Monday, May 16, 2011

Dave Gibson: Wild Forest Lands Do Need Our Help

Phil Terrie’s essay in the current Adirondack Explorer, “forests don’t need our help,” rebuts those who claim that no further land acquisition is justified because the state “can’t take care of what it already has.” Phil is absolutely correct to call the list of unmet recreational maintenance projects on a given unit of Forest Preserve, such as a trail or lean-to in rough shape, as a lame excuse for not adding additional strategic lands to the Preserve.

He is incorrect, however, in asserting that the “forever wild provision of the state constitution provides a perfect management plan. It costs nothing and provides the best guarantee possible for healthy, aesthetically appealing, functional ecosystems.”

Article 14, the forever wild clause of our Constitution, has never been self-executing. Its implementation requires both a vigilant defense to prevent bad amendments from being passed, as well as an offensive team of alert citizens and principled and funded state agencies to proactively carry out its mandate that the forest preserve is to be “forever kept as wild forest lands.” Call it field management, if you will. Over time, you can not preserve wilderness, or shall I say, Forest Preserve without actively managing ourselves, the recreational user. This prerequisite demands that we have management principles, plans and objectives in place, and that we oversee and measure the results.

I don’t mean a lean-to here, or a trail there that may be out of repair and needing maintenance, and not receiving it. What I mean is that the underlying philosophy, principles, plans and objectives for managing our uses of “forever wild” land are vitally important if you expect to still have wild, or natural conditions years hence. Remember that a part of the Wilderness definition in our State Land Master Plan (which echoes the national definition) is to “preserve, enhance and restore natural conditions.” Howard Zahniser, author of the National Wilderness Act, was inspired by New York’s Forever Wild history. He always maintained that our biggest challenge, once Wilderness was designated, was to keep wilderness wild, especially from all of us who could, and often do love wilderness to death. The same applies to the Forest Preserve. Of course, restoring “natural conditions” in a time of climate change is a significant challenge that wilderness managers are facing across the country.

Remember the way Marcy Dam used to look? Restoring that area from the impact of thousands of boot heels and lean-to campers took decades of effort. The High Peaks Wilderness Unit Management Plan established clear management objectives of, for example, restoring native vegetation at heavily used lean-to and trailhead sites, and redistributing and limiting the heavily concentrated camping pattern that once existed. It then took additional years to actively carry out those objectives, measure their progress, and achieve the desired results.

So did the efforts led by Edwin H. Ketchledge, ADK, DEC and Nature Conservancy to ecologically restore the High Peak alpine summits. In the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest, the UMP is seeking to restore wilder conditions in the central core area, and move some of the dense snowmobile traffic to the perimeter of that unit.

In the Siamese Ponds Wilderness and Jessup River Wild Forest, it will take years of well directed management effort to restore parts of the western shoreline and islands of Indian Lake to achieve “natural conditions” after decades of uncertain management and overly intensive day and overnight use. Without a Siamese Ponds Wilderness UMP, there would be no clear wild land objectives, and no timetable to achieve them. Yes, those timetables are often exceeded, but these UMPs hold our public officials feet to the fire, and accountable to the State Land Master Plan and to Article 14 of the Constitution.

Our Constitution’s assertion that lands constituting the forest preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands” are, in these myriad and laborious ways, carried out for future generations. And yes, wild land management requires financial resources and devoted personnel. That is why it was so important a decade ago to establish a land stewardship account in the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. Yes, these funds are insufficient, so a stronger public-private partnership for Adirondack wild lands is needed.

Lost so far in the debate over whether and how to acquire some 65,000 acres of Finch, Pruyn lands for the Forest Preserve is the good thinking that should be underway about how to best manage these lands as wild lands, for their wild, ecological and recreational values. Assuming that some day these lands will be part of the Forest Preserve, time and effort needs to be devoted now to management planning that may help keep these lands as wild as possible, preserving their ecological integrity while planning for recreational uses that are compatible with the paramount need to care for these lands as part of the Forest Preserve.

For example, public access will need to be closely managed if wild land and natural conditions are to be preserved, enhanced or restored. During a visit sponsored by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, I was impressed, for example, with the extensive logging road network leading to the Essex Chain of Lakes south of Newcomb. This beautiful chain of lakes offers a fine future canoeing and kayaking attraction in the central Adirondacks, as well as an ecologically interesting and important aquatic resource.

State and private natural resource managers are giving quite a bit of thought, as they should, to how and where the paddling public might access the chain of lakes. Closing off some of the roads to motorized traffic, turning these into narrower trails, and requiring paddlers to carry or wheel their boats longer distances to enter or leave the lakes would create or restore wilder and more natural conditions along these sensitive shorelines, conditions which would appeal to paddlers from across the Northern Forest and Canada. Special fishing regulations may also be required to preserve the fishery long treasured by the private leaseholders here. The same level of planning thought will be needed to assure or restore both wild and natural conditions at Boreas Ponds, the Upper Hudson River and other former Finch lands and waters that merit Forest Preserve status.

Photo: Paddling on the Essex Chain of Lakes, south of Newcomb, NY, as guests of The Nature Conservancy.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Adirondack Guides: The Missing NYC ‘Sport’

Adirondack guides from over a century ago are themselves part of the lore and history of the region. Their handling of city “sports,” coupled with their great abilities in the woods, provided the background for many a legendary tale. Guides were often strongly independent and shared a great affinity for the solitude of the deep woods. So what were nearly two dozen of these woodsmen doing in a New York City courtroom in the winter of 1893–1894?

They were present for the culmination of a terrific news story that had earned sustained coverage for more than two years. Dozens of American and Canadian newspapers followed the tale, which at times dominated the New York City media. A key component was its Adirondack connection.

The story centered on well-known businessman John C. “Jack” Austin, 38, of Brooklyn. Fit, trim, and very athletic, he participated regularly in team and individual sports. In industry, he was known to have enjoyed success, providing a comfortable, if not wealthy, existence for his family. Austin’s wife died in February, 1891, leaving him with three young children to raise, which he was doing with the aid of their very attentive housekeeper.

The afternoon of July 4, 1891, was like any other holiday in Austin’s life, with plans to attend the horse races or go swimming at Manhattan Beach. He kissed the children good-bye and went on his way, promising to take them that evening to the Independence Day fireworks.

Nearly nine hours later, the clerk at Manhattan Beach was performing the nightly check of the safe’s contents when he encountered an envelope bearing the name and street address of John Austin. For bathers visiting the beach, it was normal procedure to hire a bath room for changing clothes, and to deposit any valuables (wallet, cash, rings, watches) in envelopes provided by the facility. The owner received a numbered ticket which was later used to recover those goods.

After finding the envelope with Austin’s name on it, the clerk searched Room #391, where he found a coat, vest, shirt, hat, trousers, and underwear. In the pockets of the clothing were a case of business cards, a penknife, some keys, and some pencils.

Since it was nighttime and Austin’s personal belongings were still present, there was only one logical explanation: the owner likely had drowned. The clerk called for help, and in the presence of the bathing pavilion superintendent, the Manhattan Beach chief of police, and a fireman, the security envelope was opened.

Inside were items of varying value: a pocketbook containing a few dollars and some change; a ring with the letter S on it; and a lady’s gold watch and chain, studded with pearls.

The family was contacted and apprised of the situation. Joseph Austin (John’s brother), and Thomas Carruthers (John’s brother-in-law) positively identified the belongings as John’s, and a search was initiated. For two days, police and volunteers patrolled the water and the beaches, covering not only Manhattan Beach, but the nearby shores of Jamaica Bay, Plum Island, Rockaway, and Sheepshead Bay.

Veteran lawmen and experienced searchers knew what to do and where to look. Drownings were not uncommon off the shores of Coney Island, where tides and the prevailing winds routinely sent victim’s bodies to the shore sooner or later. Austin was presumed drowned, and alerts were issued to authorities on Staten Island as well as the New Jersey shore on the outside chance the body might surface there.

Over the course of ten days, nothing was found, which in itself stirred suspicions. Some suggested that a northwest wind had driven the body out to sea, but police and beach veterans knew better. Austin’s room, #391, had been rented at about 4:00 pm, and for several hours following, a strong flood tide had pushed inland. To a man, they recognized it as an unusual circumstance that Austin’s body had not washed ashore—if he had, in fact, drowned.

The family filed a claim with two insurance companies, where Austin’s coverage totaled $25,000 (equal to about $620,000 today). However, since no body had been recovered, one of the companies had already begun an investigation, despite the stellar public image of Austin as a respected, honest, hard-working family man. They wouldn’t be paying on the claim just yet.

A number of peculiarities, both large and small, were noted in the situation surrounding John Austin’s disappearance. He was known to be wearing a very valuable diamond ring, but only an inexpensive ring was found in the envelope.

The same was true of the lady’s watch that was found. Austin always wore his own watch, described as “a magnificent chronometer.” Friends and relatives said the valued watch was being repaired at a jeweler, but the insurance company discovered that the watch had been picked up on July 3, the day before he vanished. The jeweler’s shop was very near Austin’s office, but for some unknown reason, he sent a messenger boy with a check to pick up the watch.

It was also learned that John Austin patronized Manhattan Beach regularly and was well known to many of the workers—yet no one recalled seeing him on July 4. Further, on that day it was chilly and windy, reducing attendance to about 600 on a beach that often held many thousands of bathers. Despite the sparseness of the crowd, no employees could be found who had seen Austin.

Co-workers and partners confirmed that the missing man always carried plenty of cash, almost never less than $100. And yet the envelope of his belongings held just a few dollars.

He was also known to many as a very prolific and strong swimmer, often covering extreme distances. Drowning seemed an unlikely end for such a fit and able swimmer.

Another possibility was floated: perhaps Austin had been hiding out while an imposter went to the beach on his behalf, used the changing room, and deposited the valuables (which had since been deemed not so valuable after all). That would explain why (in an unusually sparse crowd) no attendants had seen Austin. Maybe he hadn’t been there at all.

Many more suspicious developments spurred further investigation, expanding far from the confines of New York City. Austin’s three orphaned children were now living with his sister, who was a resident of Montreal, Quebec.

It was learned that their missing father was one of a great many city dwellers who frequented the Adirondacks for hunting and fishing expeditions. Since the Adirondacks were little more than an hour south of Montreal, investigators kept digging.

It was then ascertained that John C. Austin was no stranger to the North Country. To be more specific, a number of those stalwarts of the north woods, the Adirondack guides, claimed to have not only seen Austin since his supposed drowning, but had guided him in several areas, including the Saranac Lake region.

New developments caused further consternation. Of the two insurance policies which together were equal to well over $600,000 (in 2011), one had been secured by Austin on July 1, just three days before he vanished. And, after procuring the new policy, he had asked a secretary in the insurance office if it took effect at that very moment. It did seem an unusual query. With confirmation, he requested that the policy be sent to him ASAP. It was mailed that afternoon.

A few witnesses eventually came forth, claiming they had seen a man disappear while swimming well offshore on July 4. Skeptical detectives suggested another scenario. Since Austin was widely known as a powerful swimmer, they believed he swam a few miles out, where he was picked up by a boat and secreted for a time at the home of his good friend, Henry LaMarche, south of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, not much more than ten miles from Manhattan Beach.

LaMarche denied it, but his gardener and other employees stated emphatically that they had seen Austin with LaMarche in the days following the supposed drowning.

Following up on Jack Austin’s great love of the north woods, detectives found many Adirondack guides who had known him over the years and claimed to have recently seen him and/or worked for him. One of them provided a photograph, said to have been taken recently. It showed Austin in full hunting gear.

Confident now that this was a scam, the insurance companies denied the family’s claims, which were made on behalf of the children. Both sides had taken a firm stand, and the matter of whether or not John C. Austin was alive or dead would be decided by the courts.

Thus, in December, 1893, about twenty Adirondack woodsmen found themselves en route to New York City for an extended stay, courtesy of the insurance companies. They were to testify about their interactions with Austin and the range of his movements.

Next week: From the big woods to the big city.

Photo Top: Manhattan Beach, circa 1900.

Photo Bottom: Headline from the Austin case.

Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Adirondack Wildlife: The Hardy Bumble Bee

Shortly before apple blossoms open and honeysuckle flowers emerge from their buds, queen bumble bees awaken from their winter dormancy and begin the chore of establishing the small colony over which they will reign throughout the coming growing season.

In autumn, as asters begin to fade, the queen bumble bee abandons her colony and prepares for the coming winter. After mating with one or several male bees, she then begins to work her way through the layer of dead, leafy matter covering the ground and down into the soil. Like most other bugs, the queen lapses into a period of deep dormancy that often lasts seven months in this northern climate. Both the worker and male bumble bees in the colony eventually perish as the cold becomes more intense and sources of nectar completely disappear.

As the ground thaws in mid April and her surroundings warm, the queen makes her way to the surface and starts to search for a site in which to locate her nest. In the Adirondacks, the bumble bee often places her colony in or near the ground. A small hole that leads underground, such as the entrance to a vacant chipmunk burrow or the opening to an abandoned vole tunnel is occasionally selected for the nest’s location. A tiny grotto among a pile of rocks or a hollow log lying on the forest floor is another site that the queen may use to house her colony.
After creating several waxy containers to hold her initial few eggs, the queen then begins the month long process of caring for her developing offspring. Since only the queen is present at this initial stage of the colony’s development, only a handful of eggs are produced in mid spring.

As early blooming plants open their flowers at the end of April or the first week or two of May, it is common for the queen bumble bee to regularly visit any plants that is yielding pollen and nectar. Unlike the honey bee which visits only a single type of flower each day when it becomes active in collecting floral material, the bumble bee is far less selective. This hefty, yellow and black insect is known to stop at a variety of sources of nectar and pollen during its daily search for nourishment, especially when flowers are still few and far between.

The bumble bee is well adapted for a life in our cold climate, and is not as adversely impacted by the unseasonably cool weather that may settle over the Park in May as are other species of bees and wasps. The larger size of this flying insect, along with its rounded body shape helps create a body mass to surface area ratio that limits heat loss better than any other social or stinging insect. The especially dense layer of “hair-like” bristles that cover the bumble bee’s body functions like a coat of fur to help retain heat. Additionally, when exposed to the cold, the bumble bee is reported to be able to vibrate certain muscles within its body much as a person shivers in order to elevate its internal temperature. Finally, when collecting food, the bumble bee never wastes energy in attempting to attack a larger intruder, like a human that may have wandered too close to the tree or shrub in which it is foraging.
The bumble bee is the most docile stinging insect in the North Country and uses its primary defensive weapon only when something actually grabs it, or disturbs its nest. While the bumble bee occasionally flies close to people in order to investigate colorful articles of clothing they may be wearing, it inevitably realizes it cannot collect food from that object, and always leaves without incident.

Killing a bumble bee, especially at this time of the year, when its colony is just starting to function, is never an environmentally good action. Because of the very limited presence of the honey bee in the Adirondacks, the bumble bee assumes the role of a primary pollinator of many flowering plants across the region. (However, I never have a problem destroying a wasp, especially a bald-faced hornet, as I am convinced that they are insect vermin, but the bumble is NOT!) If the insect you see flying around is large, rounded and fuzzy, it is a bumble bee, which should always be left alone as it is an important component of the environment here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on nature in the Adirondacks.


Friday, May 13, 2011

This Week’s Adirondack Web Highlights

On Friday afternoons Adirondack Almanack compiles for our readers a collection of the week’s top weblinks. You can find all our weekly web round-ups here.

Subscribe! More than 6,000 people get Adirondack Almanack each day via RSS, E-Mail, or Twitter or Facebook updates. It’s a convenient way to get the latest news and information about the Adirondacks.


Friday, May 13, 2011

This Week’s Top Adirondack News Stories

Each Friday morning Adirondack Almanack compiles for our readers the previous week’s top stories. You can find all our weekly news round-ups here.

Subscribe! More than 6,000 people get Adirondack Almanack each day via RSS, E-Mail, or Twitter or Facebook updates. It’s a convenient way to get the latest news and information about the Adirondacks.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Current Conditions in the Adirondack Park (May 12)

The Almanack’s web platform went down this week on Thursday and this week’s conditions report was lost. You can still hear this week’s report (which aired Friday morning) online at WNBZ (AM 920 & 1240, FM 105 & 102.1) and North Country Public Radio.

What follows is a transcript of this week’s radio report.

While waters have receded in the central Adirondacks some areas downstream of the region’s major rivers and along Lake Champlain are still experiencing flooding and more rain is expected this weekend.

Most waters are still above normal and impassable river, stream and brook crossings, and flooded trails and campsites are still a problem in many areas of the backcountry.

Many docks, boat launches, water access points, and low-lying waterfront properties also remain affected by high waters.

Boaters and paddlers should be aware that waters are cold and swift and may contain logs, limbs and other debris. High waters also conceal navigation hazards that are normally easily seen and avoided. Rivers running above normal include the Hudson, Sacanadaga, Beaver, Raquette, Saranac, AuSable, and Bouquet.

Expect higher than normal traffic on the Grasse River which is playing host to the 50th Annual Canton Canoe Weekend from Friday through Sunday. Races start and finish at Canton’s Taylor Park.

In the backcountry, trails and campsites may be flooded or covered and blocked by fallen trees and other blowdown due to saturated soils.

This is a good time to stay off wet trails in the High Peaks, and to stick to the lower elevation mountains along the Southern Adirondacks, including in the Lake George basin.

Snow is present at elevations above 3000 feet on north facing slopes and snowshoes will be needed at elevations above 3500 feet.

Lower and mid-elevation trails are wet and muddy. Be prepared by wearing waterproof footwear and gaiters, and remember to walk through – not around – mud and water to avoid widening the trails.

The gates are shut on roads typically closed during mud season, including those in the Lake George and Moose River Plains Wild Forests, the Perkins Clearing and Elk Lake easement lands, the unpaved section of the Corey’s Road in the Western High Peaks, and the Lake Lila Road in the Whitney Wilderness.

Looking at some local conditions, in the High Peaks the first bridge on the East River Trail has been washed away and high waters make crossing there risky, the first bridge west of Henderson Lake on the trail to Preston Ponds and Duck Hole is now impassible, as is the Opalescent Cable Bridge on the East River/Hanging Spear Falls trail. The high water crossing bridge at Bushnell Falls has been removed.

On the Northville Placid Trail in West Canada Lake Wilderness the bridge over West Canada Creek has gone out during the recent floods.

The Wakely Dam Area remains closed due to significant damage from flooding

Finally this week a reminder that all rock climbing routes on Moss Cliff in Wilmington Notch, the Upper and Lower Washbowl Cliffs at Chapel Pond, and 54 routes on Nose of Poke-o-Moonshine Mountain between and including Garter and Mogster remain closed through the nesting season.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Wilmington Whiteface Bike Fest Set for June

The June 16-19 Wilmington/Whiteface Bike Fest celebrates the bicycle with activities and events including the Wilmington/Whiteface 100k bike race (one of three qualifiers for the Leadville 100), the Whiteface Uphill Road Race and the “Brainless Not Chainless Gravity Ride.”

The festival kicks off Thursday, June 16, at 8 a.m., when the Wilmington Dirt Jump/Skills Park opens in the Wilmington Bike Park. Registration for the Uphill race and the “Brainless Not Chainless Gravity Ride” will also continue at the Whiteface Business and Tourism Center from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday also includes a “Fun Not Fear” MTB instructional clinic on the Flume trails from 4-6 p.m.

Friday’s schedule features the opening of the Whiteface Mountain bike downhill park, at 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m., a free dirt jump clinic with Kyle Ebbett, 5-6 p.m., a jump jam & trials exhibition, 6-9 p.m., and the “Brainless Not Chainless Gravity Ride.” The parade of bikes begins at 4 p.m. with a Mass LeMans start at Santa’s Workshop and takes the participants downhill, 1.6-miles to Route 86. Awards will be presented at the Wilmington Bike Park for the best themed bike and for best costume.

The opening of the Bike Fest Village, at Whiteface Mountain, a ribbon cutting ceremony to open the Hardy Road Trail Network, at 10 a.m., and the 10th annual running of the Whiteface Uphill Bike Race highlight Saturday’s schedule. The village opens at 7 a.m. and throughout the day visitors can enjoy vendor displays, children’s event, food and entertainment. Admission is free.

The Uphill race begins at 5:30 p.m., and more than 340 cyclists are expected to climb New York State’s fifth highest peak via the Veterans Memorial Highway. The race is open to both road and mountain bicycles. The Whiteface event is the first race in the nine-race “Bike Up Mountain Points Series” (BUMPS) Series. An award ceremony and barbeque will be held at Santa’s Workshop beginning at 7 p.m.

Sunday’s Wilmington/Whiteface 100k begins at 6:30 a.m. and the festival’s village re-opens, at Whiteface at 7 a.m. More than 800 cyclists will race from Whiteface to Lewis and back to the Olympic mountain on the area’s paved and dirt roads, mountain bike trails and the Whiteface Mountain trails. It’s a test of determination, guts and even sanity for the opportunity to earn one of only 100 coveted entries into the Leadville Trail 100, mountain biking’s most prestigious race.

The weekend long festival is expected to bring 4,000 biking enthusiasts to the Wilmington region. For more information about the second annual Wilmington/Whiteface Bike Fest, log on to www.whitefaceregion.com.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Monroe Still Questions Land Purchases

One of the local officials who supported an investigation of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy’s sale of land to the state says he still thinks the state’s land-acquisition policy needs to be reformed–even though the probe found no wrongdoing.

Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, continues to question why the state paid $3.7 million more for the land in 2008 than the Nature Conservancy paid four years earlier. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

High Peaks Happy Hour: Whitewater Derby; Recipes

North Creek’s annual Whitewater Derby is an event which deserves proper recognition – of the drink persuasion. We spent some time on “research” last week, creating the Whitewater Rushin’, and an interesting variation; its subtle maple flavor and frothy finish a tribute to spring in the northeast. It’s been some time since we were at Whitewater Derby – back when it was just a great excuse to party, camping at the ski bowl, an inch of snow on the roof of the VW bus, and no watercraft in sight. Considering our current livelihood, it was high time we returned, so we had our own private, mini pub crawl in North Creek on Saturday.

Whitewater Rushin’
1 oz. Sapling Maple Liqueur
1/2 oz. Amaretto
1 oz. vanilla vodka
2 oz. cream or milk
Shake with ice or use a blender

Beginning with Trapper’s at the Copperfield Inn, Pam ordered a “Snow Bunny Martini”, a delicious grape-flavored concoction that set the tone for the afternoon. We met a newcomer to North Creek, Michael, who had just begun the arduous task of tearing down an existing home and putting up a camp. Good luck with that, Michael. We couldn’t stay long; we had planned to visit five of the local pubs, including Laura’s which we have yet to review. As we headed out, under the gaze of Teddy Roosevelt’s moose, bedecked in his own derby number, Pam remarked that Trapper’s has, by far, the very best outdoor ashtray we have yet seen.

Snow Bunny Martini
3 Olives grape vodka
Whipped cream vodka
Cream

Off we went to the Barking Spider. We hadn’t been there since February and were pleased to find it quite crowded and noisy and we managed to grab a couple of seats at the bar. Pam couldn’t decide which direction her next cocktail should take from the grapes of Trappers and, ironically, the bartender suggested the Grape Crush. A theme was emerging. It was even more delicious than the previous drink.

Pam went outside to see what was happening on the deck (perhaps “landing” more aptly describes it) and talked to some nice people about the Derby – the Kentucky Derby. Two kayaks paddled by on the Hudson, lending a feeling of being a part of the Whitewater Derby! That’s more than we’ve ever seen in our history of attending. Hmmm, what if OTB got involved in whitewater racing??? When it was time for the ladies on the deck to order, they advised their companions that they wanted what Pam was having. She must have had “delicious” written all over her face as she sipped her beverage because she hadn’t commented on it. Upon further reflection, perhaps it was the pint sized glass the drink came in that attracted their attention.

Grape Crush
Grape vodka
Chambord
Splash of craberry juice
Top off with Sprite

And we’re off…to do a review of Laura’s. We popped in and found it totally empty; even the bartender was missing. So we scooted out undetected, planning to stop at barVino. With the grape theme going, that would have been an obvious choice, but Pam didn’t think their grapes would complement the grapes she had already consumed. So, it was decided, one last stop at Basil & Wicks, then home.

Basil & Wick’s trail marker themed sign indicated we were on the right trail. From our parking space we could see into the dining room, where Jane, the owner, was waving us in. She even came out onto the porch to greet us, making us feel really special. Pam once said, “A good tavern is one that makes strangers feel they are in their own home town.”

Basil & Wick’s is like going home. Jane proudly showed Kim her newest museum piece – a barstool from the original Basil & Wick’s, hermetically sealed in its own plexiglass case. The bar was fairly full and we actually knew a few people, among them local music legend Hank Soto, of Stony Creek Band fame. We will actually be reviewing the Stony Creek Inn next week, celebrating its reopening on Sunday, May 15, featuring the Stony Creek Band. You know ’em, you love ’em… Hope to see some of you there!

Kim and Pam Ladd’s book, Happy Hour in the High Peaks, is currently in the research stage. Together they visit pubs, bars and taverns with the goal of selecting the top 46 bars in the Adirondack Park. They regularly report their findings here at the Almanack and at their own blog


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Philosophy: Women, Science and Truth in Nature

Her name was Hypatia and she lived, taught and published in Alexandria at the Platonist school from approximately AD 370 – 415. If the practice of western philosophy (φιλοσοφία) as we know it is from the Greek philo meaning lover and sophia meaning wisdom, then Hypatia might have been Sophia herself. One of her contemporaries wrote, “There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.”

I had Hypatia on my mind this past weekend as I prepared for a Young Women and Girls in Science event sponsored by SUNY ESF’s Northern Forest Institute. I was asked to talk about the intersection of science and the humanities and more specifically, why the study of science is incomplete without the study of philosophy. Not least among the reasons why, is that the western scientific tradition comes from the western philosophical tradition and before knowledge splintered into specializations and narrow silos of information, there was unbounded curiosity and conversation. This style of conversation became the dialectic or discussion model that some of us are trying to move back towards as a method of inquiry, interdisciplinary learning and teaching.

So I thought I’d begin to introduce young women and girls who might be thinking about a career in the sciences, to this question of why scientists should care what philosophers think. It seemed that the best way to do this would be by talking about a philosopher who happens to be a woman and who is as often cited as a mathematician and an astronomer as for her progressive attitudes on sex, or what currently falls within the realm of identity politics. So if taking on the question of what philosophy could possibly have to do with science wasn’t enough, I’d planned to head straight towards what identity politics has to do with science.

Talking with young women and girls about why philosophy matters to science made me think about why women and girls matter to science. In other words, why should we care that women and girls enter into the sciences? Why, for that matter, should we care that any particular group is represented in any public/professional area? In the case of science the answer is somewhat heretical (and I’m mindful here that Hypatia met her unspeakable demise for such acts…). Science is not objective; in its entirety it is not the pure and objective pursuit of extracting truth from the physical world.

As the philosopher Cornel West puts it truth “is a way of life, as opposed to a set of propositions that correspond to a set of things in the world.” Well, that’s all well and good for the humanities but science isn’t subject to the complicated dynamics of culture, perspective, subjectivity and the human condition generally – or is it? As philosopher and scientist Hypatia cautioned “Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth — even more so, since a superstition is intangible, you can’t get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”

The scientific method is bookended by the philosophical method. Empirical data collection doesn’t emerge in a vacuum but first a mind (not exhumed from, but as one part of the sensual human condition) has to be drawn to an inquiry, has to draw the parameters of that inquiry based on the desire to discover one thing or another about the physical world. These elements of drawing towards and of desire have no relationship to the type of objectivity that science is premised upon. (I’ll leave politics and capitalism as drivers of science for another post…) Even the most basic scientific discovery has to be interpreted, given meaning and brought about in language and often through metaphor.

All of which brings us again into the philosophical domain including ethics, emphasis, coercion, manipulation, bias and on and on. Every discipline including science, which in contrast with West’s earlier assertion, understands truth and fact as discoverable aspects of the world through its method, is a discipline brought about in the context of the human condition and the human condition is the concern of philosophers.

I understand truth to be something that is emergent and as the philosopher Richard Rorty suggested, it is created in the swamp of the human condition or in the lifework of a people rather than discovered whole in an objective state. Moreover, as soon as we begin pointing out truth with certainty and locating it within particular disciplinary or societal boundaries, then we invoke a universal style of truth that can’t be extracted from dynamics of power and ultimately (at least ultimately as history shows us) hegemony.

Philosophy (or at least some of its more recent work) has become about recognizing the amorphous nature of nature and navigating it for – as a conservation biologist colleague of mine so beautifully states, for “meaning and purpose” rather than mining it for truth and certainty. This leaves us on very unstable ground wherein all of these issues (including scientific issues) seem endlessly unstable. It is not, I believe, a matter of firming up that ground but rather of entering the landscape differently, recognizing that stability is (as Foucault would say) a chimera and the only truth that we can hope to achieve is subject to culture, identity and perspective.

If these ideas are useful at all I hope it is because they bring us closer to answering the question of why philosophy and women matter a great deal to science and why science as our most exacting tool of understanding the physical world, should be important to all of us. I hope it also seeds the ground for more conversation around these topics …

Portrait of Hypatia by Elbert Hubbard, 1908

Marianne is a philosopher living, writing and teaching in the Adirondacks.


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