Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What in the world is Danby?

(Make sure you come with a full gas tank.  We have no gas station.)

The late Carl Sagan, who was a professor at Cornell, once said that Danby, NY was nothing but an IGA store along the side of a highway.  Well, those were the good ole days.  That store closed a couple of years ago, and our only gas station burned down about the same time.  The elementary school closed in 1980, the year we moved here, so our children had to be bussed into Ithaca.  Closing the only school in a small town causes the place to lose spirit and a bit of its identity. Sad, really. Danby does have a small town hall and a nice looking church.  Danby's most famous resident was Martin Luther Smith, who graduated from West Point in 1842, and served as a general in the Confederate army.  Geography was not his strong suit.

But it is not that bad, if you don't like crowds.  I always said I would not live in a city if it was so busy it needed a traffic report on tv.  And the best town of all is one where the elevation is greater than the population; Danby almost meets this criterion.  We have a populaton of 3,000 and Danby is at an elevation of about 1,500 feet.  (By the way, I just tried to get this information off the Danby town web server, but I repeatedly got a Fail to Connect message, so I had to go to Wikipedia.  Maybe we lost our server also.).

The residents in Danby mostly work in Ithaca, a 20-minute drive away.  It is rural, with some dairy farms, hayfields, and forests, including some state land called Danby State Forest.  We boast Jennings Pond, where you can fish for bass or swim, after the community cleans up the beach in the spring.  We have a volunteer fire department to keep us safe.  Lots of volunteering around here, and I am not very good at that.  Many people heat their homes with wood and there is some logging of large trees to help pay the taxes.  We are located in the southern part of Tompkins County, where the soil is not as good as the northern half, but it is hillier and there is more forest.  The farms are smaller and not as productive as those to the north. Within a mile of my home, there is a small and tired cemetery with dates from the 1800s.  Danby is my kind of place.

Whenever a new house is built in the U.S., I detest it, as the human footprint grows larger on the land. I long for the day when the only new house built is constructed on the foundation of an old one that had to be taken down. If a new house is built within a mile of my home, I am depressed for a month.  At present, I have another three weeks to be depressed. Residents of Danby are economically stressed generally, and so everyone does what they have to do to make it in the short term, but who speaks for the landscape and for the long term?

In the evening I sometimes sit outside around a bonfire in my woods and listen to the Barred Owls calling and the coyotes whooping it up a short distance away.  One of my favorite scenes is when I walk away from the fire in the dark and look back at the light and embers shooting up into the forest canopy.  I imagine that it might have looked just like that in this very place 300 years ago when Cayuga Indians gathered around the heat to keep warm.  I can spend all day in my woods doing chores, but it really doesn't seem like work at all, although I would have complained bitterly about it as a young boy.  What changed?

I live at the top of one of the hills in Danby. If I urinate in the drainage ditch alongside my driveway, those molecules flow into a stream down the road, then into the Susquehanna River, and eventually empties into Chesapeake Bay near Baltimore. If I walk 100 yards up and over the ridge and then urinate, it flows through small creeks and streams into the southern end of Cayuga Lake and out the north end, then through a couple of rivers to be dumped into Lake Ontario. That great lake empties to the east into the St. Lawrence River, which flows another 750 miles to the northeast into the largest estuary in the world and the north Atlantic. I used to recite this story to my students when they visited my property, but they never seemed as enthused in hearing it as I was in telling it. So depending on whether I want to send a little "message" to Maryland or to Quebec, I urinate outdoors either on this side of the hill or on the other side. This morning I am in the mood to say "bonjour" to our friends to the north, although it will probably take a month for the message to arrive.  Entertainment comes cheap on this hill.  But Danby is a place where one still has the luxury of sending a liquid message.