With Connecticut’s spectacular foliage season just peaking, it is an appropriate time for all Nutmeggers to take some time to appreciate New Haven’s East Rock and West Rock.
The iconicity of New Haven is typically associated with its manmade treasures: the row of three churches on the Green, the Green itself, downtown’s nine-square street grid, the skyline of the city, its world-famous pizza.
But one of the most conspicuous features of New Haven has always been the sense in which the city is crouched among the looming magnificence of its symmetrical pair of trap rock cliffs. A glimpse of New Haven nestled in the valley between East Rock and West Rock satisfies some storybook aesthetic of how a city should situate itself within a landscape.
The overhanging presence of East and West Rocks suggests a sense of unity between the city and its setting. Not only do many of the city’s most prominent buildings echo the “purple chocolate” color of the cliffs, but the cliffs themselves evince the kind of linear verticality characteristic of human architecture. Even the symmetrical two-ness of the two “rocks” seems to have been as deliberately planned-out as New Haven’s orthogonal downtown streets.
The ubiquitous appearance of East Rock and West Rock from almost every part of New Haven is a daily part of life in the city, so common that it is generally taken for granted. But what a profound impact it has, even if on a subconscious level, to come around a street corner or out a doorway and to glimpse one of these massive sentinels glowing in the sunlight. The urban temporality of the street suddenly becomes dwarfed and relativized by its contrast with the time-scale of these cliffs, an uncanny clash of ontological registers reminiscent of the worldview of the first Puritan settlers, who always lived their daily lives under the all-consuming over-presence of an inscrutable cosmic God.
Moreover, the cliffs themselves change their mood from day to day and even from hour to hour. The iron in the diabase tints them with a rusty hue that mutates in dynamic conjunction with the angle and intensity of the sunlight. In broad daylight, the vertical curtains of rock do not limit their palette to purple chocolate; they ripple with shades of bronze, ochre, lavender, salmon, vermillion, cinnamon, and chestnut, the shadows amid the crevices striping them with periwinkle and magenta. During sunrise and sunset, however, the fusion of the russet cliffs and the sunlight seems to ignite the rockface with luminous energies, causing the cliffs to fluoresce with an orangey-gold radiance that bathes New Haven in an otherworldly glow. After the sun goes down, the cliffs still vibrate with the radiance of the day, as if they had absorbed and retained the light, filling their gathering shadows with discrepant tinctures. And of course, the exact array of colors that West Rock and East Rock express at any given hour is always inflected by the weather, the time of year, the phase of the moon, the amount of smog rising from the highways, and, most importantly, the psychological disposition of the person looking.
For all of their height and massiveness, East Rock and West Rock are not so enormous that they escape the human scale. They are large enough to be sublime, but also accessible enough to be intimate. Like New Haven itself, East Rock and West Rock are eminently walkable. This strange intermingling of grandeur and familiarity likely contributes to the personal connection that New Havenites tend to feel for this pair of rocky outcroppings. They are steady friends, watching over the comings and goings of our daily lives, while also connecting our lives to the lives of all of the other people who live, have lived, and will live under the spell of their majestic presence.
East Rock and West Rock are not only remarkable things to look at; they also serve as places to look from – as vantage points that allow anyone to view New Haven in a single sweeping vista. Whether seen from the top of East Rock, with its close-up view of downtown, or from the top of West Rock, which provides a broader overview of the city’s position within the wider landscape, New Haven appears as a coherent unit. Such an aerial view may obscure the human-scale conflicts and divisions that represent an important part of New Haven’s identity, but it also suggests the possibility that New Haven could really become the unified hub of human cohabitation that it resembles from these summits.
In a state rich with hiking trails and foliage-watching opportunities, East Rock and West Rock offer unique rewards for explorers, wanderers, and nature-lovers, especially at this time of year.