What do you see when you look at a mountain? Come, see the mountain the way I see it.
Take a look at Pack Monadnock. Take a really ... good ... look.
Even a casual observer will notice that there are many different kinds of mountains. There are the seemingly endless, even waves of ancient, rounded ridges like Virginia's Blue Ridge. There are the young, rugged folded mountains like the Rockies, the Alps, or the Himalayas. There are the cone volcanoes like those that form the Pacific "Ring of Fire." And there are the broad shield volcanoes like those of Hawaii or Iceland.
Pack Monadnock is different from any of these. At first glance, its neat conical form suggests a volcano, but this is no volcano.
There is little scientific debate about it. Almost any source of technical geological information will tell you the same story of how Pack Monadnock came to be. According to the accepted scientific view, this was once a highland that has been eroding for many millions of years. As eroding rivers ground the highland down to sand and carried it away, those areas that happened to be far from any rivers were left higher than the surrounding area. Mountains that form in this way are called "monadnocks," after the Abenaki name for the archetypical monadnock, Mount Monadnock. Several mountains in southwestern New Hampshire have "monadnock" in their names, including this one that the Abenaki called "Little Monadnock" or, as the name has come to us, "Pack Monadnock." And they all formed in this same way.
That's the generally accepted view.
But it is wrong.
The trouble with that view is that it is past tense. It describes how Pack Monadnock came to be, as if it was brought to its present form by processes of creation that are now finished.
But Pack Monadnock is not a static thing with a final form.
Pack Monadnock is a process. It is a process that extends backward into a nearly unimaginable past and forward into an even more unimaginable future. It is a process that begins with a cloud of dust and gas coalescing in space to form a little star and a few planets and ends when that star expands into a red giant and the planet disappears in a blaze that merges its molecules back into those of the star. And the process extends even farther back in time than that, because the cloud of dust and gas came from some other, more ancient processes. Likewise, the process extends still farther into the future when the cinder we once called the sun merges into the process we call the supermassive black hole at the core of the Milky Way.
We can not say that Pack Monadnock "was formed" in any particular way. It is being formed even now. It has no "final" shape. It has a shape defined by the process as it has progressed thus far, but it will not keep that shape.
Of course, any geologist would tell you that there's nothing new about this. Science knows that the processes that formed the earth continue to this day and will continue to an indefinite future. But that evades the point that I'm trying to convey. The language we use to describe the natural world defines how we can see it and limits how we can think about it. I am inviting you to see the natural world, not as a collection of finished, static things, but as the intricate interactions among many intersecting and overlapping processes. See and know that the forces that brought Pack Monadnock to its present shape are at work even as you watch. And when you see the effects of those forces over the course of time, do not think of them as changes that happen to the mountain, but as the continuation of the process that is the mountain.
Much of the present shape of Pack Monadnock came about when the process of Pack Monadnock intersected with a process we call the Laurentide Ice Sheet. The ice sheet crawled in from Canada, ground its way up Pack Monadnock's northwestern flank, spilled over the southeastern flank, and crawled on to the Atlantic Ocean. Boulders, cobbles, pebbles, and sand that the ice sheet had carried from the Canadian Shield scoured the upstream side of Pack Monadnock, adding some of Pack Monadnock's own rock to the till that the glacier bore. Some of this debris was left in the sheltered pocket of Pack Monadnock's southeastern flank, but much of it was carried out to the end of the ice sheet. There, where the rate of melting balanced the rate of advance, this load of debris was slowly dumped over a span of 30,000 years in a process that we call "Cape Cod."
When the process of the Wisconsin Glaciation came to an end, and the process of the Laurentide Ice Sheet vanished, the process of Pack Monadnock resumed something like its earlier course.
Life returned to the glacier-sterilized land. Grasses, herbs, shrubs, and trees took hold of the glacial till that had accumulated in pockets like the southeast flank of Pack Monadnock, and in the low valleys. Slowly, plants created soil on the exposed bedrock and the natural living processes of New England came to be.
Pack Monadnock crumbled slowly, as it had for eons before the Laurentide Ice Sheet had come. Boulders and cobbles and pebbles that rolled down its southeastern slopes were absorbed into the thick glacial till. Cycles of freeze and thaw, and the processes of life within the soil churned the soil and rocks together, creating a continual supply of new soil so that the new rock sliding down the mountain had little effect on the rich ecosystem of the southeastern slopes of Pack Monadnock.
But the northwestern slope was another story. Here there was no deep deposit of glacial till. Here the slow rain of new boulders, cobbles, and pebbles eroding off the mountaintop simply piled up on the glacier-scoured bedrock.
Grasses and herbs managed to grow in a few places, but the meager soil that they could create was quickly washed into the crevices among the slow-moving stream of rock and swept down the mountain by the rains. Rainwater that falls on this surface can not stay, and it flows down out of reach of most plants.
Trees that manage to take root in this scree can live here only a few years. Before they reach full size, the ever-moving river of rock flows out from under their roots, leaving them to die in the withering sun.
See the process in action. The northwestern side of Pack Monadnock is nearly devoid of large trees, not because the Laurentide Ice Sheet turned it into a scree of loose rocks, but because those rocks are moving, right now! Pack Monadnock is not a creation that was once made and now stands static, but a process that unfolds before your eyes.
An oak tree stands near the summit of Pack Monadnock. Like any oak tree, the odds were against it from the beginning of its process. As an acorn, its process might intersect with the process of a squirrel or a nuthatch or a beetle larva, and so it would come to an end. As a seedling, it might feed the process of a caterpillar or it might get trampled in the process of a deer. Once it had beaten these odds for ten or fifteen years or so, the odds began to shift in its favor. It has stood on top of Pack Monadnock for a hundred years, and the odds are good that it will continue to stand there for another hundred years. For most of its hundred years, it has produced a shower of hundreds and thousands of acorns. Like itself, each of those acorns has the odds stacked against it, and probably no more than one of those million acorns will survive.
If one of those acorns falls down the eastern side of the mountain, the odds are still against it. But it just might survive. It just might take root. It just might avoid the blundering feet of passersby. And if it manages to beat the odds for ten or fifteen years or so, the odds will shift in its favor, and it can stand there in the rich, well-watered soil for centuries.
But if one of those acorns falls down the western side of the mountain, its process is entirely different. It faces the same long odds that would kill any acorn, but in addition, its chances of finding rich soil in which to sprout are nearly nil. It is barely possible, but it just might take root. It is barely possible, but it might avoid the sliding rocks around it long enough to sink a taproot into permanently moist rock and to raise a leafy branch into the life-giving sunshine. But the tragedy of the western flank of Pack Monadnock is that even if this young oak manages to beat the odds for ten or fifteen years or so, the odds remain stacked against it. The rocks to which it clings will abandon it. It can not stand for even as long as fifty years. Even the most vigorous oak on the western side of Pack Monadnock is doomed.
Pack Monadnock is a process that supports a lush forest on its southeast and something close to a desert, by New England standards, on its northwest. All because, 50,000 years ago, the process of Pack Monadnock intersected with the process of Ice Age.
When you look at the mountain, do you see all that?
Take another look at Pack Monadnock. Take a really ... good ... look.
This way of seeing Pack Monadnock, of course, applies to every mountain and to every natural place. I hope you see that I am inviting you - challenging you - to take this way of seeing into every natural place you visit. It is not static. It was not "formed" once and for all. It is a process, and it will one day take a form quite other than the form it has today. And this change in form is not a change in what the mountain is, but a continuation of the process that is the mountain.
Next Steps: What I have said about seeing natural things as processes instead of final forms is complete, and I might end it here. But there is something else that must be said. Take this way of seeing, and take a good look at yourself. Take a really ... good ... look. You are not a final form, but a process that stretches into an unimaginable future. And you will one day take a form quite other than the form you have today. The form you have today is a result of the processes with which you have intersected in the past. But unlike a mountain, you can choose how you will respond to the processes through which you pass, and so you can shape how your own process will unfold. Since you can choose your future, you are responsible for your own destiny. And you can not abdicate this responsibility: Not to choose is a choice, and you are responsible for the consequences of your action or inaction.
But there is still more. In today's narcissistic culture, those who have not actually taken that step I just described might mistake it for "Enlightenment." It is not. But recognizing oneself as an eternal process, and recognizing one's own responsibility for shaping that process into an eternal future, is an important step in the long process of enlightenment. Once one truly takes that step, one will immediately see the next step. It must follow as inevitably as Pack Monadnock slides down its own flanks, and as rapidly as a butterfly flits from one flower to the next. It is this: Each time you cross paths with another human being, take a good look at that person. Take a really ... good ... look.