“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…” John Muir

Chan: a mountain is a mountain. A mountain is not a mountain, a mountain is a mountain.

What can this possibly mean?


As a young child, I loved the hymn, ‘I lift mine eyes unto the hills from whence shall come mine aid’. Makes sense, when you are brought up in the hills and mountains. There is a sense of deep serenity about being able to view things from above. John Muir’s right. Yet the more people who go to the mountains, the less wild they become. Everest is festooned with western shit, and the western habit of using paper to wipe it away is left in fluttering evidence on bushes and in streams. Shit is unpleasant but it is unlikely to cause serious problems (unless it carries pathogens as, unfortunately, it sometimes does), and much more detrimental is the effect of discarded non-biodegradable waste, like plastics. Their impact won’t be washed away by the next monsoon and what the snows cover in the winter will be laid bare in spring, ingested by the curious young of deer or wolf, eagle or gull. Accumulated plastics give a sensation of fullness in the belly and yet, obviously, they provide no nutrition.

There is a dreadful sense of deja vue as I write these words, knowing that my father was writing about plastics and their impact in the seventies and eighties. Yet perhaps that gives me even greater motivation: we must create a critical mass so that discussion of this and other matters like it becomes the foreground and we effect and avalanche of change. Mountains will outlive us all. A mountain, though, will become the sea, or desert, a valley, in the longer shifts that will see the extinction of our own species. A mountain is not a mountain. A mountain is a part of the dynamic.

The dynamic includes mountains shifting, erupting (as Etna did today!). A mountain is constituent. It is not a mountain. It is rock, and rock is not rock, it is sediment of animals, or compressed sand, or boiled inner Earthcrust, exuded. It is space, vibrating energy, forces attracted and repelled, waves and particles interchanging without observation. Think like a mountain, says Wendell Berry, galvanising voices against mountain top removal. What is it to have your head chopped off, to be reduced to rubble, to be denuded? A mountain is also the soft grey shift between animate and inanimate, supporting the filtration of water so that valleys have lakes and rivers upon which life depends, creating conditions for cloudbursts, driving the cycles of weather systems, stratifying life by altitudinal adaptation, creating conditions for that adaptation, responding to the changes that life, including human life, causes. Fracking has moved mountains and caused mountains spontaneously to shudder and erupt.

Mountains are not the solid concrete edges blocking the horizon. They are as fluid as the sea. As unpredictable. Mountains are, in the mind, the ultimate destination for those who seek to pit their sense of self, their capacity for suffering and endurance, against the rock solid barriers to the view from the top.

Tadasana, the mountain pose, is the simplest standing pose in yoga: stand up and you are doing it. You never think, if you have two more or less even legs, how hard it was to learn to stand, how often you fell over and even in the cushioning fat (if you were lucky) of babyhood, you never think of how much it hurt to fall, and fall, and fall again. Yet here you are, two legged, balanced on two limbs, standing impossibly tall for a monkey, in tadasana (which already sounds like a trumpet fanfare). A mountain is not a mountain. You are a mountain. Steady but always readjusting. Just as walking is a controlled falling, so standing is a balance. Mountains are balanced. They are as impermanent as you and I.


One thought on ““Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…” John Muir

  1. Wow, great post. People climb and hike mountains looking for themselves, isn’t it funny! They are beautiful and majestic things, totally alive. Your really vivid descriptions transported me 🙂

    Thanks for sharing, all the best!


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