Like Mozart in music and Keats in poetry, Bob Marshall packed an astonishing quantity of experience and accomplishment into a short life and has been elevated to near mythic status by generations of followers.
We have the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana and a proposal for a 409,000- acre Bob Marshall Great Wilderness (“the Bob” to true believers) in the western Adirondacks. In the MacIntyre Range, we have Mount Marshall, whose name honors both Bob and his younger brother, George, the original Adirondack 46ers. And we have numerous articles about him as well as a full-length biography. But what did this rather goofy-looking, fun-loving, passionate and incredibly energetic man actually say?
Heretofore, not many of Marshall’s own words have been assembled in one place. Phil Brown, editor of the Adirondack Explorer, has overcome that deficiency. Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks: Writings of a Pioneering Peak-Bagger, Pond-Hopper and Wilderness Preservationist, just published by Brown’s own imprint, Lost Pond Press, is a fascinating anthology of the Adirondack-related writings of this exemplar of the outdoor life.
Many of the pieces in this anthology have never been published before; others appeared in various places long ago, often in publications of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). The book also presents for the first time numerous photographs taken by Bob and George during their hikes in the High Peaks, scanned from glass slides at the Saranac Lake Free Library. Supplementary material includes articles by George Marshall, Paul Schaefer, Philip Terrie and Brown, a poem by Bill McKibben and a brief discussion of the Adirondack Council’s proposal for “the Bob.”
The basics of Bob Marshall’s life are summarized in a biographical sketch by George Marshall that first appeared in the ADK magazine in 1951. Born into a prominent New York City Jewish family (his father, Louis Marshall, was a distinguished lawyer who played a key role in the passage of the milestone “forever wild” amendment to the state constitution in 1895), Bob would endure anti-Semitism off and on throughout his life. He first encountered the Adirondacks in 1901 at the age of 6 months, when he was brought to Knollwood, the family summer camp on Lower Saranac Lake. The Adirondacks would become a magnet for the rest of his life. When he was 17, Bob, George and their ever-congenial guide, Herb Clark, began climbing all the Adirondack peaks over 4,000 feet high (some turned out, by later measurements, to be less than that elevation), often on marathon hikes. Unwittingly or not, they inspired the creation of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers and the legions of hikers who have followed in their footsteps.
Bob enrolled in the New York College of Forestry in Syracuse (today’s SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry) and later earned a master’s degree in forestry from Harvard and a Ph.D. in plant physiology from Johns Hopkins. He took a job with the U.S. Forest Service, eventually rising to head forester for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and chief of recreation for the Forest Service. Meanwhile, beginning in 1929, he spent considerable time north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. His 1933 book Arctic Village is considered one of the best of its type despite its descents into romanticism.
In 1935, he organized the Wilderness Society, still a leading advocate for preservation. Part of the impetus may have come from a chance meeting on top of Mount Marcy with Paul Schaefer while Marshall was in the midst of a one-day stroll over 14 summits. Despite his remarkable stamina, Marshall died in 1939 while riding an overnight train from Washington, D.C., to New York City; he was only 38. The cause of death, while never determined for a certainty, was presumed to be heart failure.
Brown has organized Marshall’s writings into five categories. “Peak Bagger” chronicles his Adirondack climbing exploits, many of which have become legendary, as much for their foolhardiness as anything else. “Pond Hopper” contains accounts of his hikes to 94 ponds and 10 summits during the summer of 1922, when he was a forestry student at Cranberry Lake, as well as ancillary articles. “Preservationist” traces his refinement into a leading advocate for wilderness preservation. “Portrait Artist” is a collection of Marshall’s essays on people he knew, from surveyor Verplanck Colvin’s loyal sidekick, Mills Blake, to Albert Einstein, a summer resident of Saranac Lake. Finally, “Novelist” reveals Marshall’s creative side, in excerpts from an unpublished piece of long fiction set partly in the Adirondacks. Numerous succinct footnotes throughout put Marshall’s words in context and explain discrepancies such as confusion over the names of certain Adirondack summits.
Writing in Smithsonian magazine some years go, Donald Dale Jackson proposed that “only Thoreau, who was one of [Marshall’s] heroes, and Aldo Leopold, a friend and fellow founder of the Wilderness Society, belong on the same eminence with him (as a writer)—and neither had his talent for politics.” As the selections in Brown’s anthology demonstrate clearly, Marshall was both a lyrical portrayer of nature’s wonders and a champion for laws safeguarding them.
The first entry in the book is one of Marshall’s earliest to see the light of print: The High Peaks of the Adirondacks, the first work published by the Adirondack Mountain Club in its natal year of 1922. It was in effect the club’s first guidebook, and its author was just 21. In it, M
arshall displays his characteristic penchant for organizing and categorizing and for rating his experiences. He arranges the peaks
by elevation, briefly describes the principal routes to them and rates the view from each summit. While disagreements about the best views could enliven campfires into eternity, few would argue with his cellar-dweller, Nye, where “one can see nothing except the forest he is in.” Haystack takes first place, “primarily because in the whole vast panorama visible from the mountain there is virtually not a sign of civilization.” This was another defining aspect of Bob Marshall— the less civilization,
the better. Here was a man who, after being cornered by a grizzly in Montana, expressed dismay that the bear didn’t find him fit to eat.
More selections in the Peak-Bagger section recount other adventures with George and Herb: a winter ascent of Algonquin (which they called MacIntyre, in their day the more common moniker), a night on Ampersand, a 60-mile hike around Whiteface, and a climb of Gothics that, since it began and ended at their campsite in Panther Gorge, dictated ascents of Haystack, Basin and Saddleback, twice each. Clearly, normal (dare we say rational) outings were not for these three.
As a preservationist, Marshall spoke out for roadless areas long before that phrase entered the political lexicon. No one was spared the force of his convictions, especially as he grew older and more sophisticated in his thinking, and his writings on wilderness preservation are among the most influential ever crafted. In this anthology he takes on foresters who wanted to open the Adirondack Forest Preserve to timber cutting (elsewhere it has been said of him that he respected everybody except loggers); advocates of building cabins in the Preserve; and the state conservation commissioner over the construction of truck trails that allow what Marshall called “mechanical” access to the backcountry. If the truck trails were permitted, he wrote in 1932, “the Adirondack wilderness is in the utmost danger of extermination.” One wonders what he would have to say about ATVs and snowmobiles were he alive today.
As with Mozart and Keats, and all who blaze brightly and then flicker out too soon for us, we can only guess what Marshall would have accomplished—what shorelines might still be wilderness, for example —had he lived out a more typical lifespan. But perhaps, like the others, he did twice as much in half the time as average people, and was done. Thanks to Brown’s book, though, his words live on.