There’s no wonder that Edward Hitchcock, a former Amherst College geology professor, invented the term “scenographical geography” to describe the Holyoke Range. A row of small mounts that runs east-west across the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts, the peaks along the Range are remnants of an ancient lava flow now characterized by angled outcroppings and curious microclimates. It’s hard for me not to be reminded of Hitchcock’s phrasing when I’m traveling around the Pioneer Valley, especially since I can see the peak named after him from my bedroom window. It’s also not hard to see why art, literature, and historical events seem to be centered around such a unique landscape.
The Holyoke Range has enchanted people for ages. Poets like Thoreau and Emerson were inspired by the rolling landscape and artists like Thomas Cole have painted scenes from its hilltops. According to one local legend the sedimentary rock outcrops known as the Horse Caves on Mount Norwottuck were used as protection for rebels during Shay’s Rebellion. From Transcendentalism, to the Hudson River School, to the tumult following the Revolutionary War, the Holyoke Range has been a part of the history of Massachusetts and the United States for many years. Before even that, though, the land was shaped by geologic processes. The first footprints along the Range, visible still today, belonged to dinosaurs rather than artists, poets, or rebels.
The basalt ridge that makes up the Holyoke Range today formed during the late Triassic to early Jurassic periods then eroded over the subsequent millions of years, leaving a distinct mark on the Pioneer Valley. Odd angles and sharp slopes are the result of weaker sedimentary deposits being eroded away and exposing the original volcanic basalts that were formed from lava flow deposition. The same Horse Caves said to have hidden rebels are a result of this uneven erosion of basalts and sedimentary rocks beneath. While the sturdier basalts have held out, the sedimentary rocks have eroded much quicker, leaving a cavern for hiding rebels or for the education of curious geology students. Triassic sediments on the Range show dinosaur footprints and ancient fossils, evidence of the great periods of change that the Holyoke Range has experienced throughout its geologic past.
Today the Range is characterized by its microclimates formed from the interesting topography, many of which seem out of place in a typical Massachusetts woodland. Oak savannas dominated by chestnut oaks in dry soils, patches of Eastern red cedars and Eastern hemlocks, and talus slopes that create calcium-enriched areas for growing uncommon plants are found along the way. Though it has been here for millions of years, slowly changing and evolving, the Holyoke Range remains constant in its beauty and allure. Looking out over the slopes, I can’t help but appreciate the remarkable history and natural events that have shaped this place, leaving behind a story written on the earth.