Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Adirondack Native, Local, Outsider or Stranger?

A few years ago I noticed a small sign taped to a cash register in a local store. It read “no checks from strangers.” Well, I reasoned, this is a quirky establishment so I smiled and went on my way. Sometime later I was talking with someone who asked me where I was from. I answered and she raised her chin, looked down and replied, “Oh, you’re an outsider.”

I live on a road that is closed this time of year but this morning the automated gate stood open in protest to the cold. Despite the impossible-to-miss “Road Closed” sign, a vehicle drove slowly through. When I stepped out to tell him that the road was closed, he assured me that he was a “native” just out for a drive. Strangers, outsiders, natives – have I stumbled into a National Geographic special about an exotic colonized land?

I’ve noticed that in conversation here in the Adirondacks it is advantageous if you can slip in your provenance,because like any commodity, identity is valued according to lineage, history and ownership. But when does a stranger or an outsider become a local, and where is the line between local and native? And what, in the name of homogenization, is the difference!

Are people subject to the same hierarchy of belonging when it comes to Adirondack identity that we argue over with respect to the plant and animal community? Are we one step away from setting up an invasive species task force to weed-out the outsiders before they take over the landscape?

In an interesting reversal, being “local” has a cache in certain situations but when it comes to weighing in on management and planning decisions “local” can be a liability. To that point, a recent conversation among colleagues (some of whom have lived here for 30 years) focused on how to encourage “locals” to participate in discussions about the future of the Park. The question was asked, “Who among us is actually from here?” As I watched the unanimous shaking of heads I tried to ask why it should matter, but I wasn’t nimble enough to work it in before the conversation got away from me. The reason for my inquiry was simple: I don’t actually think that the question that was asked, was the question that was meant.

After all, if you’ve lived and worked and belonged to a place for 20-30 years could it possibly matter that you were born in Jamaica, Queens? I submit that the intended question was too impolite and indelicate to ask. The honest question among this group of educated professionals was “Who among us is socially and economically disadvantaged such that our circumstances prevent us from feeling empowered to contribute to a discussion about the future of the Park?” Then, in response to what I’m sure would be another unanimous head shake, we could talk about why these types of conversations don’t feel inviting and why a feeling of being a “local outsider” prevents certain people from joining in.

A similar debate rages in the area of “environmental pragmatism.” In short it asks whether wildlife management decisions should be deliberative, inviting a range of viewpoints and perspectives from professionals and laypeople alike, or whether the decisions should be left to specialists with merely a back-end nod at the democratic process that invites comment from the unwashed.

I have heard it said that some opinions are worth more than others. I think that those of us who are empowered either by social or economic circumstance are obligated to do more than to rhetorically toe the liberal party line. And if our objective is deliberative and democratic then no, no single perspective or category of citizen is worth more than another.

Book cover image of The Stranger by Albert Camus

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

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Marianne Patinelli-Dubay leads the Environmental Philosophy Program at SUNY-ESF’s Newcomb Campus on the Huntington Wildlife Forest. In addition to teaching and writing, Marianne chairs the Adirondack Chapter of the Society of American Foresters and is an active member of the Forest Stewards Guild.   Please send comments to

14 Responses

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Let me attack this from several points of view. Not attack in a bad sense but in a good sense.
    I have been living in Hamilton County since 1987.
    Though I have always been aware of the local/outsider issue, it has never meant much to me.
    I was born in Detroit, entered the Navy, then moved to NYC.
    One of the beauties of NYC is that all you need to do to be a New Yorker is to live and work in the city. There is no advantage to saying you were born there.
    I have also lived in Schoharie County where I first learned of the Adirondacks when taking the family up here to camp.
    Considering the fact we are losing our year-round population, especially the young, it makes little sense to even consider for a moment where someone is from. We need every one we can get and should be damn grateful for everyone who chooses to stay here or move here.

  2. Sandra Hildreth says:

    You hit the nail on the head with: “Who among us is socially and economically disadvantaged such that our circumstances prevent us from feeling empowered to contribute to a discussion about the future of the Park?” Those that do feel that way are then resentful of those who do care about and take action about the future of the Park.

  3. Bob Meyer says:

    WOW! A VERY important topic of real consequence for the Park & thoughtful, constructive comments from folks that care.. a refreshing change from the vitriol that often accompanies these posts.
    Bob Meyer {always and ADKer in spirit wherever i live).

  4. Marianne Patinelli-Dubay says:

    Thanks to each of you for your thoughtful notes. And to Bob for continuing to wade through prior vitriol with good humor!

  5. Dave Gibson says:

    Very provocative Marianne, and evocative of so many communities of the Northern Forest stretching from the Adirondacks to eastern Maine where “come from awayers” and service providers, real or perceived, share the turf. Thank you for enlivening the Almanack today!

  6. TiSentinel65 says:

    The people of Tupper Lake said it very clearly, that the so called “outsiders”, the types they like, are the ones who are going to invest in their community. My family has lived in the Dacks going back to when the king owned the land. One thing we do not like is people who show up, plant their flag and say now bow to Rome. The reason a perceived shchism between locals and outsiders exists is for too long a minority of well to do, well connected people have dominated the land use debate. The APA act acheived this by concentrating power among a few selected, not elected officials who hold domain over our lives. For seven years Tupper Lake has been holding their breath while the oligarchy in Ray Brook has allowed their environmentaly sponsored process play out. The author of this article tries to take the high road by denying culpability when the fact is, outsiders showed up with a noose for the necks of people who lived here. Excuse me for gut punching you for trying to hang me. As for the reason you may not see many locals at your planning board meetings and other such, is they are out trying to eke out a living working many jobs to stay afloat. It doesn’t leave much time to be socially active in your community. I do like the fact that your deliberations realize that community is nothing without consensus.

  7. adkcamp says:

    In the Adirondacks, like many rural regions, where one comes from is important. It is used to establish an initial impression of an individual by classifying them based on previously learned assumptions. It is only through getting to know one another and showing mutual respect that these preconceived opinions are corrected and one’s “roots” become of little significance. We must respect all the people of the Adirondacks as much as we respect the land.

  8. Dave says:

    “where one comes from is important. It is used to establish an initial impression of an individual by classifying them based on previously learned assumptions.”

    That comes awfully close to the definition of prejudice.

    And liking ‘outsiders’ only when they agree or financially benefit you, as TiSentinel suggests, strikes me as a pretty miserable attitude too.

    This topic disappoints me almost as much as it fascinates me. I too have observed the contradiction in the Adirondacks whereby on one hand we lament the dwindling population, and on the other hand we lament outsiders.

    I was born 30 minutes outside of the park, and now live here and plan on doing so for the rest of my life. And in my opinion the author nails it when she suggests the issue is deeper than that of origin.

    While it is true that there do seem to be some “ground rules” about what makes one a local… I’ve found that these are meaningless and usually tongue in cheek. Where you were born really isn’t what decides how welcomed or accepted you are, or are not, with the locals. In my experience it has more to do with socio-economics, sometimes education, often shared interests, and primarily, above all, like-mindedness. Including political like-mindedness.

    I see this as a problem for the health of the park’s communities. I am just not sure what can be done about it.

  9. Pete Klein says:

    To the extent the Adirondacks becomes a melting pot, it will grow. To the extent it doesn’t, it will shrink.
    The same is true for the whole darn country. And I’m not just talking numbers. The more the gene pool is mixed, the better. Purity of race, creed, color and national origin is a prescription for backward minds.

  10. RossHWilliams says:

    What an interesting post! The lineage aspect of determining whether a person is an outsider is very true. My grandfather is a well-respected figure in the Adirondack community, and I have found time and again that mentioning my relation to him has opened doors and changed the way people deal with me.

    On the other hand, I find that I don’t quite agree with the assumption that educated professionals disregard the opinions of those that are not. I believe it is important that the opinions of specialists be given attention compared to others simply because they are not emotionally invested in the outcome. Many are educated professionals because they have dedicated their lives to the complete understanding of their subject matter. While I am sure there are professionals who look at the locals as “unwashed” there is clearly just as many locals who look at all specialists as elitists.

    Thanks for the thought provoking read!

  11. agd says:

    Responding to what Dave just above said, it’s not close to prejudice, it IS prejudice. I’d point out though that it goes both ways: “outsiders” often make some ugly assumptions about the intelligence, education, and work ethic of us “locals.” Regardless of which direction it’s coming from, it is destructive. Fortunately (as Dave also notes) these assumptions and stereotypes often break down once people get to know each other. On that note, I wonder if that is what TiSentinel65 meant when referring to investment in community (as opposed to strictly financial benefit)? If you are a visitor or seasonal resident who wants to be accepted by the “locals,” one of the best ways to do so is to get involved in your local community and show that you care about it and its people.

  12. agd says:

    I have to question the assumption made by Ross that specialists and experts are not emotionally invested in outcomes, and thus their opinions should be given greater weight. I’d argue that the opposite can actually be true, given the incredible investment in time and energy (not to mention the numerous personal sacrifices) required to become an expert. My own experience as an expert involved in a collaborative project with a community has borne this out. Some members of our team were incredibly resistant (and indeed quite emotionally so) to collaboration with non-expert community members. In this particular case it was because the community’s needs ran counter to our own. Many team members were concerned that they’d not be able to get the data they needed. It is important to remember that while a specialist may not have the same emotional ties to an issue that a community member does, they certainly have plenty at stake (jobs, prestige, career)and as such their opinions are not value-free, which is what I think Ross was getting at. Productive collaboration is extremely difficult in any circumstance, and even more so when parties distrust and/or disrespect each other.

  13. RossHWilliams says:

    AGD, thanks for the response. You make a good point, and perhaps claiming that they are devoid of emotional ties was too strong an assumption. Clearly any person is emotionally invested in their work (or at least they should be). Specialists aren’t robots so I apologize if I made it sound that way.

    To clarify the point I wanted to make, it is my belief that a specialist is beneficial because when they weigh in on a matter they can look at the facts without the natural bias of personal memories of the area. I was more concerned with their voice being heard after than with the conducting of the prior research (which is far more messy).

  14. Pete Klein says:

    I must also point out that some locals have a low opinion of many of the locals.
    Not all prejudice comes from outside a group. Some comes from within.
    Us versus them is often a fantasy. There is no “us.” As the song goes, There ain’t no good guys. There ain’t no bad guys. There’s just you and me and we just disagree.”