Searching for the
Testing the Waters
After several years of taking short essays to meetings of the Bath Area Writers Group, I've learned that my imagination works in a distinctive way.
The things I write often come together only at the last moment—as if getting them ready in time for the meetings catalyzes the process of defining what to include and what to omit. The end result usually has the right structure. But time and again I've found that other group members wish I had filled out the picture—by adding words that provide detail or reveal feelings.
Each time they make such comments I explain that I deliberately boil down my essays to their bare bones. "Only then," I say, "can I see how to fit all the components together." But even as I speak I sense how hard it would be to include the words they want.
It's not that I have no imagination. When I'm angry, for example, mental pictures often wash over me so vividly that I'm stopped in my tracks, appalled by my own thoughts. But even with matters more pleasant, my imagination tends to work like that—occurring as unbidden flashes, difficult to sustain and even more difficult to express on paper.
Despite these difficulties, I've made my imagination an integral part of my efforts to explore the Southern Tier. As I travel, I keep an eye out for imaginative flashes—because whenever they do occur, they give the land a special aura.
One early instance came in July 1989 during a visit to Cooperstown, New York. I was hoping to experience Otsego Lake as Glimmerglass—the lake that served as the setting for James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Deerslayer. Not knowing exactly what to try, I first visited the museum at Fenimore House. But nothing there "grabbed" me. Next I located the lake's outlet stream. Seeing for myself the beginning of the Susquehanna made me feel somewhat "warmer."
Finally, in the lake itself—near the outlet stream and not far from the shore—I saw the rock where Deerslayer and Chingachgook had rendezvoused for the adventures that Cooper chronicled in the rest of his book. Of course, Cooper had made up the whole story. But so convincing were his word pictures that my imagination was sparked by the sight of Council Rock. In the late-afternoon light of a partially cloudy summer's day, the scene before me became numinous:
But writing about such experiences was hard for me. As a graduate student, I hadn't been taught how to conjure up vivid word pictures. Instead, I had been taught how to present convincing arguments—by appealing to a reader's ability to reason rather than to his or her mind's eye.
For my writing about the Southern Tier, I needed a more imaginative style. In addition to seeing for myself the stories that were tied to the land, I would have to show those stories to others. Convincing arguments, I knew, would not fully suffice. But switching over to a style that was purely imaginary wouldn't work either—because I wasn't willing to give up my deep, abiding commitment to events that had, in fact, taken place.
The goal I finally embraced was to open a parallel route into the past. Alongside the approach I had learned in graduate school, I would seek an approach that gave greater emphasis to imagination.
In essence, that was the career move I made when I applied to the college for funds to retrace the route of the Sullivan Expedition. Rather than traveling to places where I could study documents in archives, I proposed undertaking a major round of land research. Instead of presenting a thesis about the events of the American Revolution, I planned to take an imaginative approach.
But would I be able to extend the geographical scope of my land research beyond the terrain that I had explored with Grandma? If I did succeed in extending my reach and if imaginative flashes did occur, would I be able to express them on paper? Finally, were my plans overly ambitious, in ways likely to kick up inner emotional storms? If I committed myself to such a big project, would I find myself getting into trouble psychologically?
As a result of these uncertainties, I decided to "test the waters" ahead of time—by making a couple of trips. On the first, Terry and I visited Fort Niagara, at the mouth of the Niagara River. On the second, we visited Oriskany Battlefield, just east of modern-day Rome, New York.
We drove to Fort Niagara on the first weekend after I had turned in grades for Spring Quarter, 1993, and as we explored the site, there was no mistaking its distinctive geography.
Stretching across the northern horizon was Lake Ontario, and immediately to the west was the Niagara River. Along the southern horizon we could see the scarp over which the river had begun falling once the Ice Age had ended. Since then, the river had carved a long gorge for itself. Yet the falls still existed, blocking the passage of boats. Thus the main purpose of the fort was to guard the portage around the falls.
The site's strategic importance meant that it had been occupied for centuries. Existing structures ranged from a stone "castle" the French had built in 1726, to brick-lined earthworks the Americans had built after the Civil War. But "getting a fix" on the American Revolution turned
out not to be difficult—because standing apart from the various other structures was the North Redoubt, built by the British in 1771:
The lines of its exterior gave the North Redoubt a vaguely oriental look. Rather than standing vertically, its stone walls leaned slightly inward, and the slope of its wooden roof was noticeably curved.
Inside, the windows provided the only light. The first floor—now empty—had been used for storage. The living quarters had been on the second floor, and the soldiers had slept on low, wooden platforms along two of the walls. No fire now burned in the fireplaces. But even if one had been lit, it wouldn't have done much to dispel the chilly gloom.
I suspect the gunroof would have been equally gloomy if the large wooden shutters had been in place. But on the day of our visit they were raised, with thick ropes holding them up. The result was a panoramic view of the water—framed by the raised shutters, the upright timbers, and the stone parapet:
I recalled from my reading that back in 1779 Washington has considered the possibility of taking Fort Niagara. If, somehow, the fort were to fall, he had told Sullivan, "you will do everything in your power for preserving and maintaining it (quoted in The American Revolution, 1775-1783: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 1608). But Washington hadn't ordered Sullivan to take the fort.
The view from the gunroof of the North Redoubt made Washington's reasons perfectly clear: the advantage in any contest would have lain with the defenders. Barring betrayal or gross negligence, Fort Niagara would have fallen only to long siege. But Sullivan's extended supply lines-overland, through hostile Indian territory—and the approaching winter season had ruled out any such effort.
The second site Terry and I visited—about a month after our visit to Fort Niagara—was Oriskany Battlefield. When we first arrived, I felt the same disorientation I had felt at the Sullivan monument near Elmira. We couldn't miss the huge obelisk that Grandma had once described to me. Yet the actual location of the fighting wasn't obvious.
From my reading I knew that Oriskany—like Newtown—had been an ambush site. The battle had taken place where it did because Joseph Brant, the Iroquois leader, knew the lay of the land. What we were looking for was a ravine, along whose upper edge Brant had positioned his men, and after a few minutes of scouting around, we found the appropriate historical marker.
From my reading I also knew that the battle had occurred in the context of a three-pronged campaign by the British in 1777 to gain control of the Hudson River. Arriving from the west, Lieutenant Colonel St. Leger had laid siege to Fort Stanwix (now located in downtown Rome)—which guarded the portage for the water route between Lake Ontario and the Mohawk River. Once the fort fell, St. Leger was to proceed downstream and rendezvous with General Burgoyne, who was leading a second army southward, down Lake Champlain. Meanwhile, a third army would be coming northward, up the Hudson—at least, that seems to have been the plan.
In an effort to relieve the garrison at Fort Stanwix, General Herkimer led a detachment of several hundred rebel militiamen from the Mohawk Valley—and it was this group, advancing along a wilderness road, that Brant had intercepted at Oriskany.
The problem for Brant was that the rebels held their ground long enough to inflict heavy casualties on his men. In the end, the rebels retreated—thus failing to relieve the fort. But thereafter the Iroquois were extremely wary of participating in European-style engagements, with troops hammering away at each other for hours on end.
Without his Iroquois allies, St. Leger decided he couldn't safely proceed. Thus the Battle of Oriskany helped pave the way for the Battle of Saratoga, during which Burgoyne (who alone had continued the campaign) was forced to surrender. That, in turn, brought France into the war as an ally of the rebels—thereby tipping the balance of international power in favor of the revolution.
Without planning things that way, our day trips had shown me the full spectrum of the military tactics during the 18th century. At one end were European-style forts, intended to withstand cannon fire and long sieges. At the other, were the guerilla methods perfected by the Indians. I had seen an example of the first style on my visit to Fort Niagara. At Oriskany I had been to a site of the second. But somehow I hadn't gotten "inside" what colonial Americans had called "the skulking way of war." Instead, the "inside" experience came on a different occasion entirely.
As part of our daily routine, Terry and I often take short walks together. Sometimes we follow standard routes around our subdivision. Other times we drive to nearby sections of the Barge Canal Trail. And occasionally we experiment with other places—including a small park maintained by the Town of Pittsford.
Late one afternoon at about the time of our day trips to Fort Niagara and Oriskany, Terry expressed an interest in a woods walk, and I suggested Isaac Gordon Nature Park as being the nearest suitable place.
The first section of the trail was long and straight, following a tractor path between two fields. Not until
entering the woods proper did the contours of the trail become more natural. Soon we could see—through the trees, ahead of us and below—a marshy pond, surrounded at its southern end by tree—covered high ground.
After the trail wound down to the water's edge, it skirted the southern end of the pond and then began a gradual ascent—moving diagonally up the hillside. Here we found ourselves in deep woods, with mayapples and jack-in-the-pulpits flourishing in the moist shade.
Suddenly I felt uneasy. About seventy-five feet to my left, and above, was the crest of the high ground:
As I scanned that line, back-lit by the late-afternoon sun, my general uneasiness exploded into fearful vulnerability: if armed men were posted there, we were doomed! The trees along the trail offered scant cover, and the escape to the north was blocked by the pond.
Of course, there was nothing to suggest that Terry and I were under any real threat. Instead, the threat was purely imaginary—which is the whole point. Without intending to (and without realizing it until "too late"), I found myself on terrain much like that at Oriskany, and waiting for me on the high ground were Brant's Iroquois warriors: I had been ambushed by my own imagination!
As disquieting as I found the experience, I drew from it the comforting lesson that our up-coming trip to retrace the route of the Sullivan Expedition was likely to prove successful. I still suspected that I would find myself at the edge of what I knew how to do. But now I had no doubts that a new kind of research lay within my reach.
© 1996, Thomas D. Cornell