North Country Reflections: On Life and Living in the Foothills and the Valleys; a Review.

Neal Burdick, a native of Plattsburgh, New York, attended St. Lawrence University which is where he now fills the roll as publications author and editor and as an advanced writing instructor since 1977. An accomplished editor and writer, he has published works from poetry to book reviews while also editing the Adirondac, which is the magazine for the Adirondack Mountains as well as contributing to a variety of local magazines.[1] Maurice Kenny, author of over thirty collections of fiction and poetry, as well as an essayist and reviewer who is featured in almost one hundred English textbooks, won the American Book Award in 1984 for Mama Poems, and had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his book Blackrobe: Isaac Jogues and his collection Between Two Rivers. However, He considered his most important work to be Tekonwatonti: Molly Brant, 1735-1795. He was a visiting professor and poet-in-residence at many colleges and universities, one of which being St. Lawrence University, where he received an honorary doctorate in 1995.[2] Sadly, Kenny passed away in April of 2016.

The purpose of North Country Reflections is to give a real, genuine perspective of what the north country is. Burdick and Kenny point out in the introduction that prior to the last quarter of the 20th century, much of the writing that had been done about The North Country was by those who mostly lived elsewhere. However, since then, authors have come out of the woodwork, so to speak, some who have resided in the North Country for decades, and some new arrivals. These are the authors, some of whom have never had the pleasure or outlet of being published, that Burdick and Kenny want to recognize, and thus the purpose of this book. Moreover, through these individual pieces, a sincere and comprehensive opinion and experience is given, therefore it is a true and raw compilation of thoughts, feelings, and concerns.[3] North Country Reflections is broken up into three parts, “the Land,” “the People,” and “the Flora and the Fauna.” I will select one contributor from each section to review their writings as well as to touch on their background.

            The first contributor, Chris Angus, opens with his description of a primitive stone point from the Archaic Period that he held in his bare hands. This point, having been unearthed in none other than Canton, NY, was at least, as Angus notes, 2000 to 5000 years old. Angus continues to discuss the fact that Native Americans were strongly connected to the land that we now live on, in a way that we would consider “off the grid.”[4] He, however, then extrapolates that metaphor through his analysis of the contemporary living styles of those who now occupy these areas. He touches on the fact that this “off the grid” style of living really does continue in that many people up here reject super stores like Walmart, major cable and electricity companies, grow their own crops, keep farm animals, and prefer firewood and homemade dams for energy and heat.  He then compares the ancient nature of the primitive stone point to the reminiscent style of old collapsing barns, grand Victorian homes, mills, quarries, etc. Angus argues that the North Country has become a private place for escape, for anyone from aging veterans who want to “get away form it all” or as a hub for the Amish, who have the freedom to practice their own “off the grid ways” with far less questioning and odd looks as they pass through the center of town. He closes his portion by offering his description of a crumbling sandstone structure he stumbled upon down a winding road. He points out that while, yes the structure was failing, someone had started to stack the stones in a manner that indicated their desire to return at a later date to retrieve them for some other purpose. [5] Angus, in both a personal and historian’s fashion, draws comparisons between the unearthed stone point and the falling sandstone structure, a product of a local quarry, and then the living styles of the then Native Americans and many of those who occupy the North Country now, as eerily similar in what they represent, “off the grid” styles of living as well as remnants of humanities past. His writing proved both personal and observant, a perspective that clearly was molded by spending many years in the area. Angus has had articles and essays on the Adirondack region published in various publications, one of which being The New York Times and is the author of Reflections from Canoe Country: Paddling the Waters of the Adirondacks and Canada and The Extraordinary Adirondack Journey of Clarence Petty: Wilderness Guide, Pilot, and Conservationalist, both published by Syracuse Press.[6]

            From the town of Mud Lake, John Berbrich writes about his experience of community, neighborly assistance, and compassion within the section entitled, “the People.” Within a mile of his home, one summer, one of the large Amish farms in Mud Lake, belonging to a man named Levi, lost a full sized barn as well as cattle to a fire. The fire department could hardly do anything besides spraying down nearby buildings. However, the first indication of the deep seeded sense of community, between this “regular” person, i.e. someone whose way of life agrees more with 21st century society, and this Amish family is not how John chose to help, but how he was asked to help. John writes, “…He doesn’t ask, but rather suggests, that they could use a little help up at Levi’s place the next day and that I should bring my chainsaw.”[7] John arrived at Levi’s promptly at 8 a.m., prepared to give a full days work. As the barn continued to burn and smolder, John is given his marching orders along side other Amish men, most notably a man named Dennis and Levi’s uncle Ben and a “Englisch” man, which is an Amish term for non-Amish, named Bill. Drawn deep into the woods by horse carriage, John did his part with his chainsaw when needed and breaking once and a while. John and Dennis soon converse about personal interests, different reasons for using diesel engines for their sawmills, but not cars or chainsaws, and they even share a single jug of water. John drove by within the week to see the barn being rebuilt, while his wife is at the farm cooking food and making clothing with the other wives. He closes his portion mentioning the fact that years have passed and that they no longer live on Mud Lake. Levi’s family moved to Minnesota and his uncle passed away. Even Dennis, whom mentioned to John that he had a curiosity for history and learning, had grown too fond of computer technology for the Amish people’s liking and had been shunned. However, John finishes with the line, “But that barn, in sunshine, wind, snow ice and rain, still stands tall.”[8] There can be many reasons for John’s pride, but all of them stem from the way of life that is lived in the North Country. Is it that he used his brute strength, with the help of a chainsaw of course, to help build, quite arguably, the North Country staple, a barn? Is it that he did so rather primitively, through the help of horses, carriages, etc.? Is it for the fact that he helped a struggling family, down on their luck, who due to their own beliefs would be at an operative disadvantage? It is hard to say, but this story was because of this unique way of life in the North Country, and even more so unique to do the Amish culture, makes for one of kind experiences that are intrinsic to the culture and identity that is the North Country. John approaches his topic by telling a simple story that exudes his pride as well as his willingness to “love thy neighbor,” a quality that is oftentimes rich in small communities that are common in this region. Born and raised on Long Island, John Berbrich has worked several obscure jobs and is currently a clerical worker in a government office building. He and his wife Nancy run BoneWorld Publishing which publishes the literary quarterly Barbaric Yawp. Berbrich also writes music and literary review columns and is a founding member of St. Lawrence Area Poets. He and his wife reside in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in Russell, New York.[9]

            John Berbrich’s wife, Nancy, writes in the section “Flora and Fauna” about the legacy that is her gardening, passed down from her grandmother, to her mother, to her, and then down to her children. Her love for gardening followed her throughout her life, from city apartment, to mobile home, to house, and on and on.[10] Her mother would develop old variegated impatiens, an East African plant, passed down by her mother, and soon enough, Nancy passed that down to her daughter. This work with her hands, her development of eventually a quarter acre garden, and her ability to provide a fresh variety of healthy food, all while teaching her children the importance and value in cultivation, care, and self providing, is textbook North Country.[11] She would provide for her neighbors, to their surprise, when she lived in Rochester, just because that’s what she does, much like how her husband helped Levi and his family. The gardening represents to her not only a lineage to her grandmother, but also a hands on and down to earth style of satisfaction, much like that satisfaction that Angus details through the “off the grid” style of living.

While there style of research and scholarship isn’t necessarily typical, this by no means is an indication of a lack of accuracy, legitimacy, or value to be found in the words written by the contributors in this book. The editors and authors, Neil Burdick and Maurice Kenny are seasoned and renowned, well many of the contributors are published writers as well. Therefore, not as much research had to be done in terms of scholarship, the focus was on the seeking out of original stories, hopefully through the words of writers, but if not, there was no rejection.

            Therefore, this book is useful in that it provides real stories, not filtered, not interviews, and not abridged. The book is well organized into three main sections that the editors feel encapsulate the North Country, the land, who inhabits it, and what grows there, all while subtly conveying the logic of the argument in readable prose. The argument being that, the North Country is still unique, it is still cultural, and interesting enough, sees history repeat itself in providing simple lives for people who like to work with their hands, who prefer to not have subways, department stores, and don’t mine being slowed down by buggies on the highway. Year after year, decade after decade, and century after century, the North Country is a region for those who prefer wide open spaces, communities, and more to look at than just pavement.

 

 

Caption

Photo of a Barn in Keene Valley, New York. from wildernessphotographs.com Keene Valley Old Barn in Morning Fog. Shot by Jonathan Ampersand Esper, 2014. Accessed: May 11th, 2017.

Book Review Endnotes

[1] Neal Burdick and Maurice Kenny, Adirondack Reflections: Life and Living in the Foothills and the Valleys (Charleston: The History Press, 2013)

[2] Neal Burdick and Maurice Kenny, Adirondack Reflections: Life and Living in the Foothills and the Valleys

[3] Neal Burdick and Maurice Kenny, Introduction to Adirondack Reflections: Life and Living in the Foothills and the Valleys (Charleston: The History Press, 2013)

[4] Chris Angus “Echoes Beneath the Land” in Adirondack Reflections: Life and Living in the Foothills and the Valleys (Charleston: The History Press, 2013), 11.

[5] Chris Angus “Echoes Beneath the Land” in Adirondack Reflections: Life and Living in the Foothills and the Valleys 13

[6] About Chris Angus in Adirondack Reflections: Life and Living in the Foothills and the Valleys (Charleston: The History Press, 2013)

[7] John Berbrich “Raising the Barn” in Adirondack Reflections: Life and Living in the Foothills and the Valleys (Charleston: The History Press, 2013), 46

[8] John Berbrich “Raising the Barn” in Adirondack Reflections: Life and Living in the Foothills and the Valleys (Charleston: The History Press, 2013), 48

[9] About John Berbrich in Adirondack Reflections: Life and Living in the Foothills and the Valleys (Charleston: The History Press, 2013),

[10] Nancy Berbrich “Garden Legacy: The Read Dirt” in Adirondack Reflections: Life and Living in the Foothills and the Valleys (Charleston: The History Press, 2013) 85

[11] Nancy Berbrich “Garden Legacy: The Read Dirt” in Adirondack Reflections: Life and Living in the Foothills and the Valleys (Charleston: The History Press, 2013) 86

Recommended Reading: The Adirondack Book: A Complete Guide (Second Edition - Fully Revised). By: Elizabeth Folwell

Initially published in 1992, The Adirondack Book by Elizabeth Folwell is broken up into eight chapters: History, Transportation, Lodging, Culture, Restaurants and Food Purveyors, Recreation, Shopping, and Information. Folwell's aim is to illustrate the unique aspects of the Adirondack park as it is the largest and oldest in the United States, all while being the least restrictive by requiring no entry fee, and very few permits. I chose this book because Folwell highlights places, both new and old, worthy of visiting while unearthing cultural and meaningful gems for any tourist or local to seek out. 

Recommended Reading: Wandering Home By: Bill McKibben

On the page before the title page, McKibben writes " A long walk across America's most hopeful landscape: Vermont's Champlain Valley and New York's Adirondacks." Combining that with the title being, Wandering Home, and a slow, meandering, steady, calm, and enjoying connotation arises. In this book, McKibben relays to the reader his walk from his home in Vermont to his previous home in the Adirondacks all while describing the environment and the people he encounters. I chose this book because McKibben accentuates what he and the people he meets have in common, that being their deep passion and love for nature and the wilderness that surrounds them, that surround and inhabits the Adirondacks and the greater North Country. 

Recommended Reading: Old Times in the Adirondacks by: Seneca Ray Stoddard; Edited and with Biographical Sketch by: Maitland C. De Sormo

Described as "The narrative of a trip into the wilderness in 1873" by the editor Maitland C. De Sarmo, this book describes a three week journey taken by Seneca Ray Stoddard. Stoddard, a skilled photographer and praised as one of the best that New York had to offer at that time, traveled throughout the greater North Country while photographing and sketching the places he visited. He aptly captured their picturesque beauty, rugged nature, and sometimes, their danger. I chose this book because it not only provides yet another perspective on the North Country's natural aesthetic, but it also includes Stoddard's photographs and sketches. 

Caption

Photo of stripped hemlock logs in Herkimer County. Photo: James Fynmore. Courtesy of the Adirondack Museum. From northernwoodlands.org. Accessed: May 11th, 2017. 

Recommended Reading: Adirondack Odysseys: Exploring Museums and Historic Places from the Mohawk to the St. Lawrence by Elizabeth Folwell and Amy Godine

This book, in particular, emphasizes not the human admiration of the North Country, but focuses on the relationship between humans and the Adirondack region in a way that the Adirondack region is "Humanized." Therefore, I chose this book because Folwell and Godine offer the unique perspective that while the Adirondacks is beautiful, much like other parts of the North Country, there is more human impact than what means the eye, for better or for worse. 

Recommended Reading Annotations

Elizabeth Colwell, The Adirondack Book: A Complete Guide, Second Editon - Fully Revised (Massachusetts: Berkshire House Publishers, 1996)Bill

McKibben, Wandering Home (New York: Crown Journeys, 2005)

Seneca Ray Stoddard, Edited and with Biographical Sketch by Maitland C. De Sormo, Old Times in the Adirondacks (Vermont: George Little Press Inc., 1972)

Elizabeth Folwell and Amy Godine, Adirondack Odysseys: Exploring Museums and Historic Places from the Mohawk to the St. Lawrence (Massachusetts: Berkshire House Publishers, 1997)

 

Banner Photo: Man working at New York State Chain Fish Hatchery at Old Forge, NY, Circa 1910. Photo: New York State Archives Digital Collections. From northcountrypublicradio.org. Accessed: May 11th, 2017.