What the Trees Read

Without question, the section of Cayuga Lake’s Inlet that receives the most traffic is a small area of shoreline at the corner of the second tendril extending east from the Inlet into Ithaca. Community members and college students are attracted to this little spot on the Inlet, known as Steamboat Landing, because the Ithaca Farmer’s Market spends its weekends there, sheltered under a long wooden pavilion topped by a green metal roof. Dozens of stalls are laden with earthly, culinary, and artistic crafts; more than a couple hundred people a day visit each of them to browse and purchase these locally produced goods.

This quaint market is surrounded by a mixture of modern development and natural shoreline that I could not have noticed from the Inlet’s waters—only by walking around Steamboat Landing was I able to understand the spot’s significance to the Ithaca community, and connect elements of Henry David Thoreau’s and Aldo Leopold’s writings with the history of the place. Every morning, cars meander carefully through an ever-shifting gravel labyrinth to find a parking spot, sporting fantastic bumper stickers that advertise political persuasions or proud principles:  “Ithaca is not GEORGE’S,” “A Living Wage is a Moral Value,” “Farming = Food,” they cry out to other drivers.

Would Thoreau and Leopold have agreed with most of these messages? There is no question that both believed in at least some virtues of farming, and neither of them was particularly sympathetic to some government and business practices, but I do not think they could approve of bumper stickers, just as neither of them praised cars or trains.

More to the point, neither of them was the sloganeering type; they spoke by example rather than one-liners, and would have chosen their own actions to convey beliefs (e.g. Thoreau’s tax evasion and semi-vegetarianism), rather than use such a silent forum as the back of a car.

Toward the entrance of the parking lot are the remains of a huge tree, the trunk hollowed out by man or animal. A dendrochronologist, or perhaps Leopold, might inspect the cross section and be able to read something into Steamboat Landing’s history. The pines along the Inlet shore are also remnants, perhaps, of a coniferous library that grew here, a few books that have not yet fallen to flood or man. One of the pines has recently toppled into the lake, and adventurous, laughing children run along it, tossing handfuls of leaves into the water for ducks to peck at while searching for bread crusts. These dead leaves cover the banks, the parking lot, and the wooden benches surrounding the pavilion; dying pages also color the hills over the western side of the lake. Chilly winds cut through the folk music, laughter, and bustle that emanates from the trash-free, compost-friendly market, just as they carried the honks of geese earlier in the year.

Across the waters, the inlet conveys distorted reflections of cars speeding in and out of Ithaca on Rt. 89, the metallic blurs blocked from view only by the occasional tree bordering the road. Thoreau would wonder why people were in such a hurry to drive places when they could walk there better and faster. Leopold might ask what sort of lonely weed grew along the grasses between the asphalt and the shore before it was mowed to extinction, lamenting that “Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days.”

How much has the landscape of Steamboat Landing been “improved”? From this side of the inlet, I cannot tell if the grass next to Rt. 89 has been recently cut, but with the colder and wetter weather it is unlikely that many weeds are sticking it out above ground anymore. Over thirty varieties of apple are being offered at the Farmer’s Market right now, and at least a dozen species of squash in the spirit of fall; man is selective about which flora he is oblivious to.

A diverse amalgam of the artificial and natural, of the industrial and rural, dominates Steamboat Landing. The Farmer’s Market has many neighbors: the Johnson Boatyard next door, the Ithaca Wastewater Treatment Facility directly to the east, and the New York State Department of Transportation Cortland-Tompkins Residency to the southwest. (Agri)cultural produce, aquatic recreation, pollution management, and construction service all share this small corner of Ithaca, so the most common objects around are vegetables, cars, boats, sewage pipes, and construction material; not an expected combination for the shoreline of a lacustrine inlet. A less developed area separates the water and the Dept. of Transportation property, full of shoulder- to head-high goldenrod, now graying and gall-ridden, interspersed with some trees and bushes.

I follow a small muddy trail imprinted by deer hooves that winds through the undergrowth, and finches fly from the brush onto the rusty barbed-wire fence overgrown with purplish berries fighting for sunlight, cheerily and cheekily chirping their irritation at my disturbance. There is nothing here that a modern-day conservationist might fight for, but Leopold pointed out that, “Like all real treasures of the mind, perception can be split into infinitely small fractions without losing its quality. The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods.” Leopold understood that there is a reason that the trail I am on is covered in deer tracks, that finches have nests near goldenrods, and that fly maggots have formed galls within their plants; they are part of an ecological web that drapes over every spot of the world.

The intrinsic, interconnected organic beauty that Leopold believes in can be found in the berries, the finches, and the fly maggots. But inorganic ugliness is, of course, present as well. A couple of cracked concrete slabs slope into the Inlet, half-covered in driftwood that catches floating plastic bottles, and a wooden board with nails in it floats idly near the bank. Flat waters hosting some of the season’s last geese flow on the right, and huge hills of shale rubble and twisted tree roots sit on the left.

The Dept. of Transportation lot is full of such piles of silt and gravel. “To what end, pray, is so much stone hammered?” Thoreau asked, and answered his own question with the observation that, “Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave.” He was mostly referring to buildings, the luxurious towers and temples of princes, but today most stone is hammered—by power-tools or explosives—to clear space for construction, and then recycled as the very same construction material in the form of gravel and concrete. Thoreau’s plaintive comment applies just as well to roads as it does to buildings, however. Highways only spur the creation of more places to rush to; if Thoreau felt the nineteenth century was “restless, nervous, bustling, [and] trivial,” what would he say about the dirty, twisted road signs announcing STOP, No Stopping, or Speed Kills? He would likely agree only with the first and last sentiments. After all, he pointed out, “Most of the stone a nation hammers goes toward its tomb only.” Leopold also had negative views of the road: he chose a farm far from any highway, and lamented the loss of endemic species to what he described as idle CCC camps’ “widespread temptation to build new and often needless roads.” This widespread temptation is, perhaps, not too dissimilar from the insane ambition Thoreau wrote of.

But could current Ithacan society operate without Rt. 89? Would returning to the steamboat and railroad make us any better off? Leopold might have preferred a Jeffersonian country, where family farms were more numerous than cities. “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery,” Leopold wrote. But we have giant grocery stores to take care of our breakfasts now; in fact Wegman’s is mere meters away from a southern branch of the Inlet. Perhaps the Farmer’s Market can help protect us against the spiritual danger, if we are conscious of the benefits of eating local produce and do not mind paying a premium. Thoreau might have agreed with Jefferson or Leopold on some level about the benefits of farms, but his skepticism about their civilizing impact was strong: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools,” he wrote, “Who made them serfs of the soil?” Thoreau believed ignorance and societal norms were the root of the problem, he felt that independence and freedom of the mind were necessary to strive. The mowing of some roadside weeds and the rush to fill “empty” spaces with our hammered stones are certain facts of today’s society, and we had been “progressing” toward these facts well before the Arcadians whose ruins Thoreau visited built their temples, and before he wore through the trail from his cabin to Walden pond.

My own trail seems to end in a watery gutter, but I discover that a smaller option turns left, so I bend double and push through the bushes until I reach the same ditch, but this time it is shallower and I see the Farmer’s Market parking lot in front of me; I have come back to the beginning. The wind blows applause through the dry leaves above my head as I leap off the trail and onto the stony road that was paved over dozens of history books.

 All my Aldo Leopold quotations are from A Sand County Almanac: with essays on conservation from Round River. Random House Digital, Inc. 1970; my Henry David Thoreau quotations are from Walden. Boston: Beacon Press. 2004.

4 thoughts on “What the Trees Read

  1. Pingback: Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time | Raxa Collective

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