85 Youngs Road, MerrillNew York 12955
Summer: 518-425-3386
Winter: 607-339-0264

Essential Nature Lore

Probably none of us here will question the proposition that wilderness is beautiful, precious and a thing to be cherished. We give it great value not because of material goods that it might produce, but because it is a source of inspiration, wonder, challenge and awe. This is probably the common opinion here at Tanager Lodge, but I think that it might be uncommon in the general public, and I know that it is antithetical to the views of many influential people in the United States today. It is perhaps un-American to think of Land as something more than a source of timber and ore for industry, as something other than a stock of deer, bear, grouse and bass for sportsmen, as something more than potential farmland, and if so, then I ask all of you to be as un-American as possible for a summer, if only to discover what it feels like.

Aldo Leopold suggested in the 1940’s that extension of our ethics to include Land might be an expected step in the growth and change of our world view. Just as we now abhor slavery, we might one day think that senseless and heedless exploitation of Land is an immoral and abhorrent act. The idea was not originally Leopold’s; it has been part of the ethics of diverse cultures throughout history and around the globe. It was common among native American peoples, who viewed themselves as coeval with the animals around them, or who looked upon plants and animals as gifts upon which they were dependent for life, and which had to be treated with respect and reverence. This is distinctly different from the Judeo-Christian tradition of Man as master of the world, of Earth as something put here for Man to use and abuse as he will.

The notion that Land is something worthy of protection, as something with rights, is not only ethical; it is expedient. Whether we like it or not, we are animals with basic biological needs: air, food and water, none of which are infinitely available. In the long run, resources are always limited. Healthy soil is still a prerequisite for healthy crops, and its scarcity will be obvious when petro-chemical fertilizers are used up or become too expensive to use. We depend on green plants for the oxygen we breathe and for thousands of other goods, including all of our food. A few arboretum and zoo specimens preserved in the concrete jungle will not be enough. We know that the Earth’s biota is wonderfully complex, and that no organism or species lives in isolation from the rest of the world. We cannot preserve the pieces without preserving the whole.

Sadly, modern Americans are generally unaware that they are one of those pieces, that they are dependent on the rest of the world, which is hidden from their view by a wall of technology. Too many people don’t know that soil is not dirty, that food does not reproduce by binary fission on supermarket shelves, that they can live without cars, television, frozen TV dinners, mopeds, underarm deodorant, Sony walkmans, McDonald’s, ph-balanced shampoo, cheese whiz, dishwashers, electric toothbrushes, kiwi fruits, Michael Jackson, cuisinarts, and a host of other worthless items. Thoreau said, “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” in 1854. Nobody listened.

Tanager Lodge is named after the Scarlet Tanager, a small bird that does not tolerate the noise of technological civilization. Tanager Lodge is a small community that is removed from the technology of mainstream American culture, technology which stands between modern Americans and the Earth that nourishes them. Here on Indian Point we have an opportunity to see plants and animals close up, to feel free breezes and sunshine that has not been filtered through smog. We should take advantage of this and learn something about the world that is so close around us, and upon which we are so ultimately dependent, and we should be generous enough to teach others what we know. Most importantly, we must teach reverence for things wild and free.

Tanager Lodge is not a tennis camp, nor a riding camp, nor a computer camp, but it is a wilderness camp. It was conceived of as a place where people could learn to feel at home in the woods, and begin to see them as something more than a stand of trees. On two occasions, camp parents have asked me, “but what is the point of the place? Wouldn’t it be better to send junior off to tennis camp, where he could learn something important?” I resisted the impulse to start ranting and raving about superficial, meaningless, and crass American consumer culture has become, how totally out of touch it is with the universe, and instead tried to stress the importance of coming face to face with things wild and free, tried to emphasize the importance of the sort of experience that we can offer here, without explicitly criticizing the alternatives.

True, the Adirondacks are a very tame sort of wilderness, but they’re different enough from the streets of New York, Philly, and D.C. to make the point. Have any of you taken a walk by yourself in these woods? A really long walk, for an hour or two, off the trail maybe, and slowed down enough to look around you? Have you noticed the subtle changes in vegetation going up a mountain, approaching a beaver meadow, or paddling up South Inlet from the marsh to the forest? Have you sat in a canoe in West Inlet at dusk, listening to the frogs and loons, seeing the golden sky in the west arch over your head and mingle with the deep violet sky in the east, and watched the swallows go to roost as the bats begin their flickering dance over the still water? Have you ever walked up to a tree, put your hands upon it, and been aware that it was as alive as you are, that it too was born and will die? Have you ever sat and watched a bee forage on a rose bush, then move to a peony, then off to somewhere else, and wondered what that meant to the rose and the peony, and why didn’t the numerous birds in the birches behind you eat the bee, and did all of this activity have anything to do with the Sunday Pine, which has shaded this spot for a hundred years? Have you considered the fact that the soil beneath your feet is literally alive with countless organisms, that it seethes with activity? Do you realize that this is the current expression of a process that is three and a half billion years old, a process in which your infinitely brief existence is an insignificantly small part?

The next time you stand on top of Averill Peak and look west, don’t see a puddle of water and some trees, see a glacier, a level sea of ice filling the horizon and washing around your ankles. Listen to the ice crack and boom, if you can hear it above the rush of the wind. Now watch the ice melt for a thousand years, watch Ragged Lake Mountain and Lookout slowly emerge from the ice, black bare rock in a sea of white, blue and green ice. The ice is gone, and a clear mudless lake shimmers in the sun, a gem set among barren lifeless hills. You can see for two hundred miles in the clear air. No humid exhalation of forests, nor soot from the Ohio River Valley obscure the view. How long will it be before a few grass seeds find their way this far north, how long will it take to build soil enough to support trees? A thousand years? Two thousand?

And what are these hills anyway? Two billion years ago they were a thousand feet of mud off the eastern shore of a continent that was as barren and lifeless as the moon. How long did it take to press that mud into rock, to squeeze the water out of it? What lifted the rocks above the waves? What crumpled 2000 miles of a continent’s edge as if it was tinfoil, and pushed the rocks up into mountains?

The most amazing thing of all, however, is that we can walk around knowing all this, and not be struck senseless with awe. The irony and tragedy of this drama is that in a few hundreds of years we have destroyed so much of what was, and that in a few hundred more, in an instant after so much history, Earth may once again be as barren as the moon.