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Ausable Chasm and Personal Action

After dropping my youngest daughter off in the dorm at NYU, my wife and I drove north for some simple no-one-on-the-back-seat together time. We headed up to a place I dimly remembered from my childhood, the Ausable Chasm. We stayed overnight in the tiny motel at the chasm’s rim, built in 1953. In the morning, we hiked into the Chasm, followed by a rafting trip to the Chasm’s end. The short trip was delightful, and set me to meditating on mindfulness and environment, and on information gathering and choice.

The Ausable Chasm is at the Northeast corner of New York, between the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain. A still active earthquake fault spit the sandstone mountain an eon ago, just where the run-off from the highest peak in the Adirondacks formed the Au Sable River. As the River was confined in the resulting gorge, it sped up and cut deeper. Steep cliffs rise as high as 170 feet above the water. The river runs swift and furious, at one point a reported 70 feet deep while less than 30 feet wide. Millions of years of sandstone lamina are on prominent display.

I vividly remember visiting the Chasm when I was 10. Severe floods have ripped out the man-made structures I climbed on then, and their replacements, in the intervening years, but the vivid memories triggered by the sights were amazing. In the late summer, now as then, the woods above are filled brambles, and berries, and edible lichens; the views into the Chasm are stunning. I had always remembered and mispronounced the word Ausable as a cognate of “awesome”, a feeling that still applies to the gorge.

As you hike into the Chasm, the sounds of the river block out all noise from beyond the rim. Reverberating off the damp sandstone, the sounds from up and down river occasionally meet and cancel each other out, creating the silence of a cathedral, a more profound silence than the mere absence of noise. The silence intensifies the wonder of the physical geology on display. The cracks caused by the collision of North America with Africa stand in stark contrast to the wrenchings of the walls by earthquakes.

The Chasm is the perfect scale to introduce children to the natural world. It has a diverse ecosystem. You can see the bounty of nature in the numerous wildflowers and the abundance of raspberries and other brambleberries crowding the path. The torn metal frames of earlier paths ripped by floods speak eloquently of nature’s power and disregard for our works. Hundreds of millions of years of sediments and fossils stand clearly revealed on the walls.

I know families who introduce their children to nature at extreme locations. They learn the botany of foul smelling jungle plants they may never see in school. They leave the cocoon of school and soccer only for eco-tourism to the rain forest in Costa Rica. They travel directly to the Grand Canyon. I think they learn the wrong things. The first nature they see is so big, that there is hardly any point in seeing more. They learn that the natural world is far away. I believe it is harder for them to take responsibility for what is going on here and now.

Issues such as power and carbon will not be solved by proxy. They will by fixed by people taking an interest in and responsibility for local solutions. They will not be fixed through by carbon indulgences to plant a tree in a faraway land. They will be fixed, if they are fixed, here and now.

And it starts with appreciating how wonderful, how complex, and how beautiful things are here, in our own back yard.

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Reader Comments (2)

I am a big fan of ausable-chasm and this feels really great to get those personal information about his personal life. I also remembered and mispronounced the word Ausable as a cognate of awesome, a feeling that still applies to the gorge.
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January 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterfay

I think this is really impressive and cool post about his personal life and glad to know that the short trip was delightful, and set him to meditating on mindfulness and environment, and on information gathering and choice.
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March 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersuzanne

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