Our technology encourages so much sharing of so much data, a fire hose of information and images hitting us from every direction, that gentle, literary essays might seem an antiquated art form. But when good observers report their experiences, we are reminded of the value of the essay. We will learn not only what the writer tells us, but how to look at our own world differently. Two companion volumes from The History Press bring the essay home to northern New York.
"Adirondack Reflections" and "North Country Reflections" provide 27 essays by local authors describing what they "see" as they live their lives in these overlapping portions of New York State. Each book is divided into three sections The Land, The People and The Flora and Fauna.
If there is a difference among the offerings, it might be that North Country focuses a bit more on people, even when talking about the land, than does "Adirondack Reflections." For example, "Apples, Sardines and Bullhead," by Betsy Kepes, is, quite beautifully, more about her father and his decline than fruit and fish. It is his, and her, connection to nature that she writes about: "I believe this delight in the natural world is at the core of my father's being, and I hope, as his body and mind continue to fail, he'll keep this joy ... We stop to rest and admire the golden ending of the day."
And while the Adirondacks have plenty of ice, it is in North Country that two essays focus on hockey. Paul Graham, who grew up in Maryland, savors the game and the adults who play it for fun: "We come from different places and backgrounds and lives, but here we all speak the same language, even if some of us are more fluent than others. Our work is over; we've been inside all day; it's time for hockey."
Oscar Sarmiento, on the other hand, writes about his son learning the game. Sarmiento was born in Chile and had worked in football-happy Oregon before moving to Canton. His observations are not just about the game, but also the role it plays in the families watching their kids skate. At the arena, "The warmth of conversations and simple laughs tempered the sense of isolation we felt under a snowy and chilly winter."
Lita Kelly, in Adirondack, reminisces about growing up in Dannemora, while her father worked at the maximum security prison. Her "In the Shadow of the Walls" shows that the prison system, which became an important part of the upstate economy, also shaped the lives of children. Kelly has fond memories of her prison-town childhood: "Days in Dannemora bring visions of life filled with friends, activities, and creative ways to spend our time."
Also in Adirondack, Chris Shaw writes of his efforts to separate himself from the modern world, "One recent November I went to my own forest retreat - a small cabin with no plumbing or electricity, on a remote stretch of the Saranacs to see if I could get a little closer to the landscape's original face." Here he notes that the images we see in our heads when we read books is analogous to "preliterate people reading the signs of nature in a landscape."
A brief review doesn't do justice to these books. Each essay is worth reading, each is well-written and helps the reader see more and better. Each observation encourages us to look more closely at our world, and perhaps see what is not visible.
And for me the most compelling essay of all speaks of what the writer did not see. Jill Vaughan's "Invisible People" in North Country is about the poor people of Franklin County, the people on Public Assistance who "disappeared" when she changed jobs. They used to fill her days, but then their paths didn't cross, not at the store, not at school events. In the briefest essay, Vaughan reminds us that in this isolated corner of New York, we are also isolated by class and income.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.