"In East Asia, 'mountains' are often synonymous with wilderness," writes American poet and mythographer Gary Snyder. "The agrarian states have long since drained, irrigated, and terraced the lowlands. Forests and wild habitats start at the very place that farming stops. The lowlands, with their villages, markets, cities, palaces, and wineshops, are thought of as the place of greed, lust, competition, commerce, and intoxication -- the 'dusty world.' Those who would flee such a world and seek purity find caves or build hermitages in the hills -- and take up the practices which will bring realization or at least a long healthy life. These hermitages in time become the centers of temple complexes and ultimately religious sects. Dōgen says:
" 'Many rulers have visited mountains to pay homage to wise people or ask for instructions from great sages....At such time these rulers treat the sages as teachers, disregarding the protocol of the usual world. The imperial power has no authority over the wise people in the mountains.' "
"So 'mountains' are not only spiritually deepening," Snyder continues, "but also (it is hoped) independent of the control of the central government. Joining the hermits and priests in the hills are people fleeing jail, taxes, or conscription. (Deeper into the ranges of southwest China are the surviving hill tribes who worship dogs and tigers and have much equality between the sexes, but that belongs to another story.) Mountains (or wilderness) have served as a haven of spiritual and political freedom all over.
"Mountains also have mythic associations of verticality, spirit, height, transcendence, hardness, resistance, and masculinity. For the Chinese they are exemplars of the 'yang': dry, hard, male, and bright. Waters are feminine: wet, soft, dark 'yin' with associations of fluid-but-strong, seeking (and carving) the lowest, soulful, life-giving, shape-shifting. Folk (and Vajrayana) Buddhist iconography personifies 'mountains and waters' in the rupas -- 'images of Fudo Myo-o (Immovable Wisdom King) and Kannon Bosatsu (The Bodhisattva Who Watches the Waves)."
"Fudo is almost comically ferocious-looking," says Snyder, "with a blind eye and a fang, seated or standing on a slab of rock and enveloped in flames. He is known as an ally of mountain ascetics. Kannon (Kuan-yin, Avalokitesvara) gracefully leans forward with her lotus and vase of water, a figure of compassion. The two are seen as buddha-work partners: ascetic disciplin and relentless spirituality balanced by compassionate tolerance and detached forgiveness. Mountains and Waters are a dyad that together make wholeness possible: wisdom and compassion are the two components of realization."
"Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West," reflects English naturalist Robert Macfarlane. "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.”
French poet (and ardent mountain climber) René Daumal noted that you cannot stay on a mountain summit forever; you have to come down again. "So why bother in the first place?" he asked. "Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know."
Mountains are the homes of the gods, the winds, and a wide variety of nature spirits both malevolent and benign in many mythic traditions: fairies haunt isolated mountain peaks in numerous stories from Scotland and Wales, for example, and the mountains of northern Europe are riddled with tunnels and caves belong to trolls and dwarves (the latter being experts in mining and metal-work). In hero myths the world over, a journey to the mountains is one of great trials and terrors that lead, if one is steadfast, to personal or spiritual transformation...a journey that is echoed in modern fantasy tales from Lost Horizons to The Lord of the Rings.
Fairies, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.
- William Butler Yeats (from his play Land of Heart's Desire)
Those of us who live beneath this cold mountain
have heard its voice in our dreams
lift us out of warm rooms and soft beds, up
onto it shoulders where we are light as leaves.
"The root word in 'religion' means 'to bind,' writes naturalist Gretel Ehrlich, based in the vast mountain landscape of Wyoming. "It is no mere co-incidence that our feelings about a place take on spiritual dimensions. An old rancher told me once that he thought the lines in his hand had come directly from the earth, that the land had carved them there after so many years of work. We are bound to place. The Japanese poet and priest Ikkyu referred to any passionate connection as 'red threads.' Perhaps it is red thread that holds me here in Wyoming.
"The ways in which we come to know a landscape are preliterate. 'A sense of place' implies a sensory knowledge. It mounts up in our minds: empires of smells and sounds, textures and sights held fast by memory, flooding back again and again in such urgent, pungent ways as to let us re-enter those places. A river slits its neck for us; the eerie sound a sandhill crane makes comes into our throat as song; in the mountain fastness of granite cracks, a pine tree grows; and we humans dive backward and forward in time, beginning seventy million years ago, when mountains came into being. We rise with the landforms. We feel the upper altitudes of thin air, sharp stings of snow and ultraviolet on our flesh....
"All during our lives, in any and every place we live or visit, the sacramental landscape unrolls before us. It is our text. It is public and private, social and wild, political and aesthetic. To see -- that is, to discover -- is not an act of interpretation, of transfixing with preconceived ideas what is before us; rather, it is an act of surrender."
Let's end today with words from the great John Muir (1838-1914), one of America's earliest advocates for the protection of wilderness:
"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people," he said, "are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.”
Over one hundred years later, this is truer than ever.
The mountainous art above comes from China, and from just down the road here in Devon: "Three Visits to the Thatched Cottage" by Dai Jin/Tai Chin (1388-1462), "Poet on a Mountaintop" by Shen Zhou (1427-1509), "Lofty Mount Lu" by Shen Zho, five paintings and one drawing for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by Alan Lee, and "Friends and Spring Mountain" by Tang Yin (1470-1523).
The passage by Gary Snyder comes from his brilliant book of essays, The Practice of the Wild, highly recommended. Robert Macfarlane is quoted from Mountains of the Mind -- but if you haven't read him before, I recommend starting with The Wild Places and The Old Ways. The quote by René Daumal comes from his unfinished novel Mt. Analogue. "The Mountain," by Canadian poet Amy Barratt, was published in The Antigonish Review, Autumn 1994 issue. The Gretel Ehrlich quote comes from "Landscape, " an essay published in The Legancy of Light, edited by Constance Sullivan. Ehrlich's own books, such as The Solace of Open Spaces and In the Empire of Ice, are all very fine.