Immortal Alps Look Down

In lands I never saw — they say
Immortal Alps look down —
Whose Bonnets touch the firmament —
Whose Sandals touch the town —

Meek at whose everlasting feet
A Myriad Daisy play —
Which, Sir, are you and which am I
Upon an August day?

~Emily Dickinson #XXX Part Three: Love

What are men to rocks and mountains? 
~Jane Austen from Pride and Prejudice

This August day:

the immortal mountains loom large, a reminder of our transient blossoming at their everlasting feet.

We are but momentary blooms, gracing the ground, waiting patiently for our time in the sun.

That Witnessing Presence

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

~Denise Levertov “Witness”

Even on the days when the mountain is hidden behind a veil of clouds, I have every confidence it is there.  In the off-chance that it might be visible if we took the time to drive up the highway to the foot of it, we did just that last night, risking seeing nothing but pea soup clouds at the higher elevation. Mount Baker remained behind its impenetrable veil, unseen.

A bit lower, at the foot of Mount Shuksan, initially massive clouds obscured it completely – invisible to us except the knowledge that we knew it was there as we had been in that exact spot before and witnessed it first hand. Yet due to powerful winds that blow in the Cascades, over the course of a few minutes Shuksan was exposed before our eyes in all its glory, first in shadowy profile and then crystal clear reality: it was there, movingly unmoved, a revelation of constancy.

No, it had not vanished overnight, gone to another county, blown up or melted down.  My vision isn’t always penetrating enough to see it through cloud cover, but it is still there. 

I know this and have faith it is true even when, within a few minutes, the clouds blew back over the mountain’s face and veiled it completely again.

Some days I simply don’t bother to look for the mountains, so preoccupied I walk right past their obvious grandeur and presence. Then they reach out to me and call me back.  There are times when I turn a corner on the farm and glance up, and there Baker is, a silent and overwhelming witness to beauty and steadfastness.  I literally gasp at not noticing before, at not remembering how I’m blessed by it being there even at the times I can’t be bothered.

The mountains confirm my lack of witness and still stay put to hold me fast yet another day.  And so I keep coming back to gaze, sometimes just at clouds, yearning to lift the veil, and lift my own veil, just one more time.

Death on Nanda Devi

Nanda Devi courtesy of Stanford Alpine Club

The news this week of the deaths of climbers on Nanda Devi peak in Nepal recalls the story of my high school classmate, Nanda Devi Unsoeld, whose body still rests on that mountain for which she was named.

The ripple effect from Nanda Devi’s arrival as a new junior in Olympia High School in 1970 reached me within minutes, as I felt the impact of her presence on campus immediately.  One of my friends elbowed me, pointing out a new girl being escorted down the hall by the assistant principal.  Students stared at the wake she left behind: Devi had wildly flowing wavy long blonde hair, a friendly smile and bold curious eyes greeting everyone she met.

From the neck up, she fit right in with the standard appearance at the time:  as the younger sisters of the 60’s generation of free thinking flower children, we tried to emulate them in our dress and style, going braless and choosing bright colors and usually skirts that were too short and tight.   There was the pretense we didn’t really care how we looked, but of course we did care very much, with hours spent daily preparing the “casual carefree” look that would perfectly express our freedom from fashion trends amid our feminist longings. Practicing careful nonconformity perfectly fit our peers’ expectations and aggravated our parents.

But Devi never looked like she cared what anyone else thought of her.  The high school girls honestly weren’t sure what to make of her, speculating together whether she was “for real” and viewed her somewhat suspiciously, as if she was putting on an act.

The boys were mesmerized.

She preferred baggy torn khaki shorts or peasant skirts with uneven hems, loose fitting faded T shirts and ripped tennis shoes without shoelaces.  Her legs were covered with long blonde hair, as were her armpits which she showed off while wearing tank tops.   She pulled whole cucumbers from her backpack in class and ate them like cobs of corn, rind and all.  She smelled like she had been camping without a shower for three days, but then riding her bike to school from her home 8 miles away in all kinds of weather accounted for that.   One memorable day she arrived a bit late to school, pushing her bike through 6 inches of snow in soaking tennis shoes, wearing her usual broad smile of satisfaction.

As a daughter of two Peace Corps workers who had just moved back to the U.S. after years of service in Nepal, Devi had lived very little of her life in the United States.  Her father Willi Unsoeld, one of the first American climbers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest up the difficult west face, had recently accepted a professorship in comparative religion at a local college.  He moved his wife and family back to the northwest to be near his beloved snowy peaks,  suddenly immersing four children in an affluent culture that seemed foreign and wasteful.

Devi recycled before there was a word for it simply by never buying anything new and never throwing anything useful away, involved herself in social justice issues before anyone had coined the phrase, and was an activist behind the scenes more often than a leader, facilitating and encouraging others to speak out at anti-war rallies, organizing sit-ins for world hunger and volunteering in the local soup kitchen.  She mentored adolescent peers to get beyond their self-consciousness and self-absorption to explore the world beyond the security of high school walls.

Regretfully, few of us followed her lead.  We preferred the relative security and camaraderie of hanging out at the local drive-in to taking a shift at the local 24 hour crisis line.  We showed up for our graduation ceremony in caps and gowns while the rumor was that Devi stood at the top of Mt. Rainier with her father that day.

I never saw Devi after high school but heard of her plans in 1976 to climb with an expedition to the summit of Nanda Devi,  the peak in India for which she was named.  She never returned, dying in her father’s arms as she suffered severe abdominal pain and irreversible high altitude sickness just below the summit.  She lies forever buried in the ice on that faraway peak in India.  Her father died in an avalanche only a few years later, as he led an expedition of college students on a climb on Mt. Rainier, only 60 miles from home.

Had Devi lived these last 40 years, I have no doubt she would have led our generation with her combination of charismatic boldness and excitement about each day’s new adventure.  She lived without pretense, without hiding behind a mask of fad and fashion and conformity and without the desire for wealth or comfort.

I wish I had learned what she had to teach me when she sat beside me in class, encouraging me by her example to become someone more than the dictates of societal expectations. I secretly admired the freedom she embodied in not being concerned in the least about fitting in.   Instead, I still mourn her loss all these years later, having to be content with the legacy she has now left behind on a snowy mountain peak that called her by name.

Some Blessed Hope

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In a dark time my eyes begin to see…

~Theodore Roethke

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I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.
At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.

~Thomas Hardy from “The Darkling Thrush”

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I watch the long night’s transition to day as the mountain is licked by bright flames of color, heralding our slow waking.

The sun illuminates the darkened earth and we are bathed in its reflected glory and grace.

We work hard to be at ease, to lay down the heaviness of endings and celebrate the arrival of brilliant light in our lives.

The Son is now among us, carrying our load, fulfilling all promises.

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One of Me As Well

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It’s easy to love a deer
But try to care about bugs and scrawny trees
Love the puddle of lukewarm water
From last week’s rain.
Leave the mountains alone for now.
Also the clear lakes surrounded by pines.
People are lined up to admire them.
Get close to the things that slide away in the dark.
Be grateful even for the boredom
That sometimes seems to involve the whole world.
Think of the frost
That will crack our bones eventually.
~Tom Hennen “Love for Other Things”

 

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O it is easy to love the beautiful things of God’s creation~
we drive long hours to stand in awe,
gaping at mountains and valleys and waterfalls
and kaleidoscopes of color

but if God needs a slug or snail or bug enough to create those
and allows drought and mud and frost and ice storms and hurricanes
then I guess, if He chooses,
He could look at me and say
I need one of you too.

 

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I’m Glad I’m Here

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I believe you’ll be able to say, as I can say today: ‘I’m glad I’m here.’
Believe me, all of you, the best way to help the places we live in is to be glad we live there.

~Edith Wharton from Summer

 

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I’m reminded today and every day: I’m glad I’m here. I would choose no other place to be.

I’m especially thankful as I gaze out at this 360 degree landscape every morning and again as the evening light flames bright before fading at night.

This place — with its vast field vistas, its flowing grasses, its tall firs, its mountain backdrops — has been beautiful for generations of native people and homesteaders before I ever arrived thirty three years ago.

It will remain so for many more generations long after I am dust – gladness is the best fertilizer I can offer up to accompany God-given sun and rain.

May this land glow rich with gladness.

 

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A Witnessing Presence

 

 

 

Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, 
the moon only when it is cloudless?  
To long for the moon while looking on the rain, 
to lower the blinds and be unaware
of the passing of the spring – 

these are even more deeply moving.  
Branches about to blossom
or gardens strewn with flowers
are worthier of our admiration.

~Yoshida Kenko

 

 

 

 

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.
~Denise Levertov  “Witness”

 

 

 

Even on the days like today when the mountain is hidden behind a veil of clouds,
I have every confidence it is there.
It has not moved in the night, gone to another county, blown up or melted down.

There are more days its snowy peak is hidden
than days it is blossom-stark floating cloud-like above the horizon of our barn roof

Visitors to the farm are too often told “the mountain is right there”
as I point to a bank of nondescript gray clouds

My loving and longing for it, my knowing it is always there, in hiding,
moves me more than the days it is simply given to me.

I keep coming back to gaze, sometimes just at clouds, yearning to lift the veil,
and lift my veil, just one more time.

The beauty of anticipation,
confident of fulfillment to come
my thirstiness
to be slaked
my hunger to be
satisfied.

 

photo by Nate Gibson