In September I was appointed to the board of the Mount Nittany Conservancy, and this weekend I’ll be in State College to participate in the first meeting of the year.
Mount Nittany was one of the first natural symbols for Penn State, and continues to be probably the most recognized symbol of Central Pennsylvania and the Nittany Valley. The Mount Nittany Conservancy was founded in 1981 as a way to continue conserving hundreds of acres that had been purchased for preservation in previous decades, and to create a vehicle for continuing conservation and stewardship of Mount Nittany in its natural and “unimproved” state. The Mount Nittany Conservancy manages more than eight miles of volunteer-maintained trails and a number of scenic overlooks. If you’re not familiar with Mount Nittany, start with Conserving Mount Nittany or check out “Inspiriting Mount Nittany,” a talk I gave at Penn State last year:
There’s also “The Story of Mount Nittany,” a beautifully-produced feature on Mount Nittany that will make you feel like you’re right there in Lemont, at the Mountain’s trailhead and ready to hike:
And a few years ago I tried to answer Why Mount Nittany is on every Penn Stater’s bucket list:
In “The Legends of the Nittany Valley,” folklorist Henry Shoemaker records some of the American Indian and settler stories that provide a cultural and historical foundation for Penn State mythology, including Mount Nittany as our sacred symbol and pristine retreat, the love story of Princess Nittany and Lion’s Paw, and even the reclusive Nittany Lion.
Yet stories alone have no independent life to speak of; their significance grows from the affection, tenderness, and patience of the reader, from the moments spent in solitude or near friends with the words of a long-dead peer over a coffee at Saints or W.C. Clarke’s. Herodotus or Dante would be nothing without the gift of time and attention paid in gratitude by the living reader. It’s through that gift that we reverence something culturally significant, and make something from the past a part of our present time.
This is what tradition is, if distilled: the continuing act of encountering the past, helping it come alive again in some way, and then in due course becoming a part of the past ourselves as we look to the future. This beautiful notion is encapsulated in an even more beautiful, practical example: The singing of Robert Burns’s 1788 “Auld Lang Syne” every New Year’s Eve. It’s a literal and lyrical Scottish injunction to remember our friendships and honor days gone by on the eve of a new time.
This helps explain why Mount Nittany, by all accounts an ordinary Pennsylvania mountain, is nonetheless sacred for Penn Staters and the people of the valley. As with the stories of the past, we’ve infused the Mountain with a distinctive meaning. Penn State Professor Simon Bronner writes that we “inspirit the land” of Mount Nittany and places like it. We do this in a thousand distinct ways, through hikes alone to learning and sharing the same stories to nights spent with friends around a small fire.
The Mount Nittany Conservancy is what makes our experience of the Mountain possible—specifically what makes our experience of it as a natural space, protected from development, a perpetual part of the Nittany Valley experience. …
Nearly a century before many of us were born, Henry Shoemaker declared: “There is no spot of ground a hundred feet square in the Pennsylvania mountains that has not its legend. Some are old, as ancient as the old, old forests. Others are of recent making or in formation now. Each is different, each is full of its own local color.”
Mount Nittany is one of those Pennsylvania mountains, and the Nittany Valley remains a place where legends continue to take shape. Thanks to Henry Shoemaker’s stories, and the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s new podcasts, you can get a better sense for why the Mountain matters and why hiking it is such a special experience.
Hiking Mount Nittany is one of those things that finds its way onto the Penn State bucket lists of most students, and it’s something many make a ritual pleasure. A single hike often serves as an occasion for encounter with “local color” of the Mountain and the valley, a color which has a radiance that outlasts every autumn.