thousands of clouds, a man all idleness
wanders blue mountains all day long,
returns at night to sleep below cliffs.
In the whirl of springs and autumns,
to inhabit this calm, no tangles of dust:
it's sheer joy depending on nothing,
still as an autumn river's quiet water.
--Han Shan (Cold Mountain)
translated by David Hinton
On October 16, 2013, I "walked" up Mount Lafayette (5260 feet) in New Hampshire via Little Haystack (4760 feet) and Mount Lincoln (5089 feet) along the Franconia Ridge. I reached the ridge by ascending up the Falling Waters Trail. The descent took me down the Greenleaf Trail to the Old Bridle Path (Thoreau's way up). It was a nearly 9 mile loop through mist, clouds, bright sun, and wind. It was an arduous hike; steep ascents on slick rock and crossing Falls Brook several times on the way up. While Mount Katahdin was a strenuous climb and the mountain's being, bearing, and views were spectacular, my time with Mount Lafayette and its companion peaks has proved, so far, to be my most aesthetically stimulating and spiritually moving experience.
For all that this project will eventually result in artworks, this hike is the first in which I actually thought about art. From the outset, as mist rose off the cascading Falls Brook into the tree tops diminishing visibility to about 25 yards, I felt that I was walking through a Sung (or Yuan or Tang or...) Dynasty landscape painting.
I have often felt kinship with the "mountains and waters" painters and poets and the aesthetics that underpin their work. Taoism and later Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism very often informs their choices both formally and in terms of content. In his book Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, David Hinton, outlines the philosophy behind, not only the poems (and, by extension, paintings), but more significantly the lives of the makers. What one finds is no separation between poet/subject and form and content/object. The human is melded with the wild: one cosmology. This point of view elides with my own which despite its ancient roots, I believe, to be intrinsically relevant to today's aesthetic discourse and notions of the marriage of process and content. Hinton writes, "... the importance of the rivers and mountains poetic tradition is not by any means limited to Chinese culture, for it is a poetry suffused with a worldview that is, however foreign (to Western sensibilities), remarkably contemporary and kindred: it is secular, and yet profoundly spiritual; it is thoroughly empirical and basically accords with modern scientific understanding; it is deeply ecological, weaving the human into the "natural world" in the most profound way; and it is radically feminist--a primal cosmology deriving in some sense from Paleolithic spiritual practices centered around a Great Mother who continously gives birth to all things in the unending cycle of life, death, and rebirth." The animating principle of this paradigm is tzu-jan. Again, Hinton, "The literal meaning of tzu-jan is self-ablaze... But a more revealing translation of tzu-jan might be occurrence appearing of itself, for it is meant to describe the ten thousand things (or the stuff of the universe) emerging spontaneously from the generative source, each according to its own nature, independent and self-sufficient, each dying and returning into the process of change, only to reappear in another self-generating form."
From Hsieh Ling-yun (385-433 C.E.)
As for my
homes perched north and south
inaccessible except across water:
gaze deep into wind and cloud
and you know this realm utterly.
And to add a contemporary "voice": Pat Steir
The ascent took me over boulders, roots, and watercourses and often I found myself climbing straight up. I was more tired out (though exhilarated) after only about 3 miles than at any time on any previous hike, including Katahdin. At times there were only the stones in front of me. Great stone upon great stone. Moss and stone. Water and stone. Root and stone.
And then I turned around.
As I approached the tree line I found myself above a cloud forest... like Han Shan:
If you're climbing Cold Mountain Way,
Cold Mountain Road grows inexhaustible:
long canyons opening across fields of talus,
broad creeks tumbling down mists of grass.
Moss is impossibly slick even without rain,
but this far up, pines need no wind to sing.
Who can leave the world's tangles behind
and sit with me among these white clouds.
(...like Georgia O'Keeffe. Her view was from an airplane, but I did think of this painting briefly)
Coming out on Little Haystack I was afforded a view of the Franconia Ridge and the trail leading over Mt. Lincoln to Lafayette. A flock of about a dozen ravens soared up and down the face of the mountain. Great shaggy birds gliding through a curtain of cloud. Clouds were pouring into the valley and onto the peaks sometimes obscuring the trail. But a gust of wind would raise the curtain and reveal views of the surrounding peaks... like Washington and Mount Liberty.
I'd met a few hikers along the way, those going up and coming down. And I was put in mind of how there is always a human presence in those ancient paintings, whether it be a figure, a boat, a hut, pagoda, or temple. We often tend to think of nature in its so-called pristine state as being devoid of human presence, but we occupy this planet and live all over it. It's just that we have lost the way of living lightly upon it. If we can remember that we belong to this place, not vice versa, then perhaps we can re-inhabit it, or rather join with it again... seeing it and being seen by it as mutual embodiments of each other. Or as American poet Gary Snyder wrote in his essay Opening the Mountain, “Nature, not in the abstract, but (like anybody) a kind of being, actually there to respond to being seen in the moment.”
Coming over Mt. Lincoln I came upon the most unusual flora I'd yet to encounter on any hike; a spongy purple moss that I've yet to identify, but believe to be a type of sphagnum or peat moss. The Franconia Ridge is an alpine tundra zone and is home to a variety of flora, including the same phosphorescent green lichen that I found on Katahdin. In fact, all along the trail I encountered mosses growing on everything and fungi aplenty.
I ate lunch on Lafayette peak in the company of ravens, wind, and four lichen coated angular stones that I dubbed the Four Immortals. Hot tea, apples, PB&J.
Mount Lafayette as seen from Mount Lincoln
I made my way down through clouds, cairns, and scree. I looked back a few times at where I'd been and noticed I still carried the feeling I'd had at the outset. It wasn't a grasping or trying to hold on to something intangible, but rather a kind of continuous flow... like falling water, like wind-bourne clouds, like seeing and being seen.