Robert Beese’s Mount Nittany

On a trip to State College last year a friend of mine familiar with my love for Mount Nittany pulled something remarkable out of her basement. What she had was the photo you see here. It’s a photo of Mount Nittany taken by Robert Beese probably sometime in the 1940s.

The second I laid eyes on this it captured me. I don’t juts see Mount Nittany. I see a pristine place of beauty. Not only the Mountain untouched by man, but pretty much an entirely natural landscape.

Robert Beese’s Mount Nittany doesn’t just capture a bit of pre-industrial Central Pennsylvania—a bit of the world of a few decades ago. I think it captures the ancient spirit of the Mountain. It’s the same scene that Evan Pugh would have seen when looking out from campus. And it’s the landscape that the Lenni Lenape and countless generations before them would have been a part of. To really be carried away by Robert Beese’s Mount Nittany is to let yourself, for a few moments, slip out of time.

Obviously, I love it. If you do too, you can access the high resolution version on Flickr and make your own print. (I’ll assume Robert Beese would have wanted to share unless I hear otherwise from his family.)

Beese died in 2004 at age 86, and my older State College friend was a friend of his. Penn State Libraries has a collection of his work, and the text below is from their site. After my State College friend gave me his Mount Nittany, I had it framed pretty much right away.

From 1942 until his retirement in 1977, Robert S. Beese served as photographer for the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State, advised the Penn State Camera Club, and was active with the Color Slide Club. Beese began his photographic career while growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was an active member of his high school’s camera club, and even set up a dark room in his parents’ basement, equipped with an enlarger he made himself. Shortly after graduation, he began an apprenticeship with a local photographer who encouraged him to enroll in a top photographic school. Beese enrolled at the Clarence White School of Photography in New York City, where he studied under Ansel Adams. His classmates included Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White. Beese also studied at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, and the Winowa and Leica schools of photography, both in Winowa, Indiana.

Considering Mike Lynch’s Overlook

One of the insights in Conserving Mount Nittany is that the Mountain has stayed a remarkable, natural place close to Penn State largely because it has been left alone. The conservators of the Mountain have never been interested in making the Mountain over in their own image, but in letting the Mountain be itself.

What does this mean? It means you won’t find asphalt trails to make the hike easier. It means you won’t find benches littering the sides of the trails. It means you’ll follow paths marked by little blue or white marks on the trees, and only the bare minimum of signage. This is how we addressed it in the book:

TAS: One of the things the Mount Nittany Conservancy does an excellent job with is maintaining hiking paths across the Mountain. Coupled with marketing efforts across the region, are you concerned about the risk to dilute the natural experience of the Mountain? What about problems that come with greater numbers of visitors like erosion?

BN: In 2000 I left the Nittany Valley and moved to Bratislava, Slovakia. One of the things that crushed me during my eight years in Europe was that so much of the world had become globalized.

What I mean is that many of the historic palaces, castles, and villages had become completely oriented to tourists. The paths and steps and signs that are set up for tourists end up having the effect of becoming a central part of what you’re experiencing. It becomes very difficult to feel as if you’re really walking on the same steps that a Medieval knight walked on, for instance. It’s as though they put a wall of glass or transparent plastic between you and all the things you came to see and touch. Imagine that you lived in a world where the only way you could ever see people fall in love is in the movies.

Too much marketing and tourism-minded positioning and too many “improvements” can seriously take away from the thing you’re trying to promote. Too many changes can remove the naturalness of the experience.

There’s always a risk of this with Mount Nittany, but so long as there’s a feeling for conserving the Mountain “as is” rather than constantly wondering what might be added to make it even better, things will be alright. Remember, the goal of Lion’s Paw and the Mount Nittany Conservancy has always been to preserve Mount Nittany “in its natural state.”

I think we should view Mount Nittany like Central Park in Manhattan. We want people to go and visit and enjoy. At some point we might have to do things like put in brick steps in places to ease problems like erosion, but in general you don’t set out to try to improve Central Park. You just let it be, and people will keep coming because it’s the one place that’s just been left as-is.

When I was on the Mountain recently, I visited the Mike Lynch Overlook. It’s the most famous of the overlooks because it offers a beautiful view of Penn State and State College.

Erosion is a constant concern at the overlook. It’s a heavily taxed part of the Mountain that has to bear enormous numbers of visitors.

In the spirit of Ben Novak’s remarks, I imagine it’ll eventually be necessary to convert the overlook in the way the Nittany Lion Shrine area was recently redone.

In other words, maintain the naturalness of the overlook but sustainably address the problem of erosion by making this spot of the Mountain one with a few levels of porous rubber/concrete with built-in seating that respects the area.

Mount Nittany and right of first offer

In writing Conserving Mount Nittany, one of the things that struck me was how little land acquisition has been a part of the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s focus over the past two decades.

In speaking with one of their board members, I came to understand that the perspective was essentially: “Land is expensive.” But that’s always been the case. And I think in the coming decades land acquisition around the lower portions of the Mountain will become important.

As Lemont and the larger Nittany Valley area develops, it’ll become increasingly important to keep Mount Nittany’s skirt as natural as possible.

The first half century of Mount Nittany’s conservation was the story of large scale property acquisitions that define the Mountain in our imaginations. The next century will deal with tell the story of the successes or failures of the conservation of the less distantly visible properties that serve as the gateways to the Mountain and its trailhead. In most cases this will involve purchases of homes or lots, and either repurposing them or returning them to nature.

A recent Mountain hike is what got me thinking about this. And seeing the property above, located just near the Mount Nittany Road trailhead, specifically got me thinking about how to cultivate relationships with private land owners.

I don’t think the approach for Mountain conservation in the future will or should be about large scale fundraising campaigns for new lands. I think the Mount Nittany Conservancy should consider something like the following approach:

1. An annual development campaign that aims to generate a higher and more consistent level of unrestricted gifts which live in an account that’s treated as siloed and sacrosanct for the purpose of new property purchases.

2. In conjunction with professionalizing its development approach, the Mount Nittany Conservancy should actively form relationships with any/all property owners around the Mountain’s lower portions, with the goal of the owners agreeing to give the Mount Nittany Conservancy right of first offer if/when they should choose to sell their homes or lots.

This is a simple approach that involves two things the Mount Nittany Conservancy has historically been good at doing: storytelling and communication.

It simply expands on these strengths through a one page legal agreement with property owners to formally acknowledge that they’ll give the Mount Nittany Conservancy the first chance to buy their land if/when they ever decide to sell it.

And if they do, the Mount Nittany Conservancy would already be positioned at minimum to take out a loan for it and pay off the remaining through its annual campaigns.

Hiking Mount Nittany

I got a text last Thursday night from a good friend, asking if I wanted to join him on a hike of Mount Nittany in the morning. We met the next morning at Irving’s in State College, caught up a bit over coffee, and drove to Lemont.

It’s been a while since I’ve been on Mount Nittany, and the hike was a good one both for connecting with the Mountain and with my friend. We spent about three hours of the morning traveling the Blue trail, the White trail, and periodically enjoying the overlooks.

We also visited the Life Estate square inches, which I probably hadn’t visited since 2010 or so. I hope the Mount Nittany Conservancy spruces up the presentation of this spot a bit, maybe replacing the signpost with a small rock plaque telling this part of the Mountain’s story.

Later at the Mike Lynch Overlook we ran into an entire field trip of young people enjoying a rest after their hike. It was the fullest I’ve ever seen Lynch’s overlook.

Arriving, we were the only ones at the trailhead. Leaving, we were simply one of more than a dozen parked cars. The Mountain is popular.

Mount Nittany Night

The Mount Nittany Conservancy hosted its fifth annual Mount Nittany Night at Mount Nittany Vineyard & Winery in Linden Hall last night and awarded its annual Friend of the Mountain award.

I’ve been in State College for three of the five Mount Nittany Nights so far thanks in each case to scheduling coincidence, though I didn’t attend this time. Mount Nittany Night is a great celebration of the Mountain’s conservation and literally the Mountain’s fruits in the form of lots of pretty remarkable Pennsylvania wine. (My go-tos are Nittany Mountain Blush and Tailgate Red.)

Thinking about Mount Nittany Night reminds me of Mount Nittany Conservancy’s great podcast that Bob Frick produced and which I wrote about in October in Onward State:

In “The Legends of the Nittany Valley,” folklorist Henry Shoemaker records some of the American Indian and settler stories that provide much of the cultural and historical basis 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 lyrical and literal 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. …

Mount Nittany by drone

I’m writing this from New York where temperatures this week are falling to the low teens and there’s freezing rain and ice on the windows. I’m thinking about warmer temperatures, and specifically thinking about State College in summer for two reasons.

First, because I’ve been working on and off recently on audio production for the audiobook version of Conserving Mount Nittany, which I expect will be available within the next few months. We recorded the dry reads for the audiobook in Pattee/Paterno Libraries at Penn State last summer.

Second, because that project brought me back to aerial photos of Mount Nittany from the summer that a friend took with his drone. The photo of Mount Nittany above is one of those that the drone captured as it flew around State College.

It would be neat for the Mount Nittany Conservancy to purchase a corporate drone and regularly fly it over the Mountain to capture unusual shots throughout the seasons.

Specialness of place

This David Foster Wallace quote came across a social stream:

“[Tourism] is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.” David Foster Wallace

This immediately brought to mind a strain of thought in Conserving Mount Nittany—part of a larger conversation on how to conserve something special while still allowing it to be accessible:

Ben Novak: One of the things that crushed me during my eight years in Europe was that… many of the historic palaces, castles, and villages had become completely oriented to tourists. The paths and steps and signs that are set up for tourists end up having the effect of becoming a central part of what you’re experiencing. It becomes very difficult to feel as if you’re really walking on the same steps that a Medieval knight walked on, for instance. It’s as though they put a wall of glass or transparent plastic between you and all the things you came to see and touch. Imagine that you lived in a world where the only way you could ever see people fall in love is in the movies.

Too much marketing and tourism-minded positioning and too many “improvements” can seriously take away from the thing you’re trying to promote. Too many changes can remove the naturalness of the experience.

We’re marketing (and buying into marketing) that promises authenticity. When those campaigns succeed—in land conservation, in tourism of a “newly discovered” destination, in realtors promoting a new neighborhood—it becomes really difficult to sustain the authenticity that stoked our interest in the first place.

To maintain the sort of authenticity that leads to a place being considered special, think about the characteristics that contribute to that specialness of place. Foster more of those if you want to conserve the essence.