It had been six long weeks since I returned from a backcountry trip to Utah, and six exhausting weeks at that. Thoroughly drained, it was high time to leave my demons behind (or try to), and seek comfort in the clean fall air of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Saturday morning found me not on a trail that would lead to the dramatic viewpoints popular at peak-foliage time, but instead on one that would thread the valleys between the peaks, meander past beaver ponds, and eventually bring me back to my point of departure, suitably (I hoped) refreshed.
The landscape I explored all that day proved to be unexpectedly spectral, haunted by the shadows of countless thousands of dead birches that loomed above a maturing understory of hemlock, spruce and maple. The explanation for their presence was not hard to guess: birch is a "pioneer" species with small, easily wind-borne seeds that sprout into seedlings that not only tolerate, but demand bright sunlight to survive. Throughout the west, aspens are the opportunists that retake the clearings. But in these northeastern woods, it is birch that is most likely to colonize areas burned by fire, or (like this) clearcut by man.
But birch is not a long-lived tree. The thousands of pioneers that together sprouted on these mountainsides a century ago had now together died, their reforesting mission accomplished. In the years that followed, their twigs rotted and dropped, and then their larger branches. Now, like hapless lepers, they raised only blunted limbs to the sky.
The mute witness of the dead forest was only apparent when looking across the valley at the mountainside beyond. Close at hand the trees of the second-generation forest grew vigorously, nurtured early in life by the dappled sun and shade provided by the birches that were now dead and fading from view. In truth, the gray and peeling trunks of the dead surrounded me everywhere; when I looked for them, they stood forth clearly, only to fade into the background once again in deference to the more lively and visually demanding generation of trees now claiming the sky as their own.
Twenty or thirty years on, there would be little to recall the birches that had retaken these scarred mountainsides, or the service they had performed for the generations of other species that would succeed them. Succeed them, that is, until inevitably natural disaster befell, or humans felled, the forest once again.
The trail I traveled through this forest of the living and the dead was sometimes rough, but not too steep, allowing me to double-time my way up the trail. Still in a funk from my long week, I kept to my rapid pace for several hours, hoping through exercise to open myself to the kind of mood that I come to places like this to find. As I moved on, I gained altitude, and left the vibrant foliage of fall below and behind.
Eventually I relaxed and slowed down, and though there was now less to see, I saw more: a yearling moose browsing knee-deep in the far end of a beaver pond; a single, spindly maple spreading its few branches against the sky, still bearing leaves as electrically scarlet as the clear sky was vividly blue.
Later, I came to a talus slope of shattered granite blocks that extended a thousand feet up the mountain to my left, and a further two hundred down to my right, ending in the confused jumble of stone that clogged the valley bottom below. In one catastrophic release, a landslide had separated all that was behind me from all that lay ahead.
Moving out of the trees and a little onto the slide, I rested on one of the blocks and took in the scene that surrounded me. In the distance, the valley extended out of sight to the north and south, bounded by mountains and cliffs. This landscape wore a sable cloak of spruce, dusted with the pale supplicant limbs of the ever-present birches.
Looking down at my feet, specks of mica flashed like gold in the stone particles that had eroded out of the decomposing granite blocks and collected in the hollows between the stones. Here and there, terrarium-scale colonies of mountain cranberry grew, gracing the stones they surrounded with lustrous aprons of green lace. The rustling of the few leaves left on the trees at the edge of the slope provided the only sound and motion to catch the ear and eye in the vast landscape that stretched off in every direction until it met the sky.
Taking that landscape in, I reflected that it had been 25 years since I had last walked this trail. Back then, I realized, all of these birches must have been in their prime, presenting themselves with an assurance that implied that they had always been here and always would remain. And 25 years ago, I reflected, I was not yet thirty, not yet married. Not yet many things, some of which I clearly will now never become. Looking through the other end of the telescope of 25 years, I saw other things I was then that I no longer am now, some for better, and others worse.
I thought also of the many scenes very much like the one before me that I had witnessed over the intervening years as I backpacked and hiked in other mountains near and far. The view from a talus slope is always much the same: rough, shattered blocks; the high cliff far above from which a part of the mountain has sheared away; trees of one sort or another swept away in their path; the randomly spared survivors standing bewildered at the ragged edge of the slide.
But there are differences in every such scene that set it apart. I recalled one defile very high in the Sierra Nevadas from long ago. There I heard the whistled warnings of marmots that stood guard like meerkats on the blocks of the talus slope that tailed off into a grassy meadow run riot with columbines and lupines, glinting and nodding in the sunny breeze.
And also the talus slope I labored up with a heavy pack high in the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness of northern Idaho only a few years ago. There I raised myself wearily from huge block to huge block of an endless, giant’s stairway that led, at last, to a mountain lake dammed by fallen stone at one end, and fed by the glacier that dove into the other.
And yet another slope of shattered rock in the North Cascades of Washington State that bounded a crystal pond on three sides, decorated at the water’s edge with twisted bristlecone pines, and enlivened by an improbable number of jewel-like, emerald green hummingbirds.
Fine memories all, highlighting the years gone by.
Looking uphill and down, I noticed how recently this particular slide must have fallen. The granite was bright and clean, not yet weathered or covered with lichens. Only the smallest, stunted trees as yet emerged from between the stones. I wondered what could have set loose the million tons of mountain that were spread around me. One of the occasional earthquakes that disturb New England, minor in magnitude in the grand scheme of things but capable of transforming everything in an instant in a place such as this? Or simply the slow accretion of fractures over many winters, setting up malign strains and tensions that lay in wait for the weight of one last snowfall to excuse their yielding to gravity, permitting all to carry away in a roaring, mindless release?
Whatever the cause, this talus slope would blend back into the forest over the centuries ahead. Erosion will bring more material downhill to fill in between the boulders and blocks; leaves and needles will blow in from the surrounding forest; moss will cover the stones. In the inevitably repeating cycle, brash birch seedlings will once again take root, will grow and provide shadow to the less adventurous recruits of the next generation of trees. With endlessly available time, even such a raw scar as this would heal.
I reflected one last time on the preceding 25 years, and of the moments when, without warning, the facade of my own life had lost its moorings and collapsed in a mindless, silent roar: the devastating blow dealt by the sudden and unexpected death of one family member; the bottomless pit that opened beneath my family when another died violently in the prime of life; a bitter falling out with people that I had thought, mistakenly, I could trust with my life. Each event had left deep wounds that threatened never to heal in the modest time our lives allow for such a purpose.
Looking up, I saw that the blue sky of the morning was now overspread with a thin scrim of cloud, promising tomorrow’s rain. The sun now shown indistinctly, too weakly to pick out the bits of mica at my feet.
I looked at my watch, and saw that the time had grown late – too late to cross the slide and take the trail ahead. With regret, I turned, and returned the way I came.