Monday, July 20, 2009

Gloom and glory

Mount Eagle rises a mile or two away just outside my window. It is not the highest mountain hereabouts, but its location gives it a particular grandeur -- the westernmost mountain of Europe, at the very end of the Dingle Peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water. From its summit on a clear day the eye goes tripping out across the Blasket Islands into the wide Atlantic.

And Thursday was a clear day, spectacularly clear for this part of the world. So off we went, friend Philip and I, up the long turf track to the summit, then down along the ridge toward Slea Head. The sun was warm. There was a spring in our step that exalted in the grand panorama of earth, air, fire and water.

Literary critic Marjorie Hope Nicholson has shown how mountains were long shunned by Europeans as "tumors," "wens," and "blisters" on the landscape, wretched disfigurements of nature that marred the beauty of the Earth. The idea that one might go to the mountains for pleasure was simply not entertained. Some medieval writers even suggested that mountains were not part of the original creation, but were a consequence of the Original Sin, or of Cain's transgression, or (since mountains are not mentioned in the Bible before the story of Noah) part of God's plan to punish the Earth by flood.

Then, according to Nicholson, within a few generations near the end of the 18th century, "mountain gloom" gave way to "mountain glory." Poets and philosophers began celebrating high peaks as places of grandeur. Climbers attempted summits in search of the esthetic sublime. No longer feared, mountains now inspired reverence and exhilaration. Danger, yes, but reward too. Summiting a high peak evoked feelings of pride and satisfaction. Mountaineering was born as a sport and pastime. Wordsworth walked the high ridges of the Lake District "awed, delighted, and amazed," and Byron referred to the Alps as "palaces of Nature" -- gathered round their icy summits he discerned "all that expands the spirit, yet appalls."

What happened, of course, was the Enlightenment, with its affirmation of the efficacy of human reason, and the beginning of geology as a science. A new way of experiential knowing replaced scriptures and tradition as sources of truth. The mountains didn't change; what occurred was a shift of focus from the supernatural to the natural, from ignorant fear to insatiable curiosity, from a world ruled by divine whim to a world that might be understood by the human mind. Now the mountains drew pilgrims for the same reason Mount Eagle so often draws us to its summit --exhilaration in the is-ness of creation.