The Power Line
"One of the books I enjoyed the most in 2021." - Jeff Sharlet
The Power Line veers from the villages of Lake Aurora and Saranac Lake in the years following World War I, when Prohibition and tuberculosis kept them hopping, to Montreal and a thrilling escape by canoe across the St. Lawrence River in the dead of winter. It follows the adventures of Fran Germaine, rustic builder and old-time fiddle player, and his friend Lonnie Monroe, the source for the tapes and transcriptions made in the eighties about their days working as together as bootleggers for Legs Diamond.
The tapes, made by the guide and independent scholar Abel St. Martin, were discovered only after his disappearance on an Amazonian river expedition years later. They partly explain what happened in the rumored shootout in 1929 at Donnelly's Corners, north of the village of Saranac Lake.
But The Power Line moves on to the journals of the noted political theorist, author, and reputed lover of Carl Jung, Rosalyn Orloff, who also studied with William James and went to Radcliffe with Gertrude Stein. They shed light not only on a little known period of Germaine's biography, but also on a little known stream of influence in the Adirondack story and its centrality to American philosophy, psychology, art, and environmentalism.
Fast paced but allusive and wide ranging, The Power Line connects lives and periods often overlooked in the history of northern New York and the Canadian borderlands, tracing a path from a disputed and murky past to a living and recognizable present.
From The Power Line:
“Well, I don’t know how much there is to say about Fran Germaine and how me and him met Jack Diamond and got into the bootlegging racket. It was a day I’ll never forget, though, I’ll tell you that.”
Lonnie Monroe twisted his face up into a weird mask, the kind he made to emphasize a point. He sat across from me in a booth at the Trap Dyke tap room in Lake Aurora, New York, in the Adirondacks. His blue eyes were watery and he hadn’t shaved that morning, so his white beard prongs stuck out in all directions from his leathery face. He was otherwise well turned out in his retired-old-timer garb of pressed tan Dickies, a felt Moose River hat and Russell moccasins with white wool socks, rolled down. I’m doing this to make you happy, he seemed to be saying. Now let’s just get it over with.
It was June, 1983. I had been pestering him for weeks to sit down and tell me about Fran Germaine and what happened at Donnelly’s Corners in the twenties, but he couldn’t get used to the idea of talking into a machine, of cementing into the deep past something he clearly viewed as a living reality. Much was hinted around here about Fran Germaine, but little known. Everybody’d heard fragments, but never in any coherent or very plausible form. Lonnie’s versions left a lot of holes. He was a known embellisher, but not getting any younger, and I hoped to get his story down on tape while I still could.
Finally, because of his affection for Germaine’s granddaughter, Sonja, he agreed.
“He was her granddaddy, so she deserves to know,” was how he put it. I hoped I could just keep him focused long enough to see if there was really anything there.
Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip With The Gods
"[T]ranscends a sense of place in his tale.... Brainy and brawny and tinged with a refreshing humility... a huge accomplishment." -The Washington Post
"You'll be reminded of everyone from Jon Krakauer to Jonathan Raban, but Chris Shaw is a true original." -Bill McKibben
"The next best thing to running the great Usumacinta is reading Chris Shaw's engaging tale of real-time adventure." -David Freidel, co-author of Maya Cosmos and A Forest of Kings
Empty at the Heart of the World
(In The Nature of Nature, an anthology)
I was surrounded by wolves. They kept creeping in and crowding the unlit corners of my thoughts like neglected responsibilities, in the dreamy way they do, yellow-eyed and serene, big dogs indifferent to people, patient and unsentimental, as if they had crossed the frozen St. Lawrence of our brief history here and worked their relentless way back where they belonged. In a way, their presence was truer than mine. I was just the vehicle for their lupine reclamation project. I heard a hermit thrush and a white-throated sparrow. A junco rustled in the dead leafage under a tuft of fern. That's all there was, with its implication of everything. Me in my emptiness, surrounded by wolves.
At Panther Gorge With William James
(New England Review)
In June 1898, the philosopher and psychologist William James traveled by train and stage coach to Lake Placid, New York, and arranged to stay at the original Adirondak Loj, a baroque log pile a few miles outside the village at Heart Lake, in the Adirondack high peaks. The building had been designed and built on the shores of Heart Lake by Henry Van Hoevenberg, “Mr. Van,” an eccentric gnome who pioneered many of the hiking routes in the surrounding peaks, and who, according to James, wore buckskins, patent leather knee boots, and a six-shooter in a hog’s leg strapped to his thigh. Van Hoevenberg became James’s nurse, companion, and guide in the three-week period of reading, rest, and recuperation he passed there while trying to begin the lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience.
The Symbolic Coast
(Green Mountain Review)
I had gone to Blombos expressly to get as close as I could to the geographic origins of consciousness, and to trace that line where our subjective experience and the physical world flowed together. For the moment, this particular stretch of coast owned the most tangible claim to that distinction.
Here we found the earliest empirical evidence for some aspect of human consciousness we called symbolic thinking, and the place couldn’t have been more stretched out, bleached out, crooked, weathered, hammered, broken, relentless, difficult. That it carried strange overtones as well didn’t surprise me. Out of it had emerged a new kind of visible thing—a diamond pattern scratched on a rock that may have been the same design its creator wore on his body. And the place wasn’t only strange. It was as wild as you could get.