Saturday, January 14, 2017

Tracking Stories in the Algonquin Wilderness

Jack Pine
by Tom Thomson
Source: Wikimedia

Writing placed-based literature is a great experience because there are always stories embedded in the culture of an area that a writer can use as a springboard.

When I wrote Ephemeral Summer I placed my college-age protagonist, Emalee, in settings that were familiar to me. She attends colleges in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York because I know the area well. However, like most college-age students she moves around, and in the last chapter, she visits the Canadian wilderness to assist a fellow graduate student track moose in Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada.  

Although I had stayed in Algonquin twice myself during graduate school (tracking moose), my research on Algonquin went beyond the ecological setting and into the realm of art. While conducting my research I was surfing the Internet for information about the Northern Lights to include in the novel, and stumbled upon the artwork of Tom Thomson, (1877-1917) an artist from the early 1900s who painted landscapes in Algonquin.

The Northern Lights by Tom Thompson

Thomson first visited Algonquin in 1912 and fell in love with the place. He stayed, found jobs as a ranger, firefighter and any other occupation that the woods would allow, and painted in his spare time. His paintings are considered the forerunner of a movement of painters called The Group of Seven: a group of Canadian landscape painters who spent considerable time painting in Algonquin from the 1920s-1930s.

As I delved into his story I found parallels to my plot. There is an accidental death by drowning in my story Ephemeral Summer, and Thomson likewise drowned under mysterious circumstances. In 1917, at age 40, he went out canoeing and was found dead a week later. Foul play was suspected but never confirmed.

Like many artists, Thomson did not make a lot of money on his works. Although he did have a patron, and some of his works sold, he became more popular after his death.

And that is what is most intriguing about Thomson: his drive to create art whether it sold or not. His story folded neatly into my narrative for Ephemeral Summer. Indeed, for many artists, who create for art's sake, because they feel compelled. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Weather in the Finger Lakes

Let’s Talk About the Weather

Because it dictates our moods


I like to describe the weather when I’m writing a scene in my novels. Maybe it’s because I’m from Upstate New York where we can experience summer and fall in one week (literally). But it’s also because the weather is what everyone talks about around here.
The weather dictates our moods, our conversations, what we do on a day-to-day basis. I planned to mow the lawn today, can’t do it — it’s raining. I wanted to go for a swim in the lake — too cold. I was going to paint the deck today, no can-do — the wind is too strong and it’s blowing all the cottonwood seeds around and it almost appears like it’s snowing outside.

A standard joke for Upstate weather? A sunny day is called cloud failure. Yes, because of all the lakes around her (Great Lakes and Finger Lakes), the skies are gray a majority of the time. And that definitely dictates one’s mood.
You can’t go anywhere without having or hearing a conversation about the weather. As in “Can you believe this weather?” which could mean, it’s been sunny and dry and 80 degrees F for the past week or, it’s been cool, rainy and in the 40s. It doesn’t matter, we Upstaters never seem to want to believe the weather is doing what it’s doing to us.
And in my household when we turn on the local news after dinner, what’s the reason? Not to watch what’s happening in the Presidential elections, it’s you-guessed-it, to get the weather forecast.
Weather it seems, is so much part of our lives, like waking up, eating, or going to work.
I hadn’t thought much about this until recently when I noticed my mood shifting into a somber mode and had to figure out why. The weather was clear, the days were sunny, I had nothing to worry or complain about (well sort of, we all have something to worry or complain about — that is a human condition). And then I realized it was the change of seasons. The days were getting longer, the sun was rising earlier, and the birds were singing their hearts out. It was spring going on summer. One would think it would be a time of joy for me, so why the dark moods? 
We in Upstate wait months for summer to arrive.
Maybe I thought, the feeling is like a holiday I’ve been waiting and preparing for. You anticipate and plan and then when it comes it’s never exactly as you predicted. And you regroup and tell yourself, live in the now. Stop thinking about what the weather is going to be like tomorrow.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ephemeral Seasons

In the wildflower garden at Baltimore Woods, NY.
Here in the Finger Lakes region our seasons are ephemeral (some may say our winters are not!) and so are many of the native plants that thrive in the woods. Spring wildflowers such as bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) are only here for a short stay. They come to life when the deciduous trees haven't leafed out and there is enough sun to reach the forest floor. Bloodroot is considered threatened and endangered in some places in the Northeast. This delicate flower's seeds are spread by ants. It has a brief life. It will only flower for a few days and then die. The leaves of the plants may last a little while longer but they too eventually return to the soil to wait until next spring.

Bloodroot has an interesting history. It gets its common name from the red root of the plant that was once used by Native Americans as a dye. It also has many medicinal uses, well know by Native Americans and discovered by the colonists. It was once used as a tonic, cough medicine, and the mashed roots were used as a skin ointment.

I mention bloodroot and some other spring wildflowers in my latest novel: Imaginary Brightness: a Durant Family Saga. Because the main storyline is set in the Adirondacks I wanted to include local lore about the woods. Although my editor told me to simmer it down a bit (this is not a forum to educate about the environment!) I threw in as many tidbits as I could. Indeed, the natives in the region, called the Algonquins, and then later the Mohawks, and other tribes that traversed through the Adirondacks, used many of the wild plants and especially tree parts such as bark for their tinctures, sweeteners, and food. I decided that since I was writing about history, the plants had their place in the story as well.

View of the sky in Baltimore Woods on a spring day.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Life in Finger Lakes Magazine

Thank you to Life in the Finger Lakes Magazine for publishing a review of my book Ephemeral Summer in their Winter 2014 edition. "The author, ..., has crafted an engaging first novel with appealing multigenerational characters and provocative plot twists." Laurel C. Wemmett. For the full review visit:

To purchase the book visit  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why Wine in the Finger Lakes?

Map drawn in 1779 by Revolutionary War scout showing the locations of the
Cayuga and Seneca settlements during the Sullivan/Clinton campaign.
In my novel Ephemeral Summer there is a reference to the Native American settlements along Canandaigua Lake and the rest of the Finger Lakes. This map, shown courtesy of Bill Hecht and digitized by Bernie Cocoran at the Library of Congress collections, shows the locations of the Cayuga and Seneca settlements at the time of the Sullivan- Clinton expedition against the Iroquois during the Revolutionary War.  Generals Sullivan and Clinton were ordered by General Washington to wipe out the Native American villages and their food supplies.

What is interesting about the map, and what I reference in my novel, is the number of orchards present at the time. The Native Americans understood that the lakes provided an ideal climate for fruit bearing trees and vines. Besides the longhouse dwellings shown as red rectangles, one can see the abundance of orchards dotting the landscape.

Indeed, diaries of the soldiers that took part in this scorched earth campaign recount the number of trees they girdled and bushels of grain they set fire to. In one entry a soldier recounts his arrival at the Seneca Nation capital of 'Cannondesago' near Geneva, NY.

at Cannondesago the chief Cinnakee 
castle about dusk,where we found about 80 houses somthing large 
some of them built with hew? timber & part with round timber and part 
with bark. Large quantities of corn and beans with all sorts of sauce, 
at this place a fine Young Orchard, which was soon all girdled
The Finger Lakes region was a confluence of Native American settlement and agricultural production. The lakes provide a moderating influence on the temperatures and climate of the region making it an ideal location for fruit-bearing trees and vines. Water has a high heat capacity meaning, once lakes such as Seneca and Cayuga heat up it takes a long time for them to cool down.  This works to the advantage of fruit production. In the spring, the cooler air around the lakes delays budding which then prevents damage from a killing late spring frost. In the fall, the lakes give off the heat they have been storing slowly all summer, which prolongs the harvest season for the fruit.

A tourist enjoying the bounty that the Finger Lakes has to offer.
If you take a trip to the Finger Lakes region in the fall you will see tourists pouring out of limos and buses and lining up for tastings at the numerous wineries around the lakes. Although I favor red wines, the Rieslings in this region are award-winning.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Perfect Wedding Day at Clark Reservation

Columbus Day weekend. Peak season to check out the foliage of the deciduous trees that grace our landscape in Upstate New York. I asked my husband, "Would you like to go to the Adirondacks tomorrow and take a hike in the mountains?"

He gave me a blank expression that I interpreted as a no.

So instead, we got up early on this bright Sunday morning and drove about 20 minutes away to see a landscape that matches any vista in the Adirondack Mountains: Clark Reservation located in Jamesville, NY. As you can see from the picture, the major attraction at the park is the plunge basin lake, formed at the bottom of an ancient waterfall that was a result of the glacial ice melt about 10,000 years ago.

But there is even more history to see at the park: the fossils of sea creatures carved into the limestone pathways along the basin are testament to the fact that millions of years ago this part of the world was the bottom of a shallow sea.

I wasn't really thinking about all of this history however as I walked. Instead I was just in awe with the numerous cedars carving spectacular sculptures into the soil with their gnarled roots. And the rich palette of colors that the maples provided for my soul. And the loud swishing noise that greeted my ears over and over as Canada geese flew into the lake from the bright blue skies above - seeking refuge I assume from the waterfowl hunters in the surrounding fields.
I will just store these memories away with me whenever I am feeling down or sorry for my self. Because I was physically able to hike into the basin, and hike back up (yes, we had to climb those limestone steps to get back to the car). When I got to the top I was also delighted to see that someone was planning on getting married today, and they had perfect weather. Good luck to you both - the anonymous couple that got married today. I hope when you come back to the park each year to celebrate, the weather cooperates and you get the same view that graced your ceremony today.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Chladophora in Skaneateles Lake

I went for a swim today in Skaneateles Lake (69 degree F) ...BRRRRR.... it was cold. And I went paddle boarding. Both activities allowed me a fantastic view of the lake bottom. Skaneateles has always been a clear lake - one can see the bottom at depths of 15-20 feet. It is a nutrient poor lake, not much algae or plant life growing. Hence I was surprised to see masses of chadophora clinging to the rocks below.

Like green mermaid hair, the algae appears almost feathery when viewed from a paddle board. Pick it up in your hands though and it feels and looks like green snot. This should make it easy to distinguish from Chara - another algae that clings to rocks. Chara feels like shag carpeting when you walk on top of it and it does not tend to disengage from the rocks and wash up on shore.

Sea Grant has been studying the outbreaks of chladophora on the Great Lakes. The real problem with this filamentous algae is when it washes up on shore, decays and causes a stink.  I grabbed these pictures from the internet to show how it looks underwater and when it washes up on a beach. One theory for the recent nuisance level blooms in the Great Lakes is that the zebra and quagga mussels that invaded decades ago are recycling nutrients in their feces. That, and the die-offs of the mussels and consequential decay also may be feeding the algae.

I am not sure what it is. I don't think Chladophora has ever been a problem on Skaneateles Lake. At least I have never noticed it reach nuisance levels in the ten or so years that I have been swimming near shore. We will just have to wait and see.

On the plus side - a mayfly landed on my swimming partner today. They must be hatching. The cycle begins again.