Poets on the Peaks
A book I bought in California, in Berkeley, and brought back here with me, reading it these past few days while sitting here in my porch chair wrapped in blankets against the chill autumn rain, devouring this book as though it were a sacred text to be read every morning before starting my difficult days, with everything that has to be done upon return from a long retreat, most of which I'd rather not have to do, this book reminding of where I so recently was, enjoying the stories from these places I know, tales of events and illuminations that occured 50 years ago in the mountains.
Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen & Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades, text and photographs by John Suiter. (Published 2002)
Reading this takes me back to where I was, all in the last five weeks, camping more than once at 8000 feet or above, as well as camping sometimes in the Pacific tsunami hazard zone at less than 30 feet above sea level. The coastal range, the ocean parks, and the silence and solitude of the high mountains. Yes, you do encounter more people up there than you would have 50 years ago, but for the most part the people you encounter walking and hiking, as opposed to driving, are reverent and appreciative of these mountain lands. Even in overrun Yosemite, a group of college boys, jumping off the bridge into the Merced River, took time to chat with me since I had my cameras in hand and was catching the late afternoon light on the peaks on the canyon sides.
photo by John Suiter, from the book
Thinking about hermitage in the desert and the high peaks. One night of sublime hermitage this trip at Wheeler Peak, another day and night of hermitage in the cold sea-fog at a state park on the north California coast. The best times on this past trip for me were stolen moments of solitude and silence, or days driving alone, or hiking with the photo gear up some trail, the first person out in the morning, the last one out at dusk. The best times were when I could stop the truck, get out, hike away a bit, and be alone. Photography is in some ways an excuse to be out here, where I want to be most of the time. People understand better if you have a purpose for being out there, even if really the purpose is just an excuse for being where you want to be. Another trip, perhaps, I'll take just a notebook out with me; but no, I'm not fooling myself, I'll probably always carry at least one camera, even just a light portable one, because I love remembering what I've seen and where I've been, and photographs are memories.
This book by John Suiter is a literary history, but it's also a book every mountain-loving soul could love to read. The prose is evocative of time and place, the descriptions of the fire lookout stations on top of the mountain peaks vivid enough to smell, vivid in the memory especially if you've been there, or to similar places. Everyone at 9000 feet knows what the air smells like up there. It's a smell too recent in my own memory to be lost; I can take a deep breath and be transported, even now. Suiter's photos are incandescent, luminous, and evocative. One wishes for more of them in the book. This isn't really a coffee-table book; that's just a disguise for something far richer and more promising.
It can take six weeks for your body to adapt to altitude, for your marrow to produce enough extra red corpuscles to be able to pick up more than enough oxygen to keep your system in balance. Until then, you pant a lot, and maybe your eyes are funny, and maybe you see visions of angels and demons, and anything else that the open doors in the sky have opened you up to experiencing. After awhile, you breathe easier, the headaches go away, and you begin to enjoy how incredibly clean the air is, how much it fills you with light. Get thee to a mountain peal, and open your soul.
Those jock climbers for whom mountaineering is a matter of conquest miss all the sublime magic; most of them summit, but do not linger, eager to notch their ice-axes with another conquest made, and on to the next. I've met a few of them on the trail. I've noted they never stop long enough to let the silence linger, become still, and enter you. Some people don't know how to just stop, and listen. Well, I can't judge them too harshly; I've been guilty, as most eco-tourists have, of trying to cram too many stops into a day, to try to visit so many places in a short trip that you never linger in any of them. I've been guilty of moving too fast across the face of the world, and sometimes not being able to linger even when I wanted to, because of appointments to keep.
Yet I went out on this last sojourn in part to remember how to listen to the silence, feeling like I'd lost the skill under the personal drama of the past few years. I didn't tell anyone here that was my real goal: to recapture what I felt I'd lost. I deliberately had an open itinerary, allowing myself to deviate from a planned route, and spend more time wherever I felt like it. And thus I doubled the length of my foreseen visit to the Snake River, to the Hoback, to my beloved Tetons. This was my return to my own mountains, the places in Wyoming I'd first studied geology in the field, as a young artist studying science, when I was 18, literally only weeks out of high school before finding myself living and studying there. You need to go back to your roots, as an artist, those places that first lit a fire in you; even though you carry them always with you, even if you rarely get back in person.
I went out to the mountains and the ocean in part to be alone, to remember how to listen to the silence. And to bring some of that back here. I did succeed in writing the first non-haiku poems out there that I've written in months. So the inspiration that these three poets on mountain firewatch found for themselves in those mountains is still there to be found; and I renewed myself, just as they did. If you have no better reason to read this well-written and beautifully-photographed book, let it be for inspiration: to get out there yourself, and get up in the mountains, and listen for what words in the wind will come to you.
One of the lessons of this book is how the mountains mark you, as person and artist. Even decades later, these mountains are still in Snyder's poems, and Whalen's, and Kerouac's Desolation Angels is basically his journals and logs of his lookout time, as is the end of Dharma Bums. You want to re-read those, now, having just been there, in those mountains. You want to get out the books that these poets took with them up the trail, and re-read those, too. Some few of them I have on my shelves already, most notably the books Snyder took, as I've always shared many of the same interests, such as D.T. Suzuki's Manual of Zen Buddhism, a compilation of essential Zen texts from a thousand years of writing by the masters. And my own recent trip was a renewal, a return to places that have marked me as deeply as the North Cascades marked three earlier poets, one of whom, Snyder, has been a life-long inspiration and pathfinder to me as to many others. Our inspirations in part give us the excuse to go out and do what we always wanted to do anyway; inspiration as validation of purpose.
I don't want to be back here. But here I am, still yearning for the 9000 silences, remembering them as I sit quietly on my porch and read, letting them follow me home. Here I am, till the next time I'm back out West, in my beloved mountains.