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A Road Toward Compromise

By Katie Powers ’09

“Hey Nate! Ninety-nine cents for two scoops on a waffle cone!”

Ah, gas stations: those hubs of bright lights, diesel engines and sloppy anonymity that so wholly embody this culture. Though we’ve been living outside for weeks now, calling ourselves environmentalists and balking at the over-consumption of fossil fuels, our stop at the Tupper Lake Stewart’s feels somewhat routine. Ice cream, cigarettes, full tanks for two Chevy Suburbans. Though we advocate a simple and sustainable lifestyle, we are undeniably adept at using cell phones, driving cars, spending money. We’re 12 reckless, dirty college students clumsily straddling the line between the woods and the world.

For part of the time we were immersed in the woods, in nature and the ideals of environmentalism. We came to know the birds, mammals and tiny plants that shared their woods with us. Gaultheria hispidula:creeping snowberry.  Tsuga canadensis:Eastern hemlock. We explored the potential for changes that would foster a less destructive relationship between people and the planet. We bathed in the lake, firing up our small barrel sauna to take off the chill of the water when late fall arrived. There was no running water, no shower, no flush toilet. Solar panels collected enough energy for a refrigerator and a few lights. There were hot meals prepared with organic produce from a North Country farm. We learned to work with wood, to cook for a dozen, to paddle a guideboat, to crochet. Our immediate surroundings dictated our lifestyle, and we grew accustomed to slightly more thoughtful, ecologically conscious patterns of being.

For part of the time we were immersed in nature, and for part of the time in civilization. We traveled throughout the Adirondack Park on field trips, enjoying the convenience of having two SUVs at our disposal. Almost any food we could think of, food that had traveled thousands of miles, was a mere 15 minutes away: avocados, bananas, organic coffee, chocolate. Twice a month we had access to cell phones, buffalo chicken wings and computers with high-speed Internet.

We weren’t roughing it on the Adirondack Semester; we bought Cheez-Its, listened to iPods and used cordless drills. We certainly weren’t living like the average American, either; we went about our days more deliberately, and with a greater awareness of the wake left behind by our actions. Those days spent beneath towering hemlocks allowed us to construct a foundation. Through time spent in direct contact with nature and direct contact with civilization, we can now start down the road toward a compromise.

I’ve grown closer to nature, and I’ve learned a great deal about the work that goes into creating a strong, cohesive community. But the understanding I’ve worked hardest for, the understanding that is perhaps most crucial, is the knowledge that we must find a balance. It was difficult to go from a canoe to a car, and from the forest to Tupper Lake, but it was through these contradictions that our purpose became clear. Our time in the woods was challenging because bathing in the 50-degree lake became enormously uncomfortable, but our time in civilization was challenging because we were struggling to integrate new ideas into our everyday lives and experiences.

For me, this semester wasn’t a quest for solitude; it wasn’t a vacation. It was the first tangible answer, the groundwork for feasible, imperative change. We won’t solve environmental problems by hiding in cities, constructing walls of technology between our lives and the natural world. And we certainly won’t solve them by hiding in the woods, ignoring the societies in which problems are born. I learned a valuable lesson this fall, one that I hope I can pass on to friends, neighbors, humankind: we must inhabit a place that is somewhere in between. We must know and cherish the nature that we care about and depend on, and we must also know society, economy, technology. It is through our clumsily straddling the woods and the world that we are promised the most hopeful future.


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