Back to the Source
The case for saving Follensby Pond and the Philosophers' Camp
by Christopher Shaw
I got out of the canoe below the barrier dam and stood up to my shins in the outlet. And there it was, the largest privately owned lake in the East, a grail for anyone who had followed the Adirondack experiment for very long, a pale gray sheet rufﬂed by the breeze and framed by low mountains: Follensby.
We lifted our boats over the dam and grounded them on the long sandy beach at the foot of the pond, my wife, Sue, Mike Carr, director of the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy (TNC) and I. It was Memorial Day 2010. An eagle feather lay on the sand next to the outlet, near the site of the last native eagle’s nest in the Adirondacks, which was gone by 1951.
Weathered drift logs littered the landing. Cedars and wind-twisted white pines towered over the sand, like the beaches at Middle Saranac Lake and Lake Lila. We considered making camp right there, and instead continued up the lake in the acrid haze of ﬁres drifting south out of Quebec, headed for the site of the Philosophers’ Camp.
Few historical events have lodged as persistently in the Adirondack psyche as that 1858 outing of nine Cambridge and Concord intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louis Agassiz, James Russell Lowell, their nine iconic guides, and James Stillman, the painter and aspiring intellectual from Schenectady who made it happen. I had been trying to get to Follensby for 40 years, since I had ﬁrst read about it in Alfred Donaldson’s History of the Adirondacks as a teenager and seen it slated for acquisition in the late 1960s by the Temporary Study Commission that launched the Adirondack Park Agency. I never understood how anything so central to the Adirondack experience could be off-limits, not open to the public or even to privately arranged visits. Could you even have a complete Adirondack experience without going there, any more than you could without climbing Mount Marcy or sleeping in a lean-to?
After a feckless and failed 20-year courtship between the state and the landowner, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy—citing biological importance along with cultural and historical values not usually considered part of its mission—bought Follensby in 2008. We were following the philosophers’ tracks at TNC’s invitation, hoping to begin restoring Follensby to general experience. Its physical reality had faded from public memory rather fast. Twenty-ﬁve years after the fact, Stillman, who painted the group portrait of the gathering that hangs in the Concord, Massachusetts, public library, referred to “the tradition of the later camp-ﬁres, where the guides tell of the ‘Philosophers’ Camp,’ of the very location of which they have lost the knowing.” In a very real sense, then, Follensby Pond has been “lost” and remained an abstraction ever since.
The known aspects of the event have been written about many times—how they rowed from Saranac Lake, portaged across Indian Carry and then drifted down the Raquette to the pond’s outlet; their lake trout and venison diet; the daily routine of exploring, hunting and ﬁshing; and their outing to Tupper Lake, where they got news the Transatlantic telegraph cable had been completed. We know Louis Agassiz, the ﬁrst glaciologist and a lifelong creationist, made one of the ﬁrst systematic collections of Adirondack plants and animals there. We have Emerson’s poem “The Adirondacs,” with its valorization of the guides as “the doctors of the wilderness.” But it was all anecdotal, lacking the details we crave and the hint that some insight pertaining to the pond had emerged from their experience of it and been handed down to us.
A connection like that might remind Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York State why it should make good on its 40-year intention to use existing environmental protection funds to purchase Follensby and add it to the Forest Preserve. Because TNC can’t afford to hold the land forever, and the current mood in Albany—where they keep telling us how broke we are—could hardly be less open to buying wild land. If the state fails to buy it in a reasonable amount of time Follensby could slip out of our hands again and remain obscure and unknown forever.
We followed the steep eastern shore with its dark mixed hardwoods and pine. In 1858 the philosophers and Stillman had been awed by huge pines and maples that sheltered animal archetypes like wolves and cougars, all of which infused the setting with their associations and partly explained the guides’ choice of Follensby as the place to go.
The water was limpid, mottled and rich smelling, the breeze cool. From the canoe we saw no signs of the logging of recent years. A boathouse stood half a mile to the west, at the mouth of Osprey Bay; otherwise nothing broke the shoreline trees. “The houses were invariably built on the waterways,” Stillman wrote in an early chapter of his Autobiography of a Journalist, “and lines of communication were by water, so that there was no necessity for roads.” Stillman had spent months rowing up and down the lakes, painting, fasting and meditating. Follensby, he said, was a “cul-de-sac,” just off the beaten path of the “highway,” the Raquette. So there must have been a dreamlike quality to turning off the riparian turnpike, ascending the narrow channel and coming upon the solitary tarn in its shallow bowl of mountains, its forest and wildlife just far enough out of the way to feel separate, primal.
You could sense that quality now, though the forest hardly loomed like the old growth had then.
The “pond”—more like a small lake—was named after one of the region’s celebrated hermits, Moses Follensby (or Follensbee, as spellings have varied over time), the reputed owner of a lost treasure, who disappeared one night. The water lies in a north-south depression three miles long, covers 1,000 irregular acres and is shaped like the print you used to make of the side of your ﬁst, like an infant’s footprint. Spring fed, it supports a lake trout ﬁshery that Carr terms “biblical,” though smallmouth bass had invaded over the barrier dam at high water and destroyed whatever brook trout population may have lived there. The lake also has panﬁsh, turtles and amphibians that TNC inventoried later that summer, when scientists conducted a “bioblitz,” or one-day survey of plants and animals.
We came to the birch-clad point where the house of the previous landowners, Bertha “Bird” and John McCormick, of Manchester, Vermont, had stood, and made camp on the lawn. The long views looked north and south and the closer view directly west to the steep rocks that came down to the water, close to Agassiz Bay—called “the dining room” by Mrs. McCormick and her family for its dependable lake trout ﬁshing.
Bird McCormick was a lifelong Democrat and a founder of the Vermont Nature Conservancy who always intended for the land to go back to the public. She died before the deal closed. In 2008, when her husband, John, then in his mid-90s, ﬁnally got around to selling, developers waited in the wings while the economy and state government underwent historic collapses. TNC—less than a year after its purchase of the 161,000 acres of Finch-Pruyn land—stepped in with $16 million of borrowed money to hold Follensby until the state regained consciousness and to avoid the possible loss of one of the Adirondacks’ most historically and culturally signiﬁcant locations.
I had ﬂown over and seen the aftermath of heavy cutting, the land laced by roads invisible from the pond. Logging opened up the canopy, potentially increasing species diversity, which represented an opportunity for TNC to preserve large-scale natural systems. When Carr and I had ﬁrst discussed a possible visit he had implied that Follensby reached a lower standard of biodiversity than TNC usually requires, but that its 10 miles of undeveloped shoreline on the Raquette, much of it across the river from the western High Peaks Wilderness, was as much a consideration as the pond itself. “From a global perspective Follensby is off the charts in terms of forest and freshwater conservation importance,” he said. “But the eagle restoration work, the Philosophers’ Camp and the New York State open space conservation plan all made this project that much more compelling. The board considered all of those elements in addition to our traditional biodiversity conservation criteria.” It was a tough call a year after the Finch purchase. In the end the conservancy decided it had to act.
The north wind turned colder, carrying pellets of rain that came and went as we ate dinner sitting on our air mattresses. Carr told us how he had brought Governor George Pataki to the camp on the point, fresh from the success of buying Little Tupper Lake from the Whitney estate. Mrs. McCormick served tea on the porch at sunset, looking out over the lake, and listened politely to the governor’s pitch, then told him she would never sell to a Republican.
Stillman and the guides located their site, as he wrote, “at the head of the lake, with a beach, spring and maple grove. Two of the hugest maples I ever saw formed the upper roof of our shelter and the supports to the camp walls. Here we placed our ridge-pole, laid our roof of bark and ﬁrs (stripped from trees far away in the forest, not to disﬁgure the dwelling-place with stripped and dying trees), [and] cut a path to the lakeshore.” When they were done Stillman and one of the guides rowed back to Saranac to meet the philosophers.
In the morning we packed and drifted downwind, paddling lazily, to the head of the lake. It was hardly a point at all, more like a low irregularity in the shore. No “beach” or landing existed, and we scrambled out across a tangle of weather-polished driftwood where we tied our boats. Sue and I followed Carr through the new growth and berry cane to Stillman’s “nearby spring,” now across the remnant of an old logging road at the base of a low hardwood slope. From there we wandered back across the track into a stand of striped maple and saplings. A little below the crest of the slight rise stood a split erratic much like the one in Stillman’s group portrait.
We stood where the open camp had been, at the highest spot on the point. Right behind it on the side of the logging road lay an arrangement of boulders that may have been the philosophers’ hearth, Carr believes. The guides had called it “Camp Maple.” There were maples there now, along with silver and yellow birch, but nothing large. Nothing remained of the original vegetation, the beach, or, probably, anything of the shoreline. The logging road showed how minor a disturbance it took to completely reconﬁgure a space, at least in the mind. The only palpable connections to the past were in the topological coordinates and the general lakeside impressions.
But it was deﬁnitely the spot.
A hundred yards south stood the original hacking platform from the eagle restoration project in the 1980s, fallen into ruin. Here as many as 60 eagles had ﬂedged and repopulated the Adirondacks and beyond.
Ideally we would have stayed a few days, reading and exploring. Instead we got back in our canoes and followed the shore, circling around the shallow southern bay. The sun had risen over the eastern mountains and blazed on the water for an hour. Arriving at Robin’s Rock, about a third of the way north along the western shore, we took a dip, as the philosophers had every day, as Emerson had, and Lowell, Agassiz, old Judge Hoar and presumably the guides themselves, shallow diving from the rock into the cold sun-mottled clarity after a winter of wool clothes and woodsmoke.
It was the closest we had come to sharing the actual sense experience of the philosophers. I wondered how the daily immersion and repetition of diving into the pond, the collective nudity, had inﬂuenced their perceptions and minds, changed their points of view. Something in the precise combinations of biology—the aggregate of lake ferment, foliage exhaust, mammalian and avian energies—the nonmotorized soundscape, the “mind” of the place, in other words, had become part of them and inﬂuenced their exchanges and insights. They certainly became part of it. Today you can’t visit Follensby or even think about it without summoning the guides, the philosophers and Stillman—the outlier, the ﬁxer, the curious middleman who brought them together. Now the water molecules were different, like the climate and the season, but the location was exact, its spatial reality more or less continuous.
“At each scale there is a unique intelligence circulating among the various constituents” of a place, says ecologist and anthropologist David Abram, author of Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. A keen observer of concrete and visceral phenomena, he comes closest in our time to the spirit of the Philosophers’ Camp. “The precise amalgam of elements that structures each region exists nowhere else.” Each place, he says, “is a unique state of mind,” and that the geology and creatures including humans “all participate in and partake of the particular mind of the place.” Likewise a place is infused with and shaped by the presences that pass through it.
So, what sense experiences unique to Follensby can we share with the philosophers? Well, none if we can’t go there. We can grasp the camp’s general activities—setting trot lines, rowing or paddling in the water, swimming, burning wood, telling stories—but we can’t hear the voices. Except for this, from Stillman’s 1901 Autobiography: “Lunch was at midday, and then long talks … ; and it was surprising to ﬁnd how many subjects ﬁt our situation.
“Stripped of social conventions and seeing men as they are, mind seem[ed] to open to mind as it is quite impossible for it to be in society.
“Disguises were soon dropped and one saw the real character of his comrades as it was impossible to see them in society. “Conventions faded out, masks became transparent … the man stood naked before the questioning eye—pure personality.”
The philosophers were the intellectual avant-garde of a rapidly changing world: scientists, liberal clergy, writers just beginning to grapple with the implications of Darwinism. Jeffries Wyman was an evolutionist. Agassiz, the sole empirical researcher in the group, had discovered the Ice Ages, but he was the leading debunker of Darwin. Emerson was the intellectual spokesman and conscience of the emerging nation.
But Stillman referred to personal, possibly uncomfortable vulnerabilities and conﬁdences. However high-minded and perhaps historically signiﬁcant these exchanges may have been, he couldn’t translate them outside of the context of Follensby and the historical present, and he leaves us with an impression of strong personalities and exposed feelings.
He also made much of Emerson’s aloofness and abstraction, ascribing it to his ethereal and benign nature and general obliviousness. One biographer has suggested, rather, that the 55-year-old Emerson was showing the ﬁrst signs of memory loss that later became acute. Yet Emerson made the guides his main object of focus, writing in “The Adirondacs” that they were Wise and polite, -and if I drew / Their several portraits, you would own / Chaucer had no such worthy crew, / Nor Boccace in Decameron.
He admired their woodcraft and general abilities, and at the end of the poem found in their human qualities “the identity of man’s mind [being] with nature’s, for he is part of nature” (as he wrote elsewhere). To him the guides represented an American ideal of straightforwardness and hardihood that he thought he and his fellows, for all their grandiosity and fame, failed to attain.
Later Adirondack thinkers plugged into this essential interpenetration of human and natural. We’ve always thought the continuity of the Philosophers’ Camp ended with the Civil War, making it a one-off with no lasting legacy, but it turns out that the purchase a generation later of Beede’s Farm in Keene Valley by three Harvard professors—James Putnam, Henry Bowditch and the philosopher and psychologist William James—continued a tradition that they had inherited by direct transmission. They called it Putnam Camp.
In his book Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam and the Purpose of American Psychology, published in 2005, George Prochnik traces a direct line of thought from the Philosophers’ Camp through Putnam Camp to the present. “James, Bowditch and Putnam were modeling their summer place on the original Adirondack retreat for Boston intellectuals: the Philosophers’ Camp,” he writes. “The Putnam Camp founders would have read [about it] while at Harvard, where two of their teachers, Louis Agassiz and Jeffries Wyman, had participated in the enterprise. They’d have heard about it as well from Dr. Edward Emerson,” Emerson’s son and one of Putnam Camp’s ﬁrst members.
“Putnam Camp had as its basis not an organic relationship to the environment—nor even to the platonic idea of nature as such—but an aspirational relationship to a previous philosophical experiment in nature by America’s foremost sage,” Prochnik adds. The Putnam Camp experiment lasted at least until James died in 1909. It inﬂuenced the writing of Varieties of Religious Experience and his principles of pragmatism and radical empiricism. Through Putnam it fostered the spread of modern psychoanalysis in the U.S. The place shaped the later work of neighbor Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture Society, and Bob Marshall, another Upper West Side Ethical Culturist, in the rise of Progressive social activism and wilderness protection. If Prochnik is correct they all traced their source to the Philosophers’ Camp at Follensby Pond.
We dried on Robin’s Rock in the warm sun, talking about what would become of Follensby if the state couldn’t get its act together. “It would be a tragedy if the public could not someday visit this special place,” said Carr. But right then he had to meet another group back at Osprey Camp, so we paddled north along the western shore of the “dining room,” where the high sun warmed the rocks. The Quebec ﬁres had blown smoke back in, and another ﬁre was burning near Tupper Lake. A haze settled over the still water.
Last August TNC identified 552 species of plants and animals, including the rare rusty blackbird, in its one-day rapid biological survey of the Follensby property. You would think a thousand-acre body of pure water and native ﬁshery, with 14,000 forest acres bordering wilderness, plus 10 miles of wild shoreline on the Raquette River would justify state acquisition by the standards of the last 45 years. But it’s complicated. Other projects stand in line for limited environmental protection funds. Local Government Review Board ofﬁcials claim coercion on the Finch deal and cast doubt on the necessity for Follensby. True, in February the new governor, Andrew Cuomo, in introducing his draconian budget, promised to make good on all pending land deals including Follensby. But it just isn’t that easy anymore.
You have to believe that something that once happened in a place matters and that the place itself retains its imprint. Then you have to believe the invisible imprint deserves special treatment. You probably have to see the long-term legislative wisdom of preserving a forested highland at the source of a dozen radiating rivers. And you have to believe at some level that what happens now is conditioned by what happened before, and that the landforms, bio-regime and weather that still exist have participated in its unfolding.
We can’t hear the Philosophers’ Camp conversations, the ones where so many masks dropped and that no doubt ﬂowed both ways between guides and the middle-aged men of Concord and Cambridge. We can, however, see their consequences played out in time and pinpoint exactly where they happened. The depth and intensity of their struggles with faith, conscience, morality and science at the intellectual blooming of the national character still resonate.
Back in February, with four feet of powder in the woods, I made breakfast in our cabin for a friend on our lake near Follensby. He lives a mile away on a prominent point with direct access to state wilderness. Our roadless camps lay on land once owned by Philosophers’ Camp guide and early Saranac Lake settler Jacob Moody, who corrected Louis Agassiz on the mating habits of the brook trout. We both love our places and our deep immersion in them from only slightly different perspectives.
I told him I had written this piece mostly to answer his valid question from the year before, “Who cares about those guys?” but he still wasn’t buying it. “They’re all dead,” he said. “I don’t think the state can even take care of the land it has and it shouldn’t go around spending millions when they can’t even balance their budget. If people want to see where those guys went maybe they’ll be able to go on a tour.
“And who’s a philosopher, anyway?” he added. “You’re a philosopher! I’m a philosopher!”
If so we had more than wisdom in common. Recently he had talked of buying a lightweight canoe like ours and taking a trip together, with his partner and Sue and me, canoeing instead of motoring “up the lakes.” Maybe soon, I thought, we could start from old Jacob Moody’s land and paddle right through to Follensby. Then I could show him what I was talking about —physically, in what William James had called the “world of concrete experience, which is the only reality we know,” fusing the continuity of the waterways with the continuity of time and thought. It might work. We were starting from the same place in more ways than one.
Christopher Shaw is a former editor of this magazine. He teaches writing at Middlebury College, in Vermont.