Of Mountains, Hills, and Ledges

On top of this treeless mountain I am surrounded by the peneplain; vast remnants of similar height hilltops and ridges that rise over sunken river valleys and are the remaining vestiges of mountains once similar in stature to the present Rocky Mountains in the western part of North America. That wind, glaciers, precipitation, and time could take such a toll on these mountains is difficult to fathom. What remains is the former core of these once great mountains; metamorphic schist rock that is so hard it has withstood the ultimate test of time. In places bare rock is still exposed, especially on slopes and ledges facing in a southeast direction. The last glaciers created land forms known as Roche Moutonnees; vertical and near vertical rock faced ledges that face southeast and catch the first light of the day. These craggy land forms were produced when south moving sheets of ice, a mile high or more, plucked huge chunks of rock on south facing slopes. The large pieces of rock removed were often transported hundreds of miles from their origin and then deposited on the earth’s surface as the glaciers melted and retreated to the north from whence they came. These gargantuan rock remnants are known as glacial erratics and appear as large, sometimes building sized rocks, that sit alone in field and forest. They look as if they are monuments, and to any real student of geology they may be just that.

From this vantage point, a local mountain known as Pocumtuck positioned near the Catamount Hills, towers over most of the surrounding peneplain. The purple hilltops surrounding me appear as if they are in motion. It is an optical illusion produced by rolling shadows from clouds high in the sky that seem to scrape along the elevated landscape turning plum colored hills into dark ominous looking countryside as light is blocked from the sun above and the weather moves in a northwest to southeast direction. Towering clouds, the kind associated with thunderstorms, are moving this way from distant places to the west. The air is exhilarating. It is cool, clean, smells like ozone, and the breeze evaporates the sweat on my brow that is the residue from the hard climb that brought me to this precipice. The fast moving clouds and shadows on the surrounding mountains, the sunlight that squeezes through the cloud cover creating beams of light that showcase precious parts of the valley, a breath of fresh air with the wind jostling the hair on my head, and the thunderstorm in the distance that is just now creating lightning and booming noise creates an intense but pleasing atmosphere. Through all of this I am reminded of “For purple mountains majesty, above thy fruited plain” certainly some of the most wonderful lyrics ever written when it comes to describing the landscape across this wondrous country of ours. I could not feel more alive. This moment is both electric and satisfying. These are the moments we wait for and that do not come very often.

These old hills hold much life. When they were young they reached above the cloud line and held nothing but jagged, unforgiving rock they were nearly devoid of permanent living residents. The notion that time could break these mountains down to one tenth their original height is amazing. And yet through all those eons of time and despite the harsh conditions plants joined this mountain, soils were built from rock and dead plant material, and the fact that animals of all kinds chose to live here is astounding. That I am able to witness any of this is beyond fortuitous.

As compared to geologic events I am struck by how temporary most life seems, especially if I dwell on the life of an individual living entity. That one individual life form is part of a long history of evolution makes me understand the importance of lineage. Each one of us, plant and animal, is most importantly the seed for the next generation. Each a small, but integral, part of the chain of life. And the greater whole, the Gestault of this planet if you will allow me this thought, is that inorganic and organic alike combine to create one living organism. And we call that organism Earth. It is likely but one of many, many organisms found in this great universe.

To think of our planet as one living entity is a foreign concept to most, but examination of almost all aboriginal people’s legends will tell you that this was a common truth for those that lived by and with the land. Perhaps human intellect and ego have led us in the wrong direction for thousands of years. There is little question that the wisdom held by instinct in most other life forms has been lost in Homo sapiens. That is neither good or bad but rather a simple observation.

Directly below me are jagged rock faces. Some might be described as cliffs but most lack the necessary vertical wall to accurately make this claim. No, most of these rocks are not quite straight up nor are they a continuous wall. The disarray created by glacier ice plucking rock, more recent frost heaving, and the sheer mechanics and force of gravity have created a puzzle suitable for the Titans. Even the twelve original Greek Gods would have a hard time sorting out this series of broken ledges and hidden pathways. When one climbs amongst these rock faces, and it requires no special equipment to do so, they are struck with the lack of organization that these rock structures display. In some areas the rock faces have collapsed to heaps, in other areas they remain stout and solid. Oddly the local residents, bobcat, porcupine, deer, coyote, fisher,and other critters have found pathways that can be followed from bottom to top, or from top to bottom if that is the direction you wish to travel. These trails go north to south and then double back over a switchback to a slightly lower elevation. If you were drawing a two dimensional map of these trails it would look as if someone had painted a long sinuous snake on the rock face. These trails are treacherous because broken cobble and loose branches laying on the narrow rock trails can easily trip you. One poorly placed foot location can send you tumbling head over heal, fifty feet or more at some locations, if attention is not paid to where you are walking. I’ve traversed these many times and at some junctures wondered if these routes are safe. One bad move and I could easily break a leg. I broke my leg in two places once while I was alone and where no one would look for me for a few days. It was a harrowing experience that I do not wish to repeat.

As I traverse down through this Roche Moutounee I am carefully picking my way around loose rocks, slippery lichen, and sticks that may tangle my shoe laces and send me head first down this rocky slope. I am significantly less flexible than I was as a young man but infinitely more careful. Perhaps the two balance each other out. On one ledge where the trail is a scant two feet wide I stop and sit down. Moisture drips off the cool rock from above. I take in the view, now relegated to tree tops (many of them broken from the great ice storm two years ago) filtering the distant view and a hardwood forest below. Ravens nearby are squawking furiously over some unknown treasure. I can only see glimpses of their massive black bodies as they swoop from tree top to the ground and back to tree top again. The noises they make can be similar to crows but more of a croaking than a cawing. They also make gutteral sounds, including a loud ka-plink sound and other odd audibles that only ravens understand.

The ledge behind me, comprised of a mica schist with bands of quartzite, is home to rock tripe, a leafy form of lichen that is typically gray to olive green and can cover large areas hiding full faces of exposed bedrock. This symbiotic plant can be a real hazard on these near vertical faces in wet weather. They are as slippery as sea weed and incredibly tenacious. Many a good woodsman has been seriously injured when slipping on these wonders of nature. Traveling amongst this foliose lichen should be done with the utmost caution. Despite all their inconveniences rock tripe are simply one of our planets most beautiful displays of natural mosaic. The patterns that are found amongst lichen growth are simply wonderful to behold. Large murals on rock of greens, golds, tans, and browns hold shadows, sunlight, and glistening dew. The colors and textures seem to change with the time of day. It is like looking at the world through a kaleidoscope. That they never look the same makes their beauty infinite.

These ledges are full of small and large crevices. The small crevices have the remains of acorns, perhaps left behind by chipmunks or squirrels. The large crevices, some of them miniature caves and extending six to eight feet horizontally into the bedrock, can be havens for porcupines. It is easy to tell which are inhabited by this large rodent. Their scat forms a deep mat that often almost obscures the opening to the den. Between the potential quills and the deep scat to roll in it is a good place not to bring your dogs.

Over the past 14,000 to 16,000 years since the retreat of the last glacier a thin layer of soil has developed on horizontal surfaces of this bedrock. The soil is primarily organic as the result of composting leaf and plant material. Small woodland plants with shallow roots like Canada mayflower, starflower, and Indian cucumber are now found here. Even larger trees have grown on these outcrops. No too far from here a six foot diameter red oak with a wing span of about 100 plus feet sits perched on a Roche Moutounee. The root system has penetrated through the plated schist bedrock and tapped into bedrock water reserves and nutrients that percolate down through the forest floor and end up in the water column. This tree is about 400 years old and is the parent tree to a large part of the forest around this massive tree. That this tree had the will to live under such harsh circumstances, and it has done so successfully, is a testament of its will to live.

On more than one occasion I have seen bobcats sunning themselves on this southeastern hunk of bedrock. This rock is perfect for catching the sun’s rays in the winter and likely holds heat well into the evening. It also serves as a good perch for the hunting bobcat. It is my distinct impression that many a meal has been served up from this bedrock post where stealth predators may stay warm on cold winter days while waiting for prey.

As I stand up to finish my descent down this long forgotten trail I wonder what lies ahead. Not only on this brief journey in the woods but in the years and decades to come. I’m hoping for more of the same. Familiarity can breed understanding and I am not opposed to that.

  • Lbiederstadt

    Bill, thank you for taking me on this journey with you. The earth IS a single living organism. I don’t doubt that. It’s bigger than we are, and more fragile. Thank you, thank you for your eyes, your head and your heart.
    -Lynn@skydiaries:disqus 

  • http://gardenpath.wordpress.com/ sandy

    It took me quite a while to read this. I stopped many times to look up terms, and find images.  I say the same words as  Lbiederstadt, thanks for taking me along. I enjoyed every word. Google Earth gave me a fair look at the top of the mountain, and the rock formations you described. But it is not like really being there.

  • http://alsphotographyblog.blogspot.com/ Al

    It is always amazing to me how life survives everywhere. I can be on top of a 14,000-foot mountain here in Colorado and there’s life all around me – the slow-growing lichens on the rocks, the burrowing animals that somehow make it through the harsh high-altitude winter, and even flies buzzing all around me.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    And thank you for reading.  I’m a long time proponent of the Gaia hypothesis that the planet is one living organism.  Recently this idea has fallen out of favor with many ecologists as conservative politics wields its ugly head in the scientific world.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Hmmm.  I wonder if I should have written this in more understandable terms.  Was this a problem looking up words?  My idea is to communicate these ecological ideas to everyone and if my presentation could use improvement I’d love to know.

    It’s wonderful that you found the location on Google Earth.  The actual ledges that I was climbing down is about  a mile north on another ridge.  They are similar though.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Yes, every plant and animal has its own niche, and this is what makes our world so complete.  That we have such a complex life system that almost every void is filled is astounding.  I often wonder if there is anything else like it in the entire Milky Way, probably, but it sure is special!

  • http://gardenpath.wordpress.com/ sandy

    No, I was just not familiar with some of the terms. Your article is fine. 

  • Montucky

    The longer that I live and the more time I spend observing what exists naturally in the wild country (and remembering similar observations made many years ago), the more I believe  that the Gaia Theory is correct. Your writings serve also to reinforce that. It’s at once comforting yet frightening when I reflect on the un-natural changes that have been made in the last half century.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    It is very unsettling what we have witnessed in the last half century with regard to changes to our planet that appear to be human induced but remember that our natural world is unbelievably resilient and Earth, especially if we learn to lessen our impacts, will insert recovery systems that will heal this planet even if that includes eliminating Homo sapien.  Our best chance for a long term stay on this planet is to abruptly change our habits and learn to live within natural law.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thank you Sandy.  Your feedback is critical.  I really appreciate this.

  • http://artswebshow.com Kseverny

    Wow, it is incredible to make new discoveries about just what nature is capable of.

  • Teresaevangeline

     A double fracture in a leg, and in the wilderness, sounds pretty harrowing. I can see why you tread carefully and, of course, also because we tread on Mother Earth.  I love your last idea, which sums it all up so nicely, “Familiarity breeds understanding.” 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Nature holds so many secrets yet to be unraveled that it is astounding.  Sort of goes with the old saying “the more you know the more there is to find out”!  We are only at the beginning.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I broke my leg not in the wilderness but in a cranberry bog (1973).  It was winter.  My boss would give me about a week of work and I wouldn’t see him until the next week. I lived by myself on this island and so there was nobody to notice I was missing.  Flipped a tractor over along the edge of a deep swale  at the edge of a bog, the tractor hit my leg,and knew immediately that I was in trouble.  Fortunatley I was not pinned under the tractor.  I wasn’t sure how bad it was until the seams in my dungarees started ripping from the swelling. Crawled about 3/4 mile to a back road (took nearly 3 hours) where the first two cars (a BMW and a Volvo) would not stop.  Finally a woman driving a 1960 Plymouth Station Wagon (a wreck of a car) with 6 kids in the back stopped.  She took me to the hospital. Heard later that one of the first two cars called to police to report a drunk on the side of the road.

    Yes, with regard to our planet, familiarity does breed understanding.

  • http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com Emily

    Another thoughtful post with so many bits of wisdom! I espeically loved your musings on ledges. Some of my favorite moments have been on the edge of some great rock-outcropping. There is something about being up, being able to see for distances, that encourages reflection and insights. Makes me want to go find one now!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Ledges are unique in that they give us the edge of the world.  A place where we can see great distances and fall off into oblivion.  They are a thrill and they do encourage insightful thought.

  • http://nature-drunk.com Nature-Drunk

    I love the image of the Raven. It reminds me of a story the Koyukon, an Athabaskan people, tell. Raven is the creator of all things, but he is a trickster. If you haven’t read it, check out Make Prayers to the Raven, by Nelson. I know you’ll love it!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I will check this out.  I am familiar with what I think is a similar story/myth about Raven and the beginning of the world in Cree culture.  Thanks for the reference I love Native American Myths and Legends.

  • http://everyday-adventurer.blogspot.com/ Ratty

    I would love to be able to go walking through hills and mountains. It is so very flat where I live. I was able to walk through some big hills in Iowa a few times, and it is a wonderful experience.

  • Vagabonde

    Thinking about the 400 years old 6
    foot diameter red oak gives me shivers  -
    what is this tree could talk? I’d love to hear its tales.  For us 400 years seems so long but it’s not
    even the blink of an eye really on this mountain.  Could you take more pictures?  It must be lovely there.

  • http://craftygreenpoet.blogspot.com Crafty Green Poet

    Excwellent post, I’m always fascinated by the relationship with geology and the landscape that we actually see, that is so dominated by vegetation that the underlying rock becomes mostly very hidden

  • http://anniespickns.wordpress.com Annie

     

    Thank you for this mountain ramble. Each time I join you on one of your little journeys I learn so
    much. It is interesting to me, one who has never spent more than a few days in
    the northeast and all of those in cities, how really different the landscape is
    than what I experience here in the far west. Like Sandy, I too look up terms I
    am not familiar with and enjoy adding them to my knowledge of natural things.
    As you said, “Familiarity can breed understanding and I am not opposed to that”.
    Exactly!

  • Find an Outlet

       Please, please continue to use the nomenclature you are familiar with, we all benefit from it. Learning new vocabulary is a joy of life for me. I keep reading (with annoyance) bloggers who advise using the simplest of language and don’t believe in dictionaries or thesauruses! Which makes them dull indeed. Your cranberry bog story was amazing, and I thought even if those cars who passed you called about a drunk on the road, at least they called and eventually someone would have come. What a story.
       I don’t know what to say anymore about the relationship of humans to the planet. The only seeds I have planted for the next generation have been trees. Maybe if more trees were planted and fewer humans, we’d have a shot at saving what we have. It’s not promising but you have come to terms with it in your own way, from your unique perspective. I don’t know what to think anymore. We’re urged to be accepting of all. It’s not just corporations or politicians who are destructive. If only there was some way to teach people that we’re all in this together. But even primitive tribes, though they may have respected the earth much more than we, fought and enslaved each other. Damn evolution. I wish I was a squirrel.

  • Find an Outlet

       Please, please continue to use the nomenclature you are familiar with, we all benefit from it. Learning new vocabulary is a joy of life for me. I keep reading (with annoyance) bloggers who advise using the simplest of language and don’t believe in dictionaries or thesauruses! Which makes them dull indeed. Your cranberry bog story was amazing, and I thought even if those cars who passed you called about a drunk on the road, at least they called and eventually someone would have come. What a story.
       I don’t know what to say anymore about the relationship of humans to the planet. The only seeds I have planted for the next generation have been trees. Maybe if more trees were planted and fewer humans, we’d have a shot at saving what we have. It’s not promising but you have come to terms with it in your own way, from your unique perspective. I don’t know what to think anymore. We’re urged to be accepting of all. It’s not just corporations or politicians who are destructive. If only there was some way to teach people that we’re all in this together. But even primitive tribes, though they may have respected the earth much more than we, fought and enslaved each other. Damn evolution. I wish I was a squirrel.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thank you for the encouragement that you have given me now, and in the past. 

    The human relationship with the planet is complex and, I think, finite.  We are likely a temporary species, as are most species, that will eventually be replaced by something else.  In the meantime I believe it is our responsibility to work with the planet and not against her.  Each and every day brings a new challenge and each and every day we must meet that challenge.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thanks Annie.  As an ecologist I occasionally forget that everyone speaks my language.  My aim is to share information to as many people as possible.  I’m hoping the message gets out that our planet is precious and we need to act and treat it accordingly.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Geology is the foundation on which soils plants and animals thrive.  And given it is so old there are so many stories to discover.  My fascination with geology never stops!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thank you.  I’ll be posting another story about this tree sometime this summer.  I’ll include more photos so you can see them.  400 years is a long time for the living, but in geological time it is almost not measurable.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    If your ever in New England look me up and we’ll go hiking together.  You’d love it but I must say I really enjoy your adventures in Michigan and love to follow you along.

  • Steve Schwartzman

    Yes, let’s hear it for nomenclature: I just learned the word peneplain from your post. Similarly, I just taught the word tepal to readers of a few recent posts of mine.

    Steve Schwartzman
    http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    It is always interesting to learn new words, especially with regards to nature.  Thanks for stopping by!

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