Wild at Heart: The Education of Paul Schaefer

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Schaefer had been interested in conservationism from an early age. In 1919, when he was 11 years old, Schaefer attended a wildlife film and lecture on conservationism at Schenectady High School given by two of Apperson’s associates, Conservation Commissioner George Pratt and Warwick Carpenter. At the end of the lecture, Carpenter gave the young Schaefer a gold pin after the boy said he wanted “to be identified with the conservation movement”.1 Schaefer was hooked.

Both of Schaefer’s parents, Peter and Rose, were intelligent, educated, devout Catholics, and outdoor enthusiasts who suffered from deteriorating health. Peter had become a skillful mountain climber while studying for the priesthood before his health failed. Rose was an accomplished vocalist in the Church. She was also a practicing nature writer, but she suffered from multiple illnesses, including tuberculosis.

In 1921, the Schaefer family began summering in a rustic Adirondack cabin near Bakers Mills. They hoped the move would improve Rose’s pulmonary health. It also brought the family closer to the hospital where she was receiving treatment. During their summers in the wilderness, Rose taught her children about the spiritual element of nature and the importance of wild places. She broached these subjects through the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, Romantic literature, and the encouragement of outdoor explorations of any kind: hiking, snowshoeing, hunting, fishing, or trapping.2 Paul “thrived in this wild country”.3

Over the next two years, while Schaefer’s passion for the wilderness grew, his parents’ health dwindled. In 1923, at the age of 15, Schaefer left high school to work as an apprentice carpenter in order to help cover his parents’ rapidly mounting medical bills. The drudgery of his apprenticeship made Schaefer hunger for the Adirondack wilderness. He began hitchhiking to the

forest on weekends and decided to form a personal library about the Adirondack region.4 The first volume was a an autographed copy of Verplanck Colvin’s A Report on the Topographical Survey of the Adirondack Wilderness, paid for in multiple installments.

A voracious reader and bibliophile, Schaefer consumed every publication about the Adirondacks and the wilderness he could find. His library5 did not discriminate between technical volumes on natural science and environmental literature and philosophy by the likes of “John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, Francis of Assisi, and Viscount Francois Rene de Chatreaubriand”.6 Soon Schaefer started writing nature essays and poetry of his own. In 1929, Schaefer joined the Mohawk Valley Hiking Club. Founded by Apperson and Vincent Schaefer, the organization promoted an appreciation of the outdoors and encouraged conservation.

1 Frank Graham, Jr. The Adirondack Park: A Political History. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978): 200.

2 Schaefer, Vincent. Transcript of interview by Earl Droessler. Tape Recorded Interview Project, American Meteorological Society for Atmospheric Research. May 8-9, 1993.

3 Schaefer, Paul. Adirondack Cabin Country. (Syracuse University Press, 1993): xvii.

4 Schaefer, Paul. Adirondack Explorations: Nature Writings of Verplanck Colvin. (Syracuse University Press, 1997): xi.

5 This library grew for the remainder of Schaefer’s life, and today is a part of Union College as the Adirondack Research Library.

6 Schaefer, Paul. Adirondack Cabin Country. (Syracuse University Press, 1993): 37.