Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Philosophy: The Culture of Adirondack Lean-tos

It’s funny the questions people ask me these days. Earlier this week some colleagues were talking about whether or not to restore a dilapidated lean-to that sits on private land somewhat accessible from a new recreation corridor. The issue was debated around whether the lean-to would become an “attractive nuisance” encouraging travelers to camp at the site. If so, perhaps it should be left to go back to nature, as it were. As the conversation wore on someone turned to me and asked “why do people travel distances and sometimes even risk trespassing on private property just to stay in a lean-to, when they could simply camp elsewhere?”

I understand in years past the Department of Environmental Conservation organized lean-tos in clusters at backcountry campsites. This would have encouraged a sense of community, society and for the faint of heart: safety in numbers. Lean-tos are also often situated at strategic locations to encourage camping in a certain spot. I’m told that many experienced campers find lean-tos cold and buggy compared to the warmth and shelter of a tent. While other backcountry wayfarers may be traveling without a tent, in which case a lean-to is essential in certain conditions.

This begins to address the practical reasons ‘why’ in response to the initial question. However if you know me, you know that I am not the intuitive choice to answer questions about backcountry preferences. And so my response to a question concerning the appeal of a lean-to comes from culture and from story. The Adirondack region, particularly its “wilderness” areas are as rhetorical as they are physical. Their geography is narrative and their landscapes follow a mythological contour. This is what is meant when poets talk of “entering” the world. They’re talking about going in, in philosophical sense.

When we enter a physical landscape this way, we cross over into one or another meandering corner of its identity. I was reminded of this when Steve Signell joined the Almanack team to write about mapping. In his first post he mentions an early description of the region as “parts but little known” with “drowned lands” that are “impassable & uninhabited.” As a romantic I am hopelessly drawn to these tentative descriptions more so than the main content of his fine essay, of databases and downloadable files. I believe that while modern maps tell us how to get to a place and how to navigate around once we’re there, it is through the lore of the landscape that we enter that world and that we follow a path through its terrain of cultural descriptions.

I think travelers in every season continue to seek out lean-tos for more than a dry floor and a partial roof. That names and dates will forever be carved into the rounded walls as a declaration, as evidence, that the ribbon of time opened up and someone slipped in to hear Emerson’s wood-god murmer through the leaves.

Photo: A lean-to near the summit of Mount Marcy (above and beyond in photo) in 1973 (EPA Photo by Anne LaBastille).

Marianne Patinelli-Dubay is a philosopher, writing and teaching in the Adirondack Park.

Marianne Patinelli-Dubay


I am an environmental philosopher with the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry'. My academic background in philosophy and interdisciplinary humanities includes a BA, MA and PhD (ABD) anticipated in 2013.

My dissertation research titled Long Suffering: The Great Experiment for Humanity focuses on a series of related questions beginning with a thesis on the socio-historical and philosophical reasons for the absence of African American communities in the Adirondack Park, followed by a discussion around how this demographic reality might be corrected for the two-fold benefit of excluded communities and regional conservation initiatives.

As a resident Adirondack philosopher working for a college of science and forestry I am naturally devoted to understanding the regional intersections of nature, culture, science and ethics. I approach this work through projects with an interdisciplinary reach in collaboration with institutions and organizations throughout NYS. These projects include teaching philosophy for children in the primary and secondary schools, seminars in a range of topics for college students, workshops for government and non-government professionals in applied ethics, public lectures and symposia open to the general public and seminars in ethics and morality designed for prisoner populations in the Adirondacks.


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3 Responses

  1. RossHWilliams says:

    I will admit that my first stay in a lean-to as a young teen was initially disturbing. The open front can be unnerving and leave a feeling of vulnerability. However, when you make it through that first night you feel more a part of the land than apart of it.

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  2. catharus says:

    Agreed…”from culture and from story”… and history. It definitely gives me a greater sense of connection to the stories, land, and people that have gone before.

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  3. Pete Klein says:

    They look nice if in decent condition and provide a touch of history.
    They bring back an earlier time when an unoccupied hovel was free to be used by anyone needing shelter.
    How more open can a structure be than one lacking one wall and a door?

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