The Steep Climb
In her book “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Austen asks: “What are men to rocks and mountains?” It is a question we would do well to ask ourselves about everything we see. What is our relationship to our world? How are we affecting it? At this point, some are probably thinking about ecological concerns, the use of natural resources, etc. Those are valid concerns and definitely things we should consider and conserve. However, what about that endangered species known as the man or woman who lives a peace-causing life – not a peaceful life but a peace-causing life?
Life is hard and nature exists not only to give us that life but to help us live it. Life is a gift; it is beautiful; it is self-creating. It is also messy. It is confusing. It is wrought with twists and turns and potential pitfalls. Our worst enemy is not someone else but ourselves. The very things that make humans unique can also make them monsters. Getting through the twenty-four hours of a day can be a very twisted path at times.
Perhaps that is why mankind has found solace along the bumps of the road of life in the bumps on the landscape of our being. Mountains have been sources of reverence and solace for every culture. John Muir wrote: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
Mountains stand out and proclaim their uniqueness. As religions began to speak of an eternal resting place in the heavens, the symbolism of a mountain stretching upward could not be ignored. Some believed that the vertical axis of a mountain, drawn from its tops to its base, connected it to the earth’s axis. Both Mount Tabor and Mount Meru were thought by the Jews and Hindus, respectively, to be the center of the earth. The ancient Greeks believed their god Zeus was born and raised on a mountain. There were over one hundred mountain cults dedicated to him. The Tibetan mountain Mount Kailas is a site revered by Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains. Located by the Ganges River, it serves the Buddhists as a place of pilgrimage, a natural Mandela (a sacred reverence we will discuss later in this series).
Shintoists in Japan believe Mount Fuji or Fugiyama to be sacred. Originally the sacred mountain of the Ainu, the aboriginal peoples of Japan, it was named after the Buddhist fire goddess Fuchi. China has nine sacred mountains with four being of importance to the Buddhist faith and five to Taoists. The Tao belief holds that mountains are a way for people to communicate with the “immortals”. These mountains of China are said to be strong in telluric power, also known as geomancy in feng shui. Tellueric power refers to a current known as the dragon current which is believed to run through the earth. This dragon current consists of the yin or female and the yang or male. It is believed that mountains embody the yang force.
Vera Nazarian once said: “If you are faced with a mountain, you have several options. You can climb it and cross to the other side. You can go around it. You can dig under it. You can fly over it. You can blow it up. You can ignore it and pretend it’s not there. You can turn around and go back the way you came. Or you can stay on the mountain and make it your home.” The Incas made attempts to do most of these things with the mountains of their native lands. Their villages were built in and on the mountains and their worship was all about the mountains. Their sacrifices were at the top of the mountains and so was the final resting place of their dead.
Nazarian could have been discussing the process of living and the daily hurdles we encounter. We have, in our lives, several ways of confronting life. We can stay the course and climb over the hurdles we encounter. We can detour around the difficulties in our path. We can also work through our problems, digging to the root of them to prevent them from reoccurring. We can also take what is called the “high road” of behavior and respond with maturity, kindness, and the knowledge that we are only truly able to control ourselves and should stop trying to live other people’s lives for them. There is always the option of giving up, of returning to whatever place and state you originally came from because the going seemed too rough. Finally we can accept our place and be comfortable where we are as we are with who we are.
“Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West,” believed Robert McFarlane in his book “Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit”. While I might add that his beliefs in their importance to modern man was reflected in the culture of ancient man, I think he is right in telling of how mountains are gaining recognition for our modern-day world. “More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. At bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans. Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.”
While McFarlane sees the rational place of mountains, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu wrote of their place in our imaginations: “There is no such sense of solitude as that which we experience upon the silent and vast elevations of great mountains. Lifted high above the level of human sounds and habitations, among the wild expanses and colossal features of Nature, we are thrilled in our loneliness with a strange fear and elation – an ascent above the reach of life’s expectations or companionship, and the tremblings of wild and undefined misgivings.”
We need the modesty that mountains give us. We need the reminder that we are not all life is about but that we are just a small piece of a much larger picture. We also need the silence of the mountains and their uncertain landscape. Life has its own landscape and the topography of our lies changes with time, growth, and encounters with others. We find comfort in the steadfastness of mountains, in their strength to withstand the elements. Mountains remind us of who we are – mere mortals. They are living laboratories of life and testaments of nature’s cycles. Perhaps one day we will recognize that we too have that power and we also can either be a temple of solace and peace, encouraging growth, or we can be mere real estate that holds dead dreams. The choice is up to us. We can merely exist or we can stand tall and brave the living.