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.