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Where is the Top of Mount Monadnock?

The mountain, Southwest New Hampshire’s most prominent landmark, features largely in the research of Al Rydant, professor of geography. The whereabouts of the top of the mountain is also a question Al asks of his students.

Mt. Monadnock photo by John Martin

But first some background: Mount Monadnock has been strongly influenced by human activity, says Al. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the lower slopes of the mountain experienced forest clearing and the establishment, and subsequent abandonment, of settlements and agriculture. More recently, the mountain has been affected by recreation (it is believed to be the second-most climbed peak in the world).

Perhaps the most significant event to affect Monadnock, says Al, was an attempt by farmers in about 1810 to control wolves by burning the mountain’s forests. The fires lead to massive de-vegetation, he says, and to changes in the composition of the soil. The soil was swept away by rain and wind, leaving a rock peak.

The idea that the bare rock on the summit of Monadnock might not be its true top was raised by Al’s friend John Smith, the associate dean of the school of applied and analytical sciences at the University of Wolverhampton in England. According to Al, he, Smith, and a group of Wolverhampton and Keene State students were sitting on the summit in 1993 when “John said, ‘so where’s the top of the mountain? Where’s the soil?” The following year, on the summit, Smith asked the same question. Then, says Al, he pointed down the southern flank of the mountain to a small pond.

Since then, Al, numerous Wolverhampton and Keene State students, and Smith, an expert in lake bed sediments, have conducted many tests to see if soil in the bottom of Perkins Pond did in fact come from the top of Monadnock. To collect sediment for testing, the group takes a boat into the pond and pushes a tube down into the lake bed. Once analyzed, says Al, these core samples provide a record of the changes in mineral composition and structure of the soil.

Among the aims of the project, says Al, are to determine if there is a record of the summit burn and subsequent erosion in the lake-bed sediments and to investigate how the aquatic system may have responded to the burning event. Analysis of sediment so far has revealed a layer of charcoal and poor preservation of pollen, dated to the early 19th Century, which would be representative of the forest being destroyed by fire. In later years, the tree pollen is greatly restored as pine and spruce recover.

The project is ongoing says Al, with further work needed to investigate the written historical records of events on Mt Monadnock during the early 1800s. Al plans to do some of this work during a sabbatical in spring 2005.

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