Saturday, May 16, 2015

Ed Zahniser: From Yard Rocks to Big Rock

Photo by Alice Zahniser courtesy of the Zahniser familyUnder the big maple tree above the northwest corner of our barn at Mateskared a large rock holds a mixed history for me. It’s a rounded-off triangular solid. As kids my three siblings and I slid down it, putting the seats of pants at risk. A rounded pocket two-thirds down its topmost, steepeer slope transformed the rock as stone throne. Part of my memory of this rock is photographic – and false. I recalled a snapshot of my father Howard Zahniser and me on the rock about 1950. I wear a beanie cap. But later finding the photo, I discovered we are on a different rock, farther uphill, now hidden in recovering pasture.

A visceral memory records an accident when I was six years old. Standing on the rock’s lower, gentler slope, I hold a cast-off, wood-handled fishing rod found in the woodshed. As I fling the rod off the rock, a long sliver of its wooden handle sticks in my hand. I vividly recall how quickly the heady feeling of flinging the rod became the pain of splinter. My mother worked it out from under my skin with a sterilized needle. That no one else still holds this traumatic memory – founded on a rock – might call it into question.

That misremembered 1950 rock-top photo of my father and me gained strength when I first sat my son Justin atop the stone throne rock. Over the years both he and our younger son Eric mastered its domain. Our four generations – with Justin’s two sons now – have had no discernible material impact on this rock. But I take it on faith that the lichens etch the rock to buttress our thin Adirondack soil. For my old garden plot’s sake, I wish they’d hurry up.

Memory is a grab-bag. Other people may not share your version. My late mother Alice correctly remembered that the 1950 photo featured the rock farther uphill. I later found the photo and included it in the book of my father’s Adirondack writings Where Wilderness Preservation Began. Sometimes, place is space that – like the deceased – evokes multiple memories and multiple histories.

My mother Alice lived the last 20 years of her life in a retirement community in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Mennohaven is run by warm-spirited Mennonites. It exemplifies the Biblical “daily bread” economy, which a parable in The Gospel of Luke favors in contrast to our culture’s prevailing “storehouse economy.” Excess productive energy is best stored as goodwill in family and neighbors as everyone’s daily bread. Wealth implies excessive barns or warehouses as private hoards. Mea culpa.

Not long after my father died my mother turned in her settler’s card and, by stages, renewed her migrant’s card. (She would survive him for 50 years.) Since the demolition of my childhood home – then her life’s longest home – my mother moved seven times. The net effect vested her sense of extended family homeness in Mateskared. When she moved from her apartment in West Virginia to Mennohaven, my wife Christine and I said she was just moving an hour closer to the Adirondacks.

Our extended family now gathers at Mateskared. Every few years my mother’s grandchildren used to hold a workweek they called “Cousins Week.” When our sons Justin and Eric were the only cousin minors, Christine and I justified joining those gatherings. One August week seventeen of us centered on the cabin for clearing brush and trees, repainting the porch deck and outdoor furniture, patching the outhouse roof, clearing out gobs of wet maple leaves around the barn’s uphill wall, and cooking quasi-institutional meals for the gaggle of relations.

Big Rock

Mateskared yard rocks would look like stones plunked down next to Big Rock. It is useless but true to tell someone “Big Rock is as big as our barn.” Best to walk them to the thing itself. Our barn is small, its attached cowshed like a small shed garage. Big Rock similarly sits on ground – in recovering pasture – perhaps a mile east of, and downhill from, Mateskared.

Big Rock is a glacial erratic boulder. It would have been rafted to its spot by a glacier and then abandoned when the glacier melted back in retreat. “Erratic” means that Big Rock likely has little relation to rocks around it. That’s certainly true for scale, making Big Rock surprising, even when you know what you are looking for.

Or think you do.

Why should a rock big as a small barn sit by itself in the woods with no rock of comparable size nearby? It begs the motive power of Ice Age ice sheets. Big Rock invokes awe, that sense of the sacred induced by the diminutive effect, of feeling your smallness amidst the cosmic order. It’s what drove the architecture of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals. Big Rock is big, and scale-distorting isolation amplifies its bigness.

Paul Schaefer first told me Big Rock was a glacial erratic. The only glaciers I knew firsthand then were small mountain glaciers snugged into the Teton Range’s serrated skyline over Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Teton glaciers gave no satisfactory mental image of Big Rock’s glacial transport. Pleistocene ice sheets were a mile or more thick. Big Rock would ride such a conveyor belt like a plum.

Imagine standing beside mile-thick ice – it strains the diminutive effect. For all its 3,254-foot elevation and relative isolation, Crane Mountain, which doesn’t even rise from sea level, cannot begin to suggest the vastness of ice that rafted Big Rock into place.

Since farming ceased here, forest has worked overtime to cast shade on Big Rock. Before I was a teenager, we made family lunch expeditions through the Dalaba Farm and sugar bush, across Cold Spring Brook headwaters and through mixed hardwoods to Big Rock. Improvised ladders sometimes gave access to its flat but sloping top. When I was young, “summiting” Big Rock was scary and magical.

But on top, what a view then – off to the southeast we thought we saw the mountains of Vermont. Why not? Vermont means “Green Mountains,” and off to the south are row on row of mountains that, in certain lights, do look green. In other lights you might announce: “From atop Big Rock you can see across Lake Champlain to Bluemont.” Now you see nothing from atop Big Rock but the rock underfoot, some sky overhead, and into treetops that engulf this behemoth hump of erratic elsewhere. The fecundity of forest recovery has its scenic downside.

In my mind’s eye I can still look to Vermont over sandwiches and lemonade with our family of six, perhaps Paul’s wife Carolyn “Ma” Schaefer and the four Schaefer kids, and – I distinctly picture – Melvin Allen, Pansy and Harold’s son, then about eleven years old.

One evening, with 90 minutes of daylight left and needing a brisk walk, I set off to measure Big Rock. I wanted to verify my second-generation likening of its mass to our small barn. The trail was still well cleared. Brush overhung only a small bit through an old clearing. In my memory that stretch of trail has been clogged with thickets since a few years after the Dalabas left their Hillmount Farm.

In open hardwoods, I heard – but didn’t see – a deer bound off downhill. A bear sounds like one mad brush-crashing scramble in startled flight. Most forest sounds grow more startling with dusk as vision grows less sure, more tricky and illusive.

Sometimes a low cairn of rocks atop a bathtub-sized rock marks the short turn-off to Big Rock. Big Rock lies about 150 feet uphill from the trail in recovering deciduous forest. At dusk you can mistake it as more forest floor: Big Rock as back drop. But I knew what to look for. Ever larger on site than in memory, Big Rock never fails to impress. The largest nearby rock is but a wedge-shaped slab, a spalled-off chunk of its former self.

I brought a 25-foot tape. Big Rock measures 41 feet uphill, just askew of our strict north-south stretch of Edwards Hill Road. The downhill side measured 35 feet. Uphill it tapers to a bit lesser thickness. I judged – in basketball hoop heights – that on its downhill side the crest sits about 23 feet above the forest floor. And my inner hoop-height calculator is quite accurate.

From Big Rock, having a sufficiency of daylight left in the woods, I continued on the main trail to the power lines along Chatiemac Road. Like a monument, the fieldstone chimney of a burned cabin stood above the cleared power line right-of-way that was dotted with milkweed plants. I didn’t linger. A sunset spread to the southeast above the far mountains once visible from Mateskared and Big Rock. Then I hotfooted it back around Edwards Hill to Mateskared.

When talking about Big Rock Daisy Allen would somewhere tuck in its other name, Dunlop’s Rock, maintaining the depth of its layered place-making history.

Photo by Alice Zahniser, courtesy of the Zahniser family.

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Ed Zahniser retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer - a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).

One Response

  1. Bob Meyer says:

    this is such a universal and meaningful story for anyone with camp in the Adirondacks or elsewhere in the North Woods.
    thanks for jogging my memory. 🙂

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