Thursday, February 16, 2017


Am I child of the mountains? Especially because my "Sacred Mountains" class follows in the footsteps of a course taught by a Sherpa, I've been acutely aware of my distance from mountains. I tell people - and have been telling myself - that mountains are for me things that you need to go out of your way to encounter or even see. I grew up facing the ocean, I say, sometimes adding that there are two islands one can very occasionally see bobbing on the horizon from the place I grew up, the mountain "hierophanies" of my youth - and to the strains of "Bali Ha'i." Since learning about Evans- Wentz' California Kailash I sometimes add that there was perhaps a sacred mountain behind my back, as it were, as I gazed out to sea. Maybe it was radiating mountain mana?

But this is all not quite true. While certainly not a mountain child, they have been part of my life from the start. I was born in Switzerland, after all, and one of the first trips my parents took me on was to meet favorite relations who live in the Wallis/Valais, the Alpine valley where the Rhône begins. We returned to that valley many times for hikes, some overlooking the magnificent, now shrinking, Aletschgletscher. Adalbert Stifter still moves me to tears. Once we moved to California, the Sierras were regular destinations, both for hiking and skiing. At fourteen I even made it to the top of Mt. Whitney, highest peak of the contiguous US. At later points in my life, I've been (part way) up Mount Fuji several times, circumambulated Uluru and, of course, twice circumambulated Kailash. I spent a few weeks in Flims and Interlaken not long ago. Mont Blanc, Kangchenjunga and Annapurna revealed themselves to me. In China I got to Wutai, Hengshan and Laoshan. And did you know that New York City itself sits atop an ancient mountain range, ground down by the ages?

Still, I had to go all those places. I was never living in the mountains, in the not insignificant part of the world where everything is mountain, so the language of mountain is too broad. I never had the experience one of my students says her mother grew up with in Colombia, where "mountains and people weren't separate" even in thought, and every day began with checking the mood of the mountain. From the flatlander perspective I've too quickly assumed, mountains are exceptions, jutting from - breaking hierophanically through! - a presumably flat world. They're paradigmatically solitary. It even makes sense to think of them as having come from above, from the sky, from outer space. It's easy to think that mountains fly, walk, go over water, flow. My favorite mountain line, from Elisée Reclus

A l’esprit qui contemple la montagne pendant la durée des âges, elle apparait flottante, aussi incertaine que l’onde de la mer chassée par la tempète: c’est un flot, une vapeur; quand elle aura disparu, ce ne sera plus qu’un rève. 
 Histoire d’une montagne (1875-6)

imagines the world as a surface ruffled - fleetingly - by mountains. They only seem solid if you take the human view of them, but the whole point of mountains is to challenge us to transcend that limited view!

These thoughts are coalescing now because I've asked students to write a paper about studying mountains from a distance, and we've started wrestling with the variously mystifying and clarifying accounts of sacred mountains of Edwin Bernbaum and Veronica della Dora. But it's also because I got together this afternoon with my old friend L, one of the most spiritually open people I know, and she asked me not if I was qualified to be teaching a course on sacred mountains, but rather how mountains had prepared me for this task. Do I, perhaps, protest too much? The first part of the course has been all about phenomenology, which I've described as helping us becoming cognizant of experiences we're already having without fully realizing it. Talking to L, I suddenly felt that there's been a cloud of mountain witnesses attending me all my life, content to let me think they were at my beck and call. Not a mountain child, no. But not just a beach bum either. The time of mountains is one I've sensed...

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