God, Love, and Mountains*
In the entries of James Thorington’s journals, one of the earliest European explorers of the Canadian Rockies, a description can be found of a sunset Thorington witnessed while hiking the Icefields parkway. The words used to capture the scene are perhaps the most common phrases used in mountaineering literature. Thorington writes that the sunset was “beyond all words,” “no description does justice,” “you should be there yourself to understand.” He writes later, discussing the mountains he encountered, “they
can never mean to the reader quite what they mean to those who took part of them. You must go yourself to comprehend.” James Outram, another legendary pioneer of the Canadian Rockies, wrote helplessly when arriving at Lake Louise, “words fail to conjure up the glories.” Ralph Conner, an early visitor to Banff National Park, only left behind these words: “There are no words to paint these peaks.” While Morley Roberts, returning from his trip to the Park, denied the mountains all together; “They were not real. I, or someone else, had imagined them.” Terrain
was not the only thing early mountaineers had to discover. They also had to find a language for that terrain. But the issue does not seem restricted to this region. Across cultures and histories, we find that the same rhetoric prevails. In the seventh century CE, a well-known poem from the Manyoshu, the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry, describes nature as such: “It baffles the tongue, it cannot be named/ It is a god mysterious.” And in the Puranas, ancient works of Hindu mythology, the religious text is only able to describe the Himalayas as indescribable: “I could not describe to you the glories of Himachal.” It seems evident that throughout different traditions, mountains were seen as unsayable landscapes, as unfathomable presences, but what causes such ineffability? What is it about a mountain that immobilizes language? Certainly, it cannot be its size, as larger things have been portrayed at length in literature. Melville’s whale and Dante’s hell and Hesiod’s Atlas are colossal yet quantifiable. The Big Bang and blackholes and the expanding ether are unmeasurable yet describable. Mountains, on the other hand, are impossible. When reading mountaineering literature, one cannot help but feel pity for the explorers; After a day of pushing against gravity and gravel, over pinnacle and precipice, proud, pleased, fulfilled, they fail to push the limits of a language that can be gathered in a dictionary lighter than a shoe and write, “If you glimpse but a bit of it, great indeed will be our reward.” This linguistic paralysis, however, is not unique to mountains and is often found when discussing two other topics; God and Love. Nowhere else in literature do writers fail to express themselves except when faced with divine experiences, romantic feelings, and mountains, which is perhaps why, as we will see shortly, all three (God, Love, and Mountains) have always been indistinguishable in the human imagination.
“The Japanese critic, Sanari Kentaro, explains that “the reason why there are curiously few fine poems in Japanese or Chinese, or fine paintings about Fuji, is that the subject is too overpoweringly splendid.” Similarly, God is often seen in the same terms. Pope Francis, echoing Thorington’s claim, preached in a sermon that “God is a mystery that cannot be understood, but only encountered and lived.” And just as Du Fu wrote, “With what can I compare the Great Peak [of Mount Tai]?” The Quran tells us that “there is nothing comparable to [God].” But why mountains? Why not oceans or deserts? Almost every single major
religion began on top of some mountain. Moses received his commandments on Mount Sinai, Jesus delivered his sermon on a mountain and overcame the devil on another, Muhammad was spoken to on Mount Hira, The Greeks built an adobe for their gods on Mount Olympus, Odin dwells on a high hill called Hlidskjalf, Buddhists know the Himalayas as the home of their gods, and The Stoney people of the Bow Valley sought the peaks for divine visions. I now wonder, have flat lands ever inspired any revelation? One answer, perhaps, is that humans have always tethered their gods to the heavens above, and mountains are the closest things we have to reaching them. Mountains are the meeting places between mortals and gods; We ascend, and they descend. Mountains, unlike meadows and rivers, force us to look up— a practice we reserve for praying.
Mountains also invite a language that cannot escape being gaudy. John Muir is often criticized because “all his mountain streams sang psalms,” because of his “happy birds” and “glad brooks” and “joyous wildflowers,” but, mostly, he was faulted for his excessive use of the word “glorious.” Muir himself was aware of this. He wrote to a friend once that he spends his days “slaughtering ‘glorious’ in his manuscript.” And when comparing Muir’s ‘letters’ to nature to other writers’ love letters, we find a striking similarity. Richard Steele wrote to Mary Scurlock “Methinks I could write a volume to you: but all the language on earth would fail in saying how much, and with what disinterest passion, I am ever yours.” Anais Nin wrote to Henry Miller “All the mountains of words, writings, quotations have sundered.” Dylan Thomas wrote to Pamela Johnson “There is torture in words, torture in their linking and spelling, in the snail of their course on stolen paper, in their sound that the four winds double, and in my knowledge of their inadequacy. With a priggish weight on the end, the sentence falls. All sentences fall when the weight of the mind is distributed unevenly along the holy consonants & vowels.” The examples are infinite, and the question can also be pondered infinitely. Why are we unable to speak about God and Love and Mountains? One answer, which I am not willing to defend, is that the inadequacy is deliberate. Yahweh, whose name Jewish people avoid writing, commands the Isralites in Exodus, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing.” When we speak about something we kill its essence, we morph it from a fluid idea to a rigid image. Syrian poet Nizzar Qabbani wrote to his wife, “If I stand before your beauty silently, then silence in the face of beauty is beautiful. Our words in love will kill our love, for letters die when they are spoken.” We stand in silence in front of mountains because we love them, worship them, and wish them to remain unaltered by ideology, otherwise, we would easily speak about them the way we speak about the universe that holds them, or so I think.
* This essay is an excerpt from Alhomsi's book, Senescence: A Year In The Bow Valley.