Forty-eight years ago this month, I was just returned from Vietnam, shoulders heavy with war and on my way from a home in the Pennsylvania Amish country to a new posting at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. I drove late into the night until the cold and fatigue caught me as I crossed the Connecticut/Massachusetts border on I-84 and found a rest area on the Mass Pike likely near Sturbridge. I pulled in, and as all good soldiers know how to do, went right to sleep in my car.
At dawn I opened my eyes and spread before me was the entire Central Massachusetts landscape: the Connecticut River valley on the left, Quabbin Reservoir to the center, a distant Boston far to the right. Presiding over it all was a tree-lined, snow-capped mountain with a granite peak—Monadnock: He Who Stands Alone.
I did not know then of Monadnock and Emerson, Monadnock and Thoreau, Monadnock and Older, or Monadnock and Kinnell. It was the vision I recognized and experienced at that moment. Upon this great rock I would anchor the rest of my life. Only much later did it become clear how it has anchored so many others of this culture and those before that, the ones who gave the rock its name.
The mountain is a mystic, magically transforming its few thousand feet of altitude into a height recognized around the planet. Even the dictionary finds its attempt at clarity undermined by its connotations: “monadnock – In geology, a single remnant of a former highland.” Monadnock, the last man standing.
The mountain befuddles most photographers and painters—revealing its power to mesmerize only to those who can see beyond their craft.
I recall a mid-winter in early 1990s when Chinese poet and translator Zhang Ziqing visited to see for himself this place of Thoreau and Emerson. Snow piled to the eaves of houses as we drove out to good vantage beyond Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and stopped.
Zhang pulled out an Instamatic camera to take a photograph and because I had tried and failed many times to use an Instamatic to photograph the mountain, I knew it would miss the magic. It was like photographing a ghost in a mirror. I said, “No, no, the picture won’t come out.”
Something got lost in the translation because he put away his Instamatic, but when he returned to Nanjing University, he wrote an essay about how Monadnock is so sacred that one is not permitted to photograph it, and so, out of a cultural misunderstanding, was born the Monadnock Pastoral Poets and their sacred mountain.
As the decades have passed and I have witnessed its effect again and again on others, it has occurred to me that Zhang was right. The mysticism of He Who Stands Alone had taken possession, and I did not know it. According to the 2014 Fairpoint phonebook, Monadnock has possessed at least 117 other businesses as well: Monadnock schools, Monadnock banks, Monadnock dairies, Monadnock dentists, Monadnock septic tank cleaners, Monadnock Music and Monadnock Writers’ Group, Monadnock Family Services, and Monadnock Fence. The list—like the mountain—goes on and on.
We are as spiritually under the influence of this gray whale of a rock today as were Henry David Thoreau, painter William Preston Phelps, and Mark Twain, who wrote in his autobiography about its magic during his summers in Dublin, New Hampshire. How does a mountain just a hair over three thousand feet high do it? It’s a mystery.
One can drive south to New Salem, Massachusetts, and look north to see Monadnock stun the Quabbin Reservoir with its image. One can drive just as far north to Pitcher Mountain and look south and there is Monadnock again lording over the horizon. Go west to Vermont and drive east from Brattleboro on Route 9 or Putney from Route 12 toward Keene and one comes around a hilltop curve expecting to see more of the traditional Appalachian ridges. Instead one gets this thing that looks like another hill except it just keeps on growing, morphing into a tree line and the gray granite visage of a mountain that should be out West. Go east to the coast and drive west. At each rise from Portsmouth or Boston, there is the dark profile of Monadnock on the horizon—its image almost Biblical–speaking in the tongue of the mind: “Come ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”