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Despite lost vision, Adirondack Life editor Betsy Folwell trains a keen eye on the region


Published July 28, 2010 at 5:54 a.m.

Betsy Folwell writes essays the way shuckers open oysters: With a flick of the wrist, she cracks open the rough, craggy shell of her subject to reach its meaty center. But, with more consistency than any mollusk hunter, Folwell ends up with a pearl in hand.

Admittedly, such a briny metaphor isn’t one Folwell is likely to palm off in her own prose. As creative editor and longtime contributor at Adirondack Life, the glossy bimonthly magazine that documents life and culture in the 6-million-acre park, she crafts narratives full of the flora and fauna native to the North Country peaks. Her rich, earthy prose paints pictures as arresting as her magazine’s signature photography.

Consider her description of a moose from her recent essay “Tracks: Moosed Opportunity on a Well-Worn Trail” in the November/December 2009 issue of Adirondack Life.

“The moose was the first project in the creator’s repertoire,” Folwell writes. “After putting the legs of a heifer in high heels on a plow-horse torso and attaching a boxing-glove nose to a buffalo’s hump, a bell-shape goatee was dangled beneath rubber lips and the ensemble was topped with a gargantuan pair of garden forks.”

In her essay “Artificial Intelligence” in the magazine’s current issue, Folwell paints the sky “a Google G blue, the clouds scudding in layers, with cumulus cauliflower outpacing the frosty wisps below.”

And in her essay “New Loon,” from the November/December 2006 issue, she describes the fowl’s “streamlined torpedo shape and high-contrast paint job” and calls it “so prevalent in décor and design that an outside observer — say, a desert dweller — would assume loons to be the requisite monogram for a happy home and a stylish wardrobe.”

Folwell’s deftness with detail is all the more striking when one discovers that her eyesight has dwindled to little more than hazy shadows and forms. Legally blind since 2001, she now relies almost exclusively on her encyclopedic memory to describe the visual splendor that surrounds her. “Sometimes,” she admits, “I feel like an imposter.”

Yet Folwell, 57, remains one of the sharpest observers of the Adirondacks, where human dwellers — of both indigenous and invasive varieties — carve out niches in the rugged and ever-changing landscape.

Brian Mann, the Adirondack bureau chief for North Country Public Radio, calls Folwell “the single most knowledgeable person about the Adirondacks” he’s ever met.

“She knows the history of the early settlers and the latest gossip from the Stewart’s [Shop] in Keene Valley,” he says. “It’s kind of spooky how she knows what she knows.”

Jerry Pepper is director of the Adirondack Museum’s research library in Blue Mountain Lake, where Folwell worked for many years before she joined the Adirondack Life staff in 1989. Few media outlets cover the entire Adirondack Park, Pepper points out, and Folwell is the one of a precious few who “really understands the sense of place here that makes each one of these small towns a little different from every other, [with] their own history and their own character.”

Author Bill McKibben, who wrote the introduction to Folwell’s 2009 collection Short Carries: Essays from Adirondack Life, calls her “as sweet a writer as you could wish,” whose ability to “bend a phrase” and bear witness to life inside the Blue Line “has only flourished in the years since she’s gone blind.”

For her part, Folwell neither dwells on her disability nor shies away from discussing it. After her vision went “in a flash” beginning in November 2000, the result of a rare degenerative condition in both optic nerves, several local reporters asked her for interviews. Folwell politely declined; she didn’t think her lost sight was much of a story. Perhaps her cred as a storyteller kept them from pressing her to change her mind.

Folwell’s own story is rife with apparent contradictions. A native of Racine, Wis., she’s the daughter of an engineer for Johnson Wax who had no particular love for the great outdoors; he never camped or even hiked. Folwell, who for years has been an avid skier, snowshoer, fisherwoman and paddler, developed her appreciation for nature while in college, where she met her husband, Tom, and majored in, of all things, urban studies. In March 1976, the couple settled in Blue Mountain Lake, population 150.

Another irony: Folwell first learned of the Adirondacks after moving to India, where she worked for an education resource center creating teaching materials for American public schools and colleges. Her first visit to the region occurred en route to a job interview at the Adirondack Museum.

But, like many writers whose stock-in-trade is the life they lead and the people they encounter daily in their community (her style is reminiscent of Vermont’s Edward Hoagland, who, coincidentally, also went blind), Folwell plunged herself into her adoptive community and never left. For a decade she volunteered on the local fire department and ambulance squad. Years later, she helped launch the Adirondack Center for Writing, which has birthed many a local writer.

Folwell apparently inherited at least one of her father’s traits: his love for puttering around with old things. For several months in the summer and fall of 1980, she and Tom became the proprietors of the now-defunct 34 Store in Blue Mountain Lake.

They named the old general store after a 1950s-era historical tome on the region called Township 34. Folwell’s account of that experience, which she calls a “graduate semester in small-townology with a minor in microeconomics,” is one of dozens of wonderful short essays included in Short Carries.

Today, Folwell still works at least three days a week in the 150-year-old former Presbyterian Church in Jay, N.Y., that now serves as the headquarters for Adirondack Life. A ruddy, spry redhead with a dry wit, she is generous to a fault with her time. And her blindness is barely apparent to a casual observer. Folwell doesn’t use a cane and, on this reporter’s recent visit to her office, her yellow Lab guide dog, Oakley, was sleeping on the job, perhaps chasing chipmunks in his dreams.

Folwell confesses she’s had to put her “pride on the shelf” and rely on the kindness of others to shuttle her around. Nevertheless, she maintains an impressive schedule of work and play. Folwell still cross-country skis, bicycles and canoes — solo — the last by paddling in familiar waters and navigating by the sound of a nearby highway.

And she not only writes as eloquently as ever, but still edits the 50,000-circulation magazine eight times yearly — six bimonthlies and two special issues. Folwell writes her own column using a laptop computer that reads aloud, and she reads printed materials using a closed-circuit television that magnifies words so they fill the entire screen.

“It takes forever,” she says, “but if I only read three words at a time, I tend to see the ones that are spelled wrong.”

Although the region she writes about is always evolving, Folwell says that, for the most part, her magazine’s mission is not. Unlike comparable publications, such as Arizona Highways and Vermont Life, which tend to be uncritical boosters of their respective regions, Adirondack Life doesn’t gloss over the blemishes and warts of the area.

For example, last fall, Adirondack Life ran an in-depth feature on pot farming in the Adirondacks. Another, coming out in September, is about systemic poverty in the North Country.

“For someone vacationing here, it might not be what they’re interested in,” Folwell acknowledges. “But I feel, and the other editors feel, that one of the roles of the magazine is to really document what’s going on here.”

As her vision grows more limited with age, Folwell becomes even more enmeshed in the goings-on of Blue Mountain Lake. On July 1, she and Tom launched a new venture: the Blue Canoe Ice Cream stand. Set up in a foreclosed storefront that once served as a diner, the property came with several run-down cabins the couple plans eventually to renovate and rent.

And, in typical form, Folwell has already begun excavating the building’s history for what will inevitably become an essay.

“The place has a spot in local memory,” she says. “And not necessarily a good memory.”

Folwell reveals how locals remember the building’s original owner, Norris LaPrairie: “‘Scoundrel’ is about the nicest word,” she says. “We heard that the gravel from the parking lot was stolen, one garbage can at a time, from highway construction jobs.”

While others at her stage in life might be retreating from the chaos of a new business, new projects, and a busy writing and editing regimen, Folwell says she and Tom “saw chaos run by and said, ‘C’mon in!’”

The residents of Blue Mountain Lake are all the richer for it.