Above the mist

I have sometimes considered where in New York (or the Northeast) I might like to live if I weren’t living in Syracuse. It might seem crazy, but in addition to the usual factors (jobs, politics, weather etc), I find myself considering the history of a place. To me, it’s like the character of the landscape, or the atmospheric conditions. Just like you probably wouldn’t consider moving somewhere sight unseen, I wouldn’t feel like I’d done my homework if I didn’t have a sense of what was what, then – as well as what is what, now – since it’s all connected. (This is probably why, if you forced me to choose between Rome and Ithaca, it would be quite a dilemma: Rome isn’t the most congenial spot for me in terms of the physical landscape or the political zeitgeist, but I know the historical landscape fairly well. Ithaca’s history, I don’t have a feel for at all, and I would feel somewhat disoriented.)

And then there are the Finger Lakes, which are so very beautiful and appealing. But for me, it is hard not to breathe in the heavy historical smog there. This was, after all, the scene of a massively destructive military campaign. Some today would call it a national security mission, others would call it ethnic cleansing. The atmospheric conditions there today are neither overtly “bad” nor “good” from a moral standpoint, but those clouds of history are still thick. And nowhere do they seem thicker than along the big lakes, Seneca and Cayuga, and particularly between them, in Seneca and Schuyler counties. This is where I was this past week.

One of the curious things about this unnamed land between the lakes is how laden with U.S. government presence it was and still is. Outside of New York City and Fort Drum, this has been the most federalized plot of land in the Empire State. One can’t trace a clear path from the Sullivan-Clinton days to the 20th century in this regard, but it still seems like somewhat more than a coincidence that a Naval base (later an Air Force base), a heavily guarded munitions depot, and (improbably) a National Forest took form here. Indeed, the two long lakes make ideal strategic barriers… but, these being the first lands that the newly minted U.S. government took from the native inhabitants by force, one must wonder if on some deep echoing level, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

On a human level — today — I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to make that point. Nowhere in New York is organized anti-tribal sentiment more vehement than in Cayuga country. The prospect of the landless Cayugas putting 125 acres into trust has thrown the local chapters of UCE into high alert. “No Reservation, No Sovereign Nation” signs are still up everywhere. It’s a distinctly different vibe than even in the Utica-Rome area. There are any number of socioeconomic factors driving the rancor. Down on the shorelines are the sumptuous wineries with their newly surfaced parking lots, and up in the hills are the prim white farmhouses with their shaggy coats of peeling paint. But I think history’s miasma hangs heavily too. The land is beautiful, but it was acquired expressly by sword and fire. And that stone fact cannot balance lightly on any psychic sense of safety and permanence.

However, up in the hills between the two lakes is a strange, peaceful little oasis called the Finger Lakes National Forest. I went camping and hiking there this past weekend. This is New York’s only national forest, and the second smallest national forest in the country. It’s also probably the only one that has pastures (with cows!), neatly labeled with brown-and-white U.S. Forest Service signs. Originally a land reclamation experiment, it’s a patchwork of forest and farm lands that seems like a depopulated, idealized vision of the New York countryside — what it would look like if the state were a large outdoor museum. Because the land has hardly been touched by development since the 1930s, the plant diversity is pretty amazing. I counted at least 20 different species (not including shrubs and trees) bordering my campsite alone.

Needless to say, the views from the top of the forest are incredible. You can see Seneca Lake, and almost see Cayuga Lake as well… and you can almost feel that you’re above the mists of the past and present, too.

4 Replies to “Above the mist”

  1. My Norwegian-born grandfather, whenever we drove through this area in the ’60s and ’70s, would remark that it was “choost like Norvay.” It really is some kind of throwback oasis, this land between the lakes. And then there’s the land between Seneca and Keuka, which is filled with narrow roads that in turn are filled with Mennonite children on iron-wheeled bicycles and Mennonite fathers tilling with horses and iron- bladed plows. A throwback indeed.

    As for the history of Ithaca, local historian Carol Kammen has some nice overviews, and you can’t beat Morris Bishop’s “The History of Cornell.”

  2. Wonderful photos– you can really tell what a wet year it has been. Did you get hailed on Friday? We had just a little, with very small hailstones, but heard it was worse further West.

    Cayuga County, and Northern Seneca County, is the locus of the anti-native-people sentiment. Most of the National Forest is in Schuyler County, which has a very different feel to it…. more Southern Tier, more woods, less Cayuga County-type corn+cow farming. It’s about the soil, which, in turn, is about the geology. Big differences North to South in the Finger Lakes region.

  3. Yes, I definitely noticed that difference. And also all of the Mennonites, who have shops and farm stands along Rte 414, so they’re pretty visible, saw some horses and buggies out on the road. I noticed something interesting, the farm stands have formal names that sort of remind me of English pubs e.g. “The Little Barn” or “The Green Shed.” Must be Mennonite marketing.

    The other thing that struck me was that nobody repaints their houses (outside of the Mennonites I suppose). It can’t just be a money thing; the area doesn’t seem desperately poor. It’s like they just don’t see it as a priority. Peeling paint everywhere! I haven’t seen it to that extent even in some of Syracuse’s worst neighborhoods.

    The weather on Thursday through Saturday was miserable but I was based at Sampson State Park during those days and moved down to FLNF on Sunday so the weather had turned nice.

    I’m probably going to go back there this summer if I get a chance for another extended vacation.

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