READERS OF the Adirondack Explorer know of Ed Kanze’s column “On the Wild Side.” In each essay, Kanze uses his conversational yet exuberant prose to teach readers about Adirondack plants and animals. It’s much the same in Kanze’s new book, a combination of memoir and natural history served up with enthusiasm, wry humor, and a touch of awe.
“For my psychic survival I need to be immersed in things that creep, crawl, run, slither, fly, beat their wings, sprout blossoms, unfurl leaves, and dust the world with their spores,” he writes in Adirondack: Life and Wildlife in the Wild, Wild East.
Kanze grew up in a suburb north of New York City but discovered he belonged in the wild. For many years after graduating from Middlebury College he traveled the world, working as a naturalist in the American West, the Gulf Coast, and Australia. Eventually though, he and his wife Debbie longed to settle down.
The couple found their Shangri-la—eighteen acres and an old cure cottage—on a dirt road along the Saranac River. In a funny chapter called “The House,” Kanze details the trauma of trying to resuscitate a decaying building, a place crawling with mice and rot, a wreck that one contractor advised burning down. Visitors to the house had to obey the “no cluster” rule with no more than two adults standing in the same place at the same time. A heavier weight might collapse the fragile floors.
Outside the house, the world teemed with life in the river and the woods. Ed and Debbie began a complete biological survey of their domain, hoping to document every bird, animal, fish, insect, plant, and even the smaller lives on their property. Friends helped them identify species of caddisfly and tiny rodents as well as plants and mosses. This quest becomes one of the themes of the book, with lists of newly spotted species at the end of each chapter.
Kanze isn’t a newcomer in the Adirondacks as his family came to the Northville area four generations ago. He writes fondly of fishing trips in the 1960s with his Adirondack grandfather, Burdett Brownell. Catching bullhead involved going out at night in a boat with a bright gasoline lantern and “getting horned” by the fish as he pulled them off the hook. Photos in the middle of the book show ancestors posed next to pack baskets and lean-tos, as well as a proud young Ed showing off his fishing success.
After a couple of years along the Saranac River, Ed and Debbie add their own offspring to the wildlife count on their acreage. Ned and Tasman bring a freshness to Kanze’s observations, as well as all the challenges of raising a family.
Almost a quarter of Adirondack is a recitation of the seasons of the year. Kanze begins with a chapter called “Summer Journal,” where he pastes together thoughts from more than a decade of diary entries. He echoes William Chapman White, an Adirondack writer from over fifty years ago, whose Adirondack Country ends with an ode to the Adirondack year, a monthly report on what is happening in the human and natural world. Kanze doesn’t weave together his thoughts as expertly as White, and the short journal entries are a bit of a mishmash. Adirondack is an enjoyable read but sometimes lacks structure.
Though Kanze marvels at all the life surrounding him in his home in the woods, it’s not all happiness and light for him. He worries, especially in the dark of winter, if he’s made the right choices. “I wonder if I’ve tossed my chances of a sensible life away in a mad, impractical pursuit of what’s wild, beautiful, and true.” If he’d stayed with his work as a National Park ranger he’d have a pension and a “prestigious” job instead of cobbling together work as a guide and writer. But when Kanze browses in Henry David Thoreau’s journals he remembers the importance of being one who would, as Thoreau writes, “take a position outside the street and daily life of men. … Let not your life be wholly without an object, though it be only to ascertain the flavor of a cranberry, for it will not be only the quality of an insignificant berry that you will have tasted, but the flavor of your life.”
Many of us who choose to live in the Adirondacks have felt that same doubt, but we have also tasted wild blueberries warmed by an August sun. We live with less so we can climb a mountain on a weekday or step outside and ski from our doorstep on a moonlit night. In his thoughtful writing, Kanze reminds us to always cherish the complicated natural world that was here long before the first settlers cut trails and roads into the Adirondack mountains.