I found this postcard from 1992, the year of my birth and nine years before the fall, in an antique store near Franconia, New Hampshire. Well, it was an antique store. Now it seemed that traffic there had slowed, possibly even to a full stop. I took the postcard plus a few others and left a couple bucks behind me incase someone came back.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, in 1850, described the Old Man of the Mountain as “a work of nature in her mood of majestic playfulness.”
Who is the Old Man of the Mountain? To be exact, he was 5 granite slabs weighing nearly 1200 tons, measuring 40 feet high, and clinging tenuously to the face of Franconia Notch in New Hampshire. The rock formation was created by glacial melting 12,000 years ago, causing the cliffs to crack and tumble. The granite settled into a craggy pile which resembled a nose, forehead, adams apple, chin, eye, and ear - and hung there at the top of the mountain’s peak, sticking out like a sentinel - for millenia.
My father, passing me a carafe of coffee a week after I found this postcard, says, “My parents took me to see the Old Man of the Mountain as a kid. I was not adequately impressed. When you’re a kid, you’re not always able to understand things like that. Magnitude…” he trails off.
I nod because I know: I am often anxious I’m mis-judging the scale of things.
“You know it fell down?” I did not.
“In 2013, one of the guys at the park was sitting there, drinking his coffee,”
not disimilar to the way we are now, I think.
“and he looked over his shoulder, and the Man of the Mountain was gone. Gone!” My father thunks his mug on the table like a gavel.
My mother appears, as if to test the narrative for holes. “How did they not hear it fall?”
Well, they couldn’t have, because they had never heard the sound of 7200 tons of granite falling before. Explains my father. The sonic boom created by the fall would have been totally unfamiliar, perhaps so much so that it could have caused a short in their neural processing, and the crash would have gone undetected.
How could they not have heard it fall? My mother presses. Well, explains my father, they wouldn’t have, because they were devotees of the radio. Given the special broadcast that night, the music would have been turned up especially loud, and listened to with careful attention. The fall would have passed under their radar.
How could they not have heard it fall? Well, they couldn’t have, since in the version of the story which is the version told to me that morning by my mother and father, in the fourteenth year after the Old Man’s Fall, they didn’t.
How didn’t they hear it fall?
For some reason, in this version of the tale, there are men stationed on an outcropping on the side of the mountain, sitting watch over the Old Man. Presumably they are his guardians, commissioned by the state, keeping an eye on the rock formation around the clock.
What a lovely fantasm.
The truth is not so far from the fiction improvised by my parents that morning. Niels Nielsen was appointed first official caretaker by the state of New Hampshire after he descended the mountain’s face in 1971 in a mariner’s chair and belay ropes to check on an expanding crack in the ear. He was a highway patrol-person, who, for years, had made it his personal business to look after the Old Man. His duty, officially, was to “protect the granite face from both human vandalism and from the ravages of the weather”.
David Nielsen took over for his dad as “2nd official caretaker” in the early 90sI repeat. Both from human vandalism and from the ravages of the weather. This is a rock formation, created by glacial retreat 12,000 years ago. It itself is a product of the ravages of the weather! Is it possible that at the moment that this pile formed into the likeness of a man, these five granite slabs left the domain of nature altogether? That by assuming the profile of a wizened anthropoid, the granite entered an ontological middle ground, in which both Nature and human beings struggled to claim the Old Man for their own?
As it happened, protecting the Old Man from vandalism was a minor task compared to protecting it from the ruin of eventual gravity and the torment exacted on bedding structures by the annual freeze and thaw cycle. A minor history of 20th century engineering could be observed if you examined the Old Man’s shallow geology. Since 1905, all kinds of elaborate bandaging was done to close the fissure in the old Man’s forehead, which first began to slip at the turn of the century. The cracks were first mended with chain. Turnbuckles were strapped to the forehead in 1915. A water diversion ditch was dug above the entire head to slow the freeze and thaw process which set the cracking into motion. Then, in 1957, twenty tons of fast-drying cement were applied to the seam - this was patched several times in years to follow. In the 70s, a thin membrane of fiberglass, wire, and cloth was stretched over a crack in the Old Man’s ear. In ’91, the adam’s apple was repaired by combining the best parts of all of the methods tried up to that point.
It should be noted that these efforts were effective, keeping the Old Man together for an appreciably longer time than if he had been left to the caprices of nature. By the 90’s, the Old Man probably looked like an Old Monster with multi-colored cements from every decade of the twentieth century running through the creeping cracks in his face on the face of the mountain; with hooks and chain crossing the chin and cheeks like so many scars in the war against collapse; with mesh coverings like age spots and roughnesses that will come to all of our faces, barring significant scientific advancement. The messy human business of preservation still stood triumph over gravity’s claims through new millennium, with the Old Man braced to the mountainside.
In 2002 Niels Nielsen, the first official caretaker of the Old Man, passed away, and his ashes were buried in the Old Man’s eye. And then in 2003, at long last, the Old Man fell.
To protect the Mountain from human vandalism and the ravages of nature, there had been a century’s old task-force of commissionees, committees, appointees and guardians, rangers and watchers, pacers, patchers. It mobilized two generations of Nielsens, claimed three of ten of a man’s fingers in the 19-teens, and, of course, set the pens of many more than Hawthorne flying. New Hampshire is a state with the motto “live free or die;” a place where people go to escape income tax and whose political landscape is streaked with anarchic tones. But residents were united behind the mission of keeping the Old Man - a sort of public good - suspended. For a century, people had administered care to the Old Man of the Mountain as one might an ailing relative. All because of this strange phenomenon, by which human features were clearly recognized in a mess of rocks by many, again and again.
One more time: the task, as laid out by the state of New Hampshire, was to “protect the Old Man of the Mountain from human vandals and from the ravages of nature.” Why this Nature, singled out in particular, against the rest? It might be that only a sense of similarity, of kinship, could make the case for the specific care that was so lovingly administered both by private interests and the state since 1900.
There’s a word for the common phenomenon of seeing the human face in natural landscapes, composing smirks and grimaces from cloud forms and ripples in the water: it’s called Pareidolia. The projection of facial features onto the landscape has a pleasant, if not immediately useful, function. An attitude of neighborliness comes through our terrain. Out of a chaotic visual texture, figures emerge.
The power of simile is strong. Although rocks are usually used to describe the state of utter unconsciousness (for example, we say: “I slept like a rock”), in this case, being a rock is like being a lot of human things. It is like being bold, hard, whipped by rain, holding up against eventual gravity, allowing oneself to be made a friend of, bearing witness to generations, getting ashes thrown in your eye, being whipped by wind, and, at long last, collapsing.
Dismay at the collapse was so great that for years, flowers could be seen placed at the foot of the mountain.