Tussey Mountain breakdown


Most climb Tussey Mountain for the views afforded by the numerous rocky openings along the ridge crest. To me, though, the broken rock itself is more interesting than the deceitfully smooth contours of distant ridges — to say nothing of the valleys and their bucolic-looking monocultures, which are probably less biodiverse than these boulder fields.

lichenous rock

Actually, Tussey Mountain doesn’t differ in any substantial way from the mountain I live on, but precisely because I’ve lived here for most of the last 40 years and am intimately familiar with the landforms and species mix, I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur, and enjoy visiting other Central Pennsylvania ridges to see novel combinations of familiar elements. It’s kind of like, if you’ve never heard bluegrass music before, the first dozen songs you hear are all going to sound pretty much alike. But once you get to know the genre, every song seems unique.

lichenous tree

Climbing a mountain for the view of other mountains — what’s the appeal? I’m not saying I’m immune to it, only that I’m struggling to understand it. Of course, landscapes can have a strong aesthetic appeal, too, but for me, at least, it’s impossible to gaze at distant mountains without fantasizing about what secrets they might hold. Distances have a mystique that’s inseparable from their distantness.


It seems of a piece with the common human tendency to dream about the future rather than enjoying the here-and-now. Which is especially ironic in the folded Appalachians, where geologically speaking each ridge is a mirror image of its neighbors. If you could be teleported to the farthest ridge you can see on a clear day, chances are good that you’d hardly notice the difference.


Unless, of course, you’ve spent time getting to know the trees and ferns and birds and such. The highlight of last Saturday’s Audubon hike along Tussey Mountain, for me as a tree nerd, was the large stand of ridgetop eastern hemlocks, usually a denizen of wetter forests. A bunch of us stopped to marvel at a dying American chestnut sprout surrounded by the spiny evidence of a rare crop of nuts. And on the climb up to the ridge crest, we passed through a very mature stand of rock oaks that would probably satisfy most definitions of old-growth, though it isn’t designated as such on any map.


Then there was the little wild pear tree beside the road with fruits so sour, they puckered the lips before delivering a burst of sweetness to the tongue; all the wind-twisted and lightning-scarred trees along the crest; and the dead snags with their swirls of grain, insect tunnel patterns or bracket fungi. The six-mile hike was over before I knew it.


If there’s a mystique of distances, there’s also a mystique of the close-at-hand — the level at which landscape-scale patterns break down into their stochastic elements, revealing new oddities and prodigies at every step.

Don’t forget to submit tree-related blog posts to the Festival of the Trees blog carnival by November 27 for inclusion in the next edition. The (optional) theme this time is arboreal mysteries.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).


  1. “The mystique of the close at hand” as you so well put it is, for me, one of the most exciting things about hiking and exploring.


    1. Yeah. Of course, for the more easily distracted set, there’s always geocaching.


    1. I love that first photograph as well. Three distinct layers, like Neapolitan ice cream from my childhood (that was a weird association).

      The rocks, the trees, and then the distant trees. I love how the tree tops “point” to the distant trees. “Hello, we’re over here!”


      1. Hi Shai! Thanks for liking that. You’re right, it was the three-layer contrast that caught my eye — the one shot that included a slice of the sky just didn’t work. I should go on these group hikes more often and train myself in the art of the fast draw, pausing for the briefest few seconds to snap pictures.


  2. love the greenery photo and this: “Which is especially ironic in the folded Appalachians, where geologically speaking each ridge is a mirror image of its neighbors. If you could be teleported to the farthest ridge you can see on a clear day, chances are good that you’d hardly notice the difference.” poem, anyone?


      1. great pieces! i like the mountains/snakes/renewal metaphor in the first very much and the flicker/movie projector/time travel in the second one.


        1. Oh, you liked those? I’m too familiar with them to be able to tell whether they’re any good or not.


  3. Kia ora Dave,
    Awesome walk, great photos. Love the first one as well, with the far off ridges and spurs giving that sense of height and a good walk done. It is cool how in different parts of the same mountain range, that once you get to know them they are unique and different though the same. Happy Thanksgiving.


    1. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Robb! Of course, our ridges aren’t nearly as much work to ascend as your Ruahines, which is a bit of a mixed blessing.


  4. But somewhere within the mountains, time remembers.


  5. Aww— your post made me homesick for the mountains (in a good way). I haven’t been hiking in the mountains since May.

    Absolutely lovely pictures– I think my favorite is the fern shot.

    Thanks for sharing your hike and letting me vicariously live through you.


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