As I mentioned in earlier posts, I recently left my cozy writer’s pad in Iowa City and moved up to the North Country. Where’s that, you ask? I could say “upstate New York,” but to some folks, that indicates anything north of the Bronx. No, my friends: the North Country is north of the Catskills, north of the Adirondacks, north of Syracuse, even. The only thing we’re south of is Canada (and that’s just 20 miles away). It is the most isolated corner of the Empire State, a starkly beautiful region of rolling hills and glimmering lakes and pine trees you can breathe.
So what is it like living in a town of 6,000—nearly half of whom are undergrads? Well, I hadn’t been here a week when I opened my back door one morning to find an armload of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions piled atop the mat. Whoever left it wrote no note; it would be a month before a colleague mentioned it was her husband. “We just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood,” she said. Indeed. There is strangely more to do here than in a mid-sized place like Iowa City, because anytime anyone dreams up anything even remotely interesting, they invite everyone they know to participate. Last night, for instance, a friend hosted “bread and soup night,” and more than a dozen of us eagerly attended. On Wednesday, I’ll be throwing a literary salon complete with readings and a banjo performance, and have already received thirty RSVPs. When I informed my students we needed to schedule a make-up class, they willingly relinquished their Friday night to do so.
Hospitality isn’t the only charm of folks in the North Country. They are amazingly self-reliant, too. They own things like wood-burning stoves and generators, and are confident they will not accidentally asphyxiate themselves. They chop their own wood and can their own tomatoes. They turn maple syrup into maple-leaf-shaped candy. I recently attended a Halloween costume party here, and was amazed at how many people came as bee-keepers. “You know, you just wear what’s laying around the house,” one explained from inside his mesh netting. Maybe. But what about the man who dressed as a carrot and ran around the dance floor, distributing baby carrots? Or the lady who dressed up like a maple tree, and her partner who wore a T-shirt that said, “I’ll tap that”?
This is a place where land is revered. Two hundred Amish families live out here, and their homesteads are a ready source of fresh honey, bread, apple butter, flowers, and basket-weaving. I hear them sometimes, their horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping down the street. Our county also supports sixteen CSA farms with names like Eight O’Clock Ranch, Hawkshaw Farm, Sweet Core Farm, Birdsfoot Farm, and Gramma’s Grass Acres. When I first arrived in July, they stocked our farmer’s market with pyramids of sweet corn, quarts of peaches and blueberries, and zucchinis galore. (In a survival manual for in-coming faculty, I was warned to lock my car doors in the summertime, lest someone stuff a bag of zucchini in it.) Then came tomato season, and with it mountains of basil. Asparagus arrived with great fanfare, followed by pears and shiny blue plums. Then came apples and pumpkins. Beets and potatoes. Carrots. Winter squashes. Gourds.
So how has this back-to-the-land self-reliance impacted me? Certainly, I’m feeling more attuned to nature these days. At least once a week, I see a deer, porcupine, fox, coyote, skunk, or coon. Granted, they are usually slumped on the side of the road, their insides spilling out, but still! I share my home with thriving colonies of spiders and centipedes. Granted, I murder a few members every evening…. but hey: I’ve long known there is an outdoors woman inside of me; she’s just never had the chance to emerge. Here in the North Country, I can step out my front door and get lost in a forest in fifteen minutes flat. For a mega-city urbanite like me, that’s progress.
So this is where this dispatch finds me: Canton, New York, aka The North Country. Hurricane Sandy spared our village, most gratefully, though I earnestly prepared for her by piling wood by my fireplace (though I didn’t really know how to use it) and filling my bathtub with water (though I didn’t know quite what to do with it).
I have conquered a twenty-year phobia and acquired a motor vehicle (though I am still nervous to use it). I cook all of my own meals with produce grown less than an hour away. I read, I write, I teach. I pick apples from trees. I crunch red and gold leaves.
Happy autumn, everyone.