Upstate Unearthed explores the connection between humankind and the outdoors — a bond strained throughout the past century and strengthened by a pandemic — chronicling the emotional, physical, and spiritual benefits of natural immersion that provided relief and escape from shelter-in-place orders and quarantine mandates.
Centered in Upstate New York, this digital publication works to broaden the region’s reputation for being one of the snowiest and least sunniest places in the U.S. and documents the abundance of outdoor pursuits and natural wonders available to us. Upstate Unearthed features deep dives informed by our location — the resurgence of bald eagles and the birders that champion their return to Onondaga Lake, the rise of maple-syrup making, the fight to rename offensive rock climbing trail names, the “river rats” of the Thousand Islands, misadventures in randonauting, a fly-fishing club for veterans, the Crypt Keepers of Oakwood Cemetery, forest bathing in Mendon Ponds Park near Rochester, the benefits of natural silence, and the Seneca Nation’s commemoration of their forced removal from their ancestral home.
These stories cover a range of outdoor activities but act on the understanding that as COVID-19 cabin fever sent us outside to respond to the calls of the wild, we sought out new experiences, making us all beginners at something. From foraging and gardening to studying paganism, backyard birding, and biking the Erie Canal Towpath Trail, we explored a range of activities with the goal of serving anyone and everyone interested in outdoor pursuits, however small or large, in Upstate New York. The project includes stories about fledgling hobbyists, seasoned adventurers, newcomers to the natural scene, and individuals searching for community in spaces that have failed to welcome them and often sought to exclude them. In working to expand these stories beyond the white male perspective that dominates outdoor activities and narratives, we sought to include expertise and experience from LGBTQ and BIPOC communities.
The increase in hiking participation in the U.S. in 2020, a 16.3% increase from 2019.
Though these stories are rooted in the personal rewards of spending time outside, they also touch on universal issues and challenges. The health benefits of natural immersion are a privilege not afforded to many, and the detriments of nature deprivation often exacerbate marginalized communities. A 2020 study by the Center for American Progress found that 76% of people living in low-income communities of color live in a nature-deprived area. Minimal access to green spaces, clean food and air, and natural quiet has grave consequences to the mental and physical health of urban residents. Air pollution alone places already vulnerable communities at a higher risk of developing immunocompromising illnesses such as asthma.
But the problem extends beyond cities. According to Quiet Parks International, 97% of the U.S. population is exposed to noise pollution from aviation and highways. Furthermore, the research of nature deficit disorder specialists suggests that the mass urbanization of the 1950s initiated the stark decline of human’s connection to nature, a shift reflected in popular culture. The advent of electronic screens and their ubiquity — especially as Zoom began to overtake our classrooms, office spaces, home life — has amplified this disconnect. But just when our natural tethers seemed all but severed, the pandemic prompted a revelation: nature is a therapeutic cocoon into which humans could retreat from the isolated monotony of quarantine and the agonizing, unending news of global loss.
The number of visitors to The New York State Canalway Trail system in 2020, a 30% increase from 2019.
Source: Parks & Trails New York
Data document our collective escape to the outdoors. 8.1 million more Americans hiked in 2020 versus 2019, as the participation rate grew 16.3%. Camping participation grew 28%. A surging demand in outdoor equipment saw nationwide bike sales up 63% from last year, and kayak sales up 56%. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation reported an increase in fishing license sales in 2020, up more than 110,000 from 2019 sales. In 2020, The New York State Canalway Trail system as a whole saw an estimated 4.2 million visits, a 30% increase from 2019. This rise in outdoor engagement has presented its own challenges, though. Surging interest in hiking brought record numbers of people to the Adirondacks, most of them residents of New York. But an increase in novice hikers correlated with an increase in recreational impacts — illegal camping, improper trash disposal, and a rise in conflict between humans and wildlife — and a record number of 285 search and rescue calls.
Upstate Unearthed recognizes preservation, conservation, inclusivity, and education must inform environmental engagement, and we worked to emphasize these principles in our collection of stories about the outdoors of Upstate New York and the people exploring it. We hope this content — immersive audio and visual experiences, environmental illustrations, and reported narratives — inspires readers to explore this region and rekindle their connection and fascination with nature.
Upstate Unearthed is the product of students in MND 504 Multimedia Projects, a capstone course at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University.