Mount Monadnock

(photo via blog.nhstateparks.org)

(photo via blog.nhstateparks.org)

I live in a beautiful part of the world. Southern New Hampshire boasts many natural treasures but arguably one of the finest is Mount or Grand Monadnock. Artists have painted it more times than there are feet in its elevation, and luminaries such as Thoreau and Emerson have written many essays about its power and inspiration. I see it almost every day when I am home, and it never ceases to inspire me nor make me feel that I live in the shadow of something great.

The term "Monadnock" has come to be used by American geologists to describe any isolated mountain formed from the relationship of a hard and soft rock. It is an Abenaki word of unknown meaning, though some say it translates to "She who stands alone", while others argue it just means "mountain". At 3,165 feet, Mount Monadnock is nearly 1,000 feet higher than any peak within 30 miles.

Between 1810 and 1820, local farmers, believing that wolves were living in the blow downs, twice set fire to the mountain. The conflagration raged for weeks, destroying the topsoil and denuding the mountain above 2,000 feet. It is still barren rock 1000 feet below its peak. Thankfully, there is not one shred of evidence that any wolf perished in the fires set. Most biologists think they simply slipped away at the first sign of smoke and never returned due to loss of habitat. However, many sheep, barns and even some homesteads were destroyed by the blaze. This is commonly known.

What is less known is this. In 1802 the first Merino sheep herd was introduced to Vermont, quickly making the New England sheep's inferior wool almost immediately worthless. In two sudden and disastrous price drops for New England sheep farmers, wool's price went from $5 a pound to $1.86 a pound, and a few years later from $1.82 a pound to zero. Each price drop was followed a few days later by the setting of each fire. The implication is clear. New England sheep farmers were angry and scared and not knowing what to do, they put their rage into a massive destructive act against nature and the unknown.

The artist Janet Bleicken, who painted a series on the fires of Monadnock, tells the story of sitting alone one day in a gallery of her work. A truck driver came in and quietly walked around the paintings, staring in silence, not knowing she was the artist whose work he was now seeing. As he left, with tears in his eyes, he passed Janet and muttered, "This is what we did in Detroit in 1967".

We live in uncertain times with an acceleration of anger that is faster than any I have ever witnessed. Between television and radio demagogues and the uncertainty of the economy, environment and our own security, it is too easy to get overwhelmed with dark feelings. The fast response is to fan the embers of fear and burn down our own home. We don’t know what to do, so instead we displace our anger on that which we don’t understand just as those early sheep farmers did in New Hampshire. We scream about immigrants, demonize Muslims, rage at those who are different than us and pitifully destroy our own environment.

This is not the answer. Instead, in this season of “peace on earth”, the response must be to turn one’s back on rage, walk away from the instigators and look for actions that creatively quiets the voices of fear and instead promotes the better angels of our nature.

A good start would be the following. First turn off your TV’s and radios, especially news and commentary. Then take a walk into the open air. Finally, consider this story. When Mother Teresa received her Nobel Prize, she was asked the question, “What can we do to promote world peace?” She replied, “Go home and love your family.”