Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mt. Lafayette: The Way of Mountains

Amid ten thousand streams up among
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

 Four Immortals

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.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mt. Greylock: Letting Go of Views

"When you come to the place where you are practice occurs."  -- Dogen

On October 1, 2013 I drove west on Massachusetts State Route 2 to North Adams, MA to hike to the top of Mount Greylock. I descended into the mist-shrouded Hoosic River Valley in North Adams... sun above, clouds below. The river and town were completely blanketed in a flannel-like cloud. I expected visibility to be nearly nil at the trailhead and was not disappointed.

Mount Greylock is the highest peak in Massachusetts at 3491 feet. The trail I chose to follow is aptly named Thoreau's Footsteps as it is partially the route that Thoreau took to the summit. It follows the Bellow's Pipe Trail to the Appalachian Trail South to the summit. On the way down I took the AT North to the Bernard Farm Trail back to my car. This is a 9.6 mile roundtrip hike.

I found much of the early part of the trail to be like the image below... a narrow, soft, leaf strewn path through a forest of mostly green but changing deciduous trees. It was much like the trails I remember hiking in the Cherokee National Forest when I lived in Greeneville, TN (2000-2006). The sun was burning off the fog, but every surface was wet with dew. There were several rills on my right carrying water downward. These did not appear to be creeks or brooks, but rather shallow waterways cut by erosion as water drains off the slope. I encountered robins, blue jays, juncoes, frogs and toads as I made my damp way upward. 

As I proceeded upward on the increasingly steep trail I climbed toward and through autumn in full swing. There were Mountain Ash, with their large, bright red berries, Large-leafed Goldenrod, Yellow Birch, Bartram's Shadbush, with their five-petalled white flowers (mostly gone-by), and Balsam Fir.

This hike, while quite steep in places, did not offer the challenges of, say, Monadnock or Katahdin with their great piles of stone and exposed rock faces in the wind. The passage to the top was ultimately a pleasant walk through the woods where I flushed out a few ruffed grouse and watched, at length, as a chipmunk rooted about in the leaf duff and scurried back and forth to an unseen den with nuts and nuts and nuts.

Emerging from the forest near the summit, I crossed a road (one that motorists may take to the top) and encountered, on my right, a group of motorcyclists, I hesitate to say bikers, in full regalia and, on my left, a phallic tower with what I can only describe as a giant light bulb on top. The tower is a memorial to WWII veterans. On it's side is a plaque describing the mountain. 

The summit was a bit of a disappointment as it was overrun with cars, tourists getting their pictures taken with the Great War penis, and folks filing in and out of Bascom Lodge's restaurant. A bus full of high school-aged students pulled in and they poured out over the summit, cell phones pointed "inward" to get that selfie with the mountain for Facebook. Okay, this is the age we live in, but when "experiences" of nature, especially mountains, seem so packaged, easily accessible, and, ultimately disposable, is it any wonder that our wild places are at risk? 

I ate a lunch of an apple, a pear, and PB&J sandwiches, read a few poems, and headed down the mountain as the cooling sweat dried on my back. I was feeling let down as I crossed the parking lot, but as I reentered the woods, I found that with every step I began to let those feelings go. I realized that I'd come toward the summit with preconceived notions. I knew in advance that there was a road, a tower, and a lodge. The disappointment was with me before I even began the hike. I'd created it in my mind and carried it with me, an extra weight in my pack. That view perverts the essence of the project which is not only based on hiking and mountains, but also on a non-attachment to outcomes. Not only does it pervert the essence of the project, but more importantly it inhibits my perception of reality, to see what is before me as it is as opposed to how I expect it or want it to be. So I attempted to return to the present moment, and remembered what Dogen said: When you come to the place where you are practice occurs. 

Walking down the mountain I took particular notice of the elaborate root structures of trees, alive or otherwise. Twisting and spiraling, spreading out like the hem of a voluminous gown, displacing stones, or blanketed in moss. They put me in mind of a question/koan that my first zen teacher, Barbara Rhodes, put to me when I was a fledgling zen student: Where is your original root? A question like that cannot be grasped with thinking. I don't believe I ever answered it, even adequately, let alone "correctly." I always tried to figure it out. Here in the forest, on the side of Mt. Greylock, I let this question burrow into the ground along the innumerable tree roots. I did not find an answer, but rather a letting go of the need to have one. Better to live the question.

I continued down the trail turning onto Bernard Farm Trail seeing trees dotted with fungi and great boulders of quartz. These were the little moments that interrupted my thinking and brought me back to the present moment. For despite the above thoughts on letting go (and the actual letting go), the reverie on that very subject continued to unfurl in my mind... trying to articulate it, to find the words to describe what is ultimately outside of language... like trying to make straight the very twisted root that woke me up in the first place. So it was like this... think think think... caterpillar! think, think think think... fungi! Let Go!! think think think think think... quartz! Let Go!

Not far off the trail I encounter a truly surprising sight; something that I never would have imagined in a lifetime of imagining; something so unexpected that it stopped all thinking like nothing else I'd yet experienced on the trail... a real letting go of preconceived views...

The wreckage of a plane crash! It had obviously been there for some time. I have been unable to find any information about it, but haven't really tried that hard either. I prefer to let it be, to let it go, and move up and down these mountains, a point moving in space.