Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Philosophy: Perspectives on the Adirondack Situation

It has been suggested that the philosopher must go to school with the poets in order to learn the art of exploring one’s own mind. As a philosopher I have a preference for the narrative and the poetic method, and since the Adirondack Park is the landscape of our philosophical inquiry it seems fitting to begin with our patron poet. Ralph Waldo Emerson reflects on his time at Follensby Pond:Above the eagle flew, the osprey screamed,
The raven croaked, owls hooted, the woodpecker
Loud hammered, and the heron rose in the swamp.
As water poured through hollows of the hills
To feed this wealth of lakes and rivulets,
So nature shed all beauty lavishly
From her redundant horn.

With his 1858 poem The Adirondacs, Emerson almost single-handedly establishes the narrative (or the so-called “master perspective”) of the Adirondack story. Through his poem we can gather some insight into what his writing and our affinity with it might say about who we, as Adirondack citizens, think we are and about the desired character of our landscape.

We understand who we are through the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and by the stories of others whose voices we value. These stories create a personal and a political boundary made up of tradition, interpretation and invention. I also believe that we establish our landscape and community identities according to a similar discursive boundary, and Emerson’s poetic contribution and our reliance on it to (among other things) further a conservation agenda illustrates that pretty convincingly.

The Adirondack story is further contained by a legislative boundary, and while it’s true that every geographic area is bound by local, State and Federal rules – in the Adirondacks those rules are deeply woven into the self-conception of Adirondack residents, visitors and backcountry wayfarers. Adirondack culture understands itself in the context of this legislative/narrative boundary in a way that runs deeper than in many other places. Being that our self-conception and our community conception is indelibly linked to our political perimeter, it’s important to understand how the politics of the blue line often also draws the outline of our regional cultural tensions.

Within these personal and political boundaries, by our own internal convictions and according to community norms and consensus, we establish agreement about right-doing and wrong-doing. In other words, we develop an ethic. Our ethic determines on an individual level how we live, on a community level it contributes to how we live together and on a landscape level it influences how we live in relationship to place.

Emerson, in addition to being read as a poet, was foremost a philosopher who understood the way narrative contributes to identity and to the relationship between self and other, self and world. He would have agreed with R.G. Collingwood that philosophy helps us to know in a different way, things which we already knew in some way. And to that I would add that philosophy helps us to know in a deeper way, a more nuanced way about ourselves, about others and about the world in relation.

Much of what I will be writing about for the Almanack has to do with providing a philosophical perspective on these relationships and I’ll be calling on thinkers well-known in our Adirondack canon and those that are largely outside the boundaries that I’ve begun to outline here. I’ll be considering many well-worn and locally important topics around community, identity and environment from an alternative vantage, in the hopes that we might come to understand the Adirondack situation and ourselves in a different way.

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

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Marianne Patinelli-Dubay

My work at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry lies along the philosophical intersections of nature, culture, science and ethics in the Adirondack Park, NY. I lead the Environmental Philosophy Program at ESF’s Newcomb Campus located on the 15,000-acre Huntington Wildlife Forest (HWF). Here I am responsible for the design and facilitation of rich conversations aimed at a variety of audiences, across disciplines. Initiatives in this program are intended to bridge humanities content with HWF-specific field knowledge and experience in order to understand the impacts of the relationship between scientific research and the regional land-use policy it advances. 

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