To understand New York’s Finger Lakes, imagine a well-worn field plowed twice a year for generations. All that grows is gouged away, over and over, without remorse, without exception. The very lakes themselves were scraped out of the earth by a mile-high sheet of ice, and that ice was merely the most recent in a long series. Those who lived there when whites first arrived were driven out, murdered and burned and forced into refugee camps to die of dysentery. Settlers set the subsequent woods ablaze time and again to “clear” the land — the nineteenth-century appellation “The Burned-Over District” does not refer solely to Western New York’s endemic millenarian religious fervor. The onset of the 20th century was the subtlest pass of the plow: the land’s economy faltered in the 1930s, never to recover.
Deborah Tall, who died last week of cancer, was disappointed with her new Finger Lakes neighbors when she arrived at a teaching post at the north end of Seneca Lake in Geneva. She found the present-day human component of the landscape sadly lacking.
No one’s about to step out of the woods and tell us what in another place would be subject of song and legend — oh whale who wandered from the sea, stalled in lake water, turned to stone…— the landscape brought to life as story. I need to learn the plot and poetry of this place, the outlines of time passing on it, in order that it not be merely scenery. But my neighbors are reticent, sedentary. They mumble and nod the rare times we pass on the road. No one, as in my rural fantasy, has come by with a welcoming plate of homemade cookies, with chat and advice, not to speak of legends. By nightfall, their houses give off the platinum glow of television. We’re left to our own devices.
That passage, from near the beginning of her 1993 book From Where We Stand, sounds like scene-setting for the usual fish-out-of-water-meets-locals schtick, where the writer’s imaginings and stereotypes are dashed, only to reveal the true, humbling richness of the local culture, which enchants the writer-tourist immeasurably and irrevocably. As if to point up that expectation, Tall followed the passage above with references to Pueblo culture as relayed by Leslie Marmon Silko, the Ronga of South Africa and the Masai of Kenya, the Romans and the Apache. Double-barreled foreshadowing all.
But that first act shotgun on the end table is never fired. The locals are flat, impassive, odd in an alien as opposed to heartwarmingly quirky way. They are pretentious white trash. They let their Colonial houses fall into disrepair and hang engines like deer carcasses from front-yard sugar maples. They shrug off the potentially colorful decaying downtown in Geneva in favor of eating at the Ponderosa Steakhouse up on Preemption Road. They open businesses that then close, with no new quaint businesses to take their place. Tall is forced to import her picturesqueness from other times, other places. The Far shore of Seneca Lake, the ridge that rises up to run back down to Cayuga on the other side, becomes the Connemara of her memory. An abandoned drive-in where route 96A meets US20/NY5: the Temple of Karnak. The few locals who provide interest are either dead Depression-era painters, or 19th century writers. Tall talks to one local Seneca, as far as I can remember the only living human being in Geneva with an actual speaking part in her book aside from a few of Tall’s similarly isolated colleagues at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
The other locals — the disappointing inhabitants of the post-glacial, post-Haudenosaunee Finger Lakes — become extras, if not props. Tall admits as much on page 55, when she writes:
[I]t comes as a shock to drive up to the Dunkin Donuts here for my coffee one morning and find it darkened, a hand-lettered sign on the door: “Closed Due to Death in Family.” That a family stands behind the franchise counter is altogether unexpected.
The first time I read that passage, I threw the book across the room in a fury.
I know that I have readers who knew Tall, and more who respected and admired her, and this harsh appraisal of her writing so close on the heels of her death may seem unnecessary and cruel. I beg their patience. I say “the first time I read that passage” above because I have read it many times since. I have read the book entire many times since.
Another quote from the book:
But in declining upstate New York, transplanted European names echo more and more ironically. After living here only a few months, hearing on the radio that a meeting of Nobel prize-winning scientists is taking place in Geneva, I gasp with pleasure, then wonder where they’re staying — at the town’s one hostelry, a dilapidated motel on Routes 5 & 20?
That dilapidated hostelry, the Chanticleer Motor Lodge, suffered a setback during its design phase a half-century ago. The designers had assumed an adjacent landowner would sell his lot so that they could raze his small house and put up Atomic-Age motel rooms. But unlike his neighbors, the man didn’t budge. They built around him, and his small house is still there, the motel hard up against it, though the recalcitrant owner — my great-uncle — died some years back.
Clarke Equipment is neither donut shop nor franchise, so if Tall needed her lawnmower tuned up and drove it to the little shop three or four miles west of her college, she might have been less surprised to find a living, breathing man with a family behind the counter. My father’s brother Jack opened the place when he gave up dairying. But if she’d walked into his efficient, plain, and somewhat grease-covered workshop and expected local color along with the spark plugs and air filter, she would likely have walked away as disappointed as she was with her other neighbors. The story is there. My uncle has known searing grief and quiet contentment and sharp joy. None of them are put out for display like the fancy new riding mowers out front, facing the highway. They are his concern, and not his customers’. I am his nephew, and I feel, writing this, as though I am intruding. The stories did not come up greeting Tall at her front porch with a basket of jellies because they do not walk up and present themselves anywhere. I was born into the stories. They are mine by birthright. And yet I heard few of them until I was nearly forty.
My father’s family is thick on the ground in Geneva and the land around it. My mother’s family lives up and down that far Connemara shore across Seneca Lake. My siblings and I were born in the village of Penn Yan, near where Tall first settled when she moved to the area. Reading Tall’s book for the first time, I felt I was reading an erudite, cultured, well-researched and privileged savaging of everyone to whom I am related.
That anger boils up in me again as I write these lines.
And yet I have no right to that fury. The year that Tall took her job in Geneva was the year I left New York.
The Seneca grew corn and beans and squash in this soil. George Washington — playing Realpolitick in the New York frontier — sent General John Sullivan to the Finger Lakes in the autumn of 1779 to wage war on the Seneca, who had allied somewhat reluctantly with the British. “War,” in this case, is a bit of a euphemism. Sullivan and his 3,000 troops waged genocide, leaving a swath of destruction up the east side of Seneca Lake that anticipated both Sherman’s march and the use of Agent Orange on Vietnamese farms. Thriving agricultural villages were burned, peach orchards razed, longhouses torched, women and children and elders massacred, and the survivors — their food supply deliberately destroyed — fled to winter with the British along Lake Erie, where they died by the thousands, of starvation and dysentery.
Fast forward one hundred fifty years, and my taciturn grandfather — a tenant farmer — drilled beans into the same soil from which Seneca bean farmers were routed. One day it came time to slaughter one of his herd, and he sent my father off on some important task at the far end of the farm. My father could not bear to watch an animal killed, and so Uncle Jack and my grandfather waited until he was out of sight beyond a rise before bringing out the knives. In those years they lived on a farm with small red brick house, L-shaped with a wing of bedrooms on the second floor. The closest town was Seneca Castle, named for a fortification that has been restored, whose caretaker Tall portrayed in the book. The Seneca history of the land is too little told. The land is as drenched in blood as it was beneath my forebears’ feet that day more than 60 years ago. A book entire about the Seneca, the deep map of ancient stories on the land in Ontario and Seneca and Yates counties, would be one I could read with an altogether different rage in my breast, one I would not think to hold against the author. But to dissolve my whole family into a faceless, banal mass? It was as if having failed to learn any of the local story, Tall decided it simply was not there, a miasma suffused in television light and enclosed in fast food cheese paper.
But Tall moved there, and lived her life there, in Geneva and Penn Yan and Ithaca, and drove the roads and watched the planes take off and land at the Seneca Army Depot, the runway lights flashing on just before approach, mysterious and malevolent cargo there to leach into my aunts’ and uncles’ drinking water. She stayed her life and added to the place, edited local magazines and sponsored readings.
It is an issue of town and gown, I suppose. I have bitterly resented the academics, the privileged and fortunate both, enjoying a life of mind that has been denied me due to accidents of birth and biology and happenstance. This rage itself derives from the Seneca County soil, which my mother tried unsuccessfully to shake off her boots after high school. She headed for Manhattan as soon as she could, but was back within months, trapped in a drafty house on a ridge above Penn Yan with a silent husband and a swelling brood of children. For years she lived vicariously through me, her oldest. Nearly from birth until we moved a hundred miles away, she told me in a thousand little ways that I was destined to leave. (And leave I did, though not at all in the way that she had planned for me.)
In all the years we lived there, in all the years after we moved to Buffalo in which we spent weeks out of each year visiting relatives, growing from birth to adulthood, I met exactly one person in the Finger Lakes who was connected in any way with a nearby institution of higher learning. That person was my father, who worked for a few years running an IBM System 360 mainframe in a non-academic role at Cornell. He may, in fact, have been the only person I met for the first six years of my life who even had a college education.
Tall writes, on the slippery boundary between tourist and local:
A car pulls out right in front of you on a two-lane road. You have to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting it. It creeps along at twenty miles an hour, turns off a few hundred yards down the road. You lean on the horn, let them have it.
Next day, you only have to go a short way down the road to pick up a neighbor. You pull out of the driveway as you do every morning and meander down, indignant at the out-of-state Buick that races up onto your bumper, honking. You let them have it.
My mother’s sister’s husband, a farmer, found a glass sponge in the 1960s while plowing a field twenty miles north of Ithaca. In the 1990s news broke that a Cornell paleontologist had found more of them nearby, and the find made the global news, and I remembered the fossil my uncle found which had been sitting on my grandmother’s porch during the intervening decades. I called her to suggest she talk to the paleontologist. She wasn’t at all interested. She told me that I should call myself, that she’d be glad to show him the fossil if he was interested enough to drive all the way to Ovid. I called Cornell, left a message on the paleontology department’s voice mail with my phone number and my grandmother’s and more information than they really needed about the fossil, and neither of us heard anything from Cornell after that. The lack of enthusiasm for the other side of the campus boundary runs both ways.
My grandparents, my aunts and uncles have never been anything but kind and generous to me, and yet my mother’s thwarted need to leave suffused my bloodstream along with the polio and smallpox vaccines they gave me in my first days at Ovid Central School. I read Tall’s sidelong sketches of the faceless people living along Seneca Lake and raged at her insults, and through my anger I agreed with her, which made me rage all the more.
Her book was unflattering, not least in what it showed me about who I am, the stupid shame at being still un-degreed, the resentment of the young with doctorates who make assumptions, the resentment of my fellow un-degreed who make assumptions, the gulf between me and the people from whom I come.
I have read it yearly since the day I threw it across the room. I wish I had thought to tell her that, to grab a cup of coffee somewhere and make my ill-formed arguments, to see her nod or flinch or tell me where I was being unfair, and now I cannot. It is too late.
There is a slab of marble ten miles west of Geneva, still upright after a generation, diminutive and with a carved lamb atop it, thirty years of rain having rounded off the detail. It has my cousin’s name on it, and my uncle stood by as they lowered her into the soil the Seneca once cultivated. She was only a toddler in the days before child car seats, and she is surrounded by her grandparents and great aunts and uncles, an array of tombstones with my last name on each one. I was a child when she died and I remember her, and I know well my uncle grieves her still though he has never mentioned her to me since, and though he would not have talked of her to a customer in his shop I would gladly have talked of her to a fellow poet. But I did not, and now Tall is there with little Carol, forever home in a place that is my home no longer.