“To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are—painful, impermanent, open, imperfect—and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us. The world is nature, and in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the process and essence of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence.” -Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
As a child standing in the shadow of the once great “Old Man of the Mountain,” summer after summer I was enchanted by the landmark. Seeing the Old Man was a part of a yearly tradition as we vacationed in Franconia, NH, and we would look for him as we splashed in lakes, hiked up mountains, and drove through the craggy notch in search of the next adventure. The Old Man was as much a part of our family’s lore as it was a part of the mythology of the land surrounding it, the rock formation appearing as the profile of an old man one moment, only to be absorbed into the mighty side of Cannon Mountain at another.
Early in the morning of May 3, 2003, the profile slid from his lookout over Profile Lake into a new formation whose presence was now unknown. This symbol was not just the picture on New Hampshire’s license plates, stamps, and road signs, and the concern was not just economic. The loss was a cultural one, for this symbol had been the focus of narratives for hundreds of years, and it is always difficult for us to be reminded of the ultimate power of the natural world. It’s what makes it beautiful, this dangerous seniority that can both inspire and crush us. There’s a reason we still tell stories like that of Pompeii and the Titanic, and the reason is not just the curiosity of a tragedy that could not be avoided. We tell the stories because of a deep, mythic connection to this idea that we are mere visitors on this planet, and the impermanence of the natural world is a constant reminder of our own impermanence.
The Old Man of the Mountain was formed about ten thousand years ago, through the melting of ices sheets that covered the White Mountains at the end of a glacial period that began 200 million years ago. He was composed of five separate slabs of granite, forty feet high and twenty-five feet wide, and sat twelve hundred feet above Profile Lake. Over the years, water freezing and thawing weakened a crevice beneath his “chin;” just enough to cause a rock slide. For years the state had used epoxy to slow the erosion, but unusually heavy rains and winds that year proved too much for the Old Man. The shock that followed the fall is characteristic of the human reaction to death: no one denies its inevitability, but its occurrence can still be shattering. This was the reaction of many to the loss of the Old Man, which some even likened to the loss of a family member, an old friend, or God. Because that’s the power of the natural world, as its beauty makes us feel a part of something universal, and yet, humbled by its majesty. The connection between the Old Man and the divine reverberates throughout the most ancient stories about him as well.
One native American legend is this: The Pemigewasset and Mohawk tribes were old enemies, until Chief Pemigewasset fell in love with the daughter of the Mohawk chief, whose name was Minerwa. When they married, peace reigned. One day, Minerwa received word that she must return to her tribe to attend to her dying father, and Pemigewasset swore to his wife that he would faithfully wait for her return. But winter came, and Pemigewasset remained behind while the rest of the tribe moved to more suitable grounds for the coming season. Pemigewasset died waiting for Minerwa’s return, and in the Spring, his people buried him on the cliffside, facing the direction from which Minerwa would return. As the people sadly left the sacred burial place of their beloved chief, they looked up to see that the Great Spirit has immortalized Chief Pemigewasset in the side of the mountain. The Old Man was thus the face of Chief Pemigewasset, watching over his people as well as for his missing wife. Most poignantly, this story reflects a common theme in Native American mythology: there is life within the land, and the land cannot be separated from the people.
Telling a story that puts the face of God on a mountainside is an act of courageous creativity that connects the natural world with human spiritual life. All that is needed is one more step in thinking: by protecting the wilderness, we are protecting ourselves, and by seeing God in the mountain, we are illuminating the numinous within ourselves.