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Sabbath Day – The Great Animal Orchestra

May 25, 2019

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The twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen remarked that for him, ‘the only real music’ was ‘in the sounds of nature’, especially in the singing of birds. That may be an eccentric view, but we could agree that ‘the great animal orchestra of nature’, as one musicologist calls it, is the origin of the music that human beings have come to create and enjoy. Whether or not, at the end of the day, birdsong is labeled ‘music’ is less important than the fact that it is hard to hear it as being other than musical or music-like.[i]

I started my hike this week with these thoughts about music in my head. I walked, attuned not only to the ‘great animal orchestra’ of Northern New Jersey but also to the burbling rhythms of living water and the chorus of trees, plants and mountain top being played by the advance winds of an approaching thunderstorm. This section of the trail is an ideal location for listening, as the path passes through the Wallkill Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the only national wildlife refuge on the whole AT.

My hike began on the boardwalk, where I left off last week, and took me up and over Pochuck Mountain (were I took the first photo below), across the Wallkill Valley (across which I am looking), to High Point State Park in the Kittatinny Mountains (seen in the far distance in the same photo). A total of 17 miles.

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In fact, standing at the overlook to take the photo above I could just make out High Point Monument on the other side of the valley toward which I would wend and walk all day. An obelisk in High Point State Park marks the highest point in New Jersey at 1,803 ft. The monument was erected in 1930 and dedicated to those who lost their lives in our nation’s wars, past and future. It was so far away it can’t even be made out in the photo. Three hours later I caught sight of it again, and uttered an expletive. It was both so much closer, and yet still so far away. Am I going to make it before the thunderstorm? I felt distinctly like Bilbo Baggins and the Company of Dwarves when the eagles set them down on the Carrock in the middle of the River Anduin and they could finally see their goal, the Lonely Mountain. Having come so far, there was so far to go. 

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At the five and a half hour mark I finally stood below the monument.

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The view was unequaled. From here I could

Look east to view the Kittaninny Valley with Pochuck Mountain in the forground and Wawayanda Mountain on the horizon. Look southeast and you may be able to see the New York City Skyline. Delaware Water Gap is to the southwest, and Lake Marcia and Highpoint Lodge with the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania are to the west. The Catskill Plateau is to the northwest, and High Point Monument is to the north.[ii]

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Looking back at Pochunk Mountain where I took the first photo above

The overcast day did not allow me to see the city, but I was able to see the upper reaches of the Delaware River that I will following south on my next several weeks of hiking toward the Gap.


To get to this point I had traversed Jersey wetlands and lowlands, bogs and marshes on boardwalks, bridges, dikes and sometimes simply through mud; climbed mountains stairs and descended stones strewn paths, and enjoyed some lovely forest trails. I encountered singing songbirds beyond belief (including a beautiful crane family), herons and hawks, duck, geese, and a regal swan ,as well as frogs and turtles, snakes, spiders, centipedes, squirrels and chipmunks, the odd mouse and a startled groundhog, and fields of flowers filled with honey bees in paradise doing what they do. And cows. And horses. As well as evidence of dogs, deer, fox, and something even larger.

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The trail was actually crowded, not with thru-hikers, but with north bound flip-floppers who started a month or two ago at the mid-way point of the AT in Harper’s Ferry. They will then flip back to complete the southern route by mid-summer. This way they avoid some of the extreme weather associated with thru-hiking. 

As I descended from High Point Summit the thunder sounded and the wind picked up. The rain began as I emerged from the woods in sight of the State Park Office. I had intended another three miles, but I stopped there and called for a Lyft. As I waited for Muhammed to take me back to my car at the trailhead, I enjoyed the smell of rain and ozone. I watched the steam rise from the sun warmed roof. And I listened to the birds. 

Happy Sabbath


[i] Cited in David E. Cooper, Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life. (Routledge, 2018)

[ii] Victoria Logue, Frank Logue and Leonard M. Adkins, The Best of the Appalachian Trail: Overnight Hikes. (Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 1994/2004).




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