I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
A short distance beyond the borderline between Frederick and Montgomery counties in the state of Maryland is a small mountain, a monadnock named Sugarloaf. Topping out at just over 1200 feet, it is covered in trees and seems an isolated rock as it sits twenty miles distant from the nearest mountain range called the Catoctins. Catoctin Mountain is a ridgeline that forms part of the longer Blue Ridge Mountains, a Maryland-Virginia segment of that ancient chain running from Newfoundland to Alabama known as the Appalachians.
Sugarloaf is both privately owned and a U.S. National Natural Landmark, a designation it has held since 1969. A brief drive from its slopes, Union and Confederate soldiers fought The Battle of Monocacy during the Civil War. Even closer at hand is White’s Ferry, an old cable ferry that takes cars and passengers across the Potomac River into Loudon County, Virginia. If you ride the ferry on foot your fee is only $1.00. The crossing has been in use since the 19th century and the boat is named after the Confederate General Jubal A. Early. Maryland, as you may know, was a Border State where slavery and subsequently segregation were legal.
Sugarloaf, like the far more famous Mount Washington, is a mountain you can scale with your car. On a clear day, on a stone lookout facing south, you can practically see all the way into downtown Washington D.C., some forty miles away. On occasion, the Washington Monument is visible as a small pencil mark on the horizon.
To the west, one more short distance is a large coal-fired power station sitting between the mountain and the river. It heats the water and feeds into the grid of the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) serving the greater Washington D.C. metropolitan area. The plant has a clutch of smokestacks, the tallest of which stands 750 feet high and seems to be trying to compete with the mountain for supremacy over the countryside. There are many winding roads in this little corner with 150-year-old stone walls marking farms and property lines. And older still is the two-hundred-year-old Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal built to parallel the east bank of the Potomac. The canal meanders along its 184-mile course before reaching its terminus in the mountain city of Cumberland, Maryland.
I grew up a short distance from all of this. Neither of my parents are Marylanders by birth, nor am I. We came because the National Institutes of Health (NIH) brought us, offering my father work. For much of my young life I dreamed of living somewhere else, of being someplace where winter lasted longer and offered more snow; a spot where autumn was filled with foliage of a deeper red, a display due to early frosts and associated with the oaks and maples of New England. Eventually, I did leave, but not before taking the landscape with me.
I had always been certain that my destiny was elsewhere. I never believed there could ever be a place for me in that area: I simply did not belong in Washington. But then something happened to me a few days before I turned seventeen and my certainty was shaken.
I was borrowing my parents’ car and meandering the country roads near the town of Barnesville, a hamlet with a full view of Sugarloaf. For months, I had been making little trips out that way to take a break from the suburbs. I liked to be alone, to clear my head, and to listen to my music. I liked the way the rolling Piedmont landscape felt beneath the tires of the car. I also felt a certain thrill at rolling along the outer edge of my home county of Montgomery.
That evening I was listening to George Harrison’s “Within You/Without You,” his Indian-influenced songwriting contribution to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper Album. My window was down and I was passing through a woodbine on the Old Hundred Road, an east-west two-lane state highway. The music had me lost in thought, so did the lustrous evening light sprinkled across the boughs and trunks of the trees. Because I was listening to the sounds of a sitar and other classical Indian instruments, the familiar landscape felt slightly exotic. I found this both stimulating and soothing.
And then it happened. The car and I emerged from our wooded view and I knew a sudden flash, a moment of experience that altered my life.
The trees had retreated and revealed, holus-bolus, the mountain. It sat just beyond a rolling declension of farmer’s fields, lying fallow in the last days of winter. Those fields rippled and rolled in undulant waves up to the foot of Sugarloaf. The declining sun, the crystal blueness of the late day sky, the luminous brown of the mountain’s form converged on me.
Sugarloaf was present. It was alive. I felt something, was buffeted by a series of vibrations that reached me, each one, in widening waves. The mountain possessed a deliberate presence: there could not have been an Earth without it. I now knew this.
When Wallace Stevens wrote in his poem, “Anecdote of the Jar” that “It made the slovenly wilderness/Surround that hill” he captured what I felt at that moment. I was the slovenly wilderness; I was the disorder that found sudden focus. By opening me to its presence, Sugarloaf cast me outside of myself, the mountain rescuing me from the disorder of my own thoughts, that bath of scattered emotions. The mountain became for me a focal point, but not solely in the sense offering an optical centre.
I was made aware, at last, of a stone consciousness. I was introduced to the truth that stones and soil are not and cannot be inanimate. In my life, I already had felt the presence of trees, the stirring of water in the form of snow and rain. I already had loved many animals, discovered joy in caring for and being among plants had heard the music of things growing. But this moment was my first encounter with animate stone, with stone alive.
I had heard it, felt it live. Sugarloaf had made sure of that.