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.
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.
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.