Familiar Territory

Screen-Shot-2014-03-03-at-5.03.37-PMI’m often a long way behind the curve with movies, and last night we finally watched 12 Years a Slave. It was an odd confluence to watch this while reading the various justifications for slavery in Aristotle, but it was even weirder to figure out that (according to the movie, at least) that Solomon Northrop was from Saratoga, New York. I hadn’t heard of Saratoga, only Saratoga Springs. So of course I had to research it. The Wikipedia entry notes that Northrop owned property in Hebron. Turns out that’s just about 8 miles from my favorite place to buy milk just outside of Salem, NY—Battenkill Valley Creamery.

Apparently, he moved into Saratoga Springs in 1834. However, the businessmen that freed him from captivity were from Saratoga, which is next door. I’ve travelled around there quite a bit and I was familiar with the Revolutionary War battlefield to the south of there, though we just drove through it. I didn’t remember a “city” of Saratoga. Turns out the northeast corner of the town of Saratoga is the village of Schuylerville. Now, the weirdness of all this is that I usually stop in Schuylerville  for lunch when we’re on our way to the dairy, which is about a three hours from where we live.

It’s beautiful country, and I always thought it was an interesting town. I was bit shocked to find this tidbit in Wikipedia:

In the March 25, 1990 issue of The New York Times, writer James Howard Kunstler published a piece entitled “Schuylerville Stands Still”. This piece used Schuylerville as an example of rural “rot and disrepair”, citing unemployment, broken sidewalks, and dented cans at the local mini market, Mini Mart. Reaction to the article from members of the community was strongly negative. Kunstler also used Schuylerville as an example of a town in decline in a chapter titled “The loss of community” in his 1993 book, The Geography of Nowhere.

I never thought of Schuylerville as “nowhere” in any sense of the word. The country around there is simply beautiful, right on the edge of the Hudson. I wasn’t aware of the PCB spill, or any of the contemporary history; I was equally ignorant of the deep history of the area, including Solomon Northrop. My main intercourse with the Saratoga Springs area has been to go to a woodworking show there, and pass through on the way to the dairy. On a trip there not long ago, we drove past the front gate of Yaddo, another feature of the area that I was unaware of until my wife schooled me about it.

My enduring memory of Schuylerville is this. On our last stop there at a really nice local lunch establishment, The Over the Moon Cafe and Bakery, we sat next to an older couple. Slowly, we realized that on our first trip there, we sat next to the exact same couple. They were regulars, and after some chat about how delicious the food was (it really is, the place is well worth a visit), we got to talking about the area. They had a place they wintered in Florida, but had mostly lived in Schuylerville their whole lives. It was incredible to hear the description of all the changes in the town, including previous businesses that had occupied the building we were eating in, and all the places in direct sight.

I admired them so much for being around to see the changes. They had travelled, yes, but they had also simply paid attention to the changes all around them. It was then that I really began to appreciate that in order to understand change you really have to sit still. Travel can always show you differences—when you go from place to place you always notice how different it is from where you were before— but to understand change, you just have to stand still. Standing still is much harder than moving.

That area is simply beautiful. I could really understand why Solomon Northrup would feel heartbroken being ripped from it and taken to the south. The film emphasises the beauty of the South, which I have spent some time in— but where he came from was beautiful too. I just couldn’t shake the thought of just how much he really must have missed it.