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Mountain Revisited

Bill Meredith

"The Mountain is not merely something eternally sublime; it has
great historical and spiritual meaning for us. From it came the Law;
from it came the Sermon on the Mountain"
…Jan Smuts

"We are now in the mountains, and they are in us."
John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, 1869.

Among the dozen or so courses I taught in my career at Mount St. Maryís, botany was among the ones I enjoyed most. Teaching it was a special challenge, because most of the students didnít think it would be relevant to their careers, and they had their minds made up beforehand that they werenít going to like it. So in addition to showing them how knowledge of plants was important, one of my goals was to get them to enjoy it by the end of the semester. I judged that I was achieving this goal when graduates came back years later; uniformly, they remembered the field trips at the end of the course as a favorite experience.

One of those trips was a walk of about a mile to Indian Lookout, a rock outcrop at an altitude of about 1200 feet on the north side of College Mountain. Walking through the forest on the way up, we could see examples of most of the major groups of plants that we had covered in the semester and make observations about their ecological relationships. At the Lookout we could rest a bit, with the town of Emmitsburg spread out before us and the Gettysburg battlefield visible in the distance; we could talk about the legends of students being disciplined for skipping classes to go up there and watch the battle in 1863, and the changes in the forest since then. Over the 41 years that I taught the course, I was able to observe those changes first-hand as the forest underwent succession to recover from lumbering, the chestnut blight, invasion by gypsy moths, and occasional fires.

In the early years, if the class was large I often divided it into two lab sections and made two trips up the mountain in one afternoon, but as time passed I found it was prudent to schedule them on two different days. After I retired the trips became less frequent; grandchildren enjoyed going up there for a picnic when they were small, but in recent years those occasions became rare. Then, this spring I was asked to teach botany as a tutorial for one student who had not been able to get it in his regular schedule, and early in May I found myself trudging up the trail again.

The mountain is a lot steeper now, and the walk took an hour longer than it did 40 years ago. My student was doing a research project with another professor near the peak of the mountain, Carrick Knob, which is half a mile west of Indian Lookout and some 400 feet higher. He was studying how the forest grows back after the mature trees have been killed by gypsy moths, and he needed help in identifying some of the plants in his research plots. So we spent a couple of pleasant hours clambering about over logs and rocks, recording the various weeds, briars, and tree seedlings that spring up when a formerly shaded forest floor is exposed to sunlight. And then we sat down at the summit and let our minds wander.

Sitting on a mountain is a fantastical experience. I can never do it without thinking about how both the mountain and I came to be, and I think I understand the mountain better than myself. The rock itself was formed at the bottom of some unknown sea 500 million years ago; it began to be lifted up at the end of the Coal Age by forces like those now active on the west coast, and geologists tell us it once rivaled the Rockies in height. Erosion began even while it was still growing, and eventually wore it down to its present level. Rain and wind still remove the soil from the highest places, so our seat on Carrick Knob was bare rock; slightly below us there was some soil, but it was too thin to hold much water, so the trees were stunted and we could see over them. Since it was a fine day, we were able to see the mesa-like form of Sugarloaf, rising from the foothills over 30 miles to the south. Closer at hand we could see patches of forest that looked like paintings done by the Hudson River School of artists; but just beside them were patches of tree skeletons killed by the gypsy moth invasion. The juxtaposition of natural beauty and spreading ruin seemed like a metaphor for the condition of the world today. If you ever wanted to know how Moses must have felt when he was allowed to go up and look at the Promised Land, knowing that he would never actually get there, or how General Jan Smuts felt as he delivered his speech to dedicate a memorial to African soldiers killed in World War II, this would be the place to experience it.

The mountainís place in the scheme of things can be predicted with some confidence by knowing its past and present, but my own is not so easy to understand. A human life is the product of many things. I enjoy botany because my parentsí families had been farmers for many generations; I am frugal and cautious with money because I grew up in the Great Depression; the ethical principles that govern my conscience trace back to teachings by my parents and the church on the hill in Meadowdale; I enjoy reading and learning because of individual teachers I was lucky enough to have. These qualities are obvious; no psychiatric analysis is needed to explain them. But under the surface, there is an uneasiness around crowds, a dislike of cities, and a need for occasional solitude that is satisfied best by being on a mountain. Perhaps I am like the baby geese that followed Konrad Lorenz around, thinking he was their mother because he was the first thing they saw when they hatched; perhaps the need for mountains was imprinted in my brain by growing up in West Virginia. Or, perhaps I absorb some sort of spiritual aura from being in the mountains, as John Muir apparently did when he first saw Yellowstone Park; perhaps it is one of those things science does not explain.

Whatever it is, it is real. I got home exhausted, with aching joints and cramped muscles, and was firmly scolded by my wife for being an old fool who should have known better than to try to climb a mountain at my age. That evening, I was inclined to agree with her; but the next day I felt better than I had in years. At the next opportunity, I will go back.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith