It sounded like a good idea at the time: a week at a cabin built in 1890 on Raquette Lake, NY. The perimeter of the lake is 95% public land, part of the Adirondack Park wilderness and the cabin is part of a compound owned by a state college. It has no electricity, no wi-fi, no cell phone coverage, and is only accessible by foot or boat. It would be idyllic, a haven of peace away from the tumultuous clamor of modern life. A place to write my novel.
Here in the Finger Lakes we were 'blessed' with an early snow storm. A few years back I took these pictures when in November, we got a dusting. When it snows here, the skies are gloomy, filled with moisture. I was having a hard time getting just the right shots. For three days in a row during the Thanksgiving break I woke each morning at the required time for this season of the year (7 am) and it was always overcast. One morning I got lucky enough to capture the sun rising in the gloom, and paid for it with a nasty fall on the ice as I took a picture from the boat launch.
Then it happened. The perfect-picture-taking-dawn. I arose at 7 am and the sun was rising with just wisps of clouds in the sky, and magically, it had also snowed overnight. I grabbed my coffee, my camera and my boots and waded through the newly fallen snow in the farms fields at the end of my road. And I was rewarded with crystal images.
So, it was worth it - waiting - for the right moment in time to take the pictures that would capture the beauty of this landscape that I live in; that shows itself when it wants, not when you need it to. A lesson well worth remembering when days get shorter and the darkness sets in. A lesson to keep in mind in general.
A few years ago I spent my ephemeral summer writing my first novel. There is nothing like the feeling of accomplishing something; especially when it is a labor of love. That is how I feel about my novel Ephemeral Summer. So I was especially pleased when I recently received an email from a women's book club in Twin Cities of Minnesota who are coming to the Finger Lakes region and want to meet and speak with me about my novel.
Ephemeral Summer is a coming of age story about a young woman named Emalee who loses both parents die when she is 15. After the tragedy she is sent to live with her Aunt Audrey who summers at the family camp on Canandaigua Lake in Upstate New York. Emalee is beset with the usual problems of a young woman, but her familial relationships and 'lake friends' make her life even more trying. In her twentieth year she falls in love with a young intellectual philosopher named Stuart, whom she can't seem to get over even after years away from him and the lake setting where they met.
Although a love story, Ephemeral Summer weaves in a sense of place, the wonders of the environments Emalee inhabits. Starting and ending in the Finger Lakes region, this story takes the reader from the shores of Canandaigua, Seneca, and Lake Erie, to the Canadian wilderness where Emalee finds herself tracking Moose as part of a research project in Algonquin Provincial Park.
I wrote and edited this book (with the help of many people) over the course of a few years. My purpose was to educate about this great place - the Finger Lakes - where I live in an entertaining fashion. I hope I've accomplished this and hope you'll enjoy read Ephemeral Summer.
Writing placed-based literature is a great experience because there are always stories embedded in the culture of an area that a writer can use as a springboard.
When I wrote Ephemeral Summer I placed my college-age protagonist, Emalee, in settings that were familiar to me. She attends college in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York because I know the area well. However, like most college-age students she moves around, and in the last chapter, she visits the Canadian wilderness to assist a fellow graduate student track moose in Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada.
Although I had stayed in Algonquin twice myself during graduate school (tracking moose), my research on Algonquin went beyond the ecological setting and into the realm of art. While conducting my research I was surfing the Internet for information about the Northern Lights to include in the novel, and stumbled upon the artwork of Tom Thomson, (1877-1917) an artist from the early 1900s who painted landscapes in Algonquin.
Thomson first visited Algonquin in 1912 and fell in love with the place. He stayed, found jobs as a ranger, firefighter and any other occupation that the woods would allow, and painted in his spare time. His paintings are considered the forerunner of a movement of painters called The Group of Seven: a group of Canadian landscape painters who spent considerable time painting in Algonquin from the 1920s-1930s.
As I delved into his story I found parallels to my plot. There is an accidental death by drowning in my story Ephemeral Summer, and Thomson likewise drowned under mysterious circumstances. In 1917, at age 40, he went out canoeing and was found dead a week later. Foul play was suspected but never confirmed.
Like many artists, Thomson did not make a lot of money on his works. Although he did have a patron, and some of his works sold, he became more popular after his death. And that is what is most intriguing about Thomson: his drive to create art whether it sold or not. His story folded neatly into my narrative for Ephemeral Summer. Indeed, for many artists, who create for art's sake, because they feel compelled.
I launched a project to fund my research on a historical novel with a crowdfunding site and it failed. Specifically, what lured me into trying crowdfunding on the site I chose was a podcast interview with one of the founders where she stated that artists are finding backers for their creative projects on their platform, and that 60% of the backers come from within the crowdfunding community itself. Hence, with the thought that I might find a community of like-minded artists, trying to fund projects, who would back the research for my next novel, I gave it a try. Nothing is failure if it is a learning experience and hopefully you can take away some tidbits of advice before you spend a lot of time and effort on your own crowdfunding campaign.
I’ll start with the positive aspects of my experience.
Now the Negatives:
Why am I doing this? As a writer, this question pops into my head all of the time, especially when I am doubting whether all the effort I've put into my work with play out. You know, like I'll win an award, sell enough books to pay my mortgage one month, grab the attention of a literary agent or better yet, a publisher. It can be a lonely existence inside my head; these thoughts swirling with no place to land. I was reminded of this just recently while waiting for a response to a query I sent out to some agents. What if they have no interest in my work? The rejections and doubt can get rather depressing. And then I was reminded of a quote from a book that I've read more than once: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.
“Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow."
There's been an ongoing joke in my house that I've spent too much time submitting my work: short stories, essays, and novels, to contests that I never seem to win. It's like the lottery or something, the chances I'll win are a long shot in today's competitive publishing world. In addition, some contests charge reading fees, hence I've also spent a considerable amount of money on these contests.
Well, it finally paid off for me when my novel The Night is Done won the Adirondack Center for Writing's Literary Award for Best Book of Fiction 2017. After some car trouble and a late start from my home in Upstate, NY and a five hour drive to Lake Placid, I got to the award ceremony just as they were announcing the winner.
In 1837 George B. Sudworth, submitted a paper to the American Forestry Association describing the forest of the Great Smoky Mountains: a primeval forest 'scarcely ever broken by the sound of a woodman's ax', a forest 'truly of virgin character.' Within 100 years the landscape would dramatically change. Men working in the Smoky Mountains as part of the newly created Conservation Corps in 1934, describe the forest as a wasteland, filled with slash left behind by lumber companies who cut what they could and abandoned the rest to the ravages of forest fires.
Indeed, in Elkmont, Tenesee, the Little River Lumber Company did just that. After decades of harvesting most of the virgin timber in the Little River watershed, they sold their land holdings to the federal government for the newly established National Park.
The Little River Lumber Co. is credited with engineering a railroad with technology that allowed harvest of timber at a scale never seen before in the region. In the early 20th century, the company bought up or leased land from homesteaders. And when ownership was dubious, they went to court to make a claim. As they did, the company moved operations into elevations up to 4,000 feet above sea level to access virgin stands of tulip polar, chestnut, and hemlock. The company had specialized steam-powered rail engines, called Shay engines. These engines were able to chug up the steep grades and handle the sharp curves. Lumber co. men threw buckets of sand on the tracks for traction.
And as the railroads inveigled their way into the forest depths, so did the the lumbermen and their families. They lived in shacks called set offs. The first ever mobile home, these 12x12 spaces were placed on flatbed railroad cars and trudged up the mountains. Two or three might be set next to each other to house families while the men worked for the company harvesting lumber. Communities sprouted up along with them, stores, blacksmiths, makeshift schools, and when operations were moved, so did the community.
It took a small army to cut and load the trees on the rail cars. Men used steam-powered 'skidders' wheels of long cable let out and dragged up sides of slopes to where the logs lay. The cable was wrapped around the trunks to pull them off the slopes. Afterwards, the men used a crane with a large tong attached to it which lifted the logs onto the flatbed. Once they stacked twelve or more logs, the train carried down them down the steep slopes to town.
Although chestnut trees were plentiful at the beginning of the 20th century, by 1925, a fungus blight was ravaging the forest. It was estimated that in some locations chestnut made up forty percent of the forest cover. Hence, they were an important tree for the ecology of the region. The nuts were foraged by turkey, domesticate hogs, cattle, and humans. The wood was rot resistant, lighter than oak, and used for a variety of utilitarian purposes throughout the U.S. It was a valuable commodity in the Smoky Mountains and the Little River Lumber Co. harvested most of it from the watershed before the blight spread. But once the blight spread, the fate of the chestnut was sealed. When the company came upon trees hollowed out from the blight they left it to rot.
By 1937, the Little River Lumber Co. had ceased operations in what was then the inaugural Smoky Mountains National Park. Families moved, those that stayed were not allowed to cut timber for firewood or building. In addition, the government forbid them to hunt, or to raising cattle and livestock to graze in the mountain pastures. People who could, moved out or were bought out by the government. The old chestnut trees were either dead or dying and although there are still a few places where one can visit old growth forests in the area, a majority of the Smoky Mountains is second or third generation forest. As for the chestnut; scientists are working on a remedy: a hybrid that may resist the fungus. There's hope then that maybe I'll get to see a mature chestnut tree within my lifetime.
Weals, Vic. 1993. Last Train to Elkmont. Olden Press.
Maher, Neil. 2007. Natures New Deal.Oxford University Press
The sound of a stream plunging over a precipice is one sign of spring and on my recent visit to the Smoky Mountains National Park there were plenty of gushing waterfalls; I hiked up to Spruce Flats to get this view.
I went to the Smoky Mountains National Park to conduct research for a novel and to write about place, exploring the mountains in spring. I was especially interested in the area around the Tremont Institute in the park. It was once a thriving lumber community and one of the more famous inhabitants was William Walker. He owned most of Walker Valley before the Smoky Mountains National Park was formed, and this is where my fictional family lives. What drew me to their story is the old growth, or what is left of it at the Tremont Institute in the park.
William Walker settled here in the 1850s and as lumber operations closed in on his valley, he tried to keep his old growth woods from the clutches of the Little River Lumber Company. William lived a colorful life. According to his descendants, he had three wives and some estimate he sired over 20 children. He hung on to his land until 1918, selling it off to the owner of the Little River Co. on his death bed with the understanding that the old trees would be spared. What he never knew was that eventually his trees were cut, post-mortem, by the company and that he was under paid for the land.
A few miles down the road from Tremont and Walker Valley is the only cultural heritage site in the park - Cades Cove. This eleven mile circuit holds what remains of an entire community that once lived there: homes, corn cribs, barns, smoke and spring houses. The people that lived in Cades Cove had full, industrious lives.
Their economy was based on a bartering system with the nearby cities and towns. And they had plenty to barter before the woods were ravaged by blight, forest fire, and habitat destruction. Ginseng, chestnuts, corn, and cattle were just some of the products the people of Cades Cove bartered and sold at markets in Maryville and Knoxville, TN. Luckily local residents (many descendants) from nearby Townsend, Tennessee advocated for preserving the architecture of Cades Cove. It is the only area in the park where you can find everything intact. Which was fortunate because when the government started acquiring land for the park in the mid-1920s they tore down or let buildings rot after their occupants moved out. Just like the natural areas in the park, Cades Cove is a great place to rocket the imagination.
I also found a plethora of reading material at the Smoky Mountains Heritage Museum in Townsend, first hand accounts from people who grew up in the region before their families were forced to move because of the National Park in the mid 1930s. These books are gold mines of information, tall tales, and stories about the families who lived there, their hardships, feuds, and industry. Before a fungus blighted the Chestnut trees, children would go deep into the woods to collect the nuts and sell them at the local stores. They had a miller who came in from the fields at the sound of a bell to mill corn for customers who stopped in with a sack of kernels. His was an important job as corn was a family staple and wheat was hard to grow so flour was usually shipped in and store bought.
The families raised pigs, notched their ears to identify them and let them roam the hills. At harvest time they were lured in with salt and nuts. The meat was kept in a smokehouse and slabs taken off throughout the winter. Game was scarce by the early 20th century due to over hunting. Hunters were lucky to get a 'Gobbler' roosting in a tree, or squirrel meat. I found no references for deer hunting but Elk now pasture in the coves and there are signs everywhere to be aware of them while driving. I've visited the park twice and have yet to see one. But I'll be back for the next season: summer and maybe I'll get lucky.
Connect here for my next post on the history of lumber industry in the Smoky Mountain region.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Associate Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.