What Is The North Country?

Neal Burdick

So where’s the North Country?” It’s a question I get a lot, when I’m trying (usually with only limited success) to tell someone from somewhere else where I live. There might be more answers than there are flakes in a lake-effect snow squall, so I never know what to say. Besides, I’ve always thought a more interesting question would be, “What’s the North Country?” Here are a few responses; no doubt you have your own. 

    The North Country is contrasts. 

    We are among the leading agricultural regions in the state, a key part of New York’s national ranking as a leader in dairy, maple and apple products, but ironically we are also classified as a “food desert” because so many of us lack easy access to good nutrition. 

    We boast about our healthy environment while bemoaning our shortage of doctors. 

    We don’t much like government, but we expect it to give us jobs and fill in all those potholes immediately while not raising our taxes. 

    We have a symphony orchestra in a rural corner of the world that’s demeaned as a cultural vacuum. 

    One of the best illustrations of our epic contrasts struck me as my wife and I emerged from a concert by that aforementioned orchestra, the Orchestra of Northern New York, in Potsdam a few years ago. We had heard a wonderful program of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Berlioz, the genre of music you’d normally have to navigate a big city and pay a lot of money to hear, and when we came out we were engulfed by the distinctive redolence of manure, because across the road from the symphony hall’s (free) parking lot was an active cow pasture. I don’t know what’s across from Lincoln Center in New York City, but it’s not that. Where else can one listen to live classical music and exit to a parking lot perfumed with organic fertilizer? 

    The North Country is water. Let’s not argue about its boundaries here, because if we do we’ll never get back to our topic, so we’ll simply note that the region is surrounded by Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain and the Mohawk River. That’s one Great Lake, through which twenty percent of the world’s fresh water passes; the world’s second biggest river by volume (because that same liquid twenty percent flows through it, too); the largest freshwater lake in America aside from the Great Lakes; and the river that’s responsible for the easiest route through the Appalachians, which is one big reason why New York earned the moniker “The Empire State.” Add to that the galaxy of lakes, ponds and rivers that drain the uplands and nourish the ring of farmlands around them, and it’s plain why we are the envy of more arid places. 

    The North Country is dark skies. Thanks to light pollution, fewer and fewer are the places where one can see the Northern Lights, the Big Dipper, Venus and Mars and Jupiter. To some, car dealerships and shopping malls awash in artificial light are a sign of progress. They also announce that we are steadily separating ourselves from our roots, from the mysteries of the universe that help define us, that remind us of our place in the grand scheme. Look up into a cloudless North Country sky on a clear night, especially in winter, and you will gain a new appreciation for darkness. 

    The North Country is centrally isolated. That’s because centrality and isolation have meaning only in relation to where we are and where we want to go. We’re accused of not being near any big cities (sorry, Syracuse, but you are not big), but from vantage points in the northeastern Adirondacks one can, under the right conditions, see the skyline of Montreal. Let’s stop letting the international boundary be such a psychological barrier. I’ve been to Barrow, Alaska, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, where icebergs floated in the sea in July and the nearest full-service hospital was six hundred miles away, with no road – trust me, compared to a lot of spots on the globe, the North Country is not isolated. 

    The North Country is despair. This region has been plagued for decades by poor employment outlooks, even with oases like Massena’s plants and Watertown’s Fort Drum; as history proves (witness GM in Massena and Plattsburgh Air Force Base), these can display dramatic exits. It’s been plagued by poverty and its side-effects; when we think of rural depression we picture a hollow in Appalachia, but too many pockets in the North Country are no different. In some communities, meth labs have replaced shuttered factories as the primary manufacturing facilities. For all we spend on law enforcement, public service ads, economic development blueprints and so on, none of this seems poised to change anytime soon. 

    The North Country is wacky weather. How can we forget this one? The saying “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes” is not, as some people seem to think, unique to the North Country, but it certainly applies. Our temperatures can range from the minus-thirties in winter to the mid-nineties in summer, one of the more radical spans on the continent. A blizzard can rage in one spot while the sun shines five miles away. We long for summer days during cold spells, for winter (OK, fall) days during hot spells. We are rarely completely satisfied, proof that the weather never stays the same for very long. 

    There’s plenty more. We could say the North Country is friendly, strong, helpful people, but that’s a cliché – it’s what every place says about itself. Besides, not everybody’s friendly or strong or helpful. We could say it’s open spaces with wonderful panoramas of farm, field and forest, but some might argue that that means it’s under-populated. It’s a region of beauty and ugliness, of optimism and pessimism, of tragedy and hope. It is a smorgasbord of contradictions. 

North Country “Folkstores” Offer One-of-a-Kind Gift Options

CHRISTOPHER LENNEY / NNY LIVING
Chocolate is drained from a mold to create a shell for carmel filling at Sweet Picken’s in Heuvelton.

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Gardening Benefits Plentiful Despite Challenges

With the coming of summer, lots of North Country folks’ minds turn to gardening. Well, actually, many of those minds turned to gardening as early as January, when the seed catalogs started arriving in the mail and the planning began, on sheets of paper spread across kitchen tables on cold, dark evenings. Hard-core gardeners, it’s said, even began dreaming the moment they finished putting last year’s garden to bed for the winter, pulled the last carrot or dug the last potato through frost-crusted earth and wondered why this crop or that hadn’t come in. “We’ll try again next year….”

    For most of us, gardening may be about the independence of raising our own trustworthy food, the satisfaction of coaxing something edible from the Earth, the pleasure of getting our hands dirty, our latent desire to do something good for a beleaguered planet, or our determination to make the most of the north country’s all-too-short summers: “The growing season is only a few weeks long, and I am GOING to enjoy it, even if it exhausts me!” But for everybody, what’s even more important is that gardening is a super source of family stories.

    For us, these revolve around the expansion and contraction of our gardens as we’ve passed through life’s stages. Growing up in the north country, I got it into my head that everybody had a big garden. A great-aunt, for example, maintained a massive layout, full of flowers and vegetables and plum trees, on hundreds of square feet of river bottom, which she tended religiously into her 90s. A proper lady, she wore pants only when gardening; upon completing her weeding, clipping, hoeing and harvesting for the day, she would repair immediately to her room and emerge in a dress. I naturally assumed that when I grew up I would become a gardener too.

    That proved easier said than done, because for the first few years after college I lived in urban environments, surrounded by asphalt, and then in a boarding school where I taught. We did manage a small (I mean about six-foot by six-foot) plot there, but the grounds superintendent wasn’t thrilled that we wanted to dig up a tiny square of his campus.

    When we moved to the Canton area and bought an old farmhouse with an acre of land, though, it was time for the gardens to take off. We had some fine ones for a few years, and even succeeded in being nearly self-sufficient in veggies one winter. One year we cajoled corn stalks up to a few inches greater than my almost-six-foot height, and we even harvested a couple of palatable (if you define the term liberally) cantaloupes, which our neighbors said couldn’t be raised in the north country – too short a season. Those neighbors were from Birdsfoot Farm, one of the few communal organic operations that survived the idealism of the Back to the Earth fad of the 1970s (and continues to thrive to this day), so we were pretty smug about that. Or maybe just lucky.

    We survived late frosts; one we christened the Great Anniversary Freeze, because it fell on our wedding anniversary, June 29, and devastated not only our garden but also dozens throughout the region. We also endured a cow invasion: one spring day we looked out the window and spotted a dozen Holsteins trampling around in what after a rainy spell was abnormally spongy soil. They’d escaped from another neighbor’s farm, and were having a delightful time trashing our newly-planted spread. A quick call brought the farmer running, issuing heartfelt apologies even before he was within hearing range, and the cows were soon rounded up and headed home, though not before leaving deep holes all over our poor garden; I had not appreciated until then how much a dairy cow weighs, and thus how far into saturated soil it can sink its legs. They also left some fertilizer, though, for which we thanked the chagrined farmer.

    Which reminds me of the prolific rhubarb we cut each spring. We couldn’t imagine how it could get so big and delicious with no work on our part. Then a previous owner of the place told us it had until not many years earlier been a working farm, and the rhubarb had sprouted happily in the former manure pile. Ah, the wonders of nature.

    But the main thing we survived was zucchini. Why we kept planting so darn much of it I could never imagine, except that we knew it would grow no matter what, so there was that smug satisfaction thing again. The problem was that we always went away on vacation in August, and it never had the courtesy to stop growing while we were gone. We’d come home to zucchinis the size of Goodyear blimps. The vines would lose all sense of propriety, insinuating themselves among the bean stalks, climbing the pepper plants for a better view, hauling themselves up the tomato cages and cutting off the tomatoes’ sunlight with fronds as big as truck tires. We prayed for a hard frost.

    Eventually, we moved into town, and the gardens got smaller and smaller as our backs got older and we realized we could patronize the Farmers Market, featuring growers who actually knew what they were doing, for a little cash and a lot less sweat, mosquito repellent, muscle rub and dirt under our fingernails. We’re now down to a fall-bearing raspberry patch, some rhubarb transplanted from that old manure-pile stock, and sporadic asparagus – perennials that require minimal human effort.

    Meanwhile, gardening has evolved a new ethos as a beneficial aspect of the larger environment, partly in response to concerns about global climate change and natural habitat loss. Trees (carbon captors), bees (pollinators), water conservation practices and native species (as opposed to invasives) are the “in” things today.  We’re all for it; we’ll just let the younger generations do the labor while we rock on the deck until the raspberries are ready to pick, sometime in October.

 

Connecting With Life Through NNY Rivers

JUSTIN SORENSEN / NNY LIVING
Ginger Anson and Reese Anson, 8, explore an area of the Black River in Glen Park where they’d often picnic, covered in water after rain and melting snow.

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Summer 2016: North Country Notes

A native voice and mentor to other writers is sadly lost

Like every region, the north country has produced its share of mold-breakers. Some, like F.W. Woolworth and Melvil Dewey in retailing and library classification, respectively, achieved wide renown. Others passed their time on this Earth in relative anonymity outside of small circles of the like-minded. [Read more…]

Winter 2016: North Country Notes

Our north country is a ‘land of many borders’ within itself

“Border country.” I overheard this phrase once, a discernible fragment of conversation in a noisy restaurant. It’s another name for the north country. When we use it, we are probably thinking of our border with Canada. [Read more…]

Holiday 2015: North Country Notes

Over the river and through the woods for Thanksgiving memories

“Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go / The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the bright and drifting snow-oh … ”

When I was growing up in the Champlain Valley, we did in fact go over the river (two, actually) and through the woods, as well as farm fields, to Grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving and Christmas, although, being an up-to-date 1950s family, we traveled by car, and snowdrifts that early in the winter were rare, at least at Thanksgiving. [Read more…]

Summer 2015: North Country Notes

Farmers markets a hot ticket in summer months

By Neal Nurdick, NNY Living 

Some folks think people go to farmers markets to acquire food. That’s only part of it. We really go to see our friends. [Read more…]

Spring 2015: North Country Notes

The sweet taste of maple a north country tradition

By Neal Burdick, NNY Living 

Back in March, just as “maple season” was gearing up, an advertisement for a wallpaper steamer appeared in a chatroom where I work.

“Just boil down some sap in your kitchen,” I muttered. “That’ll take off several layers. Worked for us.” [Read more…]