Women writers and the wilderness: Student research projects to explore Adirondack connection

Publication Date

The writer Joyce Carol Oates has frequently set many of her short stories and novels in the Adirondacks. Born in the upstate New York farming community of Lockport, Oates is intimately familiar with the landscape of her childhood.

Sydney Paluch ’17 is spending her summer dissecting the work of Oates, Jean Rikoff, Jeanne Robert Foster and other prominent writers who have tapped into the literary voice of the Adirondacks in their works.

“The focus has generally been on the men’s literary perspectives,” said Paluch. “There has been little research done specifically on the women writers. And that’s unfortunate, because there have been many women writers who have used the Adirondacks as a literary landscape.”

John S. Apperson and Paul Schaefer spent a lifetime working to conserve and protect the sprawling six-million acre Adirondack Park, an area bigger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier and Grand Canyon National Park combined.

Primarily using material from the Apperson and Schaefer collections held at the College’s Kelly Adirondack Center, David Olio ’17 is examining how the definition of wilderness developed by the two noted conservationists applies in today’s world.

The collections, spanning from 1899 to 1996, provide a remarkable window into the history of the American environmental movement and the tensions that erupted over efforts to conserve the Adirondack Forest Preserve and expand the Adirondack Park.

“People have different perceptions of what wilderness is,” said Olio. He is the first to use the collections since the College received a grant to organize and make available to a national audience information about the two collections of papers.

“Some view it as land completely untrampled by man, while others view it as, well, we can build large cabins and have nice estates by the sides of lakes.”

Paluch and Olio are the latest recipients of a summer research fellowship program offered through the Kelly Adirondack Center. Now in its fourth year, the competitive program selects students enrolled in an undergraduate, master’s or doctoral program in urban planning, public policy, environmental science, the physical sciences or social sciences.

Over the course of eight weeks, fellows conduct independent research on an issue impacting the Adirondacks. They also participate in workshops and seminars, meet with representatives of organizations involved with Adirondack advocacy and policy, and write op-eds and research reports related to their topic. Hikes, visits and weekend excursions to places such as the Adirondack Museum, the Wild Center and the High Peaks are also part of the itinerary.

Each fellow receives a stipend and, if needed, housing.

“The idea is to get students, and by extension the Union community, to see the Adirondacks as a place where you can study these concepts that have broader meaning and to use the resources of our library,” said Hallie Bond, director of the Center.

The fellows will present their findings at a reception at the Center Aug. 10 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

Located three miles from campus in Niskayuna, the center includes the former home of noted Adirondack conservationist Paul Schaefer (1908-1996) and the Adirondack Research Library. The library boasts a unique collection of material on the Adirondack Park and the New York State Forest Preserve, including rare books, maps, photographs, documents and the personal papers of some of the region's foremost conservationists.

Sydney Paluch ‘17

Hometown: Albany, N.Y.
Majors: English and Political Science
Minor: Women and Gender Studies
Research questions:

  • What constitutes the “Adirondack literary voice”?
  • Why have female writers such as Foster been lost to obscurity after their death even after being celebrated during their lives?
  • How does the wilderness affect a writers’ narrative voice?
  • What have been the political implications of women’s writing in the Adirondacks?

David Olio ‘17

Hometown: Hebron, Conn.
Majors: English and Environmental Policy
Minor: Classics
Research questions:

  • How have government intervention and legislation, such as the Wilderness act of 1964 and the failure of Article 14 to define wilderness, shaped the public’s perception of wilderness?
  • How was Paul Schaefer so successful in expanding his vision of wilderness? What set him apart from others who advocate for their understanding of the Adirondacks’ purpose?
  • What subtleties separate each advocacy group, and how have those differences evolved into continuous disagreements over legislative decisions that could potentially produce favorable outcomes for each group?