Thoreau's mountain and mine

FOR a mountain so scribbled about, Monadnock remains nearly unsmutched. On a climb last summer we could find no trace of the newspapers and eggshells Thoreau complained of. Nineteenth-century graffiti like the ``Charles and Lizzie'' carved on the summit are now worn away. Thoreau claimed that ``Charles carried the sledgehammer and Lizzie the cold chisel.'' Ordinarily his view of the mountain was a good bit more romantic. Neither Thoreau nor any of his Concord friends could raise their eyes to Monadnock, much less climb it, without drawing an inspirational moral. Folks who lived at its foot were more realistic. An early New Hampshire preacher once had as his text ``Ye shall say to this mountain, `Remove hence to yonder place,' and it shall remove.'' Reciting these lines in the Jaffrey meetinghouse, he naturally stretched his arm and looked toward Monadnock

out the window. ``I dunno,'' he said. ``I dunno. It looks pretty big.''

Monadnock does in fact look as big and as beautiful as a mountain ought to look. From being several times burned over, it is bald on top and has a distinct tree line, even though several thousand feet short of such alpine sublimity. As the guidebook says, it rises only ``a modest 3,165 feet above sea level.''

But Monadnock and Pac Monadnock to the east can be seen from the Concord hills. ``Summer and winter,'' wrote Thoreau, ``our eyes had rested on the dim outlines of the mountains, to which distance and indistinctness lent a grandeur not their own, so that they served to interpret all the allusions of poets and travelers.'' He filled 70 journal pages with meditations on the mountain and descriptions of his climbs. And he climbed it. At 8:30 in the morning he could leave on the Cheshire Railroad, get off a t Troy about 11, reach the summit at 1, and be home for an early supper. Or he could camp on the mountainside for a week at a time, making notes on ``high altitude'' birds and plants.

His spruce lean-to once stood just below the first ledge of glacier-curved rock, two-thirds of the way up Monadnock's southeast shape. Resting near there before starting the final climb, my wife and I were overtaken last summer by a spry fellow who looked about 70. Turned out he was eight weeks past an operation and trying to get back into climbing form. He had done Wachusett and a couple of hills earlier in June. We were going pretty good, he said, ``for people who only climbed once a year.'' Ordinaril y he himself climbed a mountain a week.

From where we were standing you could easily see Wachusett. And if you cricked your neck, you got your first glimpse of Monadnock's peak about half a mile above, Ararat colored, Thoreau called it, the brownish-gray of antiquity. This last half-mile is quite steep, yet a century ago some young people carried a wooden floor up it in pieces. They had a fiddler with them, and when they got to the top they fitted the sections together and held a dance.

Near the summit we met a young woman with a rucksack and three little boys. She said she lived at the foot of the mountain and started her kids up it when they were 5. She seemed genuinely fond of Monadnock and proud that it stood within her village limits. Where she lived before, she said, ``they didn't have anything.''

Up at this level Thoreau always looked for juncos and towhees, and in the evenings he listened for the ``spark and boom'' of the nighthawk. The guidebook says that the hawks are gone, and I wouldn't recognize a towhee if I saw one.

But once eating my lunch up there with some friends, I leaped up shouting, ``There's Thoreau's bird!'' And then I sat down again in embarrassment. It had been a junco.

On the upper slopes there are wild blueberries, and on the very top, tiny white flowers bloom in the cracks of bare rock. Last summer I picked a blossom in order to sit down and compare it with the guidebook drawing and to discover whether it was indeed Thoreau's three-toothed cinquefoil Potentilla (Potentilla tridentata). Lower down on the page I then read: ``Visitors are cautioned not to pick these rare plants. They are already much less abundant than formerly.''

While we were still on the summit, a young couple asked to use my topographic map. To make a joke I advised them that on a clear day you could see the whole breadth of Massachusetts -- ``if you cared to.'' The man chuckled, but the woman turned away muttering something about ``a nice state.'' A patriot.

Below us the earth looked as if God had just finished in the garden and had set the seraphim at its gates. The landscape made me wonder about the politics of habitual climbers like the old fellow we had met on the way up. I would think they'd all be Utopians of one sort or another.

Things look so clean and simple from such heights. The mountain temporarily ennobles you. You come under its spell of wild romance even when standing next to Charles and Lizzie or eating a sandwich.

But on the way down, this euphoria gradually disappears. Tired now, you begin to be annoyed at the bewildering and unending cataract of squared and broken boulders. You are ready to return to earth. Yet something of the heights remains.

In Concord in the cold of November 1851, Thoreau wrote in his journal: ``A day in which you must hold on to life by your teeth. You can hardly ruck up any skin on Nature's bones. The sap is down; she won't peel. . . . Not a mosquito left.'' But then he looks up at Monadnock and adds, ``My eyes pasture there, and straight way the yearling thoughts come back.''

We have spent a century or so ridding ourselves and our literature of that sort of stuff. How can we now judge such romantic sentiments and their curious author -- with his mountain and his pond? Like the old preacher we want to say, ``I dunno, I dunno.'' Yet pausing to catch my middle-aged breath on the way down, I felt bound to point out to Mrs. Beeching that I loved her -- after carefully looking around to make sure we had the mountain to ourselves.

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