Recently, during a summer trip, I toured Great Camp Sagamore in the Adirondacks in upstate N.Y., once a wilderness retreat for a branch of the Vanderbilt family and their many guests. Something the guide said prompted this piece, although not in the way I first imagined. Let me begin with a quote from Mark Twain, which is on prominent display in one of the Camp’s twenty-six buildings: “What is the chief end of man?–to get rich. In what way?–dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.” It’s funny because it’s largely true (particularly when seeking to amass great fortunes) but it’s not what I want to talk about. Much to my surprise, I want to talk about the ecological complexities of making Art out of the Wilderness.
Ever hear of Shed Hunting? Not me, not until I read Items in Need of Protective Enclosure by Tea Obreht, one of the short stories chosen for the Best American Short Stories of 2018 anthology. To say the story did not disappoint is an understatement. The fact that I happened to read it while visiting the Adirondacks may be one reason why it stood tall among all the stand-outs in that collection.
The story opens with a phone call–out of the blue and out of Sylvia’s past. Suddenly she’s lost in memories of Wade, her unrequited first love of thirty years ago, and their long-ago adventures in a forest Preserve. Items is set in an unnamed western state where elk roam, and where it is illegal to hunt the antlers that are naturally shed by male elk after the mating season comes to an end. Wade has two jobs: one legit–selling Serenity Pods (a grow-your-own tree alternative to scattering or shelving one’s ashes) and one not. The legit one doesn’t pay much, but he’s really good at the other–finding shed antlers in the wild and selling them to a fence. By this point, my suspicion that the story is set in the future is confirmed because I know that elk aren’t extinct like they are in Wade’s and Sylvia’s time. At least it appears they’re extinct–it’s been a decade since one was spotted. What makes no sense to me, story-wise, is why it would be illegal to pick up antlers found in the wild, particularly when the elk are long dead. Why leave them in the woods to rot?
Meanwhile, in the real-life Adirondacks, the tour guide explains that Great Camp Sagamore was almost demolished forty years ago by the state of N.Y. Luckily a Preservation group intervened and found a way to save it. Very few of the Adirondack Great Camps, built circa 1880-1920, still exist, and the ones that do are privately owned. In part, that’s because of the “Forever Wild” provision in N.Y.’s constitution that’s been law since 1895: any land that N.Y. purchases from a private owner must be returned to its natural state. Great Camp Sagamore is the wilderness equivalent of a property like The Breakers in Newport, R.I. Tear it down? It’s not like the state was in danger of running out of forest. Nearly half of the six million acres in the Adirondack region were already publicly owned by the state. In the forty years Great Camp Sagamore has been open to the public, tens of thousands of people have visited. Education is the main purpose of the non-profit Institute that runs it. In addition to summer tours, individuals and groups are allowed to book rooms for limited periods to experience what life was like there back in the day. To me, “Forever Wild” seems extremist.
However, as with Shed Hunting, I don’t yet know the whole picture.
Shed Hunting, I learn, after doing some research, has become a big sport. It’s Trophy Hunting without the kill. While generally not illegal except in National Parks (each state has its own laws), it’s often restricted to early March and April, when male elk naturally shed their antlers. (Once the males have made it through the fall mating season, their hormone levels and antlers drop off, only to rise again.) Without controls in place, Shed Hunting could spook the elk out of their winter feeding grounds too early. Pregnant females usually give birth in late May through early June. If they’re accidentally pushed into high country snowpack, it could lead to devastating results for the herd.
Just as over-hunting could endanger an elk population, over-logging once threatened the Adirondack forests. In the late 1880s, many growing American cities relied on lumber from the Adirondacks. Clearcutting was rampant, and the logging companies left behind a devastated landscape. “Forever Wild” was born of necessity. “Forever Wild” prohibits removing a single tree from state-owned land.
High in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks (V.P. Teddy Roosevelt was famously climbing Mr. Marcy when he learned President McKinley had been shot), Lake Tear of the Clouds is the source of the Hudson, a river that provides drinking water to millions of people downstream. The forests bordering the Hudson filter some of the cleanest water on the planet, and they’re critical to the health of the watershed. Without forest protection, there’d be a real threat of flooding cycled with drought.
Near the end of Items in Need of Protective Enclosure, a living elk is spotted. They’re not all extinct! And that’s when I understand why Shed Hunting is illegal for the purposes of this story. To allow any remaining elk, if they do exist, to re-populate.
In the Adirondacks, Great Camp Sagamore was once part of over 1500 privately-owned acres. Today it lays claim to fewer than fourteen. But it doesn’t need more to complete its educational mission. Likewise, in the states where elk roam, laws are mostly in place to prevent over-hunting–to prevent this magnificent animal from becoming extinct.
Intelligent compromise can lead to good results. That’s what these two stories taught me. It’s a concept, I’d like to suggest, that all hard-line partisans–whatever their issues–need to consider for the health of this country.