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From This Place

By Jim Collins

Startling, silver moonlight flooded our valley last night. It lit up the fields around the house, pulled us out of bed to stand at the windows. In the distance the long wooded ridge that falls off to the south of Mount Cardigan stretched black in the moonlight, framing the flat wide expanse of Orange Pond. North of the pond, the bulky hump of Hoyt Hill wrapped around back home, blocking Cardigan's summit, feeling impossibly close. It was just this mixing of curve and flat expanse, of wild topography and open land, that drew us to this place.

I'd lived my whole life in New Hampshire, almost all of it in the watery, woodsy towns that ring Mount Monadnock in the southwestern part of the state. I'd fallen in love with the outdoors in college, had worked a glorious summer and fall with the Appalachian Mountain Club's trail crew, liked the wildness I felt here. Kristen had lived in the Pacific Northwest and responded to vertical landscapes and big sky--things she'd had to hunt for among New Hampshire's low forested hills.

Still, when we first came to this high bench of land, we felt a connection that went deeper than landscape. As in so many places in New Hampshire, something almost tangible seemed to rise from the history that lies so close to the surface here. The land along this dirt road has been farmed and logged and lived on. The farms blinked out one by one--ours in 1908--but pockets have stayed in hayfield. Stone walls, of course, run everywhere, even up steep, wooded hillsides. Most of the woods are third-growth. A cabin on our property was used by miners a century ago. So much life lived close to the land. So many reminders.

And then there's the mountain itself, whose bald, granite, fire-towered summit dominates this little hill town. It was the first mountain my grandparents climbed, and their parents before them, and my mother, and me, and--at 2 years old--my daughter. This kind of long family linkage is not uncommon in New Hampshire, even if my mother can't believe one of her kids ended up back in her old town.

Illustration by Yan Nascimbene.

My mother grew up seeing Cardigan each morning from her bedroom window down by the Canaan fairgrounds; the sight of that granite comforted her. Decades later, Kristen and I watch the sun rise over the same high ridge from our own bedroom a few miles south of my mother's old place, and I know what that comfort means. My mother climbed the mountain every summer, on school trips, with friends, for blueberries. For her, at that time, I'm sure that climbing the mountain was a bigger deal than it is for Kristen and me, who have hiked much taller mountains elsewhere in the East and in the West. On an unseasonably warm day last weekend, Kristen grabbed an hour and a half and hiked to the top and back, just to breathe the air and get some exercise. It's easy to take such a neighborhood mountain for granted.

But we don't. We never tire of the purple light reflected at the end of the day, the feeling of rugged, hard country created by the snow that frosts Cardigan before anywhere else around here. We get a rush of pleasure--of sudden orientation--seeing the bald summit emerge from some new vantage: from a back road off a back road over in Grafton, or the upper end of Lake Mascoma, or, this past summer, from hiking in the Squam range some 30 miles to the east.

We're becoming familiar with the views from Cardigan, itself, as well. They are wilder now than when my mother climbed the mountain as a girl: north to Bald Knob, west to Smarts Mountain, out across the valley of the Mascoma River and over the fingery bays and coves of Grafton Pond, and farther south--to Ragged and Kearsarge and, on the far horizon, the familiar, triangular summit of Monadnock, reminding me how far I've come and how close I still am.

In geologists' terms, Cardigan is a "monadnock," a solitary mountain, a distinct peak that stands apart from any chain. But that is a geologist's perspective. From where I see it, the mountain grounds me, links me in chains of both space and time, chains that represent not constraint, but strength and continuity. In this transient, increasingly homogenized country of ours, it tells me something deep: I am from this place. ~
Former editor of Yankee and the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, Jim Collins writes full time from Orange, N.H.

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