Sunday, September 22, 2013

Love Only is Eternal*

It had rained the night before.  We were soaked up to our thighs as we pushed through the wet underbrush and bushes that crowded in on either side of the trail.  The day, however, was clearing and a warming mid-summer sun promised to dry us out when we reached the north peak.

This was our third trip to Baxter State Park in northern Maine.  On our first two excursions, we had scaled Katahdin and stood triumphant and exhilarated on Baxter Peak. This year – it was 1991 – we began a series of explorations of the surrounding mountains and so spent the night in a lean-to at Nesowadnehunk Campground, setting out early the next morning for the summit of Doubletop Mountain.

Doubletop is a gem among the mountains of Baxter, its symmetrical shape and steep cliffs strikingly evident from Nesowadnehunk valley where the tote road wends its bumpy and rutted way around the park.  The views from its twin peaks rival those from Katahdin, with green forests as far as the eye can see and the surface of blue lakes and ponds and streams sparkling down below.  And to the southeast, mile-high Katahdin—the great mountain—rises up from the valleys and plains between the east and west branches of the Penobscot River.

My hiking companion, Nat, had been my dearest friend since childhood.  These trips were our means of reconnecting; an open space apart from our increasingly busy lives.  Three or four summer days in the wilderness rekindled the flame of our friendship.  Quiet talks by the campfire, tramps through the woods and strenuous hikes up steep mountainsides, paddling in the ponds of the park and, at the end of the day, invigorating swims in any number of ice-cold mountain streams strengthened the bonds of love and affection that drew us together.

Nat and I saw no other hikers on our way up the slopes and shoulder of Doubletop. We had the mountain to ourselves.  On that fine day, the crowds, no doubt, were amassing atop Katahdin, making cell phone calls to friends down below, huddled away from the wind. We reached the north peak in two hours time and ate our simple fare of cheese, bread and fruit, content to take off our boots, stretch out our legs and linger in the sun, enjoying the whole world spread out before us.

A favorite photograph of that day shows us standing arm and arm on the summit – that expanse of green forest and blue lakes in the background beyond us.  Nat had a thick two-day growth of dark beard and a navy blue cap perched on his head.

But there was more to our ascent of Doubletop that July—a discovery that would intrigue and fascinate us for years to come.  For as I traversed the mountain from the south to the north peak, I saw a gray rectangular plaque affixed to a large granite boulder just off the side of the trail. 

A six-pointed star with rays extending outward crowned the inscription. Beneath the words was a sculpted oil lamp, the eternal flame clearly evident. The plaque faced south, and the sun, having risen high in the morning sky, illumined its face, throwing the letters into sharp relief.  It read:

JUNE 10, 1872--APRIL 25, 1926
And beneath this the words:

I called Nat over and we gazed at the memorial, wondering who this man was and, even more so, who the remarkable woman was who scattered her husband’s ashes to the winds as the sun set over the mountaintops and daylight began to fade.

Many years later, I began to unfold the story of their lives.

Keppele Hall was a Princeton graduate who became a successful electrical engineer.  He married Fanny Hay in 1896 in Trenton, New Jersey.  The Halls lived briefly in Maine – where they retained ties over the years—before moving to Ohio, eventually settling in Cleveland.

Fanny Hay Hall was a community organizer, a peace activist, and a progressive and liberal woman of faith. She was a member of the Ohio delegation that marched in the 1912 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. She was the first American woman to serve as foreman of a grand jury.

The Halls moved to New York City in 1926 where Keppele died during a flu epidemic.  He was fifty-three years old.   Fanny continued her activism until late in life, turning her attention to women’s prison reform. She died in Brattleboro, Vermont, in June, 1968, at the age of ninety-four.

In 1926, the year of her husband’s death and the scattering of his ashes on that windy mountain summit in Maine, Fanny was fifty-four. The trail to the south summit of Doubletop from the Kidney Pond Camps—the camps then being privately owned—is just over four miles.  The lower part of the route, due to the occasional confluence of stream and trail, is often wet and muddy. Higher up, the trail climbs a steep, timbered slope to the summit. 

The Appalachian Mountain Club estimates that the hiking time from pond to summit via this trail—somewhat different than the one Fanny would have used—is three hours, twenty minutes.  Even with today’s lightweight, high-tech clothing and gear, that’s a moderately challenging climb for a fifty-four year old.

But imagine walking the trail in 1926, carrying your loved one’s ashes in your rucksack.  We may wonder: was she alone? If not, who accompanied her?  And what was said as she gave her husband’s ashes to the winds?  Or was the call of a raven cruising the mountain slopes, and the rushing of the wind on the summit, sound enough for such a solemn occasion as this? We’ll never know.

The long walk down the mountain and back to the camps was through the woods at dusk, in the fast waning light; perhaps a Swainson’s or Hermit thrush serenaded her on the way.  Cabin lamplight in the dark, and a sumptuous dinner—such as only the old wilderness camps could have provided—would have welcomed her on her arrival back at the pond.

On that strikingly beautiful July day in 1991, Nat and I lingered on the mountain.  After lunch, we made our leisurely way back down the north side of Doubletop to our lean-to at Nesowadnehunk Campground.  Libations liberally dispensed followed and a meal, perhaps not as splendid as that which awaited Fanny at Kidney Pond Camps, but delicious nonetheless.

For the native Americans of the Penobscot tribe, the Katahdin wilderness is a sacred place where the Spirit roams freely and powerfully and where mother earth reaches out toward the sky.  Dennis Kostyk, in his film Wabanaki: A New Dawn tells us:  “To be with the mountain is to make a commitment to participate fully in life itself, to encounter the forces of life and to be in balance with them.”

For all people, mountains embody a mystery beyond our control, just out of reach. Edwin Bernbaum, in his book Sacred Mountains of the World, writes:  “Floating above the clouds, materializing out of the mist, mountains appear to belong to a world utterly different from the one we know…Mountains have a special power to evoke the sacred as the unknown.  Their deep valleys and high places conceal what lies hidden within and beyond them, luring us to venture ever deeper into a realm of enticing mystery.  Mountains seem to beckon us, holding out the promise of something on the ineffable edge of awareness.”

A woman stands on a mountain summit at sunset, as if at the edge of a great mystery, and gives her beloved’s ashes to the winds.

On the same mountain, two friends stand arm in arm in the warming sun, smiling at you and me.  A raven cries as it rides the gusts along the ridges and then veers off, out into the vast open sky.

The author of the book of Job interrogates us: Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts and makes its nest on high?

Creation humbles us, makes us feel that we are but one strand in the web of life, and brings us to awe-filled wonder and silence.

In the 19th century, there was a common phrase among the devout about going from Nature to Nature’s God. Which is to say, meeting Creation face to face—communing with the spirit of wild places—we encounter the Holy Mystery at the heart of Creation.[1]

Nat died in September of 2008 from complications due to multiple myeloma. Ironically, he was fifty-three, as was Keppele Hall.

I returned to Doubletop later that Fall, seventeen years after we climbed the mountain in 1991. Sukie and I stayed at the Kidney Pond Camps. She remained behind to paint on the shores of the pond.

I climbed the mountain alone and was feeling my age as I scaled the steep, timbered slope to the summit.  In the fifties down below, it was cold on top, with a strong wind blowing from the south.  But it was a cloudless day and the sun shone brightly and I was cozy under a few layers of fleece and a windbreaker.  I found the flat expanse of granite where Nat and I stood arm in arm for our photo. 

A Mourning Cloak, a large dark butterfly with bright yellow fringes on its wings, flitted across the ledge and was gone.  After lingering for an hour or so, I put my pack on and reluctantly headed down the mountainside. Turning once to gaze back up at the south summit, I bid a fond farewell to my unseen yet ever-present friend, Nat.

Further on, walking along an old logging road down into the lowlands, the trail was littered with fallen yellow birch leaves and, here and there, a red maple leaf.  The autumnal equinox was just hours away and the turning of the seasons was everywhere evident.  Mother loons had been out on the pond that week. In preparation for their coming flight to the coastal waters for the winter, they were busy feeding minnows to their now almost full grown chicks.

Just before 4 o’clock, Sukie greeted me with a hug back at the cabin.  It was time for a hot cup of tea. AMEN

* A Sermon by the Rev. David S. Heald; St Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, Maine; September 22, 2013

[1] Tag, Stan; see his 1994 Dissertation: “Growing Outward into the World: Henry David Thoreau and the Maine Woods Narrative Tradition, 1804-1886” (University of Iowa) 

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