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Editorial: Memories of the Old Man

It’s fairly certain that people of European descent — groups of surveyors working in the White Mountains — first noticed the formation of rocks in Franconia Notch that bore an uncanny resemblance to the profile of a man with a noticeably prominent forehead and chin in 1805. The date that the Old Man of the Mountain disappeared is more precisely known: It was 10 years ago, May 3, 2003, when the formation finally yielded to age and gravity and slid down the cliff, much to the dismay of the many who looked forward to showing New Hampshire’s unofficial symbol to future generations.

But how long had that natural sculpture existed before its discovery by whites in the early 19th century? Had it been around for centuries, living most of its life in anonymity, and we were just fortunate enough to become acquainted with it during its very old age? Or did its discovery come nearer to its birth, meaning it lived a relatively short but celebrated life?

However long it was, its lifespan was unnaturally extended through extraordinary human measures. The intervention began in the 1920s, and the weatherproofing, chains, tie rods and tons of cement the effort involved amounted to a form of life support that finally succumbed to natural forces.

But even then, there was talk of extending its life by creating a replica. An official task force had the good sense to abandon that plan, but a committee did launch a campaign to raise $5 million to properly memorialize the formation. In 2011, the committee opened a viewing platform along Profile Lake that uses steel rods to direct viewers’ gaze toward the place where the profile once hung from the cliff. The more ambitious phase of the planned memorial involved the arrangement of five granite pieces that “when viewed in sequence from a raised platform ... appear to merge into one form, evoking the outline of the rock profile,” according to one description.

No matter how many times we read that, we can’t quite grasp exactly how it would have worked. But it doesn’t really matter: The committee announced last week that the fundraising wasn’t going well, and it was abandoning the effort. Money wasn’t the only impediment: The group discovered that the only way it could acquire a big enough hunk of granite to execute its vision was by buying it from a Vermont quarry, which would have constituted a face-losing experience of a very different sort for the Granite State.

“Basically, what we have there now, we’re going to finish up, polish up, add some benches and some signage and then go away,” said Dick Hamilton, a member of the nonprofit group that had undertaken the project.

We applaud that decision, but not because we don’t share its fondness for the Old Man. As a symbol of New Hampshire, we put the famous granite profile right up there with loons, lakes, the White Mountains and cranky individualism as assets that state can feel truly proud of (as opposed, to say, cheap liquor and legislative quacks). But it requires a certain amount of honesty and even courage for a goal-oriented group to recognize that its goal is not attainable before the situation becomes glaringly obvious to everyone else. Too few do.

Moreover, it was the right decision. The Old Man was a very cool curiosity, but a multimillion-dollar memorial would have been too much. Ten years after the Old Man disappeared, its admirers should come to grips with the fact that it’s gone, and it’s not coming back. Any attempt to recreate it would have produced something that likely would have fallen between ridiculous and pathetic. Not to get maudlin, but we do have photographs and memories.

And we can be grateful for the Old Man’s departing lesson: All things have a finite lifespan, even those made of granite. When they leave, those left behind need to let them go.