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Adirondack Explorer

September, 2009

Short Carries, Essays from Adirondack Life
Author: Elizabeth Folwell

Review by: Neal Burdick

Adirondack Life, 2009 Softcover, 204 pages, $16.95

Short Carries
Essays from Adirondack Life
By Elizabeth Folwell
Adirondack Life, 2009
Softcover, 204 pages, $16.95

Adirondack Life loyalists are acquainted with Betsy Folwell’s writing. Often neatly packaged in the magazine’s regular column “Short Carries,” for twenty years it has limned the Adirondack scene as no other writing has, presenting the region’s people, places, issues, spirit, spunk, and landscape with uncommon insight, humor, grace, and wisdom.

Folwell’s essays now come in another neat package. Under one cover, also called Short Carries, are fifty-five selections spanning her career with the magazine and sampling the array of topics that have come under her penetrating yet sensitive scrutiny.

“The anthology is a project in honor of Adirondack Life’s fortieth anniversary, and I’ve been at the magazine for twenty years,” Folwell, who is the bimonthly’s creative director, said in a recent interview.

“I chose pieces based partly on reader feedback—what people told me they liked in particular—as well as ones that did not seem dated twelve or fifteen years after they had first been put to paper,” Folwell said. “That meant some columns responding to political issues were left out, as well as, for the most part, the reader-service articles about specific places to explore.”

After a typically trenchant foreword by Bill McKibben, the book is divided into two sections: “Shades of Blue” and “Shades of Green.” The derivation of these divisions is not readily apparent unless one steps back from the prose (not an easy thing to do since it’s so compelling) and takes a larger view— think of looking at the forest instead of the trees. “‘Blue’ is mostly community-based pieces, since I live in Blue Mountain Lake,” Folwell explained. “‘Green’ is primarily nature, outdoor recreation and so forth, not tied to a specific place, not telling stories about people.”

But there’s no need to read this book section to section. Like any good anthology, it can be randomly grazed. “I hear about people reading it on the subway, over coffee in the morning, from an Adirondack chair on a rainy afternoon, even in a tent by candle lantern,” Folwell said.

Betsy Folwell and friends. Photo by Mathew Paul

Betsy Folwell and friends.
Photo by Mathew Paul

Pick a page as you would a card out of a deck, and you’ll have a couple of minutes of delightful reading during which you will, I guarantee, chuckle if not burst into outright laughter at least once, and learn a thing or two.

Having said that, I confess to having read it cover to cover. I set out to pencil checkmarks next to passages worthy of mention in this review, but quickly realized I was tempted to mark every sentence. There isn’t a single wasted, useless, or poorly crafted one in the whole 203 pages. Get the book and see for yourself.

Here’s just a tease for what you have in store. Folwell begins one piece with “November is hard to love,” then proceeds to tell us why it’s lovable (“shorter lines at the supermarket checkout,” “pancake suppers at the firehalls,” “sounds are distilled”). And there’s this description of a rare indigo bunting that appeared among her hydrangeas one spring: “With the precise definition of a surveyor shooting a line he sang our yard to be his home.” You won’t fall asleep reading prose like that. Folwell writes of Christmas caroling from the back of a truck, trying to run a store, the slow demise of the Raquette Lake school, turtle migrations (“still they keep moving when the sun unlocks their souls, their timeless boundaries shaped only by need”), climate change, tamaracks, characters like the “blighter” Ned Buntline, and just about anything Adirondack. The human and natural conditions merge easily in her writing, just as they do in the mountains.

There’s reward in reading Folwell’s essays periodically over two decades, but there’s equal satisfaction in having her work gathered in one place. Acareful reader can follow her development as a writer, for the selections are presented chronologically within each section. Certain themes and topics emerge. Loons appear from time to time, as does “messing about in boats,” but we can also gather up a sense of the subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) changes that have occurred on the land above Blue Mountain Lake that she and her husband have for years called home, and in the community too.

In the Adirondacks, a carry is one of those trails that connect ponds on paddle routes, or the act of yanking one’s vessel onto one’s shoulders and traversing such a trail. Paddlers always welcome short carries, because they put them back on the water quickly. Paddlers of the region’s literary waters will similarly welcome this anthology, but ironically they will not want it to be over with and instead will find themselves wanting to hike it again and again, for the pure pleasure of it.