Saturday, May 28, 2011
The call of the mountain
There's a mountain behind my home. It's not particularly big or beautiful, as far as mountains go. But it forms a pretty backdrop against the crowded tangle of apartment buildings, utility poles and power lines in my north-eastern Kyoto neighbourhood.
From a distance, the mountain's cedar-covered flanks appear smooth and symmetrical, rising up to meet each other in the shape of a slightly lopsided volcano. At almost 900 metres tall, the mountain stands high above the rolling hills that form a coiled border around the ancient capital's edges.
I am magnetically drawn to the mountain, my eyes pulled toward it by some uncontrollable force. Maybe it's because the mountain is a paradox: always the same and constantly changing. It is electric green and sharp in the morning. It is purplish and soft in the evening. It hides under layers of fog in the rain. It hibernates in the winter and bursts with life in the summer.
But it's not enough to just look at a mountain. You need to climb it. To breathe its forest-filtered air. To hear its birds sing overhead. To sink into its mud underfoot. To reach its summit and to see nothing but mountains beyond mountains all the way to the horizon.
The reward for all that effort is not to feel as though you have conquered the thing but to feel humbled by it -- to surrender yourself to the realization that you are nothing more than an insignificant speck on a tiny planet in a vast universe whose mysteries we know very little about. But to also feel, with unwavering certainty, that we are connected to everything and everyone. This is the gift the mountain gives us.
Mountaineer and philosopher Arne Naess calls the view from the top of a mountain "philosophically important." He says the smaller you are in relation to the mountain, the more intensely you feel that you are part of it. "You get greater. You get on par with it. You get to feel good with it. So, the tinier you are, the more in some sense you are together with something great and, therefore, get something of this greatness" (from The Call of the Mountain).
This feeling of greatness, of feeling an intense oneness with nature, is what drives me to climb the mountain behind my home. I suppose it's the same feeling that has been driving people into mountains for centuries. My mountain, Mount Hiei, has long been considered the home of demons and gods. It has been the subject of poems and books. It has sheltered warrior monks and inspired marathon monks -- monks who run the steep mountain trails for seven years straight in search of spiritual enlightenment.
Many scientists have studied this human connection to nature but few have explained its importance as eloquently as biologist E.O. Wilson: "Wilderness settles peace on the soul because it needs no help; it is beyond human contrivance" (from The Diversity of Life). He argues there is a human need to have a deep connection with the natural world. It's a hypothesis that feels intuitively true. It also feels increasingly important as our urbanized, globalized and industrialized world continues to view nature as something to tame, conquer and exploit in the name of unlimited economic growth.
Somewhere along the way we deluded ourselves into thinking of nature as something disconnected from us. But nothing could be further from the truth. We are nature. We are the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink.
"We did not arrive on this planet as aliens," writes Wilson. "Humanity is a part of nature, a species that evolved among other species."
Being in the mountains reminds us of that irrefutable truth.
The less we identify with nature, the more quickly we will allow the crowded tangle of apartment buildings, utility poles and power lines to creep up and swallow the mountain whole.