19 February 2012


Minna, stone named for Monas; Andy, stone named for Norman; Audrey, stone named for Naomi; Rachel, stone named for Ruchel; Lois, stone named for Larry.
What's with mountains in the Berkshires where Native American maidens thrust themselves from the cliffs, crashing romantically to their deaths?

Last Passover we walked the paths at Bash Bish Falls, an uncommon momentousness of nature left to its own devices, the glorification in its own creation, only to be tarnished by man's insistence on adding loss to the accumulation of unrestrained beauty.  Bash-Bish, eponymous dame of uncommon beauty herself, was accused of adultery, tossed into a canoe, and forced to ride the waters to her early demise.

Today, we walked Monument Mountain, just down the road a piece from Bash Bish, and discovered that this phenomenal display of Earth's morphological geological uniqueness had become, by way of Native American literary metamorphosis, the funereal stone-heap for a young Indian maiden.  As depicted famously by the American Romantic poet William Cullen Bryant, this young girl lost love after being shamed for falling in love with her cousin.  She was ostracized by her tribe; and, in her grief, gave up the ghost

...when the sun grew low
And the hill shadows long, she threw herself
From the steep rock and perished. There was scooped,
Upon the mountain's southern slope, a grave;
And there they laid her, in the very garb
With which the maiden decked herself for death,
With the same withering wild flowers in her hair.
And o'er the mould that covered her, the tribe
Built up a simple monument, a cone
Of small loose stones. Thenceforward, all who passed,
Hunter, and dame, and virgin, laid a stone
In silence on the pile. It stands there yet.

There the gathered stones.  As I climbed over them, thinking back to my own hikes up the suicide paths of Masada and the glorious vistas of the Galilee and the Golan Heights, I was momentarily cognizant of the Jewish practice of leaving stones for the dead but more than that, inspired, by the outrageous gorgeousness of this rocky protuberance west of the might Hudson, lording over the gentle snaking path of the Housatonic.

The lost narratives of American Romanticism serve as a warning to the potentially dangerous waning of Jewish practices of mourning.  Many have been the times when I've stood at a graveside with Jews burying their dead.  Torn ribbon on a lapel; memorial candle and shiva boxes in the trunk of the car by the side of the road; seven days of shiva replaced by one, more a reception with platters, than a descent into the humility of loss; but always, no matter the distance from practice, the wandering and lingering by the family plots:  reciting names and stories of those past.  And leaving stones.

"We both leave stones!  We both leave stones!" I shouted to the wind as the hike came to an end.

Melville, who was soon to publish Moby Dick, met with Hawthorne on this mount.  It rained that day, according to the story, and they sought refuge in a cave, where a prodigious exchange of ideas took place.  Melville later thanked Hawthorne for the discussion, for planting "germinous seeds into my soul."

Like Jews at a grave.  Leaving rocks.  Telling stories of those past and thereby keeping them alive, with us, in the world.

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