“Up and Down the Mountain”
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
March 12, 2017
A found poem by Dalton Wright, from one page of text in
“Alone on a Mountaintop” by Jack Kerouac
What strange thoughts come to you
when you realize…
I realized I didn’t have to hide myself.
Seeing, hearing, smelling,
Touching, tasting, thinking
To perceive at all.
Is ultimately silly.
The mountain meadowside in the moonlight
You’re already there
You’re already there
To stay in Nirvana bliss
God’s Universal Mind
Silence itself is the sound of diamonds
That graveyard silence
Like the silence of an infant’s smile
Reading from On Trails, by Robert Moor
In 1846, Henry David Thoreau made a failed bid to climb Mt. Katahdin, the highest peak in the state of Maine. His guide was an old Indian man named Louis Neptune, who advised Thoreau to leave a bottle of rum on top of the mountain to appease the mountain spirit. On their climb, Thoreau and his companions followed moose trails and scrambled cross-country. In one harrowing instance, while crawling
over the flattened tops of the black spruce trees that had grown up between the mountain’s massive boulders, Thoreau looked down to find that below him, in the crevices, lay the sleeping forms of bears.
The party became lost in fog and never made the summit. But on his descent, Thoreau suddenly realized he had stumbled upon a wholly wild place. He found the land savage, awful, and unspeakably beautiful. He wrote:
This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the untamed globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor woodland, nor wasteland…Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific…rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact!
How… had a human being—indeed, a whole generation of human beings—become so abstracted from the land ..as to warrant such an epiphany? Solid earth, actual world? The answer stretches back. ..through agriculture and literacy and urbanization and technology; and through monotheism, which vanquished the animist spirits and erased their earthly shrines… Euro-Americans had been working for millennia to forget what an unpeopled planet looked like. To see it afresh came as a shock.
…Katahdin …gained a reputation as the antithesis to peaks like New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, where… “large flocks streamed up the mountains like a transplanted tea party.” But the mountain resisted all attempts to tame it. During the height of the summit house craze of the 1850s, Maine politicians, envious of the commercial successes of their neighbor, chartered a road to be built over Katahdin, but the steepness of the terrain meant the project was soon abandoned. …While trail-builders on Mount Washington were rearranging boulders to construct paths so smooth they reportedly could be walked blindfolded, the paths on Katahdin remained… “but the roughest of cuts through the north woods.”
The longer Katahdin resisted attempts to tame it, the more it attracted “pilgrims” who enjoyed its wild character—and who, moreover, would fight to keep it that way. In 1920, an eccentric millionaire named Percival Baxter climbed Katahdin via the vertiginous Knife’s Edge route. Greatly impressed, he vowed to ensure that the land would remain “forever wild…. simple and natural nearly as it was when only the Indians and the animals roamed at will through these areas.”
…in a very real way, wilderness is a human creation,…born when we began cleaving the world into the binary categories of wild and tame, natural and cultivated. … Perhaps the most succinct definition of the wilderness is simply: the not-self. There, in the one place we have not re-molded in our own image, a very deep and ancient form of wisdom can be found. Wilderness is a brazenly naked land, where a person, in mingled fear and awe, verging on nonsense, can cry out for Contact!
Sermon Up and Down the Mountain
A Penobscot story begins with a young Native American girl gathering blueberries on Mount Katahdin. Because she was lonely, she wished for a husband, and then, seeing the great mountain in all its glory, with the red sunlight on the top, she added, “I wish Katahdin were a man, and would marry me!” She went up the mountain, picking her blueberries, and singing to herself, and was not seen again for three years.
When the girl reappeared, she had with her a beautiful baby, whose eyebrows were made of stone. The spirit of the Mountain had indeed taken the lonely girl as his bride, but after a time she wished to see her own people. The Mountain, wanting only peace and goodness for her, sent his bride back down.
The baby boy had strange and wondrous gifts. The wise men among the Penobscot said he was born to be a mighty magician. All he had to do was point a finger at a moose, and it would drop dead; when out in a canoe, if he pointed to a flock of wild ducks, the water would at once be covered with the floating game for the people to gather in. Through this gift, the mother and child and all the tribe had plenty of food, and never a worry.
So this was the truth, and a mystery, too – that Katahdin had wedded this girl, and created a child who would build up his nation, and make of the Wabanaki a mighty race. But before the girl went back down the mountain, the great spirit of the Mountain told her that she must not allow the people to inquire about the boy’s father. He said, “truly, they will all know it by seeing him anyway; it is an impertinence on their part to ask; do not let them grieve you in this way.” So she made it known that she would not be questioned. She did not talk about the spirit of the mountain, or the life it gave her.
Then one day, knowing people were speculating about her, she said to herself in frustration, “Katahdin was right. These people are not worthy of my son, and he shall not serve them and lead them to victory any longer. These are not people who will make a great nation.” When someone teased her one time too many, she finally spoke out, and compared the people to mud-wasps who stung the fingers of those who plucked them out of the water, and said they were likely to kill themselves with their stupid mistakes.
“Why are you troubling me to tell you what you are already know? Can’t you see who was the father of my boy? Look at his eyebrows! Don’t you know Katahdin by them? — Well, you will be sorry you ever inquired. From this day on, you will feed yourselves. Find your own venison. This child will do no more for you.”
Then she stood up, made her way into the woods and up the mountain, and was never seen on the earth again.
Last summer, as June turned into July, my husband and two of my sons drove to Baxter State Forest, in order to hike to the top of Mount Katahdin. They had romantic notions of conquering high peaks, balancing along the knife’s edge, and – in the case of the 64 year old, completing an item on the list of things to accomplish before succumbing to old age; in the case of the 17 year old, proving his independence while lounging by sun-dappled stone pools above the clouds. The 19 year old was just going in order to go. A third teenager – a friend of our boys – accompanied them.
Some of you have heard about this trip, from people who actually went. This is a story from behind the stage, by one who did not go, yet whose heart made the journey. Now, these guys didn’t read up on the park, and the rules for toileting or how to hang your food in bags away from your tent so the bears wouldn’t visit in the night. They didn’t realize the road in to the park was more like a rutted path in the wilderness; that it would take almost two hours to drive the 20 miles from the edge of the park to the base camp.
I bought them trail maps, and read how much water was necessary, and packed that up for them, too. I encouraged them to do a bit more research, but my son found all this superfluous. When David showed up so they could all head out, he had no back pack or sleeping bag at all, because Asher – who had reassured us that David would have everything– Asher had neglected to explain how long a trip this was; that camping was part of the deal. They left amidst a discussion of extra chargers for their phones, blissfully unaware of the lack of cell towers in the wilderness.
Meanwhile, my third son and I drove to our cottage in mid-coast Maine, where we would meet up with the climbers on the third day. Levi and I puttered about the beach, bumped into our neighbor, Jim, and explained where the rest of the gang was.
And Jim began telling me about being lost on the mountain.
In July of 1939, a twelve year old boy was climbing Katahdin with his father and two brothers when a sudden storm came up, and covered the top of the peak in a fog so dense Donn Fendler lost sight of not only his companions, but the trail. Just as he reached the summit, the mist closed in and shut off the view of anything below the peak. The clouds settled in; then a storm followed. First it was lashing rain, then snow and ice, and the soaked little boy ended up completely and totally lost. After a few days, the search and rescue mission became one in which the authorities hoped to recover a body. Fendler’s last footprints were found at the edge of a precipice that fell 400 feet.
All of America was united in praying for this boy. His mother was receiving thousands of Western Union telegrams; Boy Scouts across New England joined with the Maine paper mill workers and the New York State Police bloodhounds to look for him. And nine days later, he emerged — naked and battered and delirious, having lost 30% of his body weight, with hundreds of black fly bites and missing a few toes. He had walked through 48 miles of extreme wilderness with no supplies at all. He had even lost his pants and shoes. He had survived on berries and faith.
Now, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Jim telling me all this. It was interesting to learn of his passion for collecting all information related to this story and the tension this has created in his marriage; the scrapbooks Jim has created about the story and its aftermath; the times he had gone to meet him at public appearances across the state of Maine. But I was increasingly thinking about my own husband and sons, and wondering if I would ever see them again. It seemed a bit insensitive of my neighbor to be dwelling on this story of being lost on Katahdin while my men were in fact on Katahdin, even if it Jim’s story did end with the miraculous.
I periodically reminded myself that if something terrible had befallen my husband and children, the chaplain for the Maine State Wardens would call me, and I actually know her. For some reason, this seemed vaguely comforting. I had not gone on this trip mainly out of fear. There are times and places when I cannot cope with my son’s free spirit and lack of limits. This was one of them. I knew I would be absolutely terrified to see him dancing along the boulders. I would rather be useless from a distance.
I thought about the Penobscot tale; of the little girl picking blueberries and curing her loneliness by falling in love with the fire-tipped peak of Katahdin; and disappearing into a cloud on the summit, to emerge with a son; his brow made of bits of chiseled stone, like Moses on Sinai, receiving the law for his people. How we do make our way to these heights? Even though I am afraid of my son’s wildness, I understand that spirit, and feel it too – this desire to be elemental, somehow – to be strong and natural and in tune; to feel free and yet also connected to the powers that keep creation humming along. As a kid, I loved collecting periwinkles at low tide and steaming them; learning that we could chip lichen off the rocks and eat it; that following the birds was the best way to find good raspberry patches.
I have never forgotten a book I read in third grade, called My Side of the Mountain, which I suppose is a fantasy, but I certainly did not read it that way. It seemed to me a revelation; teaching me how to be holy, and closer to heaven. It made living purely seem both desirable and possible. A boy named Sam goes off to find land that had belonged to his great grandfather, and the disinterested adults say things like, every boy should have a good adventure, clearly expecting an insignificant foray followed by a return to the overcrowded New York City apartment; the seven siblings and the noise and the cars and buses and people everywhere.
But armed with $40, flint and steel, an axe and some string, Sam makes his way to the Catskills; the mountain of his tribe. He burns out the interior of a rotted out tree to create a home; learns how to fish, draws maps so he can get oriented. He climbs higher and higher, tracking a falcon to her nest, then scales a cliff and snatches a fledgling for his own. The bird becomes his friend, and his piece of wildness, too. He trains the falcon, but feels her flight in his own bones, just as the light of the sky becomes his own vision.
Curiously, I am reading the adult version of this right now – Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which after sitting on my list for a long while, my husband bought for me. It has this same intense intimacy; grappling with our human place in creation; examining predatory behavior and the idea of tameness; the impulse to both be an authentic self – alone before the powers of the universe, and yet also deeply connected to family, and traditions, and something beyond, in the sky. Macdonald’s book, though, is true. She really does train hawks – and like Sam, connecting to his family and its past, Macdonald’s relationship with her hawk is a way of exploring her identity, and mourning the loss of her father.
She writes, “the hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away… she was my refuge.” Although they look at first like stories of running away, retreating; these are actually about finding the experiences that will teach us what we need to know, connecting us to that which makes us fully human. They are followers of Moses on Sinai, Thoreau on that Katahdin trip, making contact with… what? Something that is not just an idea; our own creation. What will guide us? What is revealed to us from on high that will show us how to live down here? We live both vertically and horizontally; we reach for communion with the spirits above our heads and with those who walk beside us. And when those who once accompanied us disappear, how do we keep walking? And how do we find them again?
It is easy, in stories like this one, to think that the tale is about self-sufficiency. But the bigger part of the story is about living in harmony with a spirit we do not know how to talk about, that evaporates when put into words – yet which rules us somehow – the stone eyebrows of Katahdin’s son, whose finger could stop a moose in its tracks; or the laws cut into Moses’ stone tablets by God’s finger inside a vast cloud on a mountaintop; the way the hawk’s gorgeous flight into the heavens is predicated on death. I was a little girl when my grandfather died, and I think of my grandmother – they had just moved to Maine that month. A little while later, she went on a trip to Japan, and it was transformative.
She absolutely fell in love with this culture of simplicity and rigidity; of nothing unnecessary and everything essential. In that country symbolized by Mount Fuji; the hill that could erupt into fire and smoke, she learned how to be alone, but she did so by being part of the routines that everyone followed. Maybe the lesson is about finding yourself, and feeling competent; knowing that you are a survivor. Even death won’t get you. You may be changed, even unrecognizable – but you will not really ever be gone.
When Donn Fendler emerged after being lost on the mountain, his rescue was a balm to the nation. His survival let others see things in themselves that they hadn’t thought about, or dared to believe in. And for him, those nine days shaped the course of his life. He credited his survival to his faith, and his determination to see his father and brothers and mother – so the story of being lost was really more about hope, perseverance, and love. Fendler’s father had a business making clerical vestments and church supplies, and I love how that exterior work is such a complement to the inner transformation; of finding the holy and witnessing the laws of creation. Fendler returned to Katahdin every summer for the rest of his life, which ended this past October, and at his request, his ashes were brought to the top of Katahdin, and scattered to the wind.
My men obviously did return from Katahdin, essentially unscathed but definitely humbled; with an appreciation for the scale of this world, and our radical dependence on grace to survive. They did it. The weather cooperated. But they had travelled too lightly – left the water in the car rather than carry the weight – and had to be given drink by passing strangers, and food from fellow climbers. And they were impressed by the realization that – as hard as it was to reach the summit, the descent was far more brutal. Back to earth, changed and yet with nothing changed. In a letter about his climb, Thoreau said he felt as if he had been translated while up there, but it is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if we ever do.
One summer, copying Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment in living intentionally, Jack Kerouac worked as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington State. One night he woke up in terror, and saw a huge black shadow in the window “Then I saw that it had a star above it, and realized that this was the 8000 foot Mt Hozomeen looking into my window from miles away… — I .. went outside and gasped to see black mountain shapes gianting all around, and not only that but the billowing of the northern lights shifting behind the clouds. — It was a little too much for a city boy — the fear had me hiding..
But in the morning I was overjoyed to see a clear blue sky and down below, …the clouds making a marshmallow cover for all the world … while I abided in warm sunshine among hundreds of miles of snow-white peaks. … That night I just lay on the mountain meadow side in the moonlight, head to grass, and heard the silent recognition of my temporary woes.
— Yes, so to try to attain to Nirvana when you’re already there,
to attain to the top of a mountain when you’re already there…..
I decided that when I would go back to the world down there I’d try to keep my mind clear in the midst of murky human ideas smoking like factories on the horizon,… I could walk forward, blessing the mountain, and thanking it for the lesson…”
Closing Words from a letter of H.D. Thoreau’s
I keep a mountain anchored off eastward a little way, which I ascend in my dreams both awake and asleep. ….I find that I go up it when I am light-footed and earnest. It ever smokes like an altar with its sacrifice. I am not aware that a single villager frequents it or knows of it. I keep this mountain to ride instead of a horse.