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.