Some passing thoughts on kind hearts and stone faces

Around this time of year another chorus is added to the ongoing folk ballad of the Old Man of the Mountain and his self-appointed guardian, known as the Old Man of the Old Man.

The Old Man of the Mountain, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with these New England parts, is a rock formation some 1,200 feet up the side of a cliff in Franconia Notch, N.H.At that distance, this product of hundreds of thousands of years of erosion could pass for a sculptor's work, like the presidential heads on Mt. Rushmore. Only there is something more enigmatic, something more beguiling about New Hampshire's Old Man. For his is the face of a human being never born.

Clearly this stone face would be a strong man. The chin is prominent. The forehead is massive -- and thereby hangs the annual tale from Franconia Notch.

The huge boulder that forms the forehead weighs an estimated five tons, and for nearly 70 years has been held in place by a steel rod, while 18 steel pins have bound together the rest of the face. Once a year for the past 25 years, out of a sense of reverence and duty, Niels Nielson, the Old Man of the Old Man, a bridge maintenance supervisor for the state, has hiked up an unmarked trail and swung out on a wooden chair to inspect the ravages wrought by another winter's frosts and thaws. This year, as usual, the television cameras recorded the rite.

The crevices that give character to the face are a little deeper and a little wider, but evidently no emergency threatens for 1984.

What a strange fable all this makes! The pyramids are sort of crumbling. Venice is in a state of slow collapse. The Parthenon is in peril of being eaten away by industrial fumes. But they are man-made stone monuments. The Old Man of the Mountain is nature's artifact. And now men are trying desperately to keep nature from going too far. Doesn't nature know when she's created a masterpiece, and further tinkering will be a disaster?

The very thought is agonizing, so attached are we humans to our old, old stones. The mere idea of splitting a boulder of Stonehenge or one of those hulking slabs of Easter Island takes on the insult of sacrilege. Obviously the durability of stone is an ancient credo close to the heart. If stone is not stony, it seems, we are lost in a world of impermanence, where all houses are built on sand. Everyone who has seen the Old Man of the Mountain will feel a personal loss if some spring one of those pins fails to hold and even the smallest piece of that craggy face breaks loose and falls into the ravine below.

At a time when everything else in life is changing, it is unbearable that our stones -- our stones! -- should erode.

Our concern for stones -- natural and man-shaped -- is to our credit. We should care, and we should do our best to conserve what we care about. But there is also a lack of logic to our rocky passions. At this late date, so far from the Stone Age, shouldn't we adopt more sophisticated symbols of permanence than stones?

The real irony is this intense cherishing of nature's and our artifacts even as we continue on with a considerable amount of general environmental spoilage -- not to mention a multibillion-dollar arms race. We are so careful for the welfare of the Old Man of the Mountain that we deny ourselves a new federal highway near him for fear the vibration of construction might shudder into unidentifiable shards that famous face. Yet we conservers find ourselves also building bombs that could pulverize the whole mountain -- plus Venice, the Parthenon, the pyramids, and the stones of a dozen Gothic cathedrals. And when the subject is war, some of us peacetime cherishers of old stones talk about the destruction into rubble of whole solid-as-a-rock cities (and the people in them) as an ''acceptable risk.''

The answer is not to care less for the Old Man of the Mountain and other stones, but to care a lot more for the rest of the world, as if it too were a small beloved artifact of creation -- as indeed it is.

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