Monday, January 09, 2017

Pictures of flame

Early in my class on sacred mountains, we'll look at this caveat:

I have a low opinion of books; they are but piles of stones set up to show coming travelers where other minds have been, or at best signal smokes to call attention. … No amount of word-making will ever make a single soul to know these mountains. As well seek to warm the naked and frost-bitten by lectures on caloric and pictures of flame. One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books.    

Mountains need to be experienced! What can we hope to accomplish, piling up books in a classroom in Manhattan? It's a legitimate concern, and best owned at the outset. But the project of the class - a little different from that of John Muir, who wrote those words in his first year in Yosemite - is not thereby doomed. Our subject is sacred mountains (easily conflated, from this distance, with "the sacredness of mountains") and I'll be suggesting that most of those are experienced in different ways. Inaccessibility is built into many of them, and even if you could set foot there, truly encountering them is not guaranteed.

But the classroom isn't a temple either, or a cell for the tortured ascent of Mount Carmel. So Muir's worry is a real one: that imagined mountains, mountains constructed of words and fantasies, can blind us to the actual wonder of actual mountains. But even here all is not lost. Those cairns of books are more than piles of stumbling blocks. Have a look at another passage by Muir, from the same set of notes:

What wonders lie in every mountain day!
Crystals of snow, plash of small raindrops, hum of small insets, booming beetles, the jolly rattle of grasshoppers, chirping crickets, the screaming of hawks, jays, and Clark crows, the coo-r-r-r of cranes, the honking of geese, partridges drumming, trumpeting swans, frogs croaking, the whirring rattle of snakes, the awful enthusiasm of booming falls, the roar of cataracts, the crash and roll of thunder, earthquake shocks, the whisper of rills soothing to slumber, the piping of marmots, the bark of squirrels, the laugh of a wolf, the snorting of deer, the explosive roaring of bears, the squeak of mice, the cry of the loon, loneliest, wildest of sounds. 

Muir was a wonderful writer, and, through his words, the voices of the mountain are audible - voices I wouldn't know to hear myself - just as its colors glow through the words (and the eyes) of Ruskin. We won't be able to breathe mountain air, feel the climb in our legs and lungs, savor danger and shade and light, sense vistas furl and unfurl behind and around and beyond us, as flowers twinkle and stones crumble and tumble below... But, with Muir's caveat in hand, we might just be OK.

“Mountain Thoughts,” in Sacred Summits: John Muir’s Greatest Climbs,
ed. Graham White (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1999), 82-83, 80-81

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