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Rock stars

I first made it to the top of East Rock on orders from Vincent Scully ’40, ’49PhD. I was a sophomore taking Scully's Modern Architecture class, and all two or three hundred of us had been assigned to climb to the top of East Rock and sketch the panoramic view of New Haven from its summit. The ostensible reason for the assignment was to try to glean something about patterns of twentieth-century urbanism, but I suspect that Scully—a New Haven native—really wanted to make sure that we traveled at least that far from campus during our four years at Yale, and that we had a good look at the city that surrounded us.

East Rock has loomed ever larger in my life since then, as the neighborhood beneath it has been my home for most of the last 25 years. My children and I have hiked, kayaked, snowshoed, and played on the rock or in its shadow, and I've seen its red cliffs obscured by fog, covered in snow, and painted in more subtle shades of sunlight than you can imagine.

So when the book New Haven's Sentinels: The Art and Science of East Rock and West Rock arrived in my in-box, it was as if Christmas had come early. (Did I forget to mention West Rock? It's pretty great, too.) Based on an exhibition at the New Haven Museum last year, the book is an unusual combination of art history and geology. It features beautiful views of the great rocks (and views from them) by Hudson River school painter Frederick Church, impressionist Childe Hassam, Yale School of Art dean John Ferguson Weir, and many others. Amid all this are chapters explaining the geology of the traprock cliffs, a fact that is less surprising when you know that the book was cowritten by a Wesleyan University geology professor, Jelle Zeilinga de Boer. (The other coauthor is John Wareham, a photographer and video production coordinator at Wesleyan.) There's even a chapter devoted to West Rock's Judges Cave, the "glacial erratic" rock formation where two of the men who signed King Charles I's death warrant hid from English officers after the Restoration.

As Zeilinga de Boer and Wareham point out in their introduction, writers and poets have also found inspiration in the "sentinels" (a term poet Lydia Sigourney used in an 1844 poem, "Moonlight at Sachem's Wood)." Poet William Thompson Bacon looked for security in the wall-like cliffs, wishing that "the circuit of these hills—might shut me in forever." But I prefer the nearly opposite interpretation of author Mary Field, who wrote in 1852 that the rocks "look like the sides of some huge portal thrown open in welcome to the traveler." That's a heck of a welcoming committee.

Filed under East Rock, West Rock
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