Extreme Ithacans: James Elkins on the Joy of Immersion in a Place

Ithaca is also inundated with nature, drowned in it. This I can’t quantify, but it seemed to us then that the surrounding gorges, forests, swamps, and bogs were especially thronged with plants and animals. The air seemed thick with the smells of pollen, new leaves, rotting leaves, skunk cabbage, pine forests, and stagnant ponds. It was certainly full of pollen, midges and gnats, bees, wasps, hornets, butterflies, moths, deerflies, black flies, and horseflies. The water my sister, my brother, and I swam in was also occupied by rafts of water striders, water boatmen (which bit us), leeches (which bit us and left uncoagulated streams of blood after we’d salted them off), and water beetles (which also bit, very hard, taking chunks of flesh and drawing lots of blood). The mud we waded in was gooey with smooth green algae, sometimes jellied with clusters of frogs’ eggs, and always potentially mined with snapping turtles.

Our father was a dentist who made an adventurous escape from Brooklyn to upstate New York. He embraced his new home by educating himself in everything at once. He made friends both in Cornell and in the surrounding farming areas, and his parties introduced me to physicists, chemists, biologists, and economists from the university, but also subsistence hunters from the countryside. My father also crossed the line from his Jewish upbringing to real goyishe territory. He took up hunting, and one of the deer he shot was mounted at deer’s eye height in our living room. He once said with pride that he was upstate New York’s first Jewish hunter.

My mother, from a Methodist family, was his accomplice in rebellion. They created a house that was a cross between a cabin, a playground, and an old museum, crowding every available surface with bird nests, pressed ferns, fossils, arrowheads, rocks and crystals, mushrooms, pieces of bark, salted wings from birds that had died by flying into a lighthouse they’d visited, shark jaws a patient had given my father. The front door opened directly into a room with vaulted ceilings, and on their white plasterboards that sloped up to the roof beam, my mother had drawn a timeline of all of history in black and purple felt-tip marker. Visitors were always greeted by the taxidermied deer head. From the roof beam my parents had hung an empty beer barrel as a rope swing, and my friends used to come over and swing as wildly as they could.

Among the ranch houses and Victorian homes, our house was like Edward Scissorhands’s castle. But it wasn’t originally a house at all. It was an ammo depot, a one-storey windowless cement-block structure used after the Second World War to re-arm large-gauge artillery. My parents bought it in the early 1950s and punched windows in it. Because natural history was the household’s main preoccupation, we also had a battery of tools: Estwing rock hammers and chisels for extracting trilobites, a telescope, night-sky binoculars with big lenses, and several microscopes for everything including amoebas collected from the mud at the bottom of the pond.

The house was also full of wild animals. There were generations of dogs. At one point there were eighteen cats. Our prize pet was a boa constrictor named Scrape, after its molted skins. We were always out swimming, hiking, and exploring, and no outing was complete if one of us didn’t bring something strange back to the house. I kept local species of snakes as pets, and also lizards, scorpions, spiders, and toads. One summer I tried to keep a leech, but it refused even the freshest steaks and repeatedly escaped from its Tupperware container and tried to crawl across the carpet, ending up trapped in a ball of lint. Another summer we had a beehive inside the house, safely enclosed in an ant farm-style narrow terrarium. My mother nailed it to the kitchen table, and drilled a hole in a windowpane so the bees could come in and out through a plastic tube. My brother and I even raised moths and butterflies from eggs, collecting all the cocoons and chrysalises to bring back inside. Months later the house would be filled with enormous silk moths or colorful butterflies.

My father’s dental office, a short walk up the road, was a curiosity cabinet. Patients were seated facing a wall filled floor to ceiling with objects and pictures including two jars with animals suspended in them. One had a bat, and the other a frog, and they’d been subjected to some undoubtedly carcinogenic chemical bath that turned their bodies translucent and tinted their bones rose red. My father used to say that they were to start conversation. I imagine some patients never returned, but those who did often ended up being invited to our house.

If it were possible to survey Ithaca families to measure their immersion in the place, I think my family would be at the tail end of the distribution. We were extreme Ithacans.

We knew people who were not just there for Cornell or for work, but were all-in on the idea of Ithaca. One lived in a farmhouse that he’d let go to the point where his kitchen cabinets were spongy and frayed from decades of spilled dishwater. Another had a basement full of large freezers to store the deer meat he got by illegally shooting deer from his porch. A professor at Cornell had built shallow shelves, a couple of inches deep, all around the rooms of his house to store his collection of thousands of small ancient statuettes. My father knew some of the people who lived in yurts and Buckminster Fuller domes in a squatter’s colony in Sapsucker Woods. Their children were part of Ithaca’s young counterculture. I spent one especially unrewarding Halloween smoking grass in a hilltop graveyard with them. Our nocturnal picnic was illuminated by candles in bronze dragon-shaped candleholders, and we spent the evening looking down with fond condescension on the high school football game.

If it were possible to survey Ithaca families to measure their immersion in the place, I think my family would be at the tail end of the distribution. We were extreme Ithacans. Maybe there were people like us in other parts of the world. What are extreme San Franciscans? Extreme Albuquerquians? I have no idea. In Ithaca, being extreme meant being in the landscape.

We pushed our way into the caves on the east shore of the lake even when it meant crawling on our stomachs while water poured down on our heads, or inching sideways along narrowing passageways until we got stuck. Most summers I was in bare feet until school started, even in swamps, even in caves. My parents surveyed and maintained trails for the Cayuga Trails Club, but most of the time we didn’t so much hike as explore. Before my teens, I was also a competitive insect collector. After a couple of years I decided to give up collecting butterflies, not because I was too old for it, but because they are too easy. There are about 60 species of butterflies in New York State, but over 1,400 kinds of moths. We got most of Ithaca’s butterflies by spending lovely afternoons out in meadows and forests. To get even a fraction of the moths, we had to spend nights out with UV lights, and nights “sugaring” for moths that don’t come to light. To do that, we made mixtures of rotted bananas, beer, and molasses, and we went out with a bucket and painted it onto tree trunks. Then late at night we went out again, and when we were lucky, our flashlights would reveal tree trunks swarmed by ants, bees, flies, and moths.

Both my brother and sister turned these childhood interests into careers in science: he was a geneticist, and she’s a geochemist and planetary scientist with a project at NASA. I didn’t, and the reason might be that I was always attracted to the strangeness of what we did, rather than the science to which it led.


When I decided to write about all this, I tried out some pages like the ones you’ve just read. At first I thought I could just keep going, fill in the people, and I’d have a memoir. But the stories seemed blurry. They were adequate as summaries, but they failed to capture the way we talked.

For example, butterflies. They have common names that sound like people in Dickens: Red Admiral, Tiger Swallowtail, Painted Lady. Moths don’t usually have common names. Beyond the big silk moths like the Luna, there is a wilderness of families: Tineidae, which include clothes moths; Erebidae, including the species formerly known as the Gypsy Moth (now Spongy Moth); and the Noctuidae, Notodontidae, and Lymantriidae, those small brown moths that die on windowsills. They all have Latin names. Many moth species are small, and that was where I parted company from my friends who had no interest in things that weren’t large and colorful.

After several years of studying and collecting, I knew a couple hundred species, along with their caterpillars. They were individuals to me, without character but with sharp outlines in my memory, and always the Latin name: Apatelodes torrefacta, the Spotted Apatelodes moth, which always looked battered; Olceclostera angelica, the Angel Moth, like a Victorian woman in gray mourning; Eumorpha pandorus, the magnificent Pandora Sphinx moth. Those are names that still conjure trembling shadows projected by my flashlight, sharp cold evenings in pine forests, long bicycle rides to forests we’d secretly sugared.

We spoke the languages of our books, and if I write about Ithaca but omit those languages, I’m writing the equivalent of a popular-science account, trying to explain the universe without using mathematics. Our world wasn’t birds, mushrooms, wasps, algae, moths, and stars. It was black-throated green warblers, weeping milk caps, ichneumons, spirogyra, sphingids, and Cygnus. The technical words and Latin names were the prizes, the identifications that came at the end of long sessions with the books.

We had manuals for everything we collected, and each kind of plant or animal had its own vocabulary. For example, you can’t just call a mushroom white. In the old textbooks, you have to know the difference between snow-white, pure white, sheet-white, chalk-white, ivory-white, cream-white, milk-white, and whitish. “Albidus” means the mushroom is white even though it has other colors in it. And all the words for white have to be rigorously distinguished from the absence of color. Mushrooms with no color are called hyaline, glassy, watery, crystalline, pellucid, or diaphanous. If you look carefully, and you keep seeing hints of color, but you can’t be sure, that would be “incolor” or, even more exotically, “achroos.”

Before field guides, manuals of natural history had numbered keys. We worked our way through them step by step. “1. The mushroom has gills. If yes, go to entry 2. If no, 214.” Each fork in the road was another chance to get it all wrong, get lost in the labyrinth. We consulted the old manuals like devout Jews read the Talmud. We knew the answer was in there somewhere, but sometimes it took faith to keep looking.

Anything on the outside, anything that could be solved, was a potential topic. What we felt inside was our own business.

Our family didn’t often have normal conversations at dinner. Dinners became readings from the encyclopedia. There was the news of the day, and some words about school, or about some county ordinance or pesky neighbors. But soon enough there’d be a problem. My father, who was always reading local history, might tell us something about the Iroquois. There’d be some hitch, some gap in his knowledge, and that’s when we’d push some plates to the side to make room for one of the big volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica that we kept within arm’s reach of the dining table. “Why is the analemma tilted?” my mother might ask, in between bites. Or, “I wonder what path you trace out if you spend all day, from sunrise to sunset, walking toward the sun?” Or someone would ask, always apropos of nothing, “So what was that fossil you found yesterday?” That would be the cue to move more plates and bring out the fossil books.

It wasn’t until years later that I appreciated how dinner parties actually work: people just talk about whatever’s on their minds, and the conversation moves easily from news to memories, from jokes to confessions. Our house obeyed the medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being: at the top were problems that could be solved by looking in encyclopedias: unidentified bugs, astronomical phenomena, cloud forms, infestations, efflorescences, molds, blights, and galls. Humans were last on the list, the bottom of the Great Chain. We almost never talked about how we were doing, our hopes, the people we loved, the hurts we felt. But if one of us had a rash, we’d inspect it minutely. Anything on the outside, anything that could be solved, was a potential topic. What we felt inside was our own business.

I kept trying to solve the problem of how to write a memoir by inventing conversations. They always sounded wrong—naturally, because the interest was always that one moth, that particular fossil. Without the things and the fascination they exerted, we might as well have been a family that spent its evening reciting the phone book.

Eventually I realized that dialogue isn’t the right medium for my childhood. I have started putting excerpts of books and papers right into my book. I quote long passages, even reproduce diagrams and drawings. When that material appears on the page, the plot is suspended, and it’s necessary to pay attention in a different way. Reading slows. And why not? That’s exactly the effect those books had on our conversations. I am putting in some math, and a few graphs and maps. I’m adding sheet music, which is something that never appears in memoirs or fiction, but it seems right because music was a large part of our childhood. We had a collection of scores from used bookstores, some very old. The look of them is another part of those years.

I hope the book I am writing won’t look like a science textbook, and I hope it won’t read like an introduction to some dead language written in cuneiform or hieroglyphic. But if it does, that’s the price of admission to that world. Maybe at the extreme, Ithacans aren’t people in the full, ordinary sense: maybe they disappear into the landscape, they become the cold wet slate that tiles the steep sides of the gorges, or the matte green patina of bacteria and algae that covers the ponds.

For a decade or two my brother, my sister, and I were extreme Ithacans. Now my sister and I, the ones who are left, wear shoes in the summer, live in normal houses, and go to ordinary parties.


Weak in Comparison to Dreams by James Elkins is available now via Unnamed Press. 

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