Saturday, September 19, 2015

Paul Schaefer’s ‘Whole Scheme of Life’

Paul Schaefer at Beaver House, 1990My father Howard Zahniser wrote the following in his monthly Nature Magazine book review column in 1945, the year before he first met Paul Schaefer and first came to the Adirondacks. Nevertheless, Paul would have been one of the “few of those” my father invokes:

“Many of us seldom get, or take, the opportunity to sense the magnitude of the whole scheme of Life of which we are only a part. We know only the rush of human events, and we seldom even challenge the presumption of those who call this rush the march of time. Only a few of those who are in the midst of this rush, and it includes us all, can ever be expected to break pace long enough to fall in step with the greater procession that moves through the natural seasons.”

By 1935, despite his evangelical Christian upbringing, my father had already suggested that “Nature’s celebrations . . . are inexhaustible sources of interest and delight and revelation.” This reflected the mid-1800s idea — articulated by Emerson, Thoreau, and others — that Nature is God’s Second Book. In 1938 Zahnie, as my father was known, wrote that Nature was “something conducive to, if not an object of, worship.” Note the hedging phrase: “if not an object of . . .” Both Zahnie and his Adirondack wilderness mentor Paul Schaefer held essentially religious views of life. The word religious shares roots with ligament and, for typography mavens, ligature. Religion means what binds us to the cosmos, whose Greek form kosmos, as Thoreau writes in his essay “Walking,” means not only world but beauty, pattern, and order.

Paul was a Catholic via his family of origin. Two things for which I caught hell from Paul over the two summers that I worked for him were both sins of omission not commission. The first happened while we were staying at his Beaver House camp on Edwards Hill Road in Johnsburg one weekend. On Sunday morning I let him sleep too late to make mass at either Wevertown or North Creek. No matter that I knew he was exhausted and needed to catch up on his sleep.

Paul was in earnest about attending mass, but that was not the end of his religious practice. Noel Reidinger-Johnson worked with Paul on a number of conservation film and writing projects. She writes that:

“Religion for Paul was a way of life, not a Sunday happening. Paul’s large, angular frame walked to the rhythm of a higher call, one that demanded he submerge his ego, forego materialism, and use his mind and talents for the betterment of humankind and not the self. This was his outsizedness. He would hand a copy of St. Francis’s prayer to people, for this was the creed by which he lived, one he hoped others could adopt. Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace. . . He brought together warring factions. He included rather than excluded . . . where there is hatred let me sow love . . . He extended himself and whatever he had to others . . . where there is injury, pardon . . . He held no grudge for those who took advantage of his generosity or weakness.”

The other time I caught hell from Paul showed that his work ethic could have as readily sprung from Calvinistic as from Roman Catholic theology. This happened one Schenectady weekday morning. Again, I knew Paul was whipped and had gotten to bed late the night before. So I let him sleep in when he evidently didn’t mean to. When he woke up and realized we were already a half-hour late for work, he was fit to be tied.

In reality I awakened Paul at his home only once or twice in my two summers there. Paul got up on his own. I should have been surprised on this explosive occasion that it was now my fault that he overslept.

To put it mildly Paul was given to impatience, particularly if what was at issue was life in general and not conservation politics in particular. In my experience of Paul this came out most markedly when we would be driving from the house on St. Davids Lane to one of multiple construction job sites he routinely ran. Usually Paul dropped me off to play go-fer for the carpenters, plasterers, or mason. Sometimes I got to play laborer for his brother-in-law foreman “Uncle” Nat Keseburg, Paul’s wife Carolyn’s brother, a wonderfully genuine character.

Stopped at a red light in his pickup truck in downtown Schenectady, Paul would get impatient with the delay tap lightly and rhythmically on the horn. This had nothing to do with the drivers in front of us, but it sometimes had a marked effect on them. Paul seemed genuinely startled by resulting driver outbursts—as though his horn tapping was less than conscious. When required by his quest to preserve Adirondack wilderness, Paul possessed uncanny patience and equanimity, enough for himself and others. Dave Gibson spoke to this quality of Paul’s conservation personality at the time of Paul’s death.

“In the early 1990s, Paul and I drove… from a meeting in Warrrensburg,” Gibson reminisced. “I was discouraged by the apparently bitter turn of events and emotions since the unveiling of the report from the Commission on the Adirondacks a year earlier. Paul told me not to be. He said ‘the Commission report will surely accelerate events, just as the building of this Northway forced the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency because of the human presence and pressure that this road induced.’ Paul did not fear acceleration of events, nor controversy. because he carried with him an unquenchable belief that if persons had the right attitude and an enthusiasm commensurate with the history and potential greatness of the Adirondacks, then the acceleration and the controversy would be colored and flavored and directed with devotion and respect and care.”

Paul’s lack of fear for the “acceleration of events” is perhaps well expressed by Noel Reidinger-Johnson: “Paul’s spiritual perspective yielded enormous consequences for the conservation movement. His voice became one that people trusted, one that attracted diversified groups of people to form the coalition that in turn gave Nature a voice in the New York legislature. In his writing and photography, Paul transformed abstract values into concrete reality.” Paul’s ability to communicate hope, Noel says, “hope that there was a future, a timeless future for man,” could move listeners to tears. “Paul personified the fact that man was but a small part of a greater whole, governed by a universal force far greater than the self. He taught that ‘dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’ meant stewardship of natural resources for the countless generations that would inherit the earth.”

For Paul stewardship included commitment to preserving wilderness, according to Noel: “This meant that wilderness had to be set aside in order that people could step outside the rush of the everyday to reconnect with God. This was Paul’s life work. He summed it up in the final paragraph of Adirondack Cabin Country:

“I can go inside now, confident that the youth in the distant tomorrow’s will backpack down winding forest trails, glimpse the silver of a wilderness lake shining through the trees, and gather around their crackling campfire. They, too, will experience the freedom of spirit and the indescribable happiness found in solitude, enriched by the song of the hermit thrush, the hoot of an owl, or the cry of a loon. They will talk about a climb to a storm-swept mountain summit or a trip down the canyon of a wild river. And before taking to their sleeping bags under starlit heavens, they will talk about how they can make possible similar experiences for the legions of youth who will hunger for adventures as they have. I can go inside knowing that an ancient log cabin, the Beaver House, and Adirondack Cabin Country have played a part in crystallizing this priceless heritage.”

Zahnie shared such spiritual grounding and likewise drew a kind of ‘sustenance for the struggle’ from Mateskared’s character as a neighbor to the wilderness and wildness that are still “the potential greatness of the Adirondacks.” Zahnie’s “place” was in this sense smaller than Paul Schaefer’s sense of place here. Paul’s reached out to the larger whole that expressed itself as the Adirondacks or an even less delimited North Country. The Adirondacks have a Blue Line around them. The North Country reaches beyond it. Where to, I was never sure. But Paul’s Adirondack epicenter sat here on Edwards Hill in his “cabin country.”

Photo: Paul Schaefer at Beaver House, 1990.

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Ed Zahniser retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer - a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).

3 Responses

  1. Another wonderful post by Ed, they are always so interesting and useful. Back then activism sprung from a spiritual, ethical, core value of roadless wilderness preservation.

    About this remark:

    “I was discouraged by the apparently bitter turn of events and emotions since the unveiling of the report from the Commission on the Adirondacks …Paul told me not to be. He said ‘the Commission report will surely accelerate events, …”

    I think Paul was wrong. After 1990 probably as a result of the fear induced by the manufactured hysterical reaction to the commission report, the tactics, strategies and tools he and Apperson developed to educate the voting public downstate and influence the legislature were largely abandoned and that is why we have problems with snowmobiles and motors and development today. Clearly Paul Schaefer poorly imagined an Adirondacks without himself to defend it. Now, since the great anti-wilderness organizers (the anti-Schaefers) that stirred up the Adks so effectively back then all died years ago, maybe it’s safe for wilderness activists to come out of hiding and start defending wilderness for its intrinsic sake again. Everybody else is coming out of the closet these days, maybe some wilderness advocates will too.

  2. Terry says:

    What an excellent article and so well written…thank you for the Sunday morning read! I now have a very hopeful start to my week…off to Mass!

  3. Dave Gibson says:


    That quote from your father in Nature Magazine 1945 is one to turn over while walking or hiking. Thank you for it.

    As for Paul Schaefer, and being given to impatience, you bring back some memories. Mostly Paul was my Adirondack teacher and mentor and storyteller supreme, and I looked up to him the way photographer Paul Grondahl (Times Union staff writer) captured him above (the photo in your post). But I also caught hell a few times.

    Thank you for a beautiful post.

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