A Not Too Greatly Changed Eden: The Story of the Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks written by James Schlett gives an in depth exploration into a 19th century camping trip that brought together some great intellectuals of the time. The book also recounts the events leading up to the trip, the (direct & indirect) consequences of it, and the state of the original site today.
Schlett first discovered the topic that would inspire his book in 2008 when he wrote an article for the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, NY on the 150th anniversary of that Adirondack camping trip. In his extensive research he discovered letters and other direct first-person documentation (never or under utilized in other scholarly papers on this topic) that he used to create a clear and detailed picture of the expedition.
In the summer of 1858, William James Stillman (painter and founding editor of The Crayon art journal) organized the expedition to the Adirondacks and invited several “scholarly” friends to accompany him, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson (transcendental philosopher & writer), James Russell Lowell (poet), Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (scientist & Harvard professor), Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar (lawyer and future US Attorney General), Horatio Woodman (lawyer), Estes Howe (doctor), John Holmes (writer), Jeffries Wyman (Harvard naturalist), and Amos Binney (doctor). They and their local guides traveled through the Adirondack wilderness and camped by Follensby Pond on the site that came to be called the “Philosophers’ Camp.” Because of their stay in the Adirondacks, the men helped to leave a lasting impact on the region and invoked notions of preservation of the wilderness on a wide scale.
Follensby Pond Transformations
During and after the expedition, national news reported about these men and their noteworthy stay in the virgin wilderness. That attention helped to fuel the interest of city residents in exploring the Adirondacks and visiting the area for vacation. Emerson would later immortalize the area in a poem entitled “The Adirondacs“ based on his experiences during that trip.
The men of the expedition determined to make a yearly tradition of this event, formed the “Adirondack Club,” and purchased some land on which to build a permanent camp. However, these plans never came to fruition due to the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-1865).
Years later, Stillman returned to the original expedition site and he found the landscape changed almost beyond recognition — it was affected by the increased popularity of tourism in the Adirondacks and other development (logging, commercialism, etc.). Although today that land is owned and protected by the Nature Conservancy, it was devastation like that which led to the development of the Adirondack Park and implementation of environmental protection laws.
American Culture in Transition
Philip Terrie in his article “The Philosophers’ Camp at Follensby Pond” nicely sums up the main points of the book here:
Focusing primarily on the Follensby Pond expedition, Schlett uses it to develop a series of linked themes. The response of Stillman, Emerson, and others to the untouched wilderness of the central Adirondacks invites an assessment of how American culture was coping with the dramatic and often traumatic move away from its rural past and into an urban, industrial future. This is both an American and an Adirondack story (neither urban nor industrial, the Adirondacks is nonetheless what it is today because the rest of New York was becoming both), and Schlett employs it well. Just how the Follensby story evolved along with the larger Adirondack narrative, concluding with the latest chapter wherein the Follensby property has been bought by the Nature Conservancy and awaits its eventual purchase by the state and inclusion in the Forest Preserve, constitutes another significant theme. (AdirondackAlmanac.com)
If you’re interested in purchasing the book you can discover more and do so here: A Not Too Greatly Changed Eden: The Story of the Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks by James Schlett.
- The Philosophers’ Camp at Follensby Pond (adirondackalmanack.com)
- Retracing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Steps In A Now ‘Unchanged Eden’ (npr.org)
- Adirondack Journal — The Philosophers’ Camp at Follensby Pond (adirondackmuseum.org)