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Sustaining Saranac Lake

While thinking globally, a new group is acting locally

August 9, 2008
By EMILY HUNKLER, Enterprise Staff Writer

SARANAC LAKE - She started by reading a book; from there she started a group, then she planted a garden; now Gail Brill and the Adirondack Green Circle have started a movement in Saranac Lake, calling on its citizens and public officials to change their everyday habits and become more locally inclined.

Although it may seem subtle, Brill and the Circle work tirelessly, with organization and direction, to ignite change in the community they call home.

Although they merely meet once a month, every first Sunday, they delegate responsibility and correspond with like-minded groups across the country in hopes of further progressing their goals, along with administering workshops for themselves and making efforts to become Master Gardeners through the Cornell University extension program nearby.

Article Photos

Gail Brill, pictured above at her home and gardens on Fawn Street in Saranac Lake, says she found her green thumb this year and is hoping to help others find their’s.
(Enterprise photos — Emily Hunkler)

"You know, I refuse to be glum about the future," Brill said during an interview at her Fawn Street studio in Saranac Lake. She is a calligrapher by trade, hand-designing wedding invitations and stationary, nationally recognized by the likes of Martha Stewart. "Saranac Lake is where I am, and it's where I am going to stay, so I am going to make it better."

Brill moved here with her husband and two sons five years ago from Greenwich, Conn., the least sustainable town on Earth, as she refers to it, where the average home sells for $1.9 million according to CNN's Money Magazine.

Conception of the Adirondack Green Circle

Fact Box

Looking for fresh, local produce?

Check out these area farmers' markets...


Keene Farmers' Market, 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., June 8 through Oct. 12, Marcy Field on state Route 73.


Saranac Lake Farmers' Market, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., June 3 through Sept. 30, Lake Flour Bakery.


Lake Placid Farmers' Market, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., June 11 through Oct. 15, Lake Placid Center for the Arts.


Wilmington Farmers' Market, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., July 3 through Aug. 28, Heritage Park.


Paul Smith's Farmer's Market, 2 to 5 p.m., June 20 through Sept. 26, Paul Smith's College, by the lake near the library.

For a comprehensive index of local farmers and markets go to:

Last summer Brill read Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." The nonfiction book depicts a year of the author's life in which she and her family exclusively eat food grown and/or slaughtered locally. This notion, and the documented success of such an endeavor, enlivened Brill.

"It was a wake-up call for me," Brill said. "I immediately started changing the things my family was eating and the way we were eating."

Brill now has several abundant gardens surrounding her home, with everything from lettuce and cabbage to tomatoes and tomatillos, edible flowers and herbs to squash and peppers. Looking at the lush and thriving plants, it's hard to believe this is the first garden she has ever cultivated.

"I got my green thumb this summer," Brill professed, although she admits the carrots haven't quite taken off yet. "Maybe they'll come around," she said auspiciously.

The group, that started as a forum to discuss the ideas presented in the book, has turned into an e-mail list of nearly 50 people and meeting turnouts each month between 10 and 20 people.

Although other issues are addressed at the meeting, Brill and the Circle have established an effort to bring a community garden to Saranac Lake - one of the group's foremost goals.

Community garden

Although still in the planning stage, the Circle has already taken steps toward establishing a plot of land in the village in which members can either rent space or cultivate as a team so that fresh vegetables and herbs are not exclusive to people with their own land.

"Maybe people could rent plots or maybe it would just be one large space where volunteers can work and use the vegetables," Brill said, adding that they have had offers of land; however, she wants to be sure that the plot she chooses is fertile enough to support a wide variety of plants. She then brought the conversation to fossil fuels, which seems to be her trigger.

"What we get at the gas pump is really such a small part of the picture with fossil fuels," she said. "Once I started realizing how many carbon miles were attached to the food you get at the grocery store, it's like, how could you continue that way?"

According to research published in Environmental Science and Technology, eating a completely local diet is equal to driving 1,000 miles less per year. And although constant research and publication on this issue is beginning to sway toward the less rigid - nearly half the carbon miles procured by food is through red meat and dairy, therefore adjusting their intake could, arguably, have a larger impact than switching to a completely local diet - it is hard to refute the nutritional and soulful benefits of eating a salad that comes from your own hand-tilled earth.

Ellen Beberman, who manages the Paul Smith's College farmers' market, said the Circle has done a good job spreading the news of eating local products.

"The awareness of eating locally has really grown in the past couple years," Beberman said. "The farmers' markets are great because you meet the farmers, you get to chat with them. It creates a sense of community."

Beberman points out that although very little fossil fuel is used to transport food to local markets, those costs are still having an effect on the farmers.

"The Adirondacks is a very large space so I've noticed some farmers packing their products into smaller cars for mileage," Beberman said. "But the number of farmers is growing because it's working for them, people are buying."

It is for these reasons that Brill, along with other members of the Circle, have applied through the Cornell University Cooperative Extension to become Master Gardeners. Brill was accepted into the program this week.

"It starts in the fall, so that means I will have this winter to come up with a strategy," she said.

To become a New York state master gardener, Brill will attend classes once a week for the next 10 weeks. According to their Web site, once a master gardener, Brill will be obligated to enrich other people's lives by teaching about gardening, writing about gardening, answering gardening questions, organizing public events and demonstrations and increasing awareness of environmental issues.

Brill said she is anxious to get started and hopes the classes will help not only her own plot, but encourage others in town to start gardening.

Transition Town Team

Another area of concern for the Circle is how Saranac Lake can lead by example in dealing with the climate crisis and costs of fossil fuels.

"With climate change and peak oil coming together, it is a perfect storm, really," Brill said. "People are ready for change now and I think they want something like this to be involved in."

Brill refers often to "peak oil" and the need to address the issue before it's too late. Peak oil is the term used to refer to the point when oil extraction has reached its pinnacle, signaling a gradual decline in oil and fuel production while demand continues to rise exponentially. However, she seems ironically positive about the dire straights she speaks of, but this is also a goal of the Circle.

"One thing we keep in mind during our meetings is to remain positive," Brill said. "It would be so easy to become depressed about the issues we discuss, so when somebody starts down that path we bring it back around to something positive."

The four-member Transition Town Team, a branch of the Circle, is determined to start Saranac Lake on the track for survival.

"There is a real sense of 'We can take care of ourselves' here in Saranac Lake," Brill said. "If we are able to link arms as a community, we can face the challenges ahead."

Dave Trudeau, program coordinator with NYSERDA's Empower New York program, an energy efficiency program for low-income households, spoke to this issue at one of the groups' meetings.

"The world uses enough fuel in one day that if you took a 42-gallon barrel and lined them up on the equator end-to-end, they would go around the world twice; and the U.S. uses one quarter of that," Trudeau said. "They (the Circle) realize that the high cost of fossil fuel is really going to hurt the community in the future, with winter coming, especially."

The idea Brill and the Transition Town Team are trying to set in motion is, most basically, helping community members to become more locally dependent.

"We want to bring positive changes about as oil begins to deplete," Brill said. "There are so many things you can do: Shop at the farmer's markets, buy your clothes at Dorsey Street Exchange, heating homes with wood-pellet stoves. It's amazing, people are ready for this. It's time for a drastic change."

What to expect

Although Brill admits there are a lot of projects still on the drawing room floor, she says its only a matter of time before Saranac Lakers start seeing the fruits of their labor.

A booth at the Block Party last Thursday presenting information on the issues and a public movie screening of a documentary on peak oil are some of the most immediate activities scheduled for the Circle.

"We are just getting ready to set so many things in motion," Brill said. "We've all lived a life of large consumption without being aware of what it's creating. There are so many ways we can become more sustainable, and I am just trying to be a catalyst in that shift."

Contact Emily Hunkler at 891-2600 ext. 24 or



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