Tag Archives: mountains

Forest nor the Trees

Up north, the leaves have been off the trees for weeks, helped by a heaping handful of Sandy. But, down south a couple of hundred miles, the leaves were happily attached to their mother ships, showing no sign of giving up the host, until a few days ago, when, overnight – whoompf – bare limbs and the anguished cries of leaf-rakers who’d just filled bags of the stuff, thinking that they’d have some days’ respite before the next necessary round of gathering.

Back up north, where we have a new place to call home, trees surround the house and then roll on to the distance, so that, in spring and summer, there is no horizon, only the tops of massive pines and maples and ash, and all the bushy undergrowth. All of it – the tall, the short, the great variety of green, the hard and soft and prickly, the native and the invasive – creates a kind of cocoon, or a force creeping up on what humans have carved out from it, a sure but subtle approach, like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane; indeed, behind every tree, within every dense brush, on every leaf-shrouded limb, creatures live, many of them, yet so few that we actually see or hear. And you can’t see neighbors’ houses, either – they’re there, somewhere, but behind and beyond, and out of mind. The foliage acts like a buffer, and a sound muffler, and it is, when you first start looking to live in these parts, exactly what your urban heart gladly surrenders to: unbridled green, like a warm mitten, granting you privacy, and ease, and basic things, even a kind of security, tenuous and fragile though it may be.

So, when the sky changes, and the wind blows cold, and the leaves start swirling down like confetti at a political convention, the newbie fears that all of nature that is good is gone, and that fall and winter will be times that are not to be loved but endured. What was green is brown and grey; one feels exposed, as if he’d walked out of a shower to discover that the walls had disappeared and an audience was enjoying the view from box seats.

Yet, that’s all wrong. This is an astounding time, perhaps even more so than when the force through the green fuse drives the flower. Thinking as I was thinking was simply getting it backwards: This is not a time when one is exposed, it is the time when the world is revealed. Where once there was a clump of green, now I see the close, middle and long-range depths of the world around me. That house I was trying to avoid seeing? It’s a lovely counterpoint to the natural world that now unfolds it to me. That ravine, that hillock – both seemed like soft cushions and springs, but are now clearly places of sharpness and mystery and secrets, not monochromatic but full of shadows and dappled areas of browns and tans and orange. Suddenly, I see something red, so red that it would seem impossible to not be a constant beacon, and yet I have no idea what that could be, because in my spring and summer days in this place it has never been visible to me. A short walk informs me that it is a canoe hanging on the side of a small shed – a canoe and a shed I didn’t know even existed.

And then – on going across the road to check the mailbox, I look back at my remarkably ungreened house, so open to the eye that it seems like a landmark, and I see, where just a few short weeks ago there was nothing but tree after tree … I see the mountains, less than a mile away, that look over (hence the name of one) and guard (hence the other) our little village. The real-estate brokers call this having “seasonal views,” and tout it as a selling point, or, rather, a buying opportunity. But it is not so crass – the surprise appearance of the rolling, sinuous and nearly feline mountains is nothing less than a gift, and a comeuppance to any who believe that this time of year is only about huddling and shelter, about losses and not gains.

Discovery is everywhere, in every place, in every direction, if only one moves with nature and time and does not cling to easy beauty, or fears sleep or death. Renewal is yet to come; epiphanies are here right now, for the taking.

 

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Mountain Time

Unwittingly, even ignorantly in topographic terms, we took a turn through New England and were surprised by the “range” of mountainous terrains. (And mountains don’t exactly sneak up on you. Besides, they are indicated on maps.) So, stupidly and simply, wow! Truly, though, it is hard to get a physical sense of such things on a map. This trip had its own built-in quests that were calculated and planned and full of expectations. Sometimes the joy of discovery is the anticipation, the imagining followed by the actualizing and, finally, the measuring of the two – a balance sheet of whether the thinking about is better than the doing, or vice versa. But the unanticipated joys, either large or small, can often be the most memorable part of travel. Like finding mountains.

For someone who purportedly loves mountains, I had no idea what was in store for me. Living in the mid-Atlantic region, I tend to think of the coastal states as being flat-ish lowlands, floodplains, sandbar shores intermingling with the sea. Maine disabused me of that notion. (As did Mark Twain; stopping off at his Hartford home, we were reminded that he wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”)

Maine’s mountains meet the water on their own terms, spruce and pine emerging from speckled granite; the rock/paper/scissors game comes to mind, especially when the logging trucks come toward you on highways (yikes!). In Acadia National Park there are more than twenty mountains, individually named but lacking a range name. The tallest is Cadillac, at 1,530 feet. We didn’t set out to do this, but we climbed it. The views are well worth it. This climb turned out to be a highlight (no pun intended) of the trip. Especially on the descent, when we attempted the rarely used, barely accessible and minimally marked west trail. It set forth challenges and we became intimately involved with the mountain, both on top and on its varied flanks. One of us has a bruise to remember it by. Both of us have a sense of accomplishment, a memory of pounding hearts and a deeper understanding of the landscape and nature’s power.

New Hampshire’s White Mountains are awesome and rugged, comparatively. Also, very much higher, considering that they have numerous four-thousand-footers and that those are then towered over by the renowned Mt. Washington, of bumper-sticker fame. As does its namesake, the tallest mountain seems to wear the same white wig made of clouds, preventing one from ever viewing its summit. And that explains its reputation for consistently having the worst weather in the States. These White Mountains possess a breathtaking beauty that can be matched only out West, yet in New Hampshire their presence feels more compressed and dense, adding to their intensity. In the East, you don’t have the same distant vistas of mountains before you enter their domain. (Kind of the same idea as when seeing whole trains out West and only partial trains in the East.)

Generally, when driving, our choice is to avoid interstates – the eunuchs of roads – but instead traverse the state routes and parkways, the older byways that knew what a road’s purpose was: to delight and surprise the occupants of the vehicles and to find unique approaches for going through and around things like mountains, as opposed to just slicing straight through, all in the service of connecting you in a less intrusive and more tangible way to the countryside. The most spectacular road of our journey was New Hampshire State Route 3, now partially eaten up by I-93, skinnying through Franconia Notch – happily unable to be widened further. Literally a mountain pass, for 12-15 miles I-93 is a parkway that winds between the cleavage-like high peaks of the Kinsman and Franconia mountain ranges much like a log flume. The road reveals that the lower parts of mountains can be as spectacular as the tops on our roller coaster ride along nature’s splendor in tandem with human engineering.

Vermont’s Green Mountains are comparable in stature to the Whites (except for the one), although they appear a bit mellower, softer, rounder than their neighbors to the east. Surprisingly, they are, as are some of the other ranges mentioned, part of the Appalachian Mountains. Their greenness, it seems, is because of the density of coniferous trees, creating a rolling rise and fall with fuzzy edges. The softer flow of this group makes for a picture-postcard photo-op, as houses and small villages live in harmony with the surrounding topography; and these natural limitations make for a saner balance of man(made) and mountain. The intrusion of bare lawn swaths of ski slopes are a little dismaying, as if a large-toothed, sharp-edged comb had raked down the mountainsides – the visual counterpart of fingernails dragged over a blackboard. In situations of nature versus nurture in this country, one has to have a sense of relativity: ski slopes are better than the wholesale timber trade which once denuded entire mountains. So, even with the bizarre grooved effect, it is preferable to scalping.

Going through the Berkshires and on to the Catskills, we are descending in size and scale, as well as latitude, but we are ascending in esteem. This area is considered a plateau, and whatever its codification, there is nothing more beautiful than the Catskill range in juxtaposition to the picture-perfect Hudson Valley. The mountains’ perspectival palette of greens into blues, sometimes going to purples with hints of yellows are so lovely as to leave one dumbstruck. The entirety looks moss-covered, a kind of giant Japanese-garden woodland. There is an appearance of comfort and calm in their curvaceous form and a magnetism that is inescapable for some of us so attuned. In the New York Highlands, just below the Catskills, gumdrop-like mountains erupt as guardians along the Hudson Valley. And, once again, we find ourselves climbing – Schunnemunk Mountain this time, our second ridge this summer. (Funny, considering that we have climbed zero up until this year.) With its unusual “pudding stone” and long and graceful waterfalls, and views of the Hudson that rival Maine’s coast, it is a long hike but worth it, nearly 1,700 feet. At this rate, maybe next it will be Mt. Washington.

All the mountains are sculpted earth; shaped uniquely by upheavals and slow compression, they are lovely, awe-inspiring, some maybe a bit fear-inducing. Their special placeness must be a result of genius loci, they and their settings creating a powerful arslocii.

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