The Home of the Gods

Matthiessen so tightly links his experience of the mountains with meditation and/or Buddhism that I found it difficult to extract passages that focus on the kinds of Nature experiences I actually share with him, though, as I noted, that’s probably the greatest appeal of The Snow Leopard for me. As I’ve also noted many times, hiking in the mountains has always seemed like a semi-religious experience to me, at least in an Emersonian sense. Considering how often “The Gods” are identified with the sky and mountains, I wonder if it isn’t “hard-wired” into our very nature.

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, it’s impossible not to identify Mt. Rainier with Nature,

Mt. Rainier In the Distance

whether you’re looking up at it from Puget Sound or looking down on Puget Sound as you circle it. There’s something magical about the way it stands over the city on a sunny day. Easy to see, then, why I identify with this passage:

I go down along the canyon rim and sit still against a rock. Northward, a snow cone rises on the sky, and snowfields roll over the high horizon into the deepening blue. Where the Saure plunges into its ravine, a sheer and awesome wall writhes with weird patterns snow and shadow. The emptiness and silence of snow mountains quickly bring about those states of consciousness that occur in the mind-emptying of meditation, and no doubt high altitude has an effect, for my eye perceives the world as fixed or fluid, as it wishes. The earth twitches, and the mountains shimmer, as if all molecules had been set free: the blue sky rings. Perhaps what I hear is the “music of the spheres,” what Hindus call the breathing of the Creator and astrophysicists the “sighing” of the sun.

I’ve had a very similar experience sitting on Yocum Ridge Trail on Mt Hood, watching the light reflect off glaciers only to be absorbed by steep cliffs, the silence punctuated by the occasional crash of glacial fragments, plunging into the canyons below.

I also strongly identify with this passage,

GS is discoursing happily on the freedom of carrying one’s own Pack, of being “independent of childish people who’ve lived all their lives in the mountains and won’t wear rag strips on their eyes in snow.You realize we could travel for a week this way, and make good time, with just what we have here on our backs?” I do realize this, and am happy, too, watching him tramp off down the mountain; the sense of having one’s life needs at hand, of traveling light brings with it intense energy and exhilaration. Simplicity is the whole secret of well-being. (“I could not simplify myself”-the explanation of the suicide Nezhdanov.12) Jang La is behind us, my lungs are holding up in this thin air, my dour boots show some signs of relenting. And starting a relaxed descent, I enjoy the view of distant shadows that mark the deep gorge of the Bheri River. Beyond the Bheri the steep mountains rise toward the snow peaks of the Kanjiroba Himal; on the far side of those distant peaks lies Crystal Mountain.

though there’s something ironic about it appearing in this context since much of the novel is spent complaining about porters who refuse to go on or demand more money to risk their lives. One of my few regrets about growing older is that I no longer feel comfortable backpacking alone for a week in the mountains. Being able to live a week on what you carry on your back was always a liberating experience to me, knowing that I’ve actually been happiness when I had nothing but what I could carry on my back.

And, although I’ve never had the privilege of seeing a wolf pack in the wild, I remember feeling exactly like this when a mother bear and her cub crossed our path while hiking the North Cascades for a week with the Sierra Club:

Unable to hold the scope on the restless animals, GS calls out to me to shift the binoculars from the band of fourteen to the group of 5X Sheep, directly across the river from our lookout. “Why are those Sheep running?” he demands, and a moment later hollers, “Wolves!”

Six sheep are springing for the cliffs, but a pair of wolves coming straight downhill are cutting off the rear most animal as it bounds across a stretch of snow toward the ledges. In the hard light, the blue-gray creature seems far too swift to catch, yet the streaming wolves gain ground on the hard snow. Then they are whisking through the matted juniper and down over steepening rocks, and it appears that the bharal will be cut off and bowled over, down the mountain, but at the last moment it scoots free and gains a narrow ledge where no wolf can follow.

In the frozen air, the whole mountain is taut; the silence rings. The sheep’s flanks quake, and the wolves are panting; otherwise, all is still as if the arrangement of pale shapes held the world together. Then I breathe, and the mountain breathes, setting the world in motion once again.

I’m drawn to the mountains by nature’s beauty, but Nature never seems quite as special as when you observe wild animals there, whether it be a bear, a moose, or a river otter. Sometimes just the awareness that it’s possible that an animal may be nearby, like a Grizzly Bear, can transform your whole experience of an environment.

Perhaps my favorite quote about the meaning of the mountains is this one, found late in the book:

Near my lookout, I find a place to meditate, out of the wind, a hollow on the ridge where snow has melted. My brain soon clears in the cold mountain air, and I feel better. Wind, blowing grasses, sun: the dying grass, the notes of southbound birds in the mountain sky are no more fleeting than the rock itself, no more so and no less-all is the same. The mountain withdraws into its stillness, my body dissolves into the sunlight, tears fall that have nothing to do with “I.” What it is that brings them on, I do not know.

In other days, I understood mountains differently, seeing in them something that abides. Even when approached respectfully (to challenge peaks as mountaineers do is another matter) they appalled me with their “permanence,” with that awful and irrefutable rock-ness that seemed to intensify my sense of my own transience. Perhaps this dread of transience explains our greed for the few gobbets of raw experience in modern life, why violence is libidinous, why lust devours us, why soldiers choose not to forget their days of horror: we cling to such extreme moments, in which we seem to die, yet are reborn. In sexual abandon as in danger we are impelled, however briefly, into that vital present in which we do not stand apart from life, we are life, our being tills us; in ecstasy with another being, loneliness falls away into eternity. But in other days, such union was attainable through simple awe.

My foot slips on a narrow ledge: in that split second, as needles of fear pierce heart and temples, eternity intersects with present time. Thought and action are not different, and stone, air, ice, sun, fear, and self are one. What is exhilarating is to extend this acute awareness into ordinary moments, in the moment-by-moment experiencing of the lammergeier and the wolf, which, finding themselves at the center of things, have no need for any secret of true being. In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us, what one lama refers to as “the precision and openness and intelligence of the present.”

I’ve had so many experiences while hiking the mountains and felt so many different feelings, from absolute fear to sheer exultation. that I don’t think I could ever be through exploring the their meaning.

5 thoughts on “The Home of the Gods

  1. I need to get back into Mattheissen. Years ago I read some of his books, including the Snow Leopard. Great stuff!

    For us nature lovers, I think the particular ecosystems we live within dictates where nature becomes a near-religious experience for us. I react much more to lush, dense green environments than mountains, but probably because I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life and really enjoy the humid summers– when the forests in June are nearly tropical and look and feel. Especially when contrasted with the austerities of winter.

  2. I think I’d agree with that Brian, though we have both kinds of environments here in Washington. I remember having a similar reaction to the Rain Forest in the Olympics when I first visited them.

  3. You picked some fine passages.
    But those are accessible even to non-Buddhists who make climbing their religion. That’s OK, but I am not sure we should give the credit to the mountain. I like Stephen Crane’s little poem, “A an said to the Universe/Sir, I exist!
    However, replied the Universe//that fact has not created in me//a sense of obligation. For me, Snow Leopard is about Matthiessen’s willingness to accept the limits of his life, his insignificance in the face of such a setting, his smallness in the scale of things (and the consequent smallness of any preoccupation he may have had… (part of the reason he is drawn to that shady sherpa)? Rainier gives us that every day if we look past the postcards.

What do you think?