September 1993

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Hammondsport Glen


Thomas D. Cornell

First Essay, Second Essay, Third Essay, Fourth Essay, Fifth Essay, Sixth Essay

Essay VI. Gateway to the Pleistocene


The sixth and final essay, entitled "Gateway to the Pleistocene," brings this series to a conclusion. In its undeveloped state, the Hammondsport Glen had revealed itself to me as a distinctive geologic formation. Its very existence suggested the need for a story to account for its origin, a story very different from the kind that Grandma had told me.

While driving with Grandma on the old road to Hammondsport, I had heard stories that included railroads and airplanes, farms and villages, etc. But from the vantage point of the falls in the Hammondsport Glen, the same route assumed a very different appearance: it became the path along which the massive glacier had made its final retreat at the end of the last Ice Age. Only after the ice sheet had departed could the glen begin forming.

Actually, there are many other geology stories to tell—notably, how the strata were laid down in the first place. But telling those other stories is not my aim here. Instead, it is enough for this series of essays to establish geology stories as one of the kinds of stories that I will be telling in the future.

In contrast to Watkins Glen, how different the Hammondsport Glen had been. Although the site had once been developed for tourists, those features had been stripped away by floods or obscured by tree growth. As a result, the falls probably looked much the same as they had when the village was founded. Yet the falls could not always have been there. Walking along the base of the ravine wall one sunny afternoon, I had heard flecks of shale hitting the ground—so I knew that the formation offered little resistance to ordinary erosion.

Of course, while the landscape had been covered with ice, ordinary erosion could not have occurred. But in the waning years of the Pleistocene, the ice had begun its long retreat—baring first the hilltops and then the valleys. For a period of several hundred years the glacier had paused between Bath and Hammondsport, depositing the rubble that later prevented the valley's upper reaches from draining southward. Then the glacier had resumed its retreat, this time leaving behind Keuka Lake.

Only with the glacier's departure had the glen's geologic clock started ticking. Each winter, water froze in the exposed rocks. Each summer, those rocks expanded in the hot sun. All the while, water flowed off the hilltop, sometimes in trickles, sometimes in freshets, but always slicing deeper and deeper.

What, then, did the Hammondsport Glen signify? Where visits with Grandma had opened up for me one kind of past—the past of the earliest settlers and successive generations of inhabitants-my visits to the Hammondsport Glen had opened up another. This second kind of past was the geologic past, and its stories were told not by local historians but by scientists. Both kinds of pasts could exist in the same place; both kinds of stories could hover over the same terrain. Yet each was a world to itself, imperfectly aware that the other existed—making it hard to move back and forth between them.

Throughout the time that I had been exploring the Hammondsport Glen, I had also been going to meetings of the Bath Area Writers Group. As I listened to their discussions, I came to realize how important it is for every community to have its own poets—people who struggle to put into words the experiences common to the region. But when the group's leader once predicted that someday I would show up with a poem of my own to read, I resisted his suggestion. Writing poetry seemed so foreign to me that I simply did not believe him.

Amazingly, however, while preparing the essay about my first visit to the Hammondsport Glen, one of the paragraphs stubbornly refused to come out as prose and insisted instead upon emerging as poetry. Even more recently, I have found myself expressing a poem the way I experienced the falls.

The Falls in the Hammondsport Glen

Walking barefoot
On stream bed gravel,
Ravine walls close at hand,
I draw near
To the calling card
Left by a waning Ice Age.
The white cascade
Fills the glen
With its throaty roar,
While cool mists
Dance lightly
Across shaded pools.
Denied any trace
Of human development,
I momentarily panic
And for support
Rest my shoulder
Against the brittle shale.
From deep inside
I feel the force
Of upwelling revelation,
And soon I'm awash
In successive waves
Of sorrow and joy:
The past is past,
Yet here I stand
At the gateway
To the Pleistocene!
No mortal
May come closer.
© 1993, Thomas D. Cornell
First Essay, Second Essay, Third Essay, Fourth Essay, Fifth Essay, Sixth Essay
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