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In his book “The Control of Nature” John McPhee chronicles such futile human efforts as spraying fire hoses on a volcanic lava flow that threatened an Icelandic fishing village, building dikes along the flood-prone Mississippi River and constructing landslide barriers around homes in California’s unstable San Gabriel Mountains.
The message is clear: You may be able to temporarily forestall destructive processes, but in the end Mother Nature always prevails.
I should have reached this conclusion long ago, but unfortunately I’m like that ant in the song, “High Hopes”:
Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can’t
Move a rubber tree plant
But he’s got high hopes
He’s got high hopes
He’s got high apple pie
In the sky hopes
In my case I’m not attempting to divert lava, floods or landslides, to even trying move a rubber tree plant, but am toiling to keep roots from ripping apart a rocky ledge behind my house. The ledge, incidentally, is not about to collapse, as New Hampshire’s Old Man in the Mountain famously did 11 years ago, nor will it be a catastrophic calamity if and when it does disintegrate sometime in the next millennium or so. Truth be told the ledge serves no purpose other than to provide a nice place to stand and contemplate life while gazing at the surrounding forestscape. I find myself climbing the stone steps I built leading up the ledge almost every day.
I also spent many nights there in 1997 watching the Hale-Bopp Comet, and once spent a night on the ledge during a blizzard to test the effectiveness of a bivvy sack (I managed to sleep more or less comfortably despite 80 mph winds, 2 feet of snow and single-digit temperatures).
Over the years, though, leaves have fallen on bare rock and formed soil that found its way into tiny cracks. Nuts and seeds, carried by mice, squirrels and the wind, have taken root in these crevices and are slowly pulling the stone apart. Every so often a chunk of granite will split off from the main cliff, tumble down and shatter.
Nature not only hates a vacuum it evidently also hates hills.
Anyway, for the past few weeks I’ve been hacking away at roots and peeling away matted topsoil from the rock face, so it’s starting to look the way it probably did about 13,000 years ago when the last glacier receded.
For two or three million years much of New England had been buried by up to 1,600 feet of ice, and when that sheet pulled back it scraped away a layer of surface material — in the process creating Long Island Sound, and depositing boulders and other debris in its wake.
One of these stray boulders, called a glacial erratic, rests atop the ledge. It’s about the size and dimensions of a Volkswagen Beetle.
When friends visit for the first time and I take them on a tour of the network of stone-lined trails I’ve created over the years, I usually pause atop the ledge to describe, tongue in cheek, my Herculean efforts involving winches and crowbars to roll that boulder uphill.
After my recent toils I’m reasonably confident that at least during my lifetime the ledge and glacial erratic seem secure.
I only hope succeeding generations share my enthusiasm and keep nature at bay a little while longer.
• Alert readers have correctly pointed out a slight flaw in my instructions for the proper rock climbing command when you have unclipped from your rope. You should loudly announce, "Rappel off," not "On rappel."...
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