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Glimpses of Coming Autumn from Franconia's Highest Peak

Upon the highest mountain tops the winds of winter make their first assaults upon the summer, driving it southward, peak by peak. In September the skirmishes begin, and by the end of October the conquest of the high peaks is complete, but meanwhile the outcome of the contest is by no means sure, and day by day, sometimes hour by hour, the redoubts are won and lost again. Mid-September sees the approaches to the peaks fluttering gayly the banners of both chieftains, summer's blue and gold in the asters and goldenrod, winter's crimson and gold in the flare of maple and the glow of yellow birch. Thus I saw them from the summit of Lafayette on a day when the forces of the north met those of the south there and the long ridge was now in the hands of one army, now of the other. Nor was it difficult to prophesy what would be the outcome of the conflict. It seemed as if moment by moment the yellow banners of winter, planted almost on the very summit in the leaves of the dwarf birches, increased in number and crowded farther down the slope and into the forests of the outlying spurs. Now and then, too, the eye noted where a shell had exploded in a goldenrod bloom, or so it seemed, and blown its summer banner out of existence in a white puff of pappus smoke. So the wind out of the north drives the summer away, though it rallies again and again and comes stealing up the southerly valleys and along the sunny slopes to the very summits.

Near the high summits the birches show autumn tints first. These are of the round-leafed variety of Betula glandulosa, which is peculiar to the high peaks of the White Mountains. Very dwarf at best, on the highest peaks they win as near the top as do the dwarf firs, yet at humiliating expense of stature, becoming scarcely more than creeping vines at the greatest heights, sending up doubtful branches out of the protection of soft tundra moss. Up the higher slopes of Lafayette they thus grow, crowding together in dense masses that now spread a velvety golden carpet to the eye that looks upon them from the summit, Amidst the gray and brown of ledges and the green of spruce and fir, which is so deep that it is black, they glow by contrast and put the goldenrod of the lower glades to shame with their color. No other deciduous trees reach this height, and in looking at them in the early weeks in September it is easy to believe that autumn comes down from the sky and first, like jocund day, stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops. On Lafayette the color was richest near the top and paled into green as the glance slipped farther and farther down toward the Pemigewasset Valley.

Even by the middle of September the birches of the valleys show little of the marvellous yellow that seems suddenly to come upon them a little later. From the mountain-top they still hold the full green of summer to the first glance, and only by looking again and more carefully can one see that they have changed. Then, indeed, little cirrus clouds of yellow mist them in places, rounding the low hilltops a little more definitely against the more distant wood. To look again is to see here and there the undeniable flaunt of a yellow banner, but from the hilltops, that is all. To tramp the levels along the water-courses or climb the lower slopes beneath deciduous trees is to see more, and to learn that the autumn tints come by other routes than a descent upon the summits. For weeks in the cool seclusion of the forest aisles the ways have been lighted by yellow flares of birch or elm leaves and red flashes of the swamp maple, Day by day now these increase in number, and once in a mile the whole tree seems to have caught all the sunshine of the summer in itself and to begin to let it glow forth in the half-dusk of the woodland shadows.

In places it is as if autumn had set candles along these dusky cloisters to light pilgrims to some shrine, and in many a hollow glade one may think he has found the shrine itself, — an altar perhaps of gray rock covered with a wonderful altar cloth of dainty cedar moss all patterned with polypody ferns, and with a great birch candelabra stretching protecting arms above it, all alight with a thousand candles of yellow leaves. The heat of the September sun above, ray-filtered by the feathery firs, is caught in these yellow leaves that hold back the last of its fire and set the place about with a cool, holy glow, an illumination that is like a presence before which one must bow down in reverent adoration. After all it is not a defeat that has come to the fiery forces of summer that have so well held the hills; it is a conversion.

In the cloistered seclusion of the woods one knows this, and that seclusion obtains for much of the four-mile climb to the summit of Lafayette. Once or twice on the way the gray brow of Mount Cannon looks in through gaps in the foliage, from its great height, seeming to lean across the Notch and peer solemnly down from directly over head, so narrow is this deep defile between two mighty mountains. A mile up and the trail leans to a brief level, where it bridges the chasm between the spur of the mountain which is Eagle Cliff and the main mass. Here at a glimpse comes an idea of what happened when the mountains were made. The whole Franconia Range, one thinks, must have come up out of the hard-pressed levels of the earth in one great rock mass, from which the foundations settled and let portions lean away and split off. Here in the Eagle Cliff Notch is a great gap of the splitting, now more than half filled with fragments of the rock which fell away in enormous chunks when the action took place. Rocks the size of a city block lie here roughly placed one upon another with caverns of unknown depth made by the openings between them, Out of these caverns wells up on the hottest days a cold that undoubtedly comes from ice that forms in depths to which no man's eye has penetrated, and that remains the year through. The clinging of gray lichens upon these rocks has made roothold for the dainty cedar moss which makes them green and holds moisture in turn for the roots of firs that grow from the very rocks and fill their gaps with forest. Here where once was titanic motion is now titanic rest, and out of summer sun from above and winter coolness from below wild flowers build tender petals and distil perfumes the brief season through, asters and goldenrod lingering still in the crannied wall, the cool airs that made them late in blooming equally delaying their passing, In this green gap in the gray granite summer's conversion is long delayed, though winter waits just below her flowers the whole season through.

"On the way the gray brow of Mount Cannon looks in through the gaps in the foliage"

More than a mile the path again climbs steeply through closely set evergreens, in whose perpetual shade the moist mosses are knee deep above all rocks and fallen timber. Nowhere can one see better the value of spruce and fir growth on mountain sides in the preservation of the mountains themselves. Beneath this everlasting cushion of wet moss, re-enforced by roots, each rock lies in place and nothing short of an avalanche can stir it. Where the path has let in the sunlight on the moss the torrents have stripped it clean from the surface and frost and storm year by year gully the opening deeper. It is astounding, this sponge of moss that climbs to the top with the path, sphagnums and dainty cedar moss predominating, but seemingly all other varieties intermingled as well.

And at the top one finds how persistent in its withdrawal the summit of a great mountain like Lafayette can be. This is only the top of a westerly spur, a far greater chunk than Eagle Cliff, but only a chunk of the main mountain, that also broke off when the foundations of the range settled. Strange to relate, the ravine that lies between is choked, not with mighty rocks, but with a level that has for a surface at least a boggy space in which lie two sheets of water, — the Eagle Lakes, 4146 feet in elevation. This is no summit; rather it is another notch, and the peak of Lafayette lies more than a thousand feet farther on into the blue.

A little above this point the firs cease and the moss with them. The rest of the way lies over broken stone that has crumbled from rough ledges unrestricted by any mossy protection. In the gravel ground from it grow some stunted firs, some very dwarf birches and scattered wild flowers, but the way to the summit lies for all that through a desert. From its jagged agglomeration of rocks, scattered on ledges that still hold to the main mass of rock which is the mountain, one looks north or south along a great rocky ridge which is the crest of the Franconia Range. North lie the great outlying spurs and buttresses of Lafayette, leading across a high col to Garfield, which sticks a bare rock pinnacle skyward. Southward a well-worn path lies along the ridge to Lincoln, Haystack, Liberty and Flume, each just a rise in the crest which lies along the ponderous bulk of really one mountain. Garfield is in a certain measure off by itself, but these others are all merely pinnacles of one great structure, Lafayette being the highest. Here as on the Presidential Range one finds Alpine plants, conspicuously the tiny mountain sandwort, so constant a bloomer as to show its white flowers still in mid-September. With this, but no others in bloom, were the three-toothed cinquefoil, the mountain avens, mountain cranberry, mountain goldenrod, bilberry and Labrador tea, all to be seen on the final crest which is Lafayette's summit.

A north wind out of a clear sky had blown at the start of my trip, but as if to prove that its day was not yet over, the wind out of the south came over the long barren ridge, bringing butterflies in its train. For a time the two winds seemed to meet at the very mountain top, and a yellow Colias, that was the first to come, caught between the two, coasted upward and disappeared toward the zenith as if even the summit of Lafayette were not high enough for him. Later, when the south wind had fairly driven that from the north back toward the Canadian boundary, I saw several of these, which I took to be Colias philodice, the common sulphur, flitting about the summit, their yellow pale and clear compared with that of the autumn-tinted birches just down the slope. Two mourning cloaks, a Compton tortoise and a Grapta progne, made up the list of other butterflies seen. Summer was doing well to be able to show even these so late in September on so high a summit as Lafayette. I looked curiously for the little gray Oeneis semidea, the White Mountain butterfly which is so common in earlier summer on the Presidential Range and said to be confined to it, but I did not see it. Perhaps this variety is not to be found on Lafayette, though the altitude is sufficient, the food plants are there, and the same geological conditions which left this variety "islanded" on Washington no doubt apply.

The south wind which brought up the butterflies and which pushed the north wind back brought up also a gray haze which swept in like a sea turn. It blotted out the Ossipee Mountains and the little Squam Range. For a time the Sandwich peaks stood out, deep blue against its pale blue blur, then they melted into it and were gone, It came on and took Tecumseh, Osceola and Kancamagus. Kineo, Cushman and Moosilauke were drowned in it one after another, but still to the eastward Carrigain and Hancock showed, and below them the broad Pemigewasset Valley was spread out like a map. Almost at my feet was the broad swath of ruin which past years of lumbering have cut in this once beautiful valley of primeval forest. For miles down the western slope of the Franconia Range and beyond all valleys are bare and all slopes that the utmost daring can climb are denuded. On mile after mile, save for, in spots, a pale undergrowth of blueberry and wild cherry, only dead birches stand, stretching bare white bones to the sky in ghostly appeal. Islanded in it here and there are peaks and ridges still beautiful in deep-green evergreens, with just a misty touch of the tender yellow of autumn-tinted birches, wood too small or too dangerously set to tempt the axe. The rest is desert; dignified, haughty even in the mighty uplift of its long slopes and bare gray crags, but desert for all that.

It is a relief to turn the eye from this to the rich green of the unscathed slopes of the Notch itself. A thin blue line of air between Eagle Cliff and Mount Cannon shows the narrow passage where the mountains split apart, perhaps to let man and the streams go through. Over the way lies Moran Lake, a blue gem among the green ridges of Cannon. At my feet, so near it seems, is the round eye of Echo Lake, which is at the bottom of the Notch, but seems almost as near as the larger Eagle Lake, which is but a thousand feet below, far up on the side of the mountain. All about are bold, bare cliffs showing through the green, but their bareness is that of nature, and the deep green around them grows, forgetful of the axe, which for many long years has not been laid at their roots, perhaps never will be again. Southerly the Pemigewasset Valley opened far to the villages of Woodstock and on to Plymouth, but even as I looked the pale blue haze blotted them out and swept on up the valley. The south wind was getting into a passion, bringing clouds behind and above the haze, putting out the sun and growling in gray gusts about the summit. It shouted threats in my ears and shook me as I went down the zig-zag trail to the shelter of the firs about the nearer Eagle Lake. Then it lulled and dropped a tear or two of warm rain as if ashamed of itself.

Star Lake, on Mount Madison, is but a puddle among the bare, slatey-coherent rocks of the Northern Peaks. The Lakes of the Clouds are real lakes, beautifully set, but barren in themselves, their shallow rocky bottoms allowing no growth of water-plants. Spaulding Lake at the head of the Great Gulf on Washington and Hermit Lake at the bottom of the Tuckerman Ravine are singularly alike, shallow, transparent, barren and beautifully set among spiring firs and spruces, each in the heart of a mighty gorge. But here, way up on the high shoulder of Lafayette, where one would think no lake could possibly be, is a little one in a brown bog, — a bog in which the mountain cranberry sets its deep red fruit to the sun and the snowberry scatters its pearls all over the maroon carpet of the sphagnum. Curiously beautiful fruit, that of the creeping snowberry. Here is a cranberry vine grown slender and with tiny leaves fringing it most delicately. Here at its tip is an elongated checkerberry, waxy, almost transparent white, with an odor of checkerberry, a pleasantly acid pulp that reminds one of cranberry and an after-flavor of checkerberry also. If there were prehistoric wizards in plant-breeding in these mountains, surely one must have cross-fertilized the cranberry with the pollen of the checkerberry to the producing of this shy, delicate, hardy and altogether lovely fruit. To this antediluvian Burbank it may be that the Old Man of the Mountain is a statue, erected by a grateful posterity in the Notch below.

Profile Lake, Franconia Notch, and Mount Lafayette from Bald Mountain

In the lake itself grows the tape grass, stretching its straw-yellow ribbons along the surface and curiously ripening its knobby fruit under water. With it in scattered groups was the yellow pond-lily, its broad, ovate leaves floating and turning up their edges to the gusts of the south wind that swung in over the corner of the mountain. Strange indeed these familiar .water plants looked in this little tarn swung more than four thousand feet in air on the shoulder of so mighty a mountain. All other mountain lakes at such heights had seemed weird to me in the crystalline barrenness of their purity. This one with its boggy shore, its mud and its homely water weeds was so friendlily familiar that I lingered long on its banks. The southerly wind had massed its clouds high above the Notch, and in their shadow the dusk of early nightfall was on the path and deep in the woods on my way down. Yet in the bottom of the deep defile between Lafayette and Cannon I saw the north wind again pressing on to victory, scattering the clouds above Mount Cannon and letting the sunset light through far over its northerly slopes. The nimbus broke into cumulus clouds, and these to fluffs of cirrus that showed at first an angry red. Then this softened to pink and finally dimpled into miles of gold between which the depths of the sky showed a pure blue of forgiveness such as can be found in heaven only when one looks up into it from the bottom of a deep like that of Profile Notch. Not in flowers or gems or in the pure eyes of children can be found such a blue as the Franconia sky showed, out of which night and deep peace settled like a benediction on the mountains.

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