After ‘doing’ Montréal and Québec we toured La Gaspésie, then drove down into New Brunswick, Nova Scotia (unfortunately missing Cape Breton) and back into the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire.
One remembers particularly Le Rocher Percé in the Gulf of St Lawrence, a limestone formation pierced by a natural 15-metre-high arch reminiscent of the rocky coastal arches at Etretat in Normandy. Further geography lessons – Mum had been a teacher – followed at Moncton NB’s tidal bore and the reversible falls at St John. The beauty of the Maritimes should be seen by every youngster born anywhere east of Cape Scott on Vancouver Island.
Nowadays one needs a passport to tour the Green or White Mountains and to visit the site of what used to be the chief tourist attraction of Franconia NH, The Old Man of the Mountain. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 story called it The Great Stone Face.
In the eighth millennium BC, glaciers sculpted from the rock atop Cannon Mountain what, when viewed from the north, resembled a human profile. Through the 1900s AD, attempts were made to counteract its erosion. Wide cracks in the stony forehead were fortified by steel rods and cement, but 10 years ago, in the pre-dawn of May 3, 2003, the profile collapsed. Visitors now throw flowers onto the fallen rubble. An engineered ‘face lift’ was planned, then abandoned. No reconstruction could be guaranteed successful. Both losing and saving face pose problems.
Hawthorne’s story is based on what he called a “work of Nature in her mood of majestic playfulness”. Forgiving him, as some may not, for feminising gender-free natural forces, one must admit that “The Great Stone Face” is a classic patriarchal tale. A junior version was read to me before I became a reader. It is a fortunate child whose parents make the time to read to him or her. Indeed, those who do not do so are notably deprived.
The story-line in question introduces us to young Ernest, whose mother told him the legend that the aboriginal North American Indians who once dwelt there had told for generations.
It said that some day a child born thereabouts would in manhood resemble the Great Face. He would become the greatest, the noblest, person of his time.
In due course, a rumour circulated that a man bearing such a resemblance was about to return to the valley. He had earlier settled in an east coast town and made a vast fortune. When a luxurious house began to be built for him locally, it confirmed the stories they had heard about his success and nobility of character. And when a carriage drawn by four horses brought him back to live among them, people saw through its windows that the great man did fulfill the prophecy. But ‘Mr Gathergold’ kept his wealth to himself and eventually died. His house became a hotel for tourists who came to see the Old Man of the Mountain. Ernest was disappointed but each time he looked up to the mountain the silent lips there seemed to say, “Fear not, the man will come”.
When another native son who had distinguished himself in battle returned to the valley many saw in him the very image of the face on the mountain. Ernest could not see it but although he was now middle aged the thought “He will come” was rooted in his mind.
By and by, yet another hometown person, this one a golden-voiced statesman, who shook hands with and kissed all the right people, arrived. “Is he not the very image of the Old Man up there?” asked many. Still, and sadly, Ernest could not see it. Looking mountainward, he seemed to hear, “I have watched longer than you have and I am not yet weary”.
Years passed and engraved deep lines on Ernest’s brow. College professors, tycoons and philanthropists who came to the hotel heard about his fascination with the stone face and visited him. Many local people, looking up at the mountain, felt that they had seen somewhere a human person who did resemble the natural wonder. In his senior years Ernest often spoke to people who gathered in the open air to hear him recount the legend and tell the story of some of the famous visitors to the mountain pass that is called Franconia Notch. One evening there was with him a poet whose work he appreciated and who in a recent visit had admitted that his own life lacked the sublime quality of his verse. Ernest had once wondered whether that man might be the one who bore the long sought resemblance.
That evening, as the setting sun lit the mountain and Ernest, with his halo of white hair, spoke to assembled people, the poet looked up to the Great Face. Crowned with a mist, it gazed with benevolent solemnity out over the valley. In spite of himself, the poet cried, “Look! Ernest is himself that image”.
He made it clear to them that no statesman or sage, no mandarin or millionaire to whom they might look for inspiration could give to an individual or to the world what humility, an ever-open hand and heart such as those assets incarnate in Ernest, could give.
That was the unspoken message of the watchfulness and waiting of the Great Stone Face.
That, to presage Oscar Wilde’s later title, was the importance of being Ernest.