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Susquehanna Life

Tell Us Your Story - Susquehanna Country: A New River View

Story and photographs by John Olin

As citizens of the Susquehanna bioregion, we are heirs to a unique identity which connects us all. We are linked by an irrevocable bond: Susquehanna country.      


The beauty of the Susquehanna River has been greatly preserved from the ravages of industry due to a natural shallowness, but fickle human agency also played a role: a late-19th century robber baron nixed the blasting of a shipping channel to save his railroad empire. 

The passage of this east-west and west-east flowing river defines the Southern Tier of the Empire State, then, flowing north-south, splits the Keystone State into three distinct regions. Her long story is a composition of natural and human geography, a saga of fierce contests between the earth and people, and a morality play of ultimate realizations and reconciliations. 

Our unique identity

In the end, we live in an interconnected watershed where a township’s building codes and a county’s farming practices must respect the health of a distant bay. We are also, regardless of which state issues our driver’s license, residents who share the earth history of a larger region called a bioregion. 

As citizens of the Susquehanna bioregion, we are heirs to a unique identity which connects us all whether we live on the farm or in a forest, or dwell in one of the towns and cities along the great branches, or in the capitol city on the main trunk. Even if we happen to live in a meadow or a wetland somewhere on the crown of the river-tree, we are linked by an irrevocable bond: Susquehanna country. It is in fact a country within a country, a place of broad diversity and natural unity. We may explore the whole land in a car, camper, motor boat, canoe and kayak, or on a bike and on foot. Our awareness can grow by viewing big from the window of a plane, or viewing small from a window in our home. The result: to know and appreciate our place on planet Earth at a physical scale and depth of understanding that is easily manageable in a lifetime.  

In search of the source

Striving to understand place through its genesis, people are fascinated by the source of rivers. A sense of place, and of time as well, takes me on a journey in search of the source of the Susquehanna, while knowing full well that to so designate a certain high watershed divide or an uppermost lake or swamp is a bit silly. Rivers and streams and lakes are watered by multitudes of sources. Nevertheless, the psyche, so I suppose, craves the symmetry of beginning and end. The end is clear: the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. While the sea is the evaporative starting point of the hydrologic cycle, it doesn’t satisfy my earth-bound nature. I want to see the boundary(s) of that country which defines my place, and by extension, who I am.  

I think it an enlightening coincidence that the place of the divide which sends water, down to the level of its molecule, on divergent journeys to the Gulf of Mexico, to Lake Ontario (and the North Atlantic), and to the Chesapeake Bay by way of the Susquehanna should lie near a town called Ulysses. After all, isn’t Ulysses the archetypal wanderer trying to get home? 

Going cross-country in a Chinook camper through rolling hills and valleys of little rivers in the Chemung Sub-basin—the Cohocton and the Canisteo— I find the Cowanesque River and drive west to Ulysses. I am excited at the prospect of finally seeing the boundaries of my place.

I have arrived 

Then I am there, in high open land outside the tiny town of Brookland, at a crossroads of two dirt and gravel roads—Rooks and Kidney— on a more or less level plateau which stretches several miles east-west, and about a mile north-south, a glorious airy place with great low and dark-bottomed clouds moving rapidly beneath a peek-a-boo, blue sky. A slender spire, held by guy wires, stands at the highest point, a mound in the midst of a vast wild meadow.

I park the Chinook and cook some lentil soup with pasta, sit on my bumper and eat, and drink a Rolling Rock. A few cars and pick-ups go by. I put on jeans and boots, and take my walking stick, and go forth into the waist-high meadow, wet with recent rain. I push through a thick weave of wild grass and Queen Anne’s lace, of milkweed, thistle, sedum, black-eyed susans and tall daisies. The ground is uneven but soft and without holes, the grasses are laden with grain, and many flowers, red, yellow, blue and white, raise themselves in the mass of grass. The birds fly helter-skelter overhead, darting and dashing, some seeming to pursue and harry others. 

The interconnected three sisters

I reach the spire and face the four directions, according to the Native American prayer, and when doing so the sun breaks through most cheerfully. Orienting myself with a topographic map, I distinctly see the earth where the Mississippi and Susquehanna begin, and the Genesee’s origins lying to the north in a grove of trees. 

Standing at the boundary, a place to locate myself in the world as I have said, I am aware, surprisingly, not of a sense of separation—“my” watershed, “their” watershed—but of the interconnectedness of the three sister rivers and their bioregions. This high meadow is stitched with the invisible seams of one coat which all living things wear. North America, once and still called Turtle Island, is a mighty shell formed of many scutes or shields. I am content to go now, energized with this realization to do my part within the whole. 

Returning to the road, a spotted fawn leaps out of the grass some 10 yards ahead, an exquisite little creature, tawny with white spots and a big white flag of a tail, bounding through the sea of grass, appearing and disappearing, till swallowed up in the vast meadow. 

John Olin is writing a book of essays about Susquehanna Country.               

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