part of the mountain's wholeness"
-- Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
|Standing on rock, swallowed by sky (edge of Alqonquin peeking through, hinting at another, more solid world)|
|Air somewhat duller, mountains bluer, at the height of the eclipse|
My final day was much more typical, but no less spectacular -- wind, mist, brief glimpses of sunglow, and long stretches of solitude. The first hikers didn't arrive until mid-morning. I was huddling behind a boulder, trying to stay out of the damp mist that was racing by on 40 mph winds, when a boisterous college orientation group emerged out of the opaque greyness, surprised and delighted to find themselves on Algonquin. (They'd been aiming for Iroquois, the neighboring peak.) They took photos, ate snacks, and watched one of the leader's glacial geomorphology interpretive dance before disappearing back into the mist and wind, hopefully to find the proper trail. I relocated to a spot on the leeward side of the summit. After a few hours spent squinting into the swirling vapor, watching deers hair sedge ripple, celebrating occasional moments of sunglow, and trying to self-ration my supply of m&ms, five more hikers showed up. I spoke (or rather, shouted over the roar of wind) with them, sharing weather forecasts, issuing trail closure alerts, and pointing out some of our more unique Alpine plant species for one interested and enthusiastic individual. As they left, a father and two sons arrived and immediately settled into a patch of vegetation below the summit outcrop. When I explained how unique and vulnerable the plants were and asked the group to please relocate to a solid rock surface, pointing out a few options that were out of the wind, they begrudgingly complied, but continued to tromple all over the plants in the process. Later, as they passed by me on the start of their descent, the father deliberately stepped outside the stone path to walk on the vegetation. I want to believe it was out of ignorance or inattentiveness, not malice, but his intent matters little to the squished sandwort, flattened deers hair, and broken-stalked Bigelows sedge.
|Lonely summit. Lonely, that is, but for the boulders, the sedges, the wind, and the mist.|
Once again, those old questions, the ones that I've been marveling at, chewing on, ruminating about, and sometimes fuming over throughout the season and for many years beforehand: Why do people climb mountains? Why go to any wild place? What is it we seek there, what is it we find? Is it -- whatever it is we seek, whatever it is we find -- worth the impact we have? The biogeophysical damage, the social, psychological, and/or spiritual intrusion -- do we learn something about ourselves or the world that overrides, outranks, forgives, and/or heals the wounds we leave on the wilderness?
Old questions, rustling, flaring, wholly unanswerable.
|Cloud-dragons writhing over Wright Peak|
Or, so I thought, unanswerable. Then I finally read Nan Shepherd's short but rich, whole book, The Living Mountain. Before finishing the first paragraph, I realized that she knew. Shepherd understood. During her lifetime of wandering around Northeast Scotland's Cairngorm Mountains, which British writer and fellow mountain-wanderer Robert Macfarlane describes as a "low-slung wilderness of whale-backed hills and shattered cliffs", the novelist and poet found what it is I seek: Beauty, Mystery, Awe, Adventure, and some mist-shrouded, rain-drenched, rock-solid edge of Truth.
Best of all, she knew that "one never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it." Though substantial and well-earned, all of her observations, her memories, her knowledge, and her love were weak, small, and fleetingly human, incomparable to "the mountain itself, its substance, its strength, its structure, its weathers."
|Algonquin, rising above Wright Peak|
The mountain. In The Living Mountain, which she completed in the 1940s but didn't publish until 1977, Shepherd begins not with geography or history, personal or intellectual, but with The Plateau, its "essential nature". The Plateau, then the Recesses, the Group ("peaks piled on peaks"), Water, Frost and Snow, Air and Light, Plants, and Animals, only arriving at Man (classified as merely a subset under "Life") in the ninth chapter, three-quarters of the way through. Man's desires, joys, losses, and loneliness are part of -- but only a part of -- the landscape.
From there, Shepherd builds to meditations on Sleep, Senses, and, ultimately, Being. That's what she discovered, what she shares; in describing the Cairngorms, she illuminates the process of learning "most nearly what it is to be," how she "walked out of the body and into the mountain."
Along the way, she learned that water has strength and that "the air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and its soil." Realizing that "the mountain gives itself most completely when [she had] no destination, when [she reached] nowhere in particular, but [went] out merely to be with the mountain," she found herself constantly "out on the plateau again," walking into the lakes, feeling the clouds, watching the birds and studying the saxifrage. Speaking with the people, feeling companionship with those "whose identity is for the time being merged in that of the mountain." Her excursions weren't about conquering, taming, or scratching resources or riches out of the wilderness, nor were they for glory or esteem. Although her words are filled with admiration and adulation, she didn't seem to have any clear purpose in writing -- to celebrate the mountains, yes, but not to convince others that "this is the most beautiful place on earth" (as did Ed Abbey) and definitely not to encourage people to come visit. (In the introduction, she bemoans "the very heather tatty from the scrape of boots (too many boots, too much commotion...")). (("...but then"), she continues, ("how much uplift for how many hearts.")) She simply shares her experiences, her observations, her process of discovery. Discovery not of herself or the mountain, but of herself-in-the-mountain, how to become a living part of a wild place.
Stormy days on the summits start out uncomfortably, then become boring. I do trailwork for a while, but usually need to tuck in under my poncho. Rain pattering, wind flapping, air cooling, I can't read or sketch. Sing to myself for a while. Shiver. Settle in to watch. Walls of mist. A junco here, a sparrow there, I lose track of time. Lose sense of place. Lose idea of self.
"[A]t first," Shepherd admitted, "I was seeking only sensuous gratification -- the sensation of height, the sensation of movement, the sensation of speed, the sensation of distance, the sensation of effort, the sensation of ease: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life. I was not interested in the mountain for itself, but for its effect on me."
"But as I grew older," she continued, "...I began to discover the mountain in itself... [A]s I penetrate more deeply into the mountain's life, I penetrate also into my own." She knew, she understood. How well she understood -- why climb mountains, why go to any wild place.
|Sun breaking through, briefly illuminating a world of rock, sky, sedges, ravens, and one awe-struck summit steward|