Over the Mountain and Home Again

Nicholas K. Burns Publishing, 2006 Softcover, 219 pages, $14.95
Nicholas K. Burns Publishing, 2006
Softcover, 219 pages, $14.95

The literature of nature—of being in nature, of contemplating its marvels with an educated and sensitive eye and writing about it with insight and skill— is one of the world’s great genres. Our country’s first great nature writer was William Bartram, who in 1791 described with exquisite detail his peregrinations through the Southeast. Many students of American literature would argue that Henry David Thoreau took the form to its finest expression with Walden (1854) and his lesserknown but always rewarding AWeek on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and The Maine Woods (1864).

Nearer to home, John Burroughs in a series of essays and books made himself an American institution during the decades after the Civil War, writing mostly about the Catskills. In the 20th century, some of America’s most talented writers—like Mary Austin, Aldo Leopold, Ann Zwinger, Barry Lopez and many others—have blessed us with dazzling narratives about excursions into and meditations about the natural world.

In the Adirondacks, we’ve had few writers of this stature, though William Chapman White’s Adirondack Country (1954) and Paul Jamieson’s Adirondack Pilgrimage (1986) deserve rereading. Bill McKibben is a magnificent stylist and a dedicated environmentalist, but for the most part his agenda does not quite fit in the contemplative tradition. With Over the Mountain and Home Again, Edward Kanze (who published a biography of Burroughs in 1993) gets as close as any local writer has in many a year to describing our corner of the continent in the spirit of Thoreau and Leopold.

Ed and Debbie Kanze were married in 1992 and over the next few years lived in Mississippi, Australia, New Zealand, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Finger Lakes and Maine. In 1999, “in search of a spot on the map to settle and build long-term relationships with a place, a community, its wildlife, and each other,” they arrived in Saranac Lake. Ed had visited his grandfather in the Northville area every year during his childhood and had family lines in the Adirondacks that stretched back for nearly two centuries. They found acreage and an old house, in need of repair and care, on the Saranac River near Bloomingdale and resolved “to live in some sort of harmony with the life already thriving on the property.”

The Kanze family—Debbie with daughter Tasman, Ed with son Ned—near their home on the Saranac.
The Kanze family—Debbie with daughter Tasman, Ed with son Ned—near their home on the Saranac.

Ed’s new book has three sections: “Deep in the Forest,” about extended excursions into the wilderness; “Wildlife Close to Home,” about many of the ordinarily unnoticed critters with whom they share space at their home, and “The Adirondack Seasons,” a chronology of the North Country year.

“In Search of Something Lost,” originally published in Adirondack Life, won an award from the John Burroughs Association and typifies Ed’s knack for packing history, observation of natural phenomena, and environmental awareness into a tightly constructed piece of evocative prose. Inspired by the name of a nearby mountain, Pigeon Roost, Kanze learned as much as he could about its history and then set off for the summit. He learned that throughout the 19th century it had been the home of a “breeding colony of passenger pigeons,” a species that once spread across the North American landscape in flocks that could contain over a billion birds. Kanze’s essay deftly combines natural history, a personal encounter with wild nature and regret over the senseless destruction of this now extinct species.

The title essay, “Over the Hill and Home Again,” recounts a two-day expedition undertaken by Ed and Debbie. They walked out their kitchen door and trekked up Moose Mountain in the McKenzie Range. Ascending from the west, they reached the summit via a time-tested Adirondack combination of hiking skills: bushwhacking, orienteering and guessing. They descended eastwards by trail, spent the night at a bed-and-breakfast on Lake Placid, then hitched a ride by boat to the village of Lake Placid and took the train to Saranac Lake. From there it was a leisurely canoe ride back home. What an ingenious circuit, all done without any help from an automobile. The writing is crisp, the adventure appealing.

Like the best of nature writers, Kanze tells us a bit about himself, but never too much. He wears his environmentalism lightly, pushing gently for a more benign human impact on the nature that refreshes him spiritually and engages him intellectually. But there’s no doubt that Kanze is a committed advocate, for nature in general and the Adirondacks in particular. Some environmental writers— and we need them all—tell us of the degradation of nature and exhort us to action. Others, in the tradition of John Burroughs, describe the joy of closeness to nature and invite us, by implication more than exhortation, to stand with them in its defense.

Kanze is scientifically literate, and he can write like a poet—an ideal combination. I hate to deal in sweeping generalizations, but most (though hardly all) scientists are incapable of communicating effectively what they know about nature. Pick up any peer-reviewed journal in biology, chemistry or geology, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s rare when a writer comes along who’s both scientifically grounded and rhetorically skilled. Rachel Carson is probably the best American example; she possessed the technical expertise of a biologist, and she passed along her grasp of nature’s wonders in elegant prose. Best known for Silent Spring (1962), Carson achieved a combination of aesthetic appeal and descriptive precision in The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955) that we’ll probably not encounter again.

Ed Kanze sometimes works the same vein. Consider “Night Voyage,” an essay about a nocturnal paddle on the Saranac River. In addition to an evocative account of sounds and sights, beavers, bats and birds, we get a cogent explanation of how the human eye adapts to various degrees of light and how ocular chemistry allows us to see more after dark than most of us realize.

Ed Kanze’s essay on the extinction of the passenger pigeon won an award from the John Burroughs Association.
Ed Kanze’s essay on the extinction of the passenger pigeon won an award
from the John Burroughs Association.

It’s partly through understanding how nature works that the sensitive hiker learns the redemptive lessons of nature. It’s also through the nearly ineffable miracle of spiritual communion. Kanze understands this well. After a few days of autumnal, loon-sanctified solitude in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness, he ponders “the tonic, restorative effect” of intimacy with this wild corner of the Adirondacks. He makes a familiar but nonetheless profound point: the modern American, hassled by clock and obligations, leaves the wilderness “serene and whole, a wanderer in a universe beyond time.”

You don’t have to go deep into the wilderness to achieve this sense of transcendence. Kanze’s account of the cycle of the seasons near his Bloomingdale house, echoing (but with interestingly different emphases) a similar description in White’s Adirondack Country, reminds us that nature’s glories dwell nearly anywhere the inquisitive mind looks for them. From the return of warblers in the spring to the unexpected but joyous irruption of pine grosbeaks in the chilly depth of February, the Adirondack woods, even when experienced close to home, are endlessly rich.

The critters that especially come to life in this book, the ones that draw Kanze’s attention more than any others, are birds. The everyday, like black-capped chickadees, and the uncommon, like Bohemian waxwings, fill him with wonder and add poignancy to his regret over the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Birds are the synecdoche for all that’s wonderful and fulfilling in a life close to nature, just as they were for John Burroughs, whose essays and books constantly remind us that what appear to the uninterested to be just flying, chattering shapes offer an infinitely complex key to nature’s miracle.

Kanze writes that Burroughs had “ambition, a keen intellect, a passion for nature, and a gift for writing eloquent, evocative prose.” This list seems to fit Ed Kanze neatly. Like Burroughs, he gives us detailed, loving accounts of what it’s like to take an informed walk in the woods and to live a life that aims to tread lightly. For both writers, the explicit message is in the details of nature—the bird song, the insect-devouring frogs, the diversity of the northern forest; and for both, the implicit lesson is that nature in its wild form, and even when its purity has been compromised by human impact, is worth protecting.