(CNN) — You’ll find it almost everywhere you turn — on T-shirts, bumper stickers, magnets and all types of tourist trinkets — the three words: “Ithaca is gorges.”
After all, who doesn’t love a good pun? Ithaca, New York, is gorgeous, peppered with steep gorges (get it?), plunging waterfalls, and a tapestry of tree-covered mountains that turn vibrant shades of yellow, orange and red when the leaves change in the fall. If you can time your visit just right, at the peak of “leaf peeping” season, it is a wonder to behold.
“Leaf peepers” take in the fall foliage in upstate New York.
But there’s more to this part of the country than one might expect. Beyond the natural beauty and peaceful, unassuming small towns lives a rich history that was — and still is, in many ways — ahead of its time.
A traditional Haudenosaunee longhouse in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
“By the time Europeans made contact with the Haudenosaunee, there was a long-established, sophisticated political and social system that united the territories of the six nations,” says Louise Herne (Wakerakats:te), condoled Bear Clan Mother of the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk).
“This structure has lasted through time because we abide by natural law, and the universal wisdom in our processes is that we don’t sidestep the mother,” she tells CNN. In Haudenosaunee culture, women are the decision-makers. “The women are the foundation, and the men are the walls and the roof. Neither can exist without one another. It’s about balance.”
“When our Peacemaker came along and established the Great Law of Peace, he didn’t dismiss the women. He didn’t dismiss the mothers,” Herne says. “Actually, he built the framework of democracy upon the foundation of women. And that was his brilliance.”
A champion of women’s rights
Matilda Joslyn Gage is one of the pioneers of the women’s rights movement.
Gage, a powerhouse in the early struggle for women’s rights, was born in 1826 in Cicero, some 60 miles north of Ithaca. She spent much of her life in a white two-story house in nearby Fayetteville.
American suffragist and writer Matilda Joslyn Gage.
Library of Congress/Corbis/Getty Images
But while names like Susan B. Anthony are still remembered for their contributions to the long fight for women’s rights in the United States, Gage’s name is largely forgotten — although they worked side-by-side. Uncompromising and committed to a full freedom for women that went beyond the vote, she was ultimately left out of the history books.
“She says, ‘there will be no permanent peace until there is absolute equality for every group, men and women, Black and White, Native-born and American, rich and poor.’ That’s it,” Wagner tells CNN.
Wagner credits Gage’s revolutionary vision to the Haudenosaunee and the culture of not only including women but elevating them.
“[Gage] saw it in action! That’s the wonder of it,” Wagner says. “She lived in Haudenosaunee territory, and she saw a world that was the mirror opposite of her own. Culturally, government-wise, spiritually — in which there is absolute balance and harmony.”
“The goal is to maintain that,” Wagner adds. “And that is her vision.”
Welcome to the ‘EcoVillage’
Journey along the backroads of upstate New York to discover free spirits, alternative communities, and an iconic eatery ahead of its time.
A few miles from downtown Ithaca, a housing community nestled among the trees has also taken the Haudenosaunee ethos to heart.
“I would say we are really striving for an alternative that makes sense,” Walker tells CNN. “We believe in participatory governance and what that means is everybody has a stake in the decisions, and we expect our neighbors to take part in making decisions and doing the work of the community.”
The EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York, was founded in 1991.
“It’s like living in an extended family where you know everybody, and you may have an uncle that you don’t like so much — but you still celebrate his birthday,” Walker says. Disagreements, she adds, pop up from time to time and are handled as a community.
“I came here because it is a progressive area,” she says, adding that “people crave community.”
“I like the phrase ‘intentional community’ — people move here with the intention of being part of a community,” Ottoson says. “It’s a self-selected group of people who want to be particularly neighborly.”
While society has certainly changed in the three decades since the community began, Walker says the core values have remained: “There is a continuation of the spirit of activism, of caring about the planet and of caring about each other.”
Eating at the Moosewood
The iconic Moosewood restaurant in downtown Ithaca, New York.
A connection to nature has always existed here as a pillar of the Haudenosaunee, who consider themselves “stewards of Mother Earth,” says Herne. So perhaps it’s no surprise that one of the earliest examples of the farm-to-table movement found a natural home in the Finger Lakes.
“I think the Ithaca area always attracted people who were into some alternative way of being,” says David Hirsch, co-owner of the Moosewood restaurant since 1976. “So many of us came here from bigger cities; we didn’t want that urban, busy, frantic sort of life. And there was a ‘back to the land’ movement.”
CNN’s Richard Quest tries his hand at the craft of cheesemaking with a new generation of artisans.
“It was odd. It was different,” says Winnie Stein, another Moosewood co-owner. “There weren’t many restaurants who were focused on vegetarian cuisine or buying from farmers directly.”
“I think now that we see the impact of what our work has done,” she adds. “We are considered one of the pioneers for farm-to-table. And we are still excited. We’re still young at heart.”
CNN’s Robert Howell contributed to this story.