If you have ever wondered about the North Cascades, or about mountains, or about the need to be surrounded by wild places, take a quick glance through the worn, tattered journals stashed under the rickety two-by-four bed inside a stout little lookout perched precariously along the boundary of North Cascades National Park atop Hidden Lake Peak. Or, read through all of them if you have an afternoon stormbound (or even sun-blessed quiet, found only up high in mountains). There are entries, open and revealing, that go on for pages. One liners. Someone writes simply—
The rivers run and there are mountains.
Another quotes Frost—
The woods are lovely dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep
Someone writes about heartbreak. About coming here to these mountains that stretch out towards an endless infinity— too many even to count or ever know in a dozen lifetimes, it seems— to find peace amongst the shattered, jagged edges of a messy life. Juvenile jokes. Awe. Gratitude. A terrible beauty.
I sit here on granite, outside the propped open door of the lookout. Dan stirs about inside, always fidgeting. I hear snow melting somewhere beneath the rocks, trickling down, down to somehow find its way to the Cascade River a mile below and then onward to the ocean. Dripping. With snowmelt, the south fork of the Cascade River roars quietly off in the distance through valleys below, endless, rising to meet the mountains. Warm in the sun— then the wind picks up and it hides behind rolling clouds. A calm chill. Shadows glide across glaciers and the still-frozen lake below, effortlessly. I watch them, fascinated. To the south, one gathers above Cascade Pass threatening to swallow Sahale. I turn to make out our tracks, eyeing how they traverse slowly and lazily up from a distant ridge behind which rushes Sibley Creek, still under snow. The same snow we had skinned up the previous day. Crawling, feeling our way in the whiteout, we had reached the saddle, then across the too-steep, still-snow-covered face beneath the summit, all while the light faded. Blue to grey to ink black.
I remember a story I read a few years ago about a virtuoso violinist, a Stradivarius, and a subway station— it makes me wonder now about fidgeting and about beauty. The Washington Post had parked world-famous Joshua Bell in the L’Enfant Plaza station, cloaked in a Washington Nationals baseball cap and blue jeans, to see if anyone would notice whilst he played Bach’s Chaconne— a piece that Johannes Brahms himself had remarked once how, ‘On one stave, for a small instrument, the man (Bach) writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.’ Beauty indeed, maybe at its finest. But was it recognized? Over a thousand people passed by in the forty-three minutes he played. Seven stopped to notice.
The poet W. H. Davies wrote in a poem entitled ‘Leisure’—
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stop and stare.
No time to stop and stare? Has our modern world full of smart phones and Google calendars crushed our appreciation or want of beauty?
So that was Bach in a crowded subway station during morning rush hour, not exactly Immanuel Kant’s idea of optimal conditions in which to perceive beauty. But it still makes me wonder now about wilderness and beauty and fidgeting. If we cannot recognize beauty a few footsteps away as we breeze by on our morning shuffle, can we recognize it after toiling uphill with forty pounds on our backs through whiteouts and over mountain passes and creeks still frozen under winter’s snow? Or is that just it? Does it, in fact, take having to work for something to appreciate it, to recognize the beauty of it all? But, more than simply identifying an inability to see beauty where it lies, what Davies wrote worries me because our difficulty in just stopping to stare, not fidgeting, is unfailingly tied to the understanding, and thus the appreciation, of wilderness. It is within wild places that we are forced to quiet ourselves, to do nothing, to stop fidgeting, while at the same time embracing the ultimate freedom and relief from those same morning rush hours, subway stations, and busy lives.
It is reassuring, nonetheless, that, fifty years ago, the same society that, in the early nineteenth century, French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville remarked was ‘driven, seemingly to the exclusion of all else, by hard work and attaining wealth,’ ultimately decreed in the Wilderness Act a definition of the very idea of wilderness. ‘A wilderness,’ the Act— written by Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society— now famously proclaims, ‘in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.’ Or, less famously said, but perhaps ever more poignantly so— as shared with me by just another guy, seemingly lost in the maze of cubicles in corporate America— how, ‘wilderness is a place to understand yourself as a human… a place devoid of us.’ He continued without so much as a hesitation in his thought, ‘it’s about reminding myself who I am, whether that be just sitting somewhere looking out to amazing nothingness, having the time to do that,’ and only then did he pause for a moment to find the right words he felt would best evoke the essence of what he wanted to convey to me before continuing, ‘the silence to do that,’ emphasizing the simple word ‘silence.’ ‘To remember,’ he said, as if perfectly on point with Kant, ‘that the keen sense of human observation is really sharp there,’ and further, how ‘you lose a lot of that when you’re not there.’
I was stunned. The openness of his thoughts spoke volumes to Zahniser’s words, echoing an austerity in their humbleness. This guy, I concluded, would have stopped to listen to the denim-clad violinist that morning in the bustling station. He would have stopped and stared. And, if so, can’t we all? Can’t we learn to listen to wilderness and its silence and to not fidget? And in so doing, maybe find— as Brahms spoke of Bach— a whole world of our deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.