Farther on in the White Mountain National Forest, my companion and I stopped off for the last of our lengthy treks, this up the Beaver Brook. The brook took its name, or so I guessed, from the beaver who made their home in the pond at the trail’s foot and into which the brook empties. The body of water has taken on grandiose dimensions with years of damming, and we were unable to draw anywhere near the one-time shore, visible at times through the shallows. The brook itself had likewise fallen victim to their manipulations, as the beavers have, at various points in the brook’s approach to the pond, diverted its water from old banks into new channels for a purpose that I had difficulty parsing out. As the brook’s water always built up behind the new dam and eventually spilled over the ground to reach a new stretch of lowland by which it might reach the pond, it invariably came back around, in the end, to that very destination from which it had been diverted. Perhaps these smaller dams were to have served in the way of catchpools or, more likely, for something else entirely.
On the way up, I considered their work at greater length and wondered how comparable in intent and scope it proved to human artifice. This thought in turn brought me back to the trail underfoot, for, after no few hours along its ways, I had come to realize that the Appalachian Trail itself displayed an unsuspected level of artifice. Although stretching through a natural setting, the way cut through obstacles that normally resist human settlement and craft. Falls, slopes, and escarpments ordinarily remain outside human spheres, difficult to bring to order.
Yet, at both Katahdin and Beaver Brook, the effect was quite pronounced. I need only call attention, for my own sake or that of my companion, to the manner in which stacked stones formed steps to tame a slope that, while still formidable, yielded to progress. Set into the hewn rock or wood, words came to greet us on occasion, communicative in a fashion other than the natural world. Coming back to the stepstones themselves yielded still more food for thought, for, more often than not, a careful inspection showed that, far from being features of the landscape, they had either been dynamited from the surroundings or, in a process which surpasses my powers of comprehension, molded from a cousin to concrete using a series of round rods or injection tubes. Indeed, the traces of such rods or tubes became more and more apparent; to those who looked, evenly spaced, cylindrical hollows repeated themselves from stone to stone.
Out of breath and straining with each step, we paused at one of the many falls and pools through which the brook’s waters pass as it descends the considerable slope. I came to a stop and perched upon a log and asked whether the beavers’ artifice approached that which I found everywhere about me but, instead, chose to distract myself with one of those artificial sentences peculiar to English and its ability to dispose of certain relative pronouns: Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo; fish eat fish eat fish eat. To which I added my own poor attempt, “Fell fall falls fell fell fall falls fall” if only because I could. And perhaps therein lay the key to it all: simply because it was something of which I, humans, beavers were capable, an integral part of what I, humans, beavers could. In this way, artifice stood firmly joined with nature.
Some minutes later, we found ourselves back on the trail, or, more accurately given the slope, back up the trail. Although I was uncertain of the distances still before us, we pressed on and eventually met with a fork in the path, leading alternatively tot he summit or the nearby shelter. Curious at what I might find in these shelters, I took a few tentative steps down the right path until I stood in the midst of a curious village, abandoned at this hour. A few concrete slabs and log shelters hid among the trees before me, and, just above where the slope fell away, I found the outhouses. The area below had been fenced off. At its limit, I found a sign indicating that the space enclosed had been deemed a contamination zone. By who and of what, I could make reasonable guesses at these. But in determining how it fit with my broader hypotheses concerning artifice, my reasoning proved rather more tentative.