Two hours’ trek up the valley means sharp mountains and exhilarating pain, damp needly canopies and spongy earth, starbursts of painted leaves and a slow awe.
An enthused, exhausting climb up a steep trail through the trees edging Elk Mountain and the forest gives way to sunshine and rocky outcrops. Tired, vertiginous, awed by the clear, panoramic view of forest, angled peaks and glacial floodplains, I attempt crème bruleé with a propane torch blown out a dozen times. Two matchbooks sputter, foiling both machine and an archetypal vision of I-as-firemaker.
And yet I relax enough to exhale, a jet-stream of wonder.
Strawberries grow on the wild slope, a sweet note amongst a million incidentals of the wild outside affecting deep re-joyment. Perched atop that lonely cliff, the moon, the mountains and all the bits and pieces of life appear small, the dust of civilization on glacier’s etchèd memory. From here, such is the fate of a century of edifice wrought into the clay. The rigid schedule, the most imminent deadline, the inescapable mechanical communion are in a moment all bereaved of their fell power to entangle heart and mind.
Life is super-real. Or has fleeting time in this exalted realm merely raised me to normal embodied life and proved the status quo anemic? We face a dismembering juggernaut, post-Enlightenment—but participation on the mountain does battle with it. And I see and remember the mysteries, participate in mystery again.
A separated mind: science harms before it hopes to heal. It wages war with practical imagination in its technical dimension. Is nature a centre of properties, shut in its own order? This, above all, we now assume—this, above all, we must reject! There’s space, if space oft-unseen for this: science hopes for wonder, dead in practice, not in soul, to its discoveries. Macroscopic order proves unfathomably complex, ultra-microscopic existence nothing less than gratuitous, counterfactual luck. So even with nature hermetically sealed from mystery and the supernatural, its details still pierce the ill-contrived and concrete veil. Stacked against the pinnacles of human conquest and construction, a wispy, clinging lichen, on close and loving inspection, radiates a thousand times more wonderment than all the artifice that aids and governs life today. Shored up inside a burnable, ill-tasting, inconsequential plant: more mystery than ten legions of master biochemists could fathom.
So this resplendent, all-credentialed legion (and I) might just be restored outside the lab. Outside, on mountaintop, they might be awed to find the atmosphere clear, a miracle of super-symmetry. They might be awed to find their conquests speak to another, non-lab realm of life, as wary zinc-laced leaves rustle blustery songs to their astonished ears. Or, with grace and luck, they might get pranked by Puck or dance with Pan.
Where we now see vast emptiness and flaming gas the ancients saw constellations and divine drama played, emanating spheres and heavenly music. Who’s the better off for the stories inflicted upon them? The ancients saw Mars in part and imagined war, steel, unrequited lust and power-struggle; astronomers today see Mars in full and discern nothing but rust.
Mars is but rust, but that’s okay? We are told nonsense stories! The sacrosanct narrative of hard materialism holds that the vastness of the universe presents some transcendent meaning by its merely being there and being big. But stand outside the universe and nuance dies, and ground is lost, and mystery disappears. So it is a dubious claim—believe it and the universe’s natural enchantment is lost. I’d say that view is crushing, what with the gods of war and oceans and love and wisdom dead before our telescopes and psychoanalysis.
And the outworking of this subtle materialist metanarrative, an imperative of conquest, progress, mastery, abstraction and over all a barefaced sundering of mystery, has given post-Enlightenment life its disenchanting power, grinding meaningful thought and practice into something artificially flavoured, de-integrated and secularized. But with life outside (away, afar), this process may reverse—the world may resacralize itself—if we listen. And we listen by participation—and hope for ecstatic, poetical stamina, enough to eject us from the cycle of violence we do the world and ourselves.
Hope remains. In nature, above all, we may see more than we are trained to see. The vastness of a mountain range, the still, transporting atmosphere of a dewy forest rebels against “pure nature,” calling forth by their very being a poetic re-imagining. We can develop an acquaintance with the forest, start a gentle dialogue of non-mastery. Nature unfolds her beauty, only when we enter her truest dominions. Experience is knowledge, knowledge love. Dwell in trickling water, clothe yourself in velvet atmosphere, breathe diaphanous mist, and greet the craggy trees—you might just discern one of God’s forest sprites.