Nature in New York State


(This 1022nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 24, 2010.)


When I studied New York State geography in fourth or fifth grade, we spent most of the time memorizing products and cities with which those products were associated. All I can recall from that course today is Canajoharie was gum, Rochester cameras, Amsterdam carpets, Endicott and Johnson City shoes.


And all I can remember from New York State history in school is the planned three-pronged attack by the British on American forces near Albany. The one from the west petered out, the one from New York up the Hudson was delayed, so our forces defeated the forces coming from the north under Burgoyne at Saratoga.


That terribly thin background of prior knowledge about the state where I have spent almost all of my life may be a major reason for my appreciation for two fine new books about New York from Cornell University Press.


The first is The Nature of New York: An Environmental History of the Empire State by David Stradling, a history professor at the University of Cincinnati. Sponsored by Talking Leaves Bookstore, Professor Stradling will be speaking about his book at the Hallwalls Cinema, 341 Delaware Avenue at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, October 26.


For me this book represents the education about New York that I failed to acquire in school. Yes, it is about the state environment, but it is exactly that environment that pervades the state's geography and history. All that is missing is the wars and I can do without them.


"The Nature of New York" traces our history from pre-Columbian times when Native Americans tread lightly on the land through the period of agricultural dominance and then of industrialization and post-industry decline, inevitably focusing on the attendant problems: disease and sanitation, changing markets often leading to abandoned communities, the desire for parklands, the loss and then increase of forests.


What comes across best is what a spectacular state we live in: the beautiful Hudson estuary and the Catskills of the Hudson River School of Painting; the Erie Canal that played so important a role in opening the west (and developing the cities along it, including Buffalo); the Adirondacks, a park founded six years before national parks were established.


We have also had larger-than-life environmental figures: the Roosevelts, John Burroughs, James Fenimore Cooper, Thomas Cole, Lois Gibbs and, yes, Robert Moses.


Western New York is well represented. Three examples: when the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, only a quarter of Erie and Niagara Counties had been cleared for farming, but by 1860 Buffalo was the tenth largest city in the nation. Because the poor had little access to cleanliness, by 1901 Buffalo had opened two public baths and over 230,000 baths were recorded in that one year. And, of course, we also have Love Canal.


Why is someone at the University of Cincinnati writing this book? The author responds, "I love the state, in part because it is beautiful and in part because it is filled with my relatives." He's also a Colgate graduate who has written other books about New York.


The other book is Climate Change in the Adirondacks: The Path to Sustainability by Jerry Jenkins. In the Forward, Bill McKibben says, "Thanks to Jenkins, I think the future has been plotted more firmly for the Adirondacks than perhaps any other region on the planet. With his trademark ability to work across disciplines, he has taken from every branch of the sciences, including the social sciences, to paint a devastating picture of where we are headed. These are the biggest changes the park has faced since the last Ice Age, and if we allow them to play out in full, many of the glories of the Adirondacks will simply be gone."


I found this book not nearly as apocalyptic as that sounds, but it represents a serious warning and much of the evidence Jenkins provides extends far beyond the park boundaries.


Many climate-caused effects are already apparent: less snow (closing down ski runs), a decline in boreal birds like spruce grouse, earlier amphibian calls and flower blooming.


Jenkins' projections are alarming: with increased heat the Adirondack climate may reach that of Georgia and Florida. And you can imagine what that will mean to the rest of us living at lower altitude.-- Gerry Rising