Three times last week someone approached me in a crowd and asked, “Are you the Adirondack Philosopher?” Since I wasn’t wearing my customary toga, my chariot was parked some distance away and I wasn’t strolling through the square asking leading questions, I was at once pleased and caught off guard.
It is a testament to the popularity of the Adirondack Almanack that this happens as often as it does, and in the most unlikely places. Last week it happened while I was inside a medium security prison, it happened again at a planning meeting several towns away and again at a party where the conversation tended more towards ice climbing than Kant’s moral imperative.
Most have been complimentary; happy to have a woman thoughtfully engaging complicated issues, happy to hear these same complicated issues approached in an alternative way and happy that this alternative style is kept challenging for the reader. I am deeply gratified by this response and yet, it makes me intensely aware of how many people this blog (if not my posts) reaches.
With this on my mind I was talking with colleagues earlier this week who had been part of the conversation that gave rise to my last post. A few expressed frustration that I hadn’t gone into specifics in my Almanack post. There was frustration that I hadn’t related the parts of our conversation that had brought up the most tension among us and that were at the heart of our heated discussion. I explained that since the conversation had to do with complex subjects including race, “nature,” science and identity it seemed prudent in a blog to take up only the parts of our discussion that had to do more broadly with “diversity” and “institutions” rather than to try to write a post containing language that had the potential to take on a life of its own in hyperspace.
But, I was told, that’s what a blogger does! She takes a position and sends it out for readers to hash out in the comments and may the quickest wit and the most acerbic typist have the last word. OK, maybe that’s my interpretation of what a blog “discussion” often devolves into. But I have another related concern; that even the most thoughtfully written 600-word position is open to interpretation, corruption and has the potential to reflect less than favorably on its author. In contrast, an in-person conversation, seminar discussion, a manuscript or a journal article allows us to follow the whole arc of an idea, to clarify and respond to opposing or unanticipated responses to what has been put forth.
I put this belief and my own courage to the test a few years ago when I began to outline what would become my dissertation research. I had come across what I thought was an interesting subject that had to do with altruism and communities. I settled into the idea that this would be the subject that I would devote much of my creative and intellectual energy to. Until one day I realized I was spectacularly bored and I started to notice a glazed over look that came over everyone I spoke with. I decided straight away to change my topic and I shared it with a friend here in the Adirondacks. She was skeptical; she thought my initial idea was better because it didn’t actually say anything that would upset people.
Whereas this new topic was going to take up the reality of our racially segregated Park, a reality that I would argue is due in part to the conservationists’ reliance on a singular 19th century ideal of wilderness. What’s more, I would also interrogate the racist and classist assumptions that are written into a regional fear of what would happen to the Adirondacks if we de-centered the story of Emerson, Marshall, Muir and the rest. My friend was right that this would come across a lot like that conversation I had with my colleagues, whose details I was too cautious to relate in a blog. So, call it professional self-preservation or maybe I just don’t have the metal for blogging. But I have embraced this potentially divisive subject and in plain language too, so it might begin a real conversation about race in the region. For more, you’ll have to wait for the book or give a holler and I’ll hop in my chariot and we can stroll the square together and argue about ideas.
Marianne Patinelli-Dubay is a philosopher living, teaching and writing in the Adirondacks
Image from The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509.