On the back patio of the Kelly Adirondack Center last week, Sydney Paluch sat in an Adirondack chair with her laptop, surrounded by tall pines and hardwoods, working on a study of female authors.
“It’s a pretty nice summer office,” said Paluch, who studies political science and English at Union College in nearby Schenectady.
Paluch and fellow rising Union senior David Olio are this summer’s two research fellows at Union’s Kelly Adirondack Center, housed at renowned environmentalist Paul Schaeffer’s Niskayuna house on St. David’s Lane.
She is studying female writers — Joyce Carol Oates, Jean Rikoff and Jeanne Robert Foster — who wrote and set stories in the New York North Country. She said women writers are under-researched and that she is probing the common elements of a female “Adirondack voice.”
For his research, Olio, an environmental policy and English major from Hebron, Conn., is using the recently archived John Apperson Jr. and Paul Schaefer Collection — a series of letters, legislation, papers, maps and much more that cover over 100 years of conservation efforts in the Adirondacks.
The papers were categorized and organized for nearly two years by Union library staff and opened to the public in May; Olio is the first person to dive into the archives for actual research. The student fellows agreed that their work so far this summer, about halfway through, has opened their eyes to the incredible beauty and deep history of the woods and hills and rivers just over an hour north of Union.
“People don’t necessarily value the Adirondacks,” Olio said. “ ‘Oh, I want to go West,’ they say, forgetting there is this wonderful region in New York with a lifetime worth of experiences.”
Paluch, who grew up in Albany, had visited the Adirondacks before, but she never thought of them with the expansive scope and impact that she has developed during the fellowship.
“It is in your backyard but you don’t think of it as the same as the great parks [in the West],” Paluch said. “It’s exciting to look at the Adirondacks in a way I hadn’t before.”
The female writers, who either grew up in the Adirondacks or spent significant time there, display in their writings a distinctive “Adirondack voice,” Paluch said. That voice, as she describes it, consists of three key components: the story or poem is written in and set in the Adirondack region; it touches on the interdependence of the land and the people of the region; and it contains elements of sensationalism and sentimentality.
“They use the Adirondacks as a literary landscape,” Paluch said of the authors she is studying. “They are using a realistic world to construct a fictional world.”
While the others she is studying all rejected organized religion, she sees a deep sense of spirituality in all of their works, Paluch said. She thanks the natural splendor of the Adirondacks appeared to have inspired the spiritual elements of the authors’ writings.
“A strong spiritual life results from work in the Adirondacks,” Paluch said. “There is a respect for and appreciation of the larger elements of life; it’s almost like a commune with nature.”
Olio is examining the way that Apperson and Schaefer, who both shared the experience of the Adirondacks as widely as possible and fought for legal protections for the region, defined “wilderness” and how that definition was used in the legal and political battles they waged.
He also plans to explore how today’s advocacy groups — from the regional Sierra Club chapter to an Adirondack landowners association — define “wilderness” differently and how those definitions relate to their interests and agendas.
“I want to see how their own definition of wilderness makes them disagree on the use of the park,” Olio said.
For the past four years, the Kelly Center has funded a pair of eight-week research fellowships. While this year’s fellows are both Union College students, the fellowships are open to students from all schools as long as they are interested in researching the Adirondacks. The program aims to support multi-disciplinary research and push awareness of the Kelly Center and its Adirondack Research Library more into the minds of humanities and social science faculty.
“We’ve got no problem convincing Earth scientists and life scientists to study the Adirondacks, but we want to point out that there are interesting studies in all sorts of disciplines,” said Hallie Bond, director of the Kelly Adirondack Center.
During the summer, the students make multiple trips north to visit the Adirondacks and learn more about the area’s natural and social issues. Earlier this month, they canoed on the Bog River, and this week, they visited an Adirondack Common Ground Alliance meeting in Old Forge, a group of Adirondack stakeholders that discuss current issues in the region.
The students, who have a 20-page draft due in about three weeks, will present their research and findings at an event later this summer.