Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy – Ethics’

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Adirondack Philosophy as Field Work

What happens to philosophy when we liberate it from the Ivory Tower and from the confines of coursework, academic publications and specializations that can feel like falling head-long down the rabbit hole? What does a philosopher become when she isn’t simply a teacher of curriculum, evaluated and validated by measurable outcomes? What is to be done when the hand-wringing and concerned looks of parents and friends turn into real questions like how in the name of all the esoteric nonsense will the rent get paid? Or more to the point: what are you going to do with this training?

Not to worry. When all else fails there’s always a coffee bar (been there). Or a low-level editorial job at a local newspaper (done that). And if the Gary Larson cartoon my mother sent to me years ago when I declared my intentions showing a “Philosophy and Bait Shop” is any indication, entrepreneurial opportunities abound. But all kidding aside, there is a reason that thousands (yes, thousands!) of us choose this route and my reasoning may be a little surprising: I am a philosopher because I want to be of service. The question of what becomes of philosophers and philosophy when we cut loose from careers that can be easily described and universally understood becomes yet more pronounced when we think about philosophy as a public profession. But there is rich precedence for this and I follow in the wake of great practitioners.

One such colleague is the 19th century philosopher William James who argued that the pragmatic (philosophical) method is a useful way to gain greater understanding about the world. For example, one perennial question that reaches into the culture of crime and punishment is whether we have free will or whether everything, and thus all of our behaviors, are predetermined. Another contemporary favorite played out in the vicious discourse between science and religion asks whether the world is material or spiritual? Philosophers in the pragmatic tradition continue to assert that we can use pragmatic principles to get a handle on what the practical consequences would be, if one or another of these claims about the world are true. But what comes after this “all the way down” thinking that we owe to James is where it gets interesting, and where the contribution of a public philosopher can be seen. Once we have traced the practical consequences of an idea and we have a working understanding of what those consequences mean for humanity, for environment etc. then philosophers are obligated to do something to advance whatever we resolve to be right or good! Only when we see the method through to its end, have we done justice to the term pragmatism that is from the Greek pragma meaning action, practice or practical.

This is on my mind because I’ve just returned from a conference dedicated to the work of American pragmatic philosophers. Here most of the attendees were “theoretically” committed to what could be called practical philosophy or philosophy that is focused on questions of agency and experience including what compels us to act in the face of injustice or conflict, what happens in that moment when we are not merely thinking but acting according to an ethical or moral code? Why do we sometimes fail to act and when we do (or don’t) what criteria can we measure our behavior by? As an applied and a public philosopher myself, I had high hopes for this crowd. From my work in the Adirondacks for the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry I take a mandate for action seriously. I’ve learned to appreciate the urgency of real situations that don’t present a clear path of right or wrong, of yes we should or no we’d better not. I understand that more often, like any complex set of realities, the way forward doesn’t resemble one well-marked trail and indeed the closer we look, the more possible directions are revealed.

If this kind of work is undertaken with and for the benefit of a range of communities, and if it is done in service to the public good, what does it look like for us in the Adirondacks and for me in particular? The answer is simple and I think, powerful. SUNY ESF owns more than 20,000 acres of land in the Adirondack Park, with an institutional mission to support research dedicated to advancing the scientific knowledge of Adirondack ecosystems. Through close collaborations with a variety of government and non-government agencies and organizations, ESF has had extraordinary success putting scientific data in the hands of policy makers. Policy makers have translated these findings into guidelines and strategies that continue to direct the future of the Park. With this kind of influence comes a three-fold responsibility: to ESF students dedicated to the pursuit of science, that they understand how their work will guide practical decisions on the landscape; to the Adirondack community who will be impacted by the policy implemented based on the findings generated through ESF; and to regional agencies and organizations, that they understand the ethical considerations involved in using this information to enact regulations that impact the complicated balance between culture and nature in the Park. SUNY ESF is on the leading edge linking good science with care for the communities that it impacts through a commitment to provide a representative entrusted with addressing the range of human impacts of this unusual partnership between scientific research and the policy that it advances.

During the conference I had a chance to talk about my work at ESF and the variety of publics that I interact with. In the process I realized that we at ESF, and in the Adirondacks more broadly, are doing what many in attendance and across the discipline are merely talking about doing. As the conference drew to a close, the Society’s President urged an audience of hundreds of academic philosophers to become involved in public discourse, to bring the philosophical method to bear on practical questions of ethics and moral right-doing, to reach out to communities in an effort to bring them into discussions and deliberations and to enrich the public space through competent and thoughtful facilitation of contentious issues. In effect, what William James said of Pragmatism can be said of the practice of philosophy, that it unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work.

Marianne is a philosopher living, working and writing in the Adirondacks


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Essential Wilderness

Over the last two weeks I have been involved in quite a discussion in another venue about wilderness as a matter of subjective point of view versus wilderness as an objective designation. Simply put is wilderness only a matter of opinion? Are we left with one person’s wilderness being another’s spoiled back country Grand Central?

At the same time in my last Dispatch I explored Joe Hackett’s point of view about the “stamp of man” being unavoidable in the Adirondacks. The vehicle for that exploration was a trip to Flowed Lands which, for all its seeming primeval beauty and remoteness, has been thoroughly altered by industry of one kind or another. There is no doubt that the imprint of humanity is omnipresent in the Adirondacks, if not always noticed. But does that mean that wilderness is nothing more than an idea in the mind? » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sandy Hildreth: Exploring Adirondack Landscape Art

As a former high school Art and Humanities teacher, one of my favorite time periods of American history was the mid-nineteenth century when the Hudson River School of Painting was at its peak. Thomas Cole had sparked the whole movement with his first paintings of Katerskill Falls and other Catskill wilderness scenes in 1825. Prior to that time, only one of every ten paintings was a landscape, but by the 1850’s, nine of every ten were paintings of wild American places.

At the very same time that our country was on the path to fulfill the charge of Manifest Destiny! Settlers were cutting down trees, damming rivers, clearing fields and building roads. The Erie Canal had just opened and railroads were pushing farther and farther into the remote areas of the continent. From a limited number of landscapes that were merely backdrops for pastoral farm, military encampment, or village scenes to an abundance of masterful paintings of unspoiled wilderness was quite a development and it had more of an impact than many people realize.

The popularity of American wilderness landscapes in the 19th century is partly due to the new, young Republic’s search for a heritage that was not linked to Europe. The political break of the Revolution had left America a newly born nation without a past. European painting was based on tradition and history. They had mythology, ancient Greek and Roman ruins, medieval castles, Gothic cathedrals, and centuries of civilization to glorify or refer to in their various art forms. America had the heroes of the Revolution, but not much more. In “Fair Wilderness: American Paintings in the Collection of the Adirondack Museum” Thomas Cole is quoted as saying that the most distinctive characteristic of the region was its wildness, “distinctive because in civilized Europe the primitive features of scenery have long since been destroyed or modified – the extensive forests that once over shadowed a great part of it have been felled – rugged mountains have been smoothed, and impetuous rivers turned from their courses… the once tangled wood is now a grassy lawn…”.

Cole’s biographer wrote that in the spring of 1823 “It was now that a great thought came to Cole, and told him he had gone to work wrong. Hitherto he had been trying mainly to make up nature from his own mind, instead of making up his mind from nature. This now flashed on him as a radical mistake. He must not only muse abroad in nature, and catch her spirit, but gain for his eye and hand a mastery over all that was visible in her outward, material form, if he would have his pictures breathe of her spirit.”

In 1825 Cole moved with his family to New York City and a painting placed in a store window sold for $10 and financed a sketching trip up the Hudson River that autumn. That trip, which corresponded to the 10 day celebration marking the opening of the Erie Canal, resulted in 3 new paintings, which sold immediately after being put on display in New York city, and the era of the Hudson River School began. The name was coined because most of the paintings were produced within the Hudson River watershed – the river valley itself, the Catskills, and the Adirondacks.

Popular philosophy of the early 19th century associated nature with virtue and civilization with degeneracy and evil. Artists like Thomas Cole, and writers like Emerson and Cooper believed nature to be synonymous with both personal and national health and viewed the city, the bank, and the railroad as producing sickness by encroaching upon nature and finally by destroying it. Cole illustrated these beliefs in several of his allegorical series of paintings like “The Course of Empire”. It showed that the replacement of nature by civilization results in the ultimate collapse of civilization. When combined with the growing national pride, it seems that Cole’s wilderness paintings became “an effective substitute for a missing national tradition. America was thus both new and old”. ‘New’ in being previously undiscovered, with unsettled, wild territories, and ‘old’ in terms of the ancient wild mountains, older than mankind.

Our wilderness became a substitute for the European historical past. It also became linked directly with the divine destiny believed to belong to Americans – that the continent was there for us. In a nation founded on concepts of religious freedom, and whose Protestant colonists practiced their religion in environments devoid of religious art, 19th century landscape painting almost becomes our religious art, the essence of the spiritual beliefs of the country. We proclaimed separation of church and state, yet never abandoned the belief in “God on our side” as we conquered the wilderness and the virgin bounty of the continent.

The spiritual message contained in many of the landscapes of the Hudson River era was repeatedly mentioned in the literature of the era. From “The Knickerbocker”, in 1835: “God has promised us a renowned existence, if we will but deserve it. He speaks of this promise in the sublimity of Nature. It resounds all along the crags of the Alleghenies. It is uttered in the thunder of the Niagara. It is heard in the roar of two oceans, from the great Pacific to the rocky ramparts of the Bay of Fundy. His finger has written it in the broad expanse of our Inland Seas, and traced it out by the mighty Father of the Waters! The august TEMPLE in which we dwell was built for lofty purposes. Oh! that we may consecrate it to LIBERTY and CONCORD, and be found fit worshipers within its holy wall!” America’s Transcendentalists, like Emerson and Thoreau, believed that bonding with nature’s solitude and silence nurtured spiritual development and character. The paintings mirrored these beliefs.

Tied to the spiritual message was current aesthetic philosophy. Landscape painting was usually classified as sublime or beautiful and picturesque. European landscapes were generally considered picturesque, with their ancient ruins and craggy, snow-capped Alps. Because America was lacking in the picturesque, and also since much of the known landscape consisted of split rail fences and burnt or hacked off trees, the unknown, wilderness scenery, vast and diverse, was easily accepted, once artists began painting it.

The sublime aspect of the wilderness landscape was also apparently well discussed in artistic circles. While scenes could easily be rendered beautiful and picturesque, to evoke the sublime, was uniquely special. Sublime is the addition of something terrifying, fear or awe-inspiring in its power or potential – bringing to the viewer a feeling for Divine authority or design. Many of the Hudson River artists intentionally included the sublime in their paintings – the distant threatening storm clouds, dramatic sunsets, the rushing, over-powering torrent of a cascading waterfall, or the gnarled and broken tree, evidence of the awesome power of nature (God).

In “Kindred Spirits”, the strong connection between the artists and writers of the Hudson River region was exposed. The rawness of the American landscape, with its lack of polish and historic ruins, came to be ignored by both artists and writers who focused on the wildness and freshness of the New World. The writers created and publicized the legends and folklore in characters like Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane and Natty Bumppo. The lack of a past was replaced with the unlimited potential for the future and the relatively new historical sites, like Fort Ticonderoga could substitute for the missing ancient ruins. So while the writers were supporting and describing a positive, patriotic recognition of the assets of the continent, the artists capitalized on this with their paintings. In response, they received public praise from the writers, and the artists also published their own poems and essays in support of their work. For nearly 50 years, the Hudson River School painters and the Knickerbocker writers enjoyed common and self-supporting popularity. It is interesting to note that this mutual focus on the uniqueness of America extended right through and past the Civil War, almost totally ignoring it.

Paintings: “Katerskill Falls”, by Thomas Cole and “Twilight in the Wilderness” by Frederic Church.


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Philosophy: A New Vision for Old Woods

Something has had men heading for the interior, long before Henry David Thoreau publicly declared “I am leaving the city more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness.” And as men of a certain tradition in 19th century America began to make their private pilgrimages public through written and artistic records, their excursions and revelations became canonized.

These meditations contributed to a change in national ideas about the value and fragility of nature and “man’s” place within it.

I understand the importance of reaching back into our histories to understand the cultural touchstones like these that have come to signify certain ideas and ideals, certain styles of thought and ideologies. After all, our histories are our foreground and they mark the path that we took to get here. Yet, from time to time in the midst of what can seem like a tireless reminiscence on the trope of the vigorous and steadfast wayfaring male archetype depicted through art and literature in the wilderness; I can hear a sucking sound like my boot makes when I’ve gone walking in mud season.

Since its creation, advocacy for and against conservation and preservation within the Park boundary has called on these and other similar images to underscore qualities like individuality, independence and virility in the midst of a seemingly untamed and unspoiled country. Guided by certain American philosophers and artists we enter into a stylized landscape, one that was politically manufactured through legislation and philosophically manufactured through the proliferation of 19th century ideals.

When popular literature and art combine to illuminate different parts of the same story, the impact often resonates outside the original medium of paint or narrative and into the larger cultural landscape. In the case of 19th century landscape art and literature, the story that fine art and prose conspire to tell transcends the cultural period and becomes part of one collective identity. Artists and writers who have become signs themselves of this aesthetic, and of a singular set of values, labored under a shared vision of wild America. These artists and scholars illustrated an ideal landscape beyond increasingly industrialized cities, and the legacy of this movement is largely responsible for our 21st century conception of the natural ideal.

Yet, this ideal only represents those who are drawn into its frame. But ours are stories (plural) and histories (as in many) so what would it take to shift the emphasis from one tone of voice to another? When old signifiers dominate a changed contemporary scene, we risk losing our way by walking backwards into the present.

Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Museum

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


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Philosophy: The Culture of Adirondack Lean-tos

It’s funny the questions people ask me these days. Earlier this week some colleagues were talking about whether or not to restore a dilapidated lean-to that sits on private land somewhat accessible from a new recreation corridor. The issue was debated around whether the lean-to would become an “attractive nuisance” encouraging travelers to camp at the site. If so, perhaps it should be left to go back to nature, as it were. As the conversation wore on someone turned to me and asked “why do people travel distances and sometimes even risk trespassing on private property just to stay in a lean-to, when they could simply camp elsewhere?”

I understand in years past the Department of Environmental Conservation organized lean-tos in clusters at backcountry campsites. This would have encouraged a sense of community, society and for the faint of heart: safety in numbers. Lean-tos are also often situated at strategic locations to encourage camping in a certain spot. I’m told that many experienced campers find lean-tos cold and buggy compared to the warmth and shelter of a tent. While other backcountry wayfarers may be traveling without a tent, in which case a lean-to is essential in certain conditions.

This begins to address the practical reasons ‘why’ in response to the initial question. However if you know me, you know that I am not the intuitive choice to answer questions about backcountry preferences. And so my response to a question concerning the appeal of a lean-to comes from culture and from story. The Adirondack region, particularly its “wilderness” areas are as rhetorical as they are physical. Their geography is narrative and their landscapes follow a mythological contour. This is what is meant when poets talk of “entering” the world. They’re talking about going in, in philosophical sense.

When we enter a physical landscape this way, we cross over into one or another meandering corner of its identity. I was reminded of this when Steve Signell joined the Almanack team to write about mapping. In his first post he mentions an early description of the region as “parts but little known” with “drowned lands” that are “impassable & uninhabited.” As a romantic I am hopelessly drawn to these tentative descriptions more so than the main content of his fine essay, of databases and downloadable files. I believe that while modern maps tell us how to get to a place and how to navigate around once we’re there, it is through the lore of the landscape that we enter that world and that we follow a path through its terrain of cultural descriptions.

I think travelers in every season continue to seek out lean-tos for more than a dry floor and a partial roof. That names and dates will forever be carved into the rounded walls as a declaration, as evidence, that the ribbon of time opened up and someone slipped in to hear Emerson’s wood-god murmer through the leaves.

Photo: A lean-to near the summit of Mount Marcy (above and beyond in photo) in 1973 (EPA Photo by Anne LaBastille).

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


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Discovery

It was Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, 2010. I had driven through the night to make it to the Adirondacks from my home in Madison. I had to see for myself the amazing opportunity I had stumbled upon while browsing around on the web. I was already tired, unknown territory lay ahead, and there I was, face to face with one of the most imposing natural wonders in all the Adirondacks: Vinny McClelland.

No doubt many Almanack readers are familiar with Vinny, but if you don’t know him he is the owner of The Mountaineer in Keene Valley among other vocations and he is intimately involved in the community in a plethora of ways. Amy and I have come to have great affection for Vinny. He is a “salt of the Earth” kind of guy: capable, authentic, generous of spirit.

We also find Vinny to be – and I can’t think of a better way to say this – hard core. Vinny has this way of looking at you, a certain sort of sizing-up. It is not egotistical and it isn’t judgmental of your worth as a human being, but it is as if to decide whether you know what you are doing. Either you do or you don’t, either you make the cut or not. Vinny knows what he is doing. I don’t really know how many things he is expert at: mountaineering, skiing, building, guiding, landscape engineering, exploring… it’s a long list. Vinny knows the Adirondacks; for example he knows that if you are going on a day hike four miles into the wilderness on no sleep, off trail, in new territory, in winter conditions, with two hours of daylight, two thousand feet of climbing and a lot of ice… well, either you know what you are doing or you don’t. Probably you don’t.

At the moment Vinny was looking at me with what I would describe as a level of skepticism. From what he had to go on at that point I didn’t blame him.

Amy and I had been daydreaming, searching on real estate sites for small houses we might buy on the cheap and fix up over several years before eventually fulfilling our long-held plan of moving to the Adirondacks. One such MLS search produced a list that included a sixty acre parcel with a picture that showed a beautiful, densely forested mountain view. These are the sorts of listings I have learned to ignore seeing as I am not a multi-millionaire. But the asking price of this acreage was unbelievably low, far less than any other listing I’d seen except for those that turned out to be poor or recently cut-over land. The picture sure didn’t make it look like it was poor land. How was this possible?

Incredulous, I called the realtor whose site I had been using and asked her to contact the listing agent with a few basic questions. When she called back to tell me that the parcel held mature timber and views and was embedded in State Wilderness I was stunned. Apparently the price was low because the tract was inaccessible, with no road or trail to it and no possibility for development. In other words it was perfect! It was the embodiment of my life-long dream to own wild land in the heart of the Adirondacks, a dream I had never once considered could become reality.

I was seized with the kind of fear one gets when a miraculous opportunity seems too good to be true. In the unlikely event that the land was anything like it was being represented, then to a value system such as mine it was priceless. Surely there were like-minded people who would covet such a piece of wilderness and be all over this offering. I was sure it was already gone. The realtor called me back: no, it wasn’t sold but an offer was imminent.

Time was of the essence. I decided to be rash. It was Thanksgiving week and my college classes were not in session. I consulted with Amy, she agreed and I headed for the driveway with a pair of boots and a sleeping bag.

On my way through Illinois the realtor called to discourage me from coming out as the offer was expected at any moment. Besides, she said, the listing agent told her that the land was “difficult to get to” and that the last potential buyer he had sent back to look at it “got lost” and never made it. This sounded better and better by the moment. “Too late,” I said, “I’m already in the car and on my way.”

We arranged to meet at 1 PM at a café in the nearest town after which I would hike to the land. In the meantime the listing agent continued to express his concerns. He provided her with a map containing GPS points on the route in. “I hope he has a GPS,” he said. “There is snow up there,” he warned, “It’s off trail.” I assured her that I was experienced.

No doubt harboring a healthy measure of reserve, the listing agent decided to attend the meeting too. I have since speculated on what his thought process must have been… “Here is some guy who lives in the Midwest. He’s driving through the night to look at a piece of land without having the slightest idea what he’s getting into. He’s probably a lunatic or an idiot; I’d better see for myself…”

By now you have guessed the name of the listing agent. Vinny McClelland is also a real estate professional. He typically represents marquee properties but as fate would have it he was selling this little forgotten swath because he had a personal connection to it going back years. He is one of the few people in the world who has actually been there.

It was nearly 1:30 PM before we got started with our meeting. Vinny had assembled an impressive packet on the parcel with a name on the cover: Lost Brook Tract. I asked some questions. Vinny seemed anxious for me to go. He reminded me that late-November days are short, that there was snow up high and a lot of ice. “Do you have gear?” he asked. I said that I did (I had boots, after all). I asked another question or two. “You need to get going,” Vinny urged. “Do you have GPS?” I replied that I never used GPS (I can’t stand the idea of it). At this point I could tell that the “idiot” assessment was prevailing. I decided to play an assurance card. “Vinny,” I told him, “My most recent bushwhack this summer was Allen to Redfield,” knowing full well that not a lot of people try that one. I wanted to think it helped a little but Vinny showed no outward sign that he was impressed. Now that I know him better I think that saying I’d just done the North face of Eiger might have helped more.

In any case, off I went. The way up was indeed icy and progress was slow. I did not get all the way there – at least I never saw his flagging – but I did bushwhack to a small outcropping on the way with a view of the parcel from a short distance. It looked beautifully forested, dark and dramatic, utterly wild. I was enchanted.

I returned to Madison. We made an offer, prevailed somehow and closed on the property two days after Christmas.

On the afternoon of December 29th Vinny took us up to Lost Brook Tract, following an old bushwhack route he first took as a child. For two miles it was easy, relatively open woods and a gradual climb. At the halfway point near a pair of huge boulders Vinny paused for a moment to inform us that the route got “gnarly” from there. The snow deepened, the forest thickened and the grade became formidable. Our snowshoes were subpar, our packs were heavy and we fell well behind. After an exhausting climb we came upon Vinny sitting at an old lean-to, contentedly enjoying a late lunch. He told us he admired our family for doing this, wished us a happy new year and bid us farewell.

We had arrived in a winter paradise. The first thing we all noticed was the snow-draped spruces towering overhead. Some looked to be more than eighty or ninety feet in height, something I’d never seen at this elevation in the Adirondacks. We were filled with wonder at the sight of them. “I think this is old-growth forest,” I whispered. We dug through four feet of snow, pitched our tents and make a fire pit. The temperature dropped to twenty below.

We spend two magnificent days. We explored the immediate area and the interior of the partially collapsed lean-to. We made our way down to Lost Brook, frozen and under a sea of snow. We uncovered part of an original fire ring and for a time got two fires going. Just before leaving I blazed a tree by the brook so as to be able to find the land again. We hiked out on our own, following the snow trail we had made going in. I thought of all the writers of old from my tattered copy of the Adirondack Reader. I recalled their reverent descriptions of the primeval and the wonder of discovery with a new understanding. This is what it is like.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Striking a Balance

One of the most romantic characteristics of Lost Brook Tract is that hardly anyone has ever been there. This is not a wishful abstraction; we know it to be true. Fascinated by having found it to be old growth forest when we first visited it, I plunged into a research project to find out everything I could about the land.

Remarkably, the record is complete enough to paint a fairly thorough picture of its history. I was able to assemble a detailed chronology that shows Lost Brook Tract was simply missed by the surprising volume of human activity that occurred in the park, to the point where it is likely only a handful of people have ever walked on it. I find this a very compelling idea. It is incredibly romantic to imagine that in wandering through it I might set foot on some part where no one has ever trod. But is this a characteristic I am justified in preserving?

In last week’s post I offered my rationale for writing these dispatches. However I see now that what I presented was incomplete. Shortly after it posted one reader wrote a comment that this endeavor seemed self-serving, “praising the Park and its availability to all at the same time he is enjoying his secret hideaway with one of the few stands of old growth, no visitors allowed, thank you.” I think this is a valid criticism. I thought so before he wrote in. In fact I have been troubled by this very issue and it is one of the reasons I decided to write these dispatches.

It did not occur to us initially, but my family and I find ourselves deliberating a serious and difficult question about Lost Brook Tract that is an analog of the larger dispute over the Adirondack Park itself: how do we strike a balance between our interests, the interests of the public and the interests of the woods themselves? This is a challenging problem in ethics and aesthetics – that I used the term “primeval aesthetic” in my previous dispatch is no accident. Perhaps I should enlist the help of the Almanack’s resident Philosopher, Marianne Patinelli-Dubay, but in the absence of her input let me share a little bit about how we have tried to sort it out.

First, there are what I would describe as the two extremes. At the one extreme we simply deny access to anyone other than family and keep a shotgun handy to ward off any trespasser who ignores the signs that say “Posted.” This is easy enough to do. All it requires is a typical embrace of the centuries-old European cultural heritage of private property rights. Whatever one might think of this heritage (and it is a bloody one), it has prevailed in almost all the civilized world. From this view there is no debate at all: property ownership is sacred, especially land. This is the case with Lost Brook Tract: we have a deed, you cannot set foot on it without our permission, end of story.

I think most people would recognize this as the default condition (perhaps absent the threatening shotgun, but consider that this right is so sacrosanct as to give me the justification to shoot a trespasser to defend my property). If so, how can I characterize it as an extreme position? My answer to that has to do with context. It is fashionable to think in absolutes these days, especially with respect to political and social rights and morality. But absolutes are never universal. “Thou shalt not kill” seems about as defensible an absolute as there is. But it is beholden to context, lest we rule out war, the death penalty, self-defense, doctor-assisted suicide and even food consumption. As concerns property rights, absolutes are uncommon in practice. The average suburban homeowner makes multiple levels contextual distinction with hardly a thought. Consider a handsome stranger on your property without your permission. If he walks onto your front lawn will your authority as land owner engage at the same level as if he walks to your front door? Through the front door into your living room? Into your bedroom? At night?

Even if we have the force of law and cultural norms entirely on our side it seems to be a problem of context if we choose not to share Lost Brook Tract at all. Virgin forest is a precious and rare resource that is potentially of great importance to others. To hoard it while trumpeting wilderness values raises the damning specter of elitism.

At the other extreme we open the land to all. We go further: recognizing its unique value to the world at large and having preached about the importance of the primeval experience we invite all the readers of the Almanack to come up for a visit, describing its location and the route in, attaching a map and giving out GPS coordinates.

Obviously this is no balance either. For one thing we did not purchase Lost Brook Tract without a good share of self-interest on behalf of ourselves and our heirs. While we like to think we’re as altruistic as the next folks we’re not ready to entirely give up those interests, which include solitude among other things. But of course there is another competing interest in the mix, that of the land itself. Advertising it to several tens of thousands of Almanack readers risks what makes it valuable in the first place. Sixty acres is not a whole lot of land. If one percent of the Almanack’s readers came out to camp in a calendar year the land would be irrevocably damaged.

As always, that leaves the middle ground. How do we sort it out?

Our thinking has proceeded from the idea that Lost Brook Tract’s uniqueness and importance is directly due to its inaccessibility. The idea that a visit to such a place should be earned by effort and skill is not uncommon in the wilderness ethos. But this implies that it can and should be earnable. Therefore we decided to achieve our balance by allowing people to earn the experience of the land on the land’s terms. We’ll give up the romantic notion that no one should walk on it but we’re not going to make it any easier to get to.

Here’s how this has translated into practice.

First, we did not post Lost Brook Tract. Barring a disastrous series of incursions we never will. Instead we have a visitors log posted in our lean-to. The log welcomes hunters, hikers and campers. It has rules that we require visitors to follow; those rules are designed to protect the land. We allow use of the lean-to but not the gear we have stored there. We prohibit camping elsewhere. We allow fires in the fire ring, but only during hunting season and winter. Other rules are consistent with DEC wilderness regulations

Next, we have advertised Lost Brook Tract to important people in the political and environmental spectrum of the park who we think should know about the forest and see it. Several have already visited. We have invited an Adirondack-based ecologist who is currently doing research on old growth forests to come and conduct field work on the land.

Finally, we’re writing about it, for reasons already given. We do so knowing full well that makes it a potential destination for an enterprising reader. If someone really wants to find Lost Brook Tract they will. We have to trust that such an effort would be made with reverence for the land, for its wildness, and that the hike in, compass in hand, would earn it.

We welcome any comments or ideas on this balance.

Photo: Long Pond, in the Saint Regis Canoe Area (Courtesy Wikipedia).


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.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: A Wilderness Primeval Aesthetic

Lost Brook Tract is a miracle both modern and ancient. Steeply situated on a high ridge in the central Adirondacks, miles from the nearest road and with no trail to it, it is a sixty-acre swath of Adirondack territory virtually unknown to all but a handful of people. That it exists today, an utterly unspoiled piece of high mountain boreal forest tracing unbroken lineage all the way to the ice age, can only be explained as a remarkable accident of fate.

As it turns out, that is indeed how it is explained. In future posts I’ll tell that story, how this little jewel came to be spared and saved from the debilitations that were suffered by most of the Adirondacks. For now it is simply there, a virgin forest never logged, never burned, largely spared even from the depredations of acid rain. Surrounded on all sides either by strict conservation easements or by New York State lands designated as Wilderness, it is in the fullest sense primeval. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Adirondack Family Time: Aldo Leopold Film Screening

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
~ Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)

This Saturday the Adirondack Interpretive Center will be hosting the only Adirondack screening of the documentary Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and Land Ethic For Our Time. Leopold holds the honor of shaping and influencing the modern environmental conservation movement. Leopold is credited with inspiring projects all over the country that connect people and land.

The title Green Fire refers to a passage in Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac when he is a young forest ranger and self-described as “full of trigger-itch.” Leopold writes how he shoots a wolf believing that fewer predators would mean a hunters’ paradise. He comes upon the injured wolf and watches “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” an event that would change his view of the necessity of predators in the landscape.

According to Adirondack Interpretive Center Program Manager Rebecca Oyer the one-day event will be packed with activities from bench building to a panel discussion. Oyer wants people to know that they can come for one event or all of the day’s activities.

“Starting at 9:00 a.m. those that register will be able to make a Leopold bench. The cost of the materials ($30) is the only fee for this whole day. The screening, readings and panel discussions are all free,” says Oyer. “ There will be a break around 10:30 a.m. with refreshments and panelists will read passages from The Sand County Almanac. After a lunch break we will show the movie Green Fire at 1:30 p.m.”

After the film the four panelists will discuss how each apply and implement Leopold’s legacy in their own work. Panelists: Dave Gibson, partner in the not-for-profit Adirondack Wild, Lisa Eddy, a Michigan High School teacher developing curriculum based on Leopold’s philosophies, Peter Brinkley, Adirondack Wild Senior partner and Marianne Patinelli-Dubay, environmental philosopher. Both Gibson and Patinelli-Dubay are regular Almanack contributors.

A complete schedule can be found here. Registration is required by calling 518-582-2000 for the January 21, Saturday, event. Keep in mind that the trails at the Newcomb Adirondack Interpretive Center are open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

If you are bringing your own young people, know your family’s limitations. My children are excited to make the Leopold bench and see the rest of the hour-long film Green Fire. If they wish to listen to the readings and panel discussions, I am all for it. I will have snowshoes packed as a backup plan. We can discuss Leopold’s Legacy while enjoying the trails at the Adirondack Interpretive Center.

Illustration provided.

Diane Chase is the author of Adirondack Family Time: Tri-Lakes and High Peaks Your Guide to Over 300 activities. Her second book of family activities will cover the Adirondack Lake Champlain coast and in stores summer 2012.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Philosophy: Aldo Leopold, Heresy and Prophecy

I was nineteen when I first considered what has become a personally recurrent theme: what is the role of the divine in an aesthetic life? Is a beautiful life animated by the poetic mysteries?

One etymological reading of “atheism” is to be abandoned by the gods, godless. And as if abandonment wasn’t enough to spur repentance, a beloved and deeply spiritual teacher once told me that to be an atheist is to declare a world without the divine.

Why, I wondered, does that world seem as attractive as a strip mall, so terribly un-poetic and not at all like a reality that I want to inhabit? My attempts to answer this question have charted an interesting intellectual and (dare I say) spiritual course. It’s true that a godless world isn’t absent its natural beauty, but in a godless world I am confined to behold it without mysticism.

I prefer Emerson’s belief that “the world exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty.” If only so I can observe with him “…the spectacle of morning from the hilltop over against my house, from daybreak to sunrise, with emotions which an angel might share. […] I seem to partake its rapid transformations; the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.” At the same time I resist Thoreau’s disenchantment when he writes of spirit, “however much it is to be regretted, with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent. Perhaps these questions are entertained only in youth, as most believe of poetry.”

Throughout history poets, painters, philosophers, musicians have drawn on the human condition and its mysteries to inspire their craft – from Emerson’s Christianity to Thoreau’s reliance on the Hindu Vedas. After all, society expects this from those of us in the humanities who seek to understand what it means to be human. I share their desire for a beautiful life animated by spirit, enlivened by the mysterious and written in poetry. This desire fuels a personal resistance to an explainable life. In this I am at least in pretty good company. Among others, conservationist Aldo Leopold who considers it fortunate that “no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them.”

I was thinking of this and of Leopold recently when a colleague in biology compared Leopold and his Land Ethic with the prophet Muhammad and Christ. Did I hear what I think I heard? Certainly the Transcendental style of Leopold’s predecessors can be read in Leopold’s own, and as often as Thoreau resisted doctrinal spirituality, he embraced naturalism and animism in turn. I would even argue that it is impossible to read Thoreau’s chapter titled “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” in Walden without recalling Leopold’s chapter called “July” in the Sand County Almanac. And as influences go, Leopold’s voice emerges also in concert with his contemporary John Muir. Muir’s observations on the Wisconsin prairie are cited in Leopold’s Almanac and call to mind Muir’s description of the great forests of the western United States as “God’s first temples.”

Nevertheless it is one thing to acknowledge a spiritual quality in our own work and in the work of someone like Leopold; to chart his influences back to a mostly Christian origin provides context and reveals some of what is unspoken in philosophy and science. And it is another thing entirely to elevate the work and the man to the level of prophet. We would do well to remember that heresy and prophecy are two sides of the same coin and they make dangerous the critique that is essential to responsible scholarship.

Marianne Patinelli-Dubay is a philosopher living, teaching and writing in the Adirondacks

Photo from The Aldo Leopold Foundation


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Adirondack Philosophy: What’s in a Blog?

Three times last week someone approached me in a crowd and asked, “Are you the Adirondack Philosopher?” Since I wasn’t wearing my customary toga, my chariot was parked some distance away and I wasn’t strolling through the square asking leading questions, I was at once pleased and caught off guard.

It is a testament to the popularity of the Adirondack Almanack that this happens as often as it does, and in the most unlikely places. Last week it happened while I was inside a medium security prison, it happened again at a planning meeting several towns away and again at a party where the conversation tended more towards ice climbing than Kant’s moral imperative. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Join the Land Use and Ethics Conversation

You are invited to contribute to the discourse, re-interpret the topic and skew the pitch. Join in the process and take part in influencing the way we think about land use and ethics. SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Northern Forest Institute invites submissions for its Symposium of Interdisciplinary Scholarship in Land Use and Ethics, to be held at the Adirondack Interpretive Center on Huntington Wildlife Forest in Newcomb. See full symposium details here.

On its best day, philosophy succeeds in sending “the conversation off in new directions.” With a free exchange of ideas and a commitment to inquiry, philosophy as both catalyst and conveyor ought to “engender new normal discourses, new sciences, new philosophical research and thus new objective truths.”

I envision this project as an opportunity to open up the dialog around issues of land use and ethics on local, national and global scales. This is the place for ideas in-process, unfinished research and to introduce work in its various stages of development. We’re welcoming research from across professions and disciplines on topics related to balancing individual and community priorities with respect to land use and the associated expectations for human and ecosystem stewardship and social and environmental ethics.

I hope to see independent scholars alongside industry and agency professionals and students from across the humanities and the sciences. Presentations are meant to generate conversation around a variety of approaches to land use, the moral implications of these approaches, as well as the ways that they influence the ongoing debate over how to achieve social and environmental justice.

Philosopher John Dewey referred to active discourse as “breaking the crust of convention” and I’d like us to use this symposium to get together and get on with it.

For information on how to join the conversation email [email protected]

References from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty

Photo of Arbutus Lodge, compliments of Huntington Wildlife Forest, Newcomb, NY.

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


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Philosophy: Considering Diversity and Equality

A while back I asked why it matters whether women are represented in science? I was interested to know if we care about whether a variety of communities show up in fields, professions and pastimes, why do we care? Is it simply a matter of increasing the number of loyalists to our mission, or does it come from an openness to change the very system that stands resolute like Uncle Sam declaring “I want you!” » Continue Reading.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Philosophy: Getting Busy, and Meaning It

In his poem The Adirondacks Ralph Waldo Emerson begins to describe an expedition into the Adirondack wilderness by noting that the travelers unburdened themselves from their day-to-day lives:

Happier as they
Slipped off their pack of duties, leagues behind,
At the first mounting of the giant stairs.
No placard on these rocks warned to the polls,
No door-bell heralded a visitor,
No courier waits, no letter came or went,
Nothing was ploughed, or reaped, or bought, or sold

I can appreciate this imagery and the attraction of leaving it all behind for a holiday. But many of us reading the Almanack live in the Adirondacks and so our lifework, as I like to think of it, can’t be taken on and off like Emerson’s pack of duties. With that in mind and in light of what seems to be our national predilection with busyness, I’ve been giving some thought to what exactly is in Emerson’s pack?

First, I looked into what it means to be busy and I discovered that an interesting thing happened on the way to the 21st century. It seems that the word “busy” didn’t always signify the frenetic style of hyperactivity that many of us wear like a badge, the depleted yet slightly self-satisfied way we often announce “I am so busy!” These days we declare ourselves in this way as if we’ve accomplished something meaningful simply by darting between moments like hummingbirds, hovering without ceasing at one task before zipping on to the next. In contrast, “busy” used to refer to our earnest engagement in something enjoyable, yet somewhere along the way we began to veer wildly away from this sensibility towards a constant occupation with – what exactly?

At this point I’d hoped to open up Emerson’s pack to discover what all this busyness was all about, but it seems it’s a little bit like that drawer full of random things that don’t have any real relationship to each other or to me. The stuff doesn’t fit into any category yet inexplicably, I need what’s in there. And a “junk drawer” is born. Are we living lives analogous to junk drawers? This seems particularly offensive in a landscape whose pure earthly delight has been an inspiration for poets, philosophers, scientists, artists and novelists for generations.

I don’t know exactly when the common meaning of “busy” changed, or when our gaze shifted from the good life or the beautiful life to the busy life as a thing of virtue. I suspect it was right about the time we created the handy conjunction “busy-work” aptly defined as something that takes up time but isn’t actually productive, never mind earnest or meaningful (the whole notion of which brings Socrates to mind and his caution against the barrenness of a busy life).

My dear friend Craig, with whom I have been writing letters (yes, actual letters) for 19 years, wrote a while back that his delayed response was due to being caught up in “all those things Thoreau railed against.” He was busy, in the contemporary sense of the word. And it’s true that this affliction is at least as old as Thoreau who admonished that “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Ultimately, the question of what on earth we’re doing is a personal one and I won’t presume to root through your pack (and let’s agree to keep our hands out of each other’s junk drawers). The question and the intimate cadence of your response will flourish, as everything meaningful will, along a horizon of uninterrupted and unhurried contemplation. Fortunately for those of us committed to a beautiful and a thoughtful life here in the high-country, we aren’t subject to the inevitability of a too-short holiday that as Emerson describes, is fruitful, but must end;

One August evening had a cooler breath;
Into each mind intruding duties crept;
Under the cinders burned the fires of home;
Nay, letters found us in our paradise:
So in the gladness of the new event
We struck our camp and left the happy hills.

(Oh and Craig, you owe me a lengthy letter. Get busy.)

Photo of Auguste Rodin‘s Thinker courtesy of ArtCyclopedia

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



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