Standing on top of one of the higher hills in what remains of a once massive mountain chain brings to mind the everlasting continuum of natural processes on this great planet Earth. My view to the east, south, and west is the remaining range of once great peaks. Most of these mountain tops are at a similar elevation and are puncuated with deep valleys in between peaks and high linear ridges. Time and the processes of nature have worn them relatively evenly. A few higher peaks in the distance within this chain of tall hills reveals extrusions of bedrock less easily eroded and less suspceptible to the savages of time. They represent exceptions to the rule. It seems that amongst all rules there are these nonconforming entities. Perhaps they are, in some vague sense, rebels without a cause.
This range of hilltops is often referred to as the peneplain. This once great mountain range pushed up into the skies millions of years ago during periods of great continents colliding. Imagine floating ships of earth millions of square miles in size pushing against each other. Something had to give and deep layers of rock were thrust up into the sky. The prevailing thought is that these mountains likely started in the 20,000 feet above sea level range. The tops now range from 1800 feet to 2500 feet in elevation. The large volumes of rock, in essence, the lost elevation has been scattered near and far. Fragments of these once impressive monoliths could be found from the base of any given hill to deep into the Atlantic Ocean.
Within the great stretches of time that have passed since this bedrock was uplifted to great heights there have been countless events that have contributed to the mountains’ demise. Numerous glaciated periods break, pluck away, and redeposit soil and rocks for thousands of miles. Eolian (wind) erosion has worn away exposed rock and soil much like a stream can smooth a large boulder over long periods of time. The down cutting of rivers and streams has changed the shape of the landscape and heaviliy impacted the geomorphology of the area. It is simply mind boggling to try and comprehend how we have arrived at what I can see before me on this day.
It is more than strange to stand on this hill top, the wind blowing in my face, and watch billowing white clouds sailing by in a sea of blue, blue sky all the while realizing that I can see the past, the present, and even glimpses of the future. It is as if I am standing in the center of the spiral stair case we call time and I can see our beginning, the present, and where we might be heading all from one vantage point. It is awesome. It is bewildering. And while it requires a lot of imagination, which means there is room for a great deal of error, it is downright inspirational and somewhat intimidating!
At our present point in time the rivers have reached a floor where they spend more time cutting side to side than in a downward direction. The broad valleys that are found between each range of tall hills is significant evidence of the movement of the major rivers that inhabit this green part of the planet. If I look closely I can see former cut banks both northwest and southeast of this major river. This river carries all of the water drained in its direction. The watershed for this river, known as the Deerfield River to locals, is 660 square miles in size. Imagine how much water can be directed towards this river in a large rain event. Millions and millions of gallons of run off has made this stream has cut down, perhaps 15 feet over the last few thousand years, but more importantly it has meandered side to side between a quarter and a half a mile. This broad plain is currently host to prime soils that are used for growing agriculturual products. From corn to hay the fertile soil feeds plants that have been grown and used by humans in this area for three htwo hundred and fifty years.
We know from historical record that this area has undergone terrific biological change in the last one hundred years. When Europeans first settled this area it was about 90% forested. By 1890 it was 80% cleared for human agricultural use. And now one hundred and twenty five years later it is about 75% forested again. The movement of our first settlers in the early 1800′s towards dreams in the west dramatically lowered the populations of this area. Many local towns are now one third of the population that they were in 1825.
Of course from this vantage point I can also see roads, houses, barns, and other signs of human civilization. We humans work at changing the landscape much faster than geologic influences. It sometimes seems that it is our nature to be out of sync with the natural world.
On distant hills I can see some areas that have remained as field. Stone walls, amazingly linear and comprised of native stone grace the field’s perimeter. In some of these cleared areas super large boulders lay on the surface. These are known as glacial erratics because some of these large stones were transported hundreds of miles from the last glacier and left behind as the meling ice retreated north some twelve thousand years ago. These huge stones, far to big to be moved by early settlers, were simply left in place while open meadows were created by hard working men and women of the 18th and early 19th century. The stones have been etched over the centuries by lichen and now host miniature ecosystems that utilize the great physical mass of the rock to collect solar energy and create a perfect environment for plants holding synergistic relationships. I often think of these large erratics and their micro ecosytems of small models mimicking this planet we call Earth.
And as the sun, yellow and blazing in all its glory, lowers in the western sky I can’t help but wonder what the future holds. Certainly there are dramatic changes on the horizon as climate change seems to be destined to take center stage. Our plant communities will yield and change to temperature changes. Our landscape will be altered by hydrology quite different than we experience today. And our social structure will likely change as well. I wonder if human populations will shift from one area to another based on favorable climate.
From this vantage point the continuum seems to be moving forward. Herclitus, the Greek philospher from the 6th century is best known for his quote “the only constant in nature is change”. This statement certainly seems to be true and fitting as I stand here watching night start to cast her shadow on the earth around me.
The sky to the west is now darkening but still dazzling. Orange, red, and salmon colors wash the horizon. It is time I start my journey through the woods towards our homestead. Tomorrow will be a new day as this planet, filled with life, spins on its axis all while traveling in its great ellipse around the sun.
Life is truly an adventure if we pay attention.
Written for www.wildramblings.com and published in March 2014.