Thursday, October 22, 2009

The view from Stephenson

Here—what the old timers refer to as 'down-valley'—is where the identity of the valley falters a bit. The ancient mountains splay outwards, appearing as little more than far-distant wrinkles, turning their backs on each other in lassitude, barely bothering to define the gently rolling sprawl between.

This timeworn place, where seventeen generations of mountains have come to die, entombs each succeeding layer on the bones of its predecessor. It is a geological ossuary. Amid the dust and glare, the bountiful fractal history displays itself in both the contours of those distant ridges and in the dirt at your feet.

Squinting against the dazzling sun and the unbounded sky, you can envision the succession of orogenies building mountains from chunks of continental crust, grinding them away and flushing the dust back to the sea with the tools at hand like some dissatisfied and frustrated sculptor. The steady northward succession of Appalachian water gaps betray how the workpiece gradually moved upwards into the steady-held cutting tool over eons, allowing the most patient of processes to make its mark.

At the same time, beneath the same sun and the same brilliant sky, you sense the fractal nature of the human presence here, a tiny imitation of the cycle of orogeny and erosion. To stand here within sight of the interstate, the railroad and the U.S. highway, all three nearly coaxial, is to marvel at the obviousness of this path as a north-south route traversing an immense span.

The interstate is merely the most recent entrant in this field, not breaking any new ground but simply mimicking a portion of venerable U.S. Rt. 11 as it passes from Quebec to New Orleans. I imagine Rt. 11 was superimposed on some earlier Valley Pike or collection of roadways, themselves built upon earlier road, paths and trail, until, with enough regression, we encounter the first north-bound pre-Columbian traveler en route to his or her passage to points unknown, who were probably taking advantage of trails worn by migratory animals.

It pleases me to think of someone pausing briefly beneath the same dazzling sun five-hundred generations ago, admiring the distant beauty of Signal Knob rising through the blue haze and the flame-colored leaves.

Kick the rough ground where the fallow farm fields were churned over for this new place, this most recent squatter on the thin surface soil, and you uncover plentiful stones just beneath the sparse weeds and coarse grasses. Uniform grey limestone, occasionally striated or iron-stained, they are abundant and likely steered many farmers towards pasture animals rather than field crops. Animals thrived on the limestone-nourished grasses, while plows were worn and thwarted by this taut skin of dirt stretched over the valley's ribs.

You kick the dirt circumspectly in places like this, where the transition from past to present may not be complete, out of respect for what lies beneath. You do not want to disturb the cadre of ghosts sleeping below the surface. This place of time unbounded can have an oppressive air; these mountains, and their ancestors, have been here for four and a half thousand million years. People have seen them for one-one hundredth of a million years. I have seen them for one-twenty thousandth of a million years.

I don't quite know what to make of that. So I scuff the dirt once more, and return to the task at hand...

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