Where do you find your life story? In Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal conflicts? Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey? A good portion of mine made more sense after reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. But seated on logs for a trail break in the forested Christman Sanctuary above the shallow, shushing Bozenkill, Alan Casline describes not a psychological theory from a book but the course of the Normanskill that has the Bozenkill as an upland tributary. It starts young in the hills as a small forest stream that rushes and tumbles over waterfalls and rapids, briefly pools in eddies, and grows as it connects with other streams. Down from the hills, it has a long and meandering middle age across the fertile valley lands of Albany County. Finally, several miles from the end it plunges over rapids, dramatically shedding elevation and energy, to finish its life in a calm estuary mixing with the Hudson at its mouth, a fertile zone for the next generation of fish. “That describes my life,” says Alan, who has spent the day taking me on a driving tour to see these stretches of the Normanskill from the rapids in a deep gorge near his house to the silty bottomed meanders under a nondescript county highway bridge to the shady hemlocks and waterfalls along the Bozenkill. It’s been a satisfying day full of pleasant conversation and pretty sights. And I suspect that it has been a satisfying life. Having retired from a career as a youth counselor and having raised two children now in their twenties, Alan places himself in the rapids of his life, frothing with energy before he enters the final estuary.
Alan attended St. Lawrence University in Canton from 1969 to 1973. The big surprise to me, since he seems such a gentle soul whom you could wrap in a toga and picture philosophizing on the Greek agora, is that he was a small college All American defensive end. More brains than brawn, he insists. He had a gift for reading plays, for not being caught by trap blocks or other offensive tricks meant to fool him out of the way. He also understood the basic physics of momentum: hit the other guy harder, so he’ll absorb the blow. (This from a man who now writes: “red squirrel / runs up tree / disappears / as if by magic // wait silently / for living home / to accept / your presence.”) No, I find it hard to imagine Alan as an Animal House jock. He believed in the Greek ideal, he explains: mind and body. He planned to become a chemistry major. But one fine spring afternoon he found himself measuring a substance down to one one-thousand of a milliliter under the direction of a professor with “the personality of a gourd.” Alan refused to let his future be so dull. He switched to history. And he took poetry with a young teacher, Albert Glover, who wore a medicine pouch and used a walking stick decorated with a feather and rattle. They’ve remained friends to this day.
After college, Alan set out to circle the world by thumb (and other means) and made it as far as Honolulu before returning to St. Lawrence to earn his masters in counseling. In 1975 he produced his first issue of Rootdrinker, his bioregional magazine. He was “influenced by the anti-war, anti-establishment movements that succeeded in loosening up straight-laced WASP America,” but he was also “small town enough” to heed “the clarion call of the Back-to-the-Landers, organic farmers and braless earth mothers.” With the help of friends, including Albert Glover, he made Rootdrinker into a lively enterprise, produced thanks to a back door key that let them use a Potsdam print shop during off hours. The journal “attained ‘legendary’ status with print runs in the thousands and hundreds of outlets throughout a wide, wide area of sparsely populated New York.” Alan, himself, distributed the magazine to dozens of Mom-and-Pop gas station convenience shops in rural areas, as well as to food coops and bookstores. “It was a great success,” he says. “For every $3 I put into it, I got $2 back.” In the world of small press publishing that’s no small achievement. Today you can read those old issues on a university digital archives.
Twenty years ago, Alan moved into his house in a leafy cul-de-sac community near the outskirts of Albany with his wife, a medical professor and a pediatric oncologist and hematologist, and their young daughter and son. Alan, who’d earned his own doctorate in educational studies, was a school guidance counselor who would go on to work with at risk youth in Columbia County for thirteen years, both in the schools and in summer outdoor programs that offered caving, rock climbing, and other adventures that helped these youngsters develop a stronger sense of themselves. But after retiring at fifty five, Alan found himself drawn back to his earlier interests, so he has revived Rootdrinker as a small press for the Normanskill watershed. For our tour he wears a tie dye headband, but when I dub him a Child of the Sixties, he takes umbrage. “I was never lazy enough to be a hippie,” he says. The label that gives him pride is Back-to-the-Lander.
The term Bioregionalism was coined in 1973 by Peter Berg of San Francisco who was shifting from guerrilla theater in the Haight Ashbury into visionary environmentalism that went beyond traditional green activism. Bioregionalism asks us to see past the political borders arbitrarily drawn across maps to the natural landscape boundaries that shape our lives, starting with watersheds. We give too much credence to the global and national. We should be learning our local flora and fauna, our trees, fishes, and streams. On paper this notion sounds eminently sensible. But to take Alan’s watershed tour is to realize how divorced we’ve become in our cars from our rivers and streams. Several centuries ago, Native American fur traders paddled the Normanskill during high water as a shortcut from the Mohawk to the Hudson. The stream was an important travel artery. Now we crisscross the county on local routes to catch glimpses from bridges. To most people the Normanskill must be all but invisible.
To be a bioregionalist, I find, is like being a teenager again, clambering down under bridges into places that feel perfectly safe and lush with trees yet somehow vaguely off limits. As adults, we’ve allowed ourselves to be limited to parks and preserves, where nature is appreciated as if it’s a theme park. But following the stream is a reminder that nature is everywhere. Exploring with Alan is both sad and exciting. Exciting when, for example, we’ve scrambled down to the river’s edge in the deep gorge minutes from his house (and minutes from the Thruway Exit 23 Albany tolls) to admire the rapids pouring over the islands and flanks of bedrock. This scene could be out of the Adirondacks. Sad because you suspect that almost nobody comes down here, save for the fisherman who forgot his plastic worm tub out on a rocks. The concrete 9W bridge span looms high up against the blue sky like the guard tower of an automotive society that doesn’t believe people should be distracted by the natural wonders near their own neighborhoods, not when they’re busy going about their lives of “getting and spending,” to quote Wordsworth.
Alan has gathered a sheaf of his poems for our tour. They’re inspired by both history and nature along the Normanskill, and by poets gatherings at Smitty’s, a beloved tavern in Voorheesville. Here’s a poem about the 9W bridge.
In Which I Throw a Flat Dead Squirrel Off the Normanskill Bridge in Homage of Nanao Sakaki
Nature is not fuzzy and warm.
Charlie’s walk on suburban streets
He’ll sniff out I’ll see
pets and predators
Village Street Cleaners will eventually come by
or the Village Crew that chips fallen branches and picks up owners trimmings left
at the curb
a bird, or a snake or a squirrel
might lie in the road for weeks
without rhyme or reason
I’ll come back with a shovel and bury the squirrel
you could throw them in the garbage bin
ship them on to the landfill
that’s what happens to most
under a leaf pile is enough for fleeting life wren
it is nothing about sanitation for me
just a little bit more
to cover a creature with earth
wings to heaven
Upaya Zen Center in Sante Fe
a memorial today held for
died last year on December 21st. He was 86
cold snap for days when I see the squirrel
“Some car got you good”
Charlie sniffs. I pull him away
squirrel’s mouth is pulled back in bloody maniacal grin
one dead eye open and looking at me
I bet you are frozen flat I think
funny true when I kick him out of the road
he comes up solid frozen stiff
top side sprawled limbs
bottom flat as a piece of paper
three days later, the twenty-first of December
a frozen dead squirrel sits in the passenger seat
of my old green Windstar Van
cirrus clouds up high blue sky wide straight drifted apart vapor trail line
“The poetic arguments,” I tell the squirrel, “shouldn’t be bandied about
as if a trail of words and the uncertainty of perceptions even a call for cultural revolution
really would convince anyone. If you don’t feel alive, every particle alive, every piece alive,
every dead squirrel carcass alive, stone, sound, breath, every journey, every time Nanao appears alive
then it must be a dead world. But I don’t have to tell you that do I squirrel.”
the Comfort Inn parking lot is close to the bridge.
Red and blue police lights flash on the Albany side
either a breakdown or a traffic ticket
nothing to concern a man with a dead squirrel and a mission
three crow reluctantly move out of my parking place
“Scavengers. You’ll get your due”
a cloud of small brown birds flow in and out of the field in front of us
exhale, breath in beauty…thank you Nanao
dance with high step lighter touch
of roadway on to the 9-W bridge
to the very middle
cosmic giggle praise to the burning mad ones
ahimsa, nonharming, go in peace, totem squirrel,
tossed high over the mesh restraining fence
down to the icy water of the stream
out of sight destination unknown