Friday, February 01, 2008


a FRIEND WRITES (well, actually a grandson)
One of the things I love so much about mountains is how much character they have, even though they are just geological formations. It's so strange how we can recognize different mountains just by glancing at them, while it would be much harder to do so for rivers, deserts, plains...
Mountains are events; rivers, deserts, and plains are processes, I think. Of course when you're actually climbing the mountain it's a process: but when you see it from a distance it's an object, an event at most.

Rivers of course are fluid and dynamic; even an apparently quiet one has great force. (Think of Charles Ives's Housatonic at Stockbridge.) Deserts and plains and broad river-valleys, like the one here with Eastside Road at its margin, are processes; they invite our motion as participant; one wants to move within them, to explore or, better, experience. But mountains are ambivalent: to an extent (and an extent that varies from one person to the next!) they invite our active participation; at the same time they warn us of their difficulties and dangers.

I haven't explored (!) the history of mountaineering; it's never been a subject of great interest to me. But my understanding is that it's a relatively recent history, at least within my eurocentric concept of history. It seems to date from about the time of the Enlightenment, when the spirit of scientific exploration, the advent of greater leisure (for some), and the suspension of superstitions (formerly regarding mountains and deserts sinister) coincided.

My own interests have tended more to the ambulation than effort, and at this point I doubt I'd have either the strength or the endurance for true mountaineering. There's not much I like better than walking through a landscape; we've walked hundreds of miles, Lindsey and I, contentedly carrying our necessities on our backs while counting on civilization for beds and meals. Climbing seems to me like an imposition of the self on the terrain, though I'm sure the true climber finds it much more a collaboration than an imposition.

Walking is a way of losing ego and mindfulness. Well, that's not quite right: it's a way of being mindfully mindless, to paraphrase John Cage ("purposeful purposelessness"): walking in Dutch forests or the French garrigue conduces full alertness to the pleasures of the environment while enabling near-total suspension of alertness to the physical process. Climbing introduces a new note, the awareness of effort. Ca grimpe, say the French: That's a climb.

Time to go to the gym and prepare a bit more! And then to add one more book to the pile awaiting reading (or in this case re-reading): Réné Daumal's Mount Analogue.


Daniel Wolf said...

Charles --

Apparently, fear of the mountains has been long-held in European culture, while reverence for Mountains tends to begin to the east -- in the Caucasus and Central Asia. A good contrast is with those southern Californian Indians (the Serrano and Cahuilla, for example), who divided their lives between time spent in the valleys and in the mountains. One result of their taking advantages of the resources of the mountains was that they had little need to establish permanent settlements. Whether this was a cost or a benefit is a question of point of view.

Charles Shere said...

I knew of the European/Eastern divergence on mountains (on that subject, I mean, not on the mountains themselves), but did Eastern reverence include summiting? Or does it rather discourage it? And did the California Indians climb and summit, or did they simply live among the mountains?

rchrd said...

The mountains I revere usually have a cog-wheel train (Jungfrau) or a telepherique (M Blanc) to get you to or near the top.

M Blanc is a place I return to whenever I can. For instance

I like getting above the pollen level. And, looking down to where we came from. The rarefied air lends to reverie, and a lighter step. Something hard to acquire at sea level.