Mountains are big, very big, but they are also great. Very great. They have dignity and other aspects of greatness … the smaller we come to feel ourselves compared with the mountain, the nearer we come to participating in greatness.
Arne Naess – The Ecology of Wisdom
In a few days time I am leaving the flat plain of London and driving south to Samoens in the French Alps. Already I feel something shift inside, an upheaval of thought capped with longing. Mountain encounters thread across my life like beads on a necklace. Each bead a moment of turning, or returning.
It all began for me high on the Altiplano of the Bolivian Andes. La Paz, my place of birth, nestles some 3500 metres above sea level, sheltered beneath snow-capped Mt Illimani, towering over 6000 metres above. Eighteen years later, in the wake of my father’s death, I found myself returning to the same South American range in search of Inca ruins and continuity. Solid, stable and unmoving mountains offer the most profound solace. A Sanskrit word for them is a-ga, meaning ‘that which does not go’.
Some ten years later I felt the call again. Now 28 I had climbed my own career mountain and was heading up a large department at Save the Children. It was meaningful work raising funds for projects all over the world, but I felt separated, abstracted from the living world, as though a living core of me was fading. I headed East to Ladakh , “the land of high passes” and jagged arid mountains which lies between the Himalayas and the Kunlu range. Here at a height of more than 3000 metres Buddhist payer flags bless the mountain breeze.
What is this sense of blessing which flows between people and mountains ?
Arne Naess, mountaineer and founder of what has become known as the deep ecology movement, carved his passion for the natural world in the mountains of his native Norway. His writing reveals an equal respect for mountains and for mountain peoples. The first thing we must do, he says, is to get rid of the belief that humankind is something placed in an environment. The mountains and the people share in one ‘gestalt’, one whole, which is alive. In this reciprocal participation we can share in greatness. We feel small in our separateness, but great in our connectedness.
In his book ‘The Ecology of Wisdom’ Naess tells us about the Japanese word inochi which means both ‘life’ and the ‘intrinsic value of all living things’. We lose inochi most obviously by destroying our natural environment or by killing sentient creatures. More insidiously we are perhaps killing inochi in our human lives through the replacement of direct, spontaneous lived experience with representations of reality, mediated through screens and curated by the mass media. Dislocated from the ever changing living world we are in danger of being reduced to ‘things’ devoid of life.
This loss of inochi is not a matter of philosophy for me, it is something I suffer everyday as I struggle to keep myself and my children in the experience of a living world and away from our screens. I fight to save our inochi. Mostly this means I take us to parks, to woods, to rivers, to the sea. Sometimes, as now, the severance requires something greater.
It requires mountains.
So much happens when no one is watching,
perhaps because no one is watching
Robert Bly ~ ‘Iron John‘
I take a walk in Richmond park in the early hours – before the cars have left their mark of human disregard – and in this unwatched space I feel the sentience of trees and grass and birds. In their sight I feel held in significance.
When no one is watching the earth turns. She drops her bounty quietly like dew onto the lawns of our lives, without clamour for recognition or reward. She carries us for nothing.
When no one is watching night creatures open up the darkness with their sniffing and a billion drops of water cross over our heads in unrepeatable patterns of cloud and sky.
When no one is watching my inner world turns. A billion unrepeatable soul skies cross within me.
I suffer the ‘no-one watching’. But in nature I am regarded. There is a knowing and being known. I walk along the river Wharfe and feel seen (‘rounding her bend and suddenly I’m there / A moment of light meeting water and air‘).
Translating the Indian Poet Kabir Robert Bly* reminds us that we are never truly out of sight, never orphaned:
We sense there is some sort of spirit that loves
birds and the animals and the ants
Perhaps the same one who gave you radiance in your mother’s womb
Is it logical you would be walking around entirely orphaned now ?
The truth is you turned away yourself
And decided to go into the dark alone
Increasingly we are being sold a version of what it means to be human which is ‘turned away’. The natural abundance of our internal landscape is replaced by an abstracted desert of algorithms and imojies, jargon and headlines, screens and soundbites. We feel somehow orphaned – cut off, stripped bare and empty. Our desert hunger is then filled (at great cost) through consumption and addiction.
For many years I felt myself to be wandering ‘into the dark alone’. Now I go in search of the ‘unwatched life’ of which Bly speaks. I seek out the fragments and the margins, the fleeting and the forgotten. I am an explorer of landscapes inner and outer which mirror one another. Held between them I recover the full breadth of who I am. I feel remembered and significant.
I count the stars and allow them to be counted in me.
* Robert Bly’s books of poetry include The Night Abraham Called To The Stars. He has received the National Book Award for Poetry and two Guggenheims.
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence
George Eliot ~ Middlemarch
I write to stay connected to the sound of my ‘creature heart’ – to the soaring, howling, beating, roaring, trickling, grass-growing, thoroughly ordinary experience of being alive.
It’s not easy right now. The intimacy of our experience is in danger of being drowned out. We are increasingly mesmerised by the voices of a small number of grand players hogging the stage in an unscripted world drama. Everything and everyone in view seems larger than life, as though we mere humans – wriggling helplessly like fish caught on the hook of world news – are watching Titans battling it out above our heads. Against this backdrop it’s easy to discard the ‘ordinary human life’ as irrelevant, puny, indistinguishable.
We underestimate ourselves. We lose lose sight of the extraordinary richness of our own human ecology – the depth, breadth and height of experience which lies within us and between us. We become ‘flat’ like our screens, two dimensional.
I suffer this asset stripping of my soul, ‘there’s a howl in me’ (The Cage) – a torn, shredded, paw-trapped, dried-up-river, cage of thorns in me. And I sense that this howl is both personal and collective. I could tame this, I could ‘make it alright mummy’ (Faded). I could – but I won’t. I won’t because somewhere in me I know that this wild creature heart is the tap-root of my being, the thread which will guide me back to the roar which lies on the other side of silence.
Open to the sound of this roar we are all great souls and the Titans will quake.
Look, if you had, one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment
Would you capture it, or just let it slip ?
Eminem (Slim) – ‘Lose yourself’
These simple lines have been my anthem this year as I’ve carved my voice out of its rock.
On the page Eminem’s rap barely touches the sides. It’s easy enough to let it slip. But take it off the page and listen to him rap, feel the sound of the spoken words, the beat, the breath – and language becomes a physical thing. The sounds themselves create disturbances in the body. Rampant profanity and flashes of violence crackle like electricity through the lyrics. Listening to this track in my car I feel punctured. There is a breach.
Curiously the experience reminds me most of searing moments as a child in church listening to the passion of the psalms, the incantations of hymns and liturgy, the poetry of biblical stories read aloud – The Creation, The Flood, The Prodigal Son – which sprang from this same oral tradition of ‘word made flesh’.
The great American poet Etheridge Knight described poetry as “primarily oral utterance”. The voice captures the intimacy of our breath-lines, fast with passion or hesitant on the edge of loss. A mere coma or line break struggles to convey these living rhythms. Our eyes move too quickly and uniformly over the page.
The spoken word, like music, captures a living spirit. These poems were spoken first, often in moments of passion when the truth of them was raw and immediate. Only then, like the embers of a fire did they find their way onto the page.
In the moment of speaking there is for me always an intimate ‘other’ present (often the poems address a ‘you’) which means that there is a call seeking a response, a longing to penetrate, to disturb, to awaken, to meet. There is an urgency about this calling, for as Slim’s rap reminds us:
The soul’s escaping, through this hole that is gaping
This world is mine for the taking