High Peaks. I counted fourteen major landslides, and the Ausable River changed course in places.

About a third of the properties in the area sustained damage. Businesses were devastated. All roads out of the area were impassable for a few days, and many roads were wiped out. There were casualties in the Catskills and Vermont, though thankfully none in the Adirondacks. Vermont lost many of its iconic covered bridges.

The reason the impact of Irene in the Keene, Wilmington, and Jay areas isn’t more widely known is that not many people live here. The worst geographical impact was on state land, though the communities downstream were hit hard. Unfortunately, some people decided after Irene that they were done here. Nobody can blame them, but we appreciate people who persevered through the long process of recovery.

For better or worse, Irene was how the area got limited cell coverage. The governor’s assistant was here to assess damage and he was amazed when he was directed to a certain field where a signal was maybe sometimes available if the wind was right. There was a working cell tower in the area within a few days.

What I remember most about Irene was how we came together as a community to rebuild, and how people from downstate, who hike and vacation here and love the area as much as we do, came up to help. It was a long slow process that took much love. A film about Irene premiered last week, and I was pleasantly surprised that the focus was more on the rebuilding than the devastation.

(Review) Rural Indigenousness: A History of Iroquoian and Algonquian Peoples of the Adirondacks by Melissa Otis

July 30, 2021

Part three of three

This is a continuation. Part one is here.

One of the things Melissa Otis discusses in Rural Indigenousness is the trope of the “Old Indian who used to live here.” I’ve read about this Old Indian in various places of the Adirondacks since coming to live here, and this new perspective was highly intriguing to me.

Melissa Otis contends that where the Old Indian legend arose, there lived an extended indigenous family group. This family group, usually Mohawk or Abenaki, often interacted with non-indigenous men as paid guides.

In Colonial times, indigenous guides were hired for geographic exploration or military reconnaissance. During the 19th century, guides were used more for location of geological resources or for recreational hunting and fishing. Guides recorded during this time, always men, were popular with hunting enthusiasts or associated with important mining developments.

As indigenous families ceased their seasonal use of the Adirondacks and created permanent settlements, they became obscured in the historical record. For one thing, their way of life in the 19th century was often no different from the Euro- and African- Americans who settled here. Permanent residents in isolated rural Adirondack communities, regardless of their ethnicity, practiced subsistence farming, hunting, and trapping, augmented by seasonal paid work. Indigenous families shared knowledge of sustenance activities such as farming, hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering plants with incoming residents. Of course, settlers brought knowledge with them as well, but there was more integration into indigenous culture here than was occurring elsewhere in the Northeast. This was true into the early 20th century, fostered by the remoteness the Adirondacks, the small year-round population, and the harsh living conditions.

Adirondack men, again regardless of ethnicity, often traveled away from home for part of the year for paid employment. They might live in lumber or mining camps or obtain seasonal commercial work in the cities and towns bordering the Adirondacks. Recall that indigenous people in the area moved seasonally as a survival strategy before colonial contact. Adirondack women would supplement their income in cottage industries. In the summer, there was money to be made from the rich city folk who traveled to the area for recreation.

Unsurprisingly, indigenous families often intermarried with settlers who lived as they did, class distinctions being more along the lines of part-time recreationalists versus permanent residents. Sportsmen referred to both White and Indian guides as “Natives.” Descendants of blended families might be listed as either “White” or “Indian” on census forms, the rationale for racial distinctions being unclear, as the same person might be recorded as a different race in different census years.

However they are recorded in official records, many families in the Adirondacks are aware of their Mohawk or Abenaki heritage. The old saw that the Adirondacks were uninhabited prior to tourism and commercial exploitation is blown away by this book. Indigenous people have always lived here, and live here still.

(Review) Rural Indigenousness: A history of Iroquoian and Algonquian peoples of the Adirondacks by Melissa Otis

July 9, 2021

Part Two

This is a continuation of the review from last week.

Last week’s post discussed Indigenous peoples in the Adirondacks before European settlement: Iroquois, Abenaki, and Mahican nations pre-contact and later Algonquian peoples displaced by English settlement along the Atlantic coast. According to Melissa Otis, much of the 1700s was characterized by indigenous accommodation of Euro-colonial hunters and trappers and a few settlers. Shared land use was negotiated through family alliances, often cemented by intermarriage. The period after the Revolutionary War brought a sharp increase in violence and upheaval as colonial expansion continued.

The violence itself was not altogether new. Before European contact, Iroquois and Algonquian peoples sometimes came into violent conflict over shared resources and disputed territories. What changed was the inability of indigenous groups to collectively resolve disputes. Euro-Americans had the upper hand. Even accounting for the primitive legal establishment, acts of aggression against indigenous people were under-prosecuted. Otis was not able to name a single trial for murder or violent aggression where the White perpetrator was convicted. Many Euro-American settlers, trappers, and businessmen continued negotiating with indigenous peoples on friendly terms; others simply took what they wanted, backing up their claims with violence. Still others, nursing hostility through prejudice or historical grievances, simply lashed out in unprovoked aggression. Copious amount of alcohol consumed by both White and indigenous men did not help the situation.

As competition with White trappers increased, mining and lumbering became established, and settlement expanded, indigenous groups found it more difficult to support traditional ways of life. Access to hunting and fishing territories became limited and animal populations declined. Euro-Americans appropriated Abenaki and Mohawk seasonal camps, claiming these peoples, with territories on both sides of the border, were in fact “Canadian Indians.” Dependence on the emerging wage economy further fractured indigenous communities and attenuated traditional practices.

There are two stories told about colonialism in America. In one story, the one usually told about the Adirondacks, the land was empty and unused, available for settlement. In another, acknowledged in more populated areas of the country, the people already living on the land were either massacred or uprooted in forced relocations. The indigenous people in the Adirondacks were not massacred, even though sporadic deaths by violence went unatoned. Nor were they physically relocated en masse, even though many moved away as traditional livelihoods evaporated. Neither story fits, although indigenous peoples did lose land, traditions, and social cohesion.

The next installment will discuss how indigenous people in the Adirondacks adapted to changing circumstances in the second half of the nineteenth century.

(Review) Rural Indigenousness: A history of Iroquoian and Algonquian peoples of the Adirondacks

July 2, 2021

Part One

I am finding this book by Melissa Otis challenging on three levels.

On the first, it is challenging my idea of Native American presence in the Adirondacks. Otis doesn’t refute the popular belief that most of the territory in the Blue Line (the boundary of the Adirondack Park) was hunting territory used by many tribes, but she asks the reader to reflect on what the word “hunting territory” means. I always pictured some guys killing big animals and bringing a few home to justify going off for a summer vacation with the boys.

But no. The concept of “hunting territory” needs to be picked apart. What were they hunting? Animals, of course, but also plants and fish. When were they hunting? It could be any season. Trapping in winter. Foraging in summer. Who was hunting? Young men, yes, but some women, or even the whole band together. If a lot of meat or fish was being harvested, women did most of the processing on site. The small groups could be Abenaki, Iroquois, or Mahican before colonization, but later they might be other displaced Native groups. Were they only hunting? No, there was trapping and fishing. And Mohawk women would sometimes plant and harvest during a long hunting season. Or Abenaki women would sow plants and return later that year (or even in subsequent years) to gather.

I’m also finding the book challenging because it is dense and difficult. A lot of names, dates, wars, treaties referenced. It’s slow reading, and sometimes I have to look up events that I’m not familiar with. This is a meticulously researched book, which is its strength and weakness. I wish this kind of information was available in a more readable form, but the book was only published in 2018. And of course people demand good documentation after so much questionable stuff has been around for so long.

The third challenging level has to do with absorbing the troubling details of the history of displacement through colonization. This displacement was not as dramatic as the forced mass relocations of Cherokee or Delaware, but it was traumatic nonetheless. The Abenaki and the Mahican faired the worst, being more itinerant than the Mohawk, who were settled and agriculturally advanced.

So I’m getting through the book slowly, but I recommend it to anyone interested in the early history of this region.

This picture was taken in Newcomb, New York last week. The High Peaks can be seen in the distance.

Summer Solstice 2021

June 25, 2021

Happy Solstice everyone! I’ve been hiking a lot and using a lot of bug repellent. Yes, Black Flies are back, those tiny swarms that get in your eyes and mouth. They leave bites that itch and swell. They’re an important food for toads, fish, snakes, frogs, bats, and birds. So far, I haven’t had to use my head net. I just walk fast and avoid the lowland. I also think I’ve become less susceptible over the years.

Mercury went direct this week. Yay! I have that ineffable feeling good news is coming. Every garter snake along my path has seemed like a confirmation.

This picture was taken Sunday on Snow Mountain. Usually a crowded peak, but on this day I had it to myself.

One of the best things about hiking in this place of abundant bugs is the birdsong. The Winter Wren was very vocal on this Midsummer hike.

 Another favorite of mine is the Wood Thrush.

An Adirondack Guide: Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps

April 23, 2021

I did some research for a this famous mountain guide for a local 2022 calendar.

Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps (1817-1905). World renowned mountain guide and longtime resident of Keene Valley. He cut the Bartlett Mountain Trail and the trail to Mount Marcy from Lower Ausable Lake. He had a special affinity for Mount Marcy, which he claimed to have summited more than one hundred times. Phelps Mountain and Phelps Brook were named for him.

Born in Vermont, he was the son of a surveyor and worked at the Adirondack Iron Works in Tahawus in his youth before becoming a professional guide. He was celebrated for his keen observation of wildlife and plants. Like most other guides of the time, he fished, hunted, and trapped. He also collected wildflowers and harvested materials he used to craft durable pack baskets. Alfred Donaldson observed that “One does not think of Old Phelps so much as a lover of nature…as a part of nature itself.”

Unsurprising for a man who spent much time alone in the woods, Phelps was considered unique and even eccentric in his perspective. He was as deeply religious as any man of his century, but his sporadic church attendance never overshadowed the God he met in meadow flower and mountaintop. A storehouse of information about natural lore, combined with a trove of knowledge of scenic hideaways, were his attractions as a guide. While other entrepreneurs mined the early tourist trade for the sport of hunting and fishing, and today’s pilgrims are drawn to test their grit against the mountain, Phelps was in the wilderness to hear the voices of God. As such, he attracted disciples more than clients, bursting into national acclaim through Charles Dudley Warner’s tribute in The Atlantic. “Old Mountain” Phelps became the consummate denizen of the wild, with the disheveled appearance and primitive education requisite in the philosopher sprung from nature.

His dislike of bathing was well attested, but far from being an anchorite, he was in fact a village dweller with a large family. His intellect was cultivated as much by voracious reading as by forest spirits, and the quality of his published field studies led dedicated scholars to lament his loss to the natural sciences. The popular portrayal was true, however, in the sense that Phelps was not a goal-oriented man. Others might scramble for a decent living or strive to conquer mountain upon mountain, but Phelps was in the world to enjoy it. His appreciation shone through his poetry:

Of great boulder rocks and their sweet crystal fountains,
Fresh from their Creator they have all come to me.
And I must soon leave to unborn generations,
Those scenes that so long have been dear to my sight,
Who will hereafter view them with varied emotions,
And volumes about them great Authors will write.
Oh! The old feldspar mountains, with their sweet crystal fountains,
The evergreen mountains we all love so well!

We all love the Adirondacks, but we all differ in our capacity to understand how remarkable our place in the world truly is. Old Mountain Phelps was a guide into this ever uncharted terrain.

Back in the Saddle

April 16, 2021

I was vaccine-sick last week, so no post for the first time in perhaps years. I’m feeling better this week, and so thankful to be part of the waking up world of spring.

A Great Bear

March 26, 2021

For a class this week, I’m translating a story about Yellow Yellow, a Black Bear who was famous in the Adirondacks for breaking into bear cannisters. For some reason, she was tagged twice and got her name from the two tags. While most bears drop the cannisters over a cliff, hoping to break the cannister, Yellow Yellow actually figured out how to open the lid. She foiled a few generations of cannisters, driving hungry backpackers crazy, before she was killed in season by a hunter.

Sharing Community Stories

February 26, 2021

Over the past few years, a community in the Adirondacks has been coming together to record local history through stories. Under the brilliant organization of Jeri Huntley, with the support of the Keene Valley Library, My Adirondack Story is a website where the meaningful stories of ordinary people who live in the Adirondacks are told in their own voices. The stories are about five minutes long, and together they give a mosaic of life here. For people who come to the Adirondacks for a few days of recreation during the summer, it can provide a fuller picture of place.

Now there is a resource guide for others to create a project like My Adirondack Story in their communities. Our Story Bridge is a great way to connect and preserve history. There is also a teacher’s guide for helping schools create a similar project. The guide is designed for middle and high schools, but many colleges in New York State are already using these materials.

Yours truly shares an Adirondack story for the project here.

Solstice Again

December 18, 2020

I spent most of yesterday working on the Solstice video, and then it didn’t survive publication. Here it is again.

I’m taking the rest of the year off. See you at the New Year.