Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change in the Zealand Valley

It’s almost fifteen years since I began hiking seriously in the Whites (I took a bit of flak at summer camp for reading the White Mountain Guide during rest hour), but I am only beginning to understand how dynamic the landscape is. Humans are naturally inclined to consider nature in stasis; our life spans are too short to comprehend the immensity of geological time spans or even, too often, the pace of ecological change.

While many environmentalists have recognized this concept, the tipping point for awareness among northeastern outdoor enthusiasts may have come with the book Reading the Forested Landscape by Antioch University’s Tom Wessels. Using examples from northern New England woodlands, Wessels shows how a keen observer with only a passing knowledge of ecology can deduce landscape history by interpreting visual clues.

One of Wessel’s former students, Alex MacPhail is an OH (Old Hutsman) and a White Mountain native. Alex, now in his fifties, started working in the huts at a teen, and he has stayed involved in various capacities since then. I first got to know him as a tireless plotter of Pemi Loops (a grueling thirty-some mile circuit of the Franconia, Twin, and Bond ranges) when I worked at Galehead, and he came in to visit us at Zealand very often this summer. I chronicled our escapade on Whitewall Mountain in August.

Alex’s ecological knowledge is more than passing, and he has combed the Pemigewasset and particularly the Zealand Valley for decades. This is the kind of perspective that is invaluable to ecological insights, so I am thrilled that he has started White Mountain Sojourn, a new blog to record some of his observations. And indeed, he includes is a potpourri of other interesting items, including a record of encounters with the Presence.

A couple months ago, Alex sent me a picture of Zealand Falls Hut from 1969, posted at the beginning of the piece. I gave many a talk on the history of the Zealand Valley this summer, but I am still amazed by the changes in the hut and its surroundings since those days. Contrast 1989 photo with this modern shot, and observe the expansion of the hut building. Indeed, the recent photo was taken a dozen or so feet in front of the old one because the brush has grown up so high in the meantime. What was an open view to Zealand Falls is now obscured by Balsam Fir.

Change is a constant rule of existence. To forget it is a fundamentally human hubris.