On the first day of my Adirondack Environmental History class, I bring in copies of Emerson’s poem “Adirondac,” both a narrative and a meditation on an 1858 camping excursion of ten well-heeled New Englanders at Follensby Pond, deep in the heart of the Adirondacks. The poem makes the important point that the environmental history of this region has been shaped by the interactions between insiders, outsiders, and the Adirondack forest. Led by the Schenectady-born artist William James Stillman, the “Philosophers’ Camp” brought together some of New England’s Brahmin elite including Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and Louis Agassiz. It was an extraordinary collection of poetic, artistic, scientific, medical, and juridical luminaries whose worlds were about to be upended by the Civil War and the second industrial revolution. The social and economic changes of the Gilded Age would remake the Adirondacks into, as Philip Terrie has noted, a “contested terrain” of conflicting interests. The Philosophers’ Camp represents an important pivot as the transcendental and romantic sensibilities of America’s genteel class gave way to middle-class urbanites in search of a vacation experience and robber barons in need of building Great Camps. There is something to James Schlett’s claim that the story of the Philosophers’ Camp “provides a means for measuring the evolution of America” (p. 5). Schlett’s intellectual history moves in three parts. The first, which makes up half the book, uses the letters, diaries, and other manuscript sources from the ten campers to explain how and why they felt the need to leave the city behind to regenerate in the Adirondack wilderness. The second part features the efforts of Stillman and others to create an “Adirondack Club,” fashioned after the well-known Boston-based “Saturday Club”; the goal was to create a permanent camp on the shore of neighboring Ampersand Pond, an initiative that never came together. The book concludes with a discussion of the poems, paintings, essays, and popular culture that depicted the Philosophers’ Camp. A Not Too Greatly Changed Eden takes on several big tasks simultaneously. William James Stillman looms large in the narrative. Schlett is at his best in explaining both Stillman’s romantic aesthetic as well as his fragile ego while courting the affection of artistic and intellectual giants. The narrative bears a strong resemblance to Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, but the analysis is focused on the modest 26th and 27th townships of the Adirondacks. The book is also a history of the townships themselves, although this story of land transactions plays second fiddle. Finally, the book is an interesting collection of tangents. For instance, the campers heard news that the work of the transatlantic cable had concluded, an event that provides the key pivot to Emerson’s poem. This gives Schlett the license to give us a history of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Also, in the 1990s, the Philosophers’ story inspired conservationists to mount a small campaign to have the state acquire the land around Follensby and Ampersand (it is still privately owned), so we get a few pages on Mario Cuomo’s Commission on the Adirondacks. It is difficult to read this book in the wake of Karl Jacoby’s notes on the moral ecology of the Adirondack locals. Indeed, there were nine guides at Follensby, and we only get to view them through the infrequent references by the philosophers. Indeed, Schlett opens the book with Stillman remonstrating a purportedly drunken guide who was singing too loudly and rocking the boat too vigorously, thus disturbing Stillman’s equanimity on the calm waters of Lower Saranac Lake. It was not Schlett’s intention to write a book about the Adirondacks and the tensions and cooperation that framed the interactions between residents and visitors. The value of this text lies elsewhere. Modern visitors who find retreat and rejuvenation in the Adirondacks will likely enjoy knowing a bit about the people who blazed the trail. But I think that the book will be even more valuable for people living inside the Adirondacks. This is a region whose economic fate depends on outside people and their capital—either visitors or, tragically, prisoners. And to move forward as a region, it is important for locals to learn the cultural history and vocabulary of “the philosophers,” even if the favor is not always returned. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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