Mountains begin as geology, stony wrinkles in the earth’s crust. They become landscape, part of our home, the environment that has evolved on this beautiful planet. They culminate as symbol, dwellings for the imagination and the spirit.
At first mountains were bare rock, forced into existence by the slow pressure of changes in the earth’s crust.
Gradually, over time, their slopes became clothed in vegetation. As they became a home for plants and animals, they also became a home for humans. And they became landscape. “Landscape” is a human concept, formulated by the human brain and imagination. We love to give names to things.
But humans also always move beyond what is “merely” visible. To all human societies, world-wide, mountains have always been much more than just geology or just landscape. Mountains, and especially mountaintops, are sacred places. Think of Mount Sinai, Mount Fuji, Mount Olympus. They are the places where the earth and its occupants come closest to “sky” and to the powers who live there.
On my desk there is a photograph of mountains, the mountains of British Columbia among which I spent eleven years in my youth. It was only after I moved away to flat parts of the country that I realized how important those mountains had been in forming my image of the world, not just the physical shape of the planet but the world of the imagination.
I’ve never climbed a real mountain – not actually, physically climbed one – but I know about climbing, the tug of the leg-muscles, the gasping and clawing for breath. Climbing a mountain is hard work. And the physical effort of climbing a mountain has always been, for humans, a metaphor for other kinds of effort and struggle, and for achievement.
For people who actually do climb mountains, the mountain is a challenge, an opponent. For me, on the other hand, being a non-climber, the mountains among which I lived in my youth were companions, vast beings that shared my world. While the climber looks at them nose-to nose, as it were, while climbing, I looked at them from the side, and upwards.
For me, there was a marked difference between the mountains and the valley floor, between flatness and slope, between low and high. Being able to see and feel both of them at the same time enlarged my conception of what was. There was this place, and there was that place, co-existing. While walking to school or helping with the farm-work, at any time, I could look up and see a different place, somewhere else.
The shapes of the mountains were outlined against cloud and sky – a horizon that is far different from the kind that’s found in flat country.
Even though I’ve never stood on the top of a mountain, I know about mountaintops. We all do, deep inside us. A mountaintop is a place apart. That makes it sacred – automatically sacred. Literature from all parts of the world is full of sacred mountains.
So what began as geology – rocky, hard – has grown and evolved into the spiritual. Humans have always found meaning in things – found it or invented it. The imaginative and spiritual world that we have created for ourselves on this planet has its origin in rocks and water and plants and animals but it has gone much beyond that. We now have a whole complex vision: what we see with the eye of our imagination is a web of meaningful relationships among all those physical things. We have infused the landscape, the shape of our world, with meaning. In turn, that meaningful environment enlarges the dimensions of our thinking, our aspirations, and our vision.
© Marianne Brandis, 2017