Breathing on Mount Nittany

I spent today in Happy Valley for Arts Fest, driving up from Washington in the morning and back home in the evening. Despite seeing Ben Novak and others, the trip was a horrible one, for reasons I won’t get into. It’s always people, and never places or things, that matter.

But if you’re not with friends or loved ones, being alone in God’s creation with the space to breathe isn’t necessarily the worst place to be. This has turned out to be a small way, and certainly not the most important way, to appreciate God’s presence, but it’s something.

State College for six waking hours

I woke up around 7am in State College, Pennsylvania this morning at the Super 8 on South Atherton Street, went for a short run, showered, and headed to the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s second board meeting of the year. It’s hot out, and I left the window of my hotel room open and woke up to the Nittany Valley’s near-muggy air. I love weather like this partly because, whether walking or driving through town or the outlying countryside, you encounter the near-summertime in a sensual way—the scents, breezes, and verdant sights are right there for you, if you’re open to receive these gifts.

After the meeting, I drove to Meyer Dairy to pick up some cheese and lemonade, and then to downtown State College for a short walk. Penn State and State College have emptied out with the end of spring classes, and so campus and town are especially peaceful this Sunday morning:

I like solitary trips like this as both a way to think and as a way to go deep with audiobooks. I’m listening to Wilson D. Miscable’s “American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh” and Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.”

I drove up from Washington last night for this morning’s meeting, and am heading right back to Washington for a dinner meeting tonight.

Joining the board of the Mount Nittany Conservancy

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.

Little Free Libraries, ‘a spiritual gesture’

Todd Bol, the creator of the “Little Free Library” movement, died this month:

Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization that inspires a love of reading, builds community, and sparks creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world.

Katharine Q. Seelye writes:

In 2009, Todd Bol was renovating his garage in Wisconsin when he ripped off its old wooden door. He liked the wood, though, and didn’t want to throw it out. So after staring at it for a while, he decided to use it to build a small monument to his mother, who had been a schoolteacher.

He fashioned it into a replica of a schoolhouse, two feet high and two feet wide, put his mother’s books in it, and planted it on his front yard, hoping to start a little book exchange for his neighbors.

“It was a spiritual gesture,” he said.

That gesture spawned what might be called the tiny library movement, leading to his founding of a nonprofit organization called Little Free Library a year later.

Since then more than 75,000 Little Free Library boxes, which blend the form of folk art with the function of a community water cooler, have popped up in all 50 states and in 88 countries.

I’d like to see a Little Free Library at the Mount Nittany trailhead in Lemont at some point. I think it would be a great thing for hikers to be encouraged to spend time on the mountaintop with nothing but the trees and a great book.

Mount Nittany rainshowers

Peter Atkinson and I slept in after last night’s barbecue, eventually making our way to Mount Nittany by mid-morning for a hike in fairly steady rainshowers from the trailhead to the Mike Lynch Overlook and back. It was one of my favorite hikes.

The Mike Lynch Overlook was totally obscured, with the look of a veil of mist and rain having been lowered almost directly in front of us as we peered out onto the imagined view of Penn State’s campus. Along the Mountain’s ridge the rain continued, thick and chilly and spring-like.

Afterwards we ate breakfast at Cafe Lemont, then drove back into State College where we showered and cleaned up, made it to Our Lady of Victory for mass, and closed out the trip with a Corner Room lunch before Peter caught his ride back to New York.

As I was finishing some errands, I walked out onto Allen Street where Ray Cromie was slowly making his way toward College Avenue. We walked slowly together to his destination as we caught up for the first time in at least a year. I met Ray when I was involved with The LION 90.7fm as a Penn State student, when Ray’s “Avant Garde” show took listeners on journeys to strange and wonderful soundscapes.

Still raining as afternoon gave way to evening, I hopped into my rental car and made my way back to Philadelphia.

Walking through Lemont

I met a mystic today.

A remarkable man emailed me yesterday, asking if I would meet him on Mount Nittany to hear about a vision for a few acres. Today I met him, and spent most of the afternoon in his orbit. I’m not sure how to put the experience into words. He spoke for all but maybe ten percent of the nearly five hours we spent together, and the sheer volume and velocity of his thought was incredible. I won’t soon forget him, this mystic figure who occupies what he calls “real time” and who experiences a distinctive life.

We walked down Mount Nittany from the trailhead through Lemont and back at one point; I captured a few of those scenes along the way. Just two thoughts from the walk that were shared with me:

First, an answer to the riddle, “Why do they call them ‘Nittany’ Lions?” What if, rather than owing either to any American Indian folklore or to thin-air invention of a never-seen breed of mountain lion, there were a simpler and more likely answer? What if the earliest settlers noticed something different about the Pennsylvania mountain lions that lived and lingered near the Nittany Mountain, some distinctive and maybe peculiar demeanor or set of habits that set those Pennsylvania mountain lions apart, those looks that drank their water from the springs of the Mountain and prowled beneath its ancient canopies? “Those Nittany mountain lions,” the settlers might have started to reflect amongst themselves… “There’s something about them…” An answer to a riddle that presents another. But the simplest answer yet: those Pennsylvania lions acted differently when they were near Nittany Mountain, for whatever reason.

And second, one of the most obvious ironies about most of our experiences with Mount Nittany that I had never given any thought. “Everyone drives halfway up the Mountain from Penn State or Lemont village, and then park and start hiking at the trailhead’s halfway point. When they come down they say, ‘I’ve hiked Mount Nittany!’ But those people have hiked one half of the Mountain.” This is what spurred our walk down the Mountain from the Mount Nittany Conservancy trailhead to Lemont and back. We’re only really hiking one half of the Mountain from the elevation of the trailhead…

Visiting Penn State/State College/Lemont/Boalsburg this weekend for the first time since late January. Tonight I’m heading to “Mount Nittany Night” at Mountain View Country Club in Boalsburg, which will bring together a few dozen of the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s supporters. I think this is the third “Mount Nittany Night” of the eight they’ve hosted that I’ll have been to.

It’s good to be in Happy Valley in summer. Peter Atkinson gets in from New York tonight.

Why Mount Nittany is on every Penn Stater’s bucket list

Here’s something I wrote a few years ago for Onward State:

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. Even if you’ve never heard of Henry Shoemaker, and aren’t inclined to pick up his stories, the Mount Nittany Conservancy has made it possible to encounter a bit of the legend, mythology, and history of the Mountain through two new podcasts. The first, “Mount Nittany in Myth and Legend,” is a digestible seven minutes and is concerned with origins:

The second podcast, “The Story of Mount Nittany,” is a meditative 40-minute encounter with the reason the origin stories matter. In it, we hear from the people who conserve the Mountain for all to enjoy, from personalities as varied as Nittany Lion’s letterman Bob Andronici and student-volunteers combating erosion, to trailblazer Tom Smyth recounting decades of history (at 13:30), to Vince Verbeke’s “wayfinding stations” (18:21), to Penn State Arboretum director Kim Steiner’s insight on Mountain forestry (21:25), to Mount Nittany Conservancy founder Ben Novak’s experience of the “ordinary” Mountain (24:04), vision for land acquisition (28:08), and creation of square-inch deeds (31:55), to Bob Frick’s experience with less-preserved mountains (25:30), to Ben Bronstein’s historical markers (26:15), to Sue Paterno’s reflection on the Mountain (32:37) and Coach Joe Paterno’s affection for Mount Nittany as one on the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s inaugural board. Bob Frick, a Mount Nittany Conservancy board member, served as the executive producer of these podcasts, which were co-produced with WPSU’s Katie O’Toole and Patty Satalia.

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.

Who was Henry Shoemaker?

In speaking to Penn State students earlier this month on “Inspiriting Mount Nittany,” I mentioned Henry W. Shoemaker, Pennsylvania’s first folklorist. I thought I’d share a bit more about him, because his life was remarkable not only in Pennsylvania history, but for its lessons about the value of human beings sharing stories with one another and how whole cultures can be stronger and more remarkable as a result.

Shoemaker wasn’t just Pennsylvania’s first folklorist. He was also a prolific journalist, and Progressive-Era friend of people like Teddy Roosevelt. He’s most remembered for his many volumes of American Indian folk stories and legends collected throughout Pennsylvania. Shoemaker preserved settler-versions of what were claimed to be some of the last surviving oral stories of the American Indians of Pennsylvania—the Lenni Lenape, the Iroquois, Shawnee, Susquehannock, Tuscarora, Oneida, and others.

A few of his more well known collections include Juniata Memories: Legends Collected in Central Pennsylvania, Black Forest Souvenirs, Allegheny Episodes, Susquehanna Legends, and Penn’s Grandest Cavern. Simon J. Bronner, a Penn State professor, wrote a biography of Shoemaker in 1996 called Popularizing Pennsylvania: Henry W. Shoemaker and the Progressive Uses of Folklore and History.

It’s at least in part thanks to Henry Shoemaker that the world knows the “Nittany Lions” of Penn State, and that we know of the Indian legend of Princess Nita-Nee. A few years ago I helped the Nittany Valley Society compile a special collection of the folk stories and legends specifically pertaining to the area of Central Pennsylvania where Penn State is located. The book is called The Legends of the Nittany Valley, and is a small way we hope to perpetuate not only the stories themselves, but also memory of Shoemaker and other American folklorists incredible efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to perpetuate a spirit and feeling for the American Indians who we so thoroughly wiped away from their historic homes.

When I was initially learning about Shoemaker, I particularly liked this language used to describe him and his work:

In many ways, Henry W. Shoemaker (1880-1958) embodies the spirit of the Progressive movement in America. A prominent reformist newspaper publisher in Pennsylvania, he used his wealth and position inherited from industrialism to promote the preservation of America’s wilderness and native cultures. He fell in with such national leaders as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, who hoped to rekindle a rugged American nationalism. He became America’s first State Folklorist and a pioneer of national conservation. Shoemaker’s consuming passion was for preserving the cultural and natural heritage of his home state. He authored hundreds of pamphlets and books on Pennsylvania’s nature, history, and folklore. Today his memory lives on in the legends he helped promote…

Ken Poorman also provides a convenient snapshot of Shoemaker’s most notable achievements:

  • Newspaper publisher, author, folklorist, raconteur, diplomat
  • Mobilized interest and public funding to preserve historic and natural heritage
  • Leading conservationist, promoter of state parks
  • Romanticizer and popularizer of folktales, legends, and history
  • First official Folklorist in America
  • Director of Pennsylvania Historical Commission
  • Responsible for planting thousands of historical markers
  • Connection with Juniata through serving on M.G. Brumbaugh’s staff in Harrisburg
  • For many years after 1930 conducted pilgrimages to MGB’s grave near Lake Raystown

Despite pioneering folklore as an interest of Pennsylvania government as a means of “inspiriting the land” and cultivating civic pride and common experiences in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic America, folklorists who’ve come along since tend to look down their noses at Shoemaker and his contemporaries, like Katharine Berry Judson in the Pacific Northwest or William W. Canfield in New York.

Shoemaker opens himself to the criticism of contemporary folklorists because he injected too much of his own voice and his own era’s sensibilities into lots of his folklore. This has led to the charge that Shoemaker simply wrote all of the folklore himself. I’m far from convicted that Shoemaker created all of his folklore. Even if true, it would mean that he was incredibly creative and prolific, deserving of honor in and of itself. But more to the point, he frequently cites people he spoke with on trips throughout Pennsylvania and discloses the towns and places he heard stories, and thanks specific people by name. If all of this was purely fictional, in other words, practically everyone would have known it at the time. And the historical record doesn’t seem to bare that out.

In any event, the nature of oral stories and tradition is that the details of the folklore tend to change with almost every telling even while the stories attempt to retain the essence of their narrative. That’s what oral tradition is: the histories and stories of people passed down by the person-to-person telling. I wish Shoemaker interjected less of his generation’s own attitudes, biases, etc. into many of the stories. But it’s still easy and worthwhile to read them and enjoy them for what they are: fantastic stories that might just reach back into the earliest human stories and experiences of Pennsylvania shared by American Indian peoples, who we can still try to honor as our cultural ancestors.

The photo above shows Henry Shoemaker at Restless Oaks in 1913 with “Ramsden Rex,” his “English-bred Russian wolfhound.” I think the Juniata College Archives has the original version of this photo.

Inspiriting Mount Nittany

I spoke to the University Park Undergraduate Association, the student government at Penn State, on Wednesday, February 14 (Ash Wednesday) on Mount Nittany’s significance and historical conservation efforts:

As part of the talk, I presented the students with a Square Inch Life Estate Deed to Mount Nittany. Life Estate Deeds are available through the Mount Nittany Conservancy, and are a true, legal square inch deed recorded in the Centre County Office of the Recorder of Deeds.

To learn more of the Mountain’s history and significance, be sure to read Conserving Mount Nittany: A Dynamic Environmentalism or listen to the audiobook version for free.

It was a fun talk, even though it was incredibly difficult to pack much of the substance and depth of either the folkloric or practical conservation efforts of Mount Nittany into what was roughly a 12 minute presentation. There was so much that I didn’t have time to address, particularly the relationship between Mount Nittany and Hort Woods, and some of the more interesting aspects of the “Magic of Mount Nittany” fundraising campaign of the 1980s and the narrative of the Princess Nittany legends themselves. But that’s what the book is for.

Since I served in UPUA, it has developed for the better. I’d guess there were at least 70 people in attendance. (We were sometimes lucky to meet quorum requirements to even conduct meetings in the first year.) I stayed for the entire meeting, and heard about their campus and community initiatives which each seemed to be positive and important for building a better Penn State.

Mount Nittany and Joab Thomas

I’ve been spending some time recently on scanning and digitizing a few boxes worth of early Mount Nittany Conservancy archives that Ben Novak provided to me. As the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s founder and first president, Ben was instrumental not only in the organization’s major land preservation and fundraising efforts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s that we covered in Conserving Mount Nittany, but also in creating and promoting the distinctive “Square Inch” Life Estate Deeds, which provide a true, legal square inch of Mount Nittany for the life of the donor—recorded with the Centre County Recorder of Deeds—in exchange for a beautiful, framed deed certificate.

Over the course of these scanning and archival efforts, a number of prominent Penn Staters and State College names appear, including Dr. Joab Thomas and his wife. Dr. Thomas was Penn State’s president from 1990-1995, and he and his wife ordered their Square Inch in the early 1990s:

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