Last month we went to see Bill Killon’s documentary, “Colvin: Hero of the North Woods” at the Adirondack History Museum in Elizabethtown. Surveyor and forest-preserve advocate Verplanck Colvin has always been something of a hero of mine, and not because he has the funniest name associated with the Adirondacks. He doesn’t. He doesn’t even have the funniest name beginning with V, an honor that goes to — and I assume I will get no argument here — the mountain that goes by the name of Vanderwhacker.
It’s an excellent film, drawing on the observations of a veritable Mount Rushmore of contemporary Adirondack voices, and deftly and artfully edited by Killon to show Colvin’s strengths, weaknesses and complexities. In a classic touch, an Adirondack downpour lends a comforting background serenade to an interview with Tony Goodwin, symbolic, perhaps, of the waters that Colvin was so inclined to protect.
Verplanck Colvin was inspired by a book. The scion of a wealthy attorney, and primed for a career in law, Colvin was 18 when Alfred Billings Street, an Albany poet who drew his inspiration from the High Peaks, handed him a copy of his book Woods and Waters.
This is why you should never give a young person a book. They are likely to take it and run with it in ways that run contrary to established thinking.
For the next three years, Colvin summered in the Adirondacks where, building on the surveying knowledge he had acquired while dabbling in real estate law, he cooked up an idea for a geological survey of the mountains.
This was in 1870, when the North Country was still enjoying “howling wilderness” status. Civilization was only beginning to creep in at that point — Frederick Durant’s dazzling, electrically lit Prospect House hotel on Blue Mountain Lake was a little more than a decade away at that point. But if the upper crust had not quite discovered the mountains, the loggers had, and when Colvin made the first ascent of Seward in 1870 he was appalled at a view that included hillsides stripped naked of their forest canopy.
Doubtless, Colvin had also read the book Man and Nature published six years prior by an attorney and ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, George Perkins Marsh. Marsh argued that — citing the Mediterranean basin as an example — deforestation dried things up.
These were the days when men of privilege like Colvin and Marsh did great things for civilization. Today they would be running hedge funds, or jacking up the price of elderly people’s medicine.
Colvin, however, took Marsh’s groundwork and concocted what in my opinion is the greatest environmental dodge in the history of the planet: He told men of business that if the northern forests were not protected, their priceless canals, the lifeblood of New York’s inland commercial shipping and key to its growing international status, would run dry.
Maybe we should try this approach with climate change: That unless we reduce our carbon omissions, our coal mines will be flooded by melting polar caps. Which, speaking very long term here, is kind of true.
Anyway, it worked for Colvin. The Erie Canal was not quite a half-century old at this point, and still more than holding its own against the nascent New York Central railroad. The canal facilitated as many as 33,000 shipments annually, and is why New York, and not Baltimore or Philadelphia, became the world’s financial capital. It was that important. And Colvin told them that without the deep, water-retaining forest soils of the North, central New York would become a desert and the greatest mode of transport in America would become a useless, dusty ditch.
Mr. Goodwin is probably correct when he says Colvin oversold his hand, but I choose not to believe him because — I don’t know — casting a cloud over the great Forest Preserve creation myth is a little like telling a Christian there were no such people as Adam and Eve.
But the most fascinating thing in this whole story, particularly in this modern age, is that when Colvin spoke, the businessmen and politicians believed him. There were no cries of junk science or fake news. They took him at his word when he said the environment was a critical part of their existence.
Maybe in an age when glass could be made to glow, when people could engage in instantaneous communication from a thousand miles apart, when a mixture of light and chemicals could tease a piece of glass into producing a permanent image, and when massive engines made of iron could be convinced to roll on their own, the public knew better than to doubt. Not only did the state leaders believe Colvin, they funded further exploration of the subject. Imagine that.
And imagine if today Verplanck Colvin were to tell Congress that forests are essential to both life and commerce. Would he get even one vote out of the current majority party? Or would he be dismissed as a tree-hugger or snowflake or any other catchphrase moniker that people today embrace instead of fact?
I think we know the answer. And I think we can all be grateful that the great surveyor lived then instead of now.
Photo of Verplanck Colvin, courtesy Essex County Historical Center.