Saturday, June 6, 2015

Ed Zahniser: What Crane Mountain Said

Crane MountainIn geological lore Crane Mountain is a monolith, “one rock.” From our Mateskared cabin porch in Bakers Mills Crane is “the view.” Up close and personal, Crane harbors a pond. The summit once had a staffed fire tower, but aircraft surveillance and then satellite monitoring made it obsolete.

Until I saw Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in California, I found it difficult to grasp Crane as one rock, partly because forests and blueberry plants cover much of Crane. When I sit up there and look across the pond to low cliffs on the far shore, wonder if this diverse scene can be set on one rock? But is not all Earth one rock — its bump-and-grind lithosphere, at least? We are all campers and sojourners on one rock?

Crane inspires such thoughts. Bill McKibben has considered Crane in literature. In his book The Age of Missing Information he contrasts the experience of watching all one weekend’s TV programming with spending a weekend on a mountain that he calls Crow.

At Mateskared, in full view of Crane Mountain, I once read an early Paul Schaefer manuscript. It recounts Paul’s solo winter backpacking expedition afoot from his old log cabin here off Edwards Hill Road out of Bakers Mills and across to climb Crane where he stayed the night. The pond seemed frozen, so Paul started to across it. He was soon inspired to move more briskly as pond ice started to crack with his every footstep. Paul’s winter Crane trek now appears in his book Adirondack Cabin Country.

I often image Crane’s pond as a mystic third eye set in the one rock and trained on the heavens — what many primal cultures called “the dome of sky.” Celestial regards. Earth and heaven conjunct.

In the Southwestern United States rock pockets that hold rainwater into the dry season are called tinajas. They keep many species alive in thirsty times. I imagine Crane’s pond as a humongous rock pocket filled with glacial ice. Its water level is maintained by precipitation that counters the its evaporative losses and those of it’s modest outlet. Given time enough — “Hello, heavens!” — the outlet should carve its way into the mountainside and drain the pond. Don’t hold your breath against that day.

We could not theorize such erosion without a knowledge of geomorphology, Earth’s shape-changing penchant. 1800s Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz first championed the theory — developed in his homeland’s Alps — that the glaciers of an Ice Age, not a Biblical flood, shaped much of Earth’s northern latitudes. An early ardent American apostle glaciologist was John Muir. Muir discovered living glaciers in California’s Sierra Nevada, and did battle with formidable California State Geologist Josiah D. Whitney. Muir flew in the face of the gradualist orthodoxy: Glaciers shaped Yosemite Valley, he said.

Whitney publicly called Muir “an ignorant sheepherder” — Muir had shepherded sheep in Yosemite — who was deluding the uneducated. In fact, Muir was substantially correct, and Agassiz was vindicated for American science.

In August, Crane pond’s outlet often reads as mere glissade, a sliding gossamer sheet, wide as your outspread hand from the tip of the pinkie to the tip of the thumb. Only limnoligists or hydrologists would think to gauge the glissade’s depth. Crane’s pond will not drain by gradualist erosion in your lifetime. Better to bet on earthquakes – or a polar shift flip-flopping the Adirondacks with Australia.

Crane Mountain lies just inside the next quadrangle south of the former Thirteenth Lake — now Bakers Mills — topographical map. After my father Howard Zahniser died in 1964, Paul Schaefer convinced my mother Alice and me that he should cut a picture window into Mateskared’s south wall. My father’s attitude toward the cabin was that paying real estate and school taxes sufficed for maintenance. And remaining unimproved reduced maintenance too. Nor would you hazard spending yearly vacations repairing defects your improvements set in motion.

Sociologically, the picture window was a plus. More people could sit in the front room and simultaneously stare at Crane. At one point the couch was placed with its back to the picture window, and people were forced to seem more interested in life inside the cabin than in staring at Crane. No problem: My mother, three siblings, and wife all trained as counselors. The couch again faces the window.

For many years, before I became a parent, I kept a meditation regiment that would dovetail with my interest in mountain writings. One summer I did an extended meditation on Crane at the pond and out on its ridge that faces Mateskared. I decided against building a fire. It confuses the rhythm of light and dark and separates you from the unlit surroundings. A fire concentrates attention within its delimiting radiance. It sets a boundary between civilization and wildness. The no-fire decision also ruled out cooking and cut down on gear. I took a flashlight for safety.

My lack of goal or agenda — other than meditation — rearranged this familiar mountain environment. For the first time, I visited the low cliffs on the pond’s trail-less side. The ledge of the low cliffs was restful but not revelatory. After a couple hours I returned to my cached pack and set out onto the ridge to a favorite tent spot above the valley out of Johnsburg and looking across to Garnet Lake. It evokes a profound mountain sense. “Our place is part of what we are,” writes poet Gary Snyder, and “Each place is its own place, forever (eventually) wild.” This is one of mine.

I meditated on the ridge. I watched my mind play until even it got bored and wandered off. I am jealous of Moses’ experience of the burning bush. Jealousy is a good motivator for meditating but doesn’t induce revelation. The result of my peak — or ridge — experience was that I learned to expect nothing of the mountain.

I was crestfallen to have failed to realize any visionary experience but soon achieved perspective on (rationalized) this. God told Moses Godself’s name — I Am, or I will be what I will be. Our pastor Randall Tremba points out that God tells Moses “you will learn my name as we go along.” Crane Mountain merely restated my task. It disciplined me. I became its disciple.

Photo of Crane Mountain courtesy the Georgian Resort, Lake George.

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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).

2 Responses

  1. Bob Bender says:

    As a child, most dear memory was climbing Crane with my parents led by my Dad’s dear friend Paul Schaefer. So many years later it has been realized what a blessing to know the man.

  2. Dan Ling says:

    I know your ridge well. I have found lots of bobcat scat all along it during warmer months. It is a very special place, and one of my favorite laces to pick blueberries – no doubt the origin of neighbor Huckleberry Mountain’s name.

    I think of crane as a geologist would – as a club sandwich. It has more-or-less horizontal alternating layers of marble and gneiss, allowing differential erosion to give us the caves at its base and the pond ledge below its summit.

    I have found solo camping to be transformative. I can recommend a minimum of 5 days in the wilderness. The veils of pretense drop off and the ego falls away, revealing our true selves more fully – to ourselves at least. I just hope you will like what you see! For me it’s sort of like listening to my conscience tell me to “shut up.”

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