Friday, January 11, 2008

Perceptions and the Mountain

You can never step twice into the same river.

Or walk twice upon the same mountain. Our experiences have always shaped our perceptions: of people, places, and the elements and events of our world. So it is with “my” mountain. Time spent with this mountain over these years has made it mine, has it not? I have purchased this mountain with the hours, the attention, the care-full regard, and with all the experiences the mountain and I have shared.

As I have come to know the mountain in its many seasons, weathers, times of day, my perceptions of it have evolved. I know now that my fellow beings and I do not see the same mountain, just as I no longer see the mountain I first saw. Each mountain biker or horseback rider is surely experiencing a different mountain. The trail will be a different place for a jogger than for a butterfly collector or dog-walker. Each of us creates a unique mountain; each of us lives a distinct experience.

The memory of each experience becomes part of the mountain for me. Every time I walk past the location where I saw a rattlesnake, or encountered a fox, or met a belligerent young racer (snake, that is), those memories are renewed. Such encounters are as physical a part of the trail for me as a special tree or boulder. A favorite resting spot was changed forever the day someone left me a dead rattlesnake there. What perception of the mountain does one have that makes a dead rattlesnake more appropriate than a live one at that particular location? That person may now remember that tree as the place I killed a big rattler. But the memory of that violence adds an abrasive quality to what was, for me, a peaceful place. Someone's perception was different, was perhaps that the trail would be a safer place without that rattlesnake. Others may have wished for a chance just to see that rattlesnake, alive and bit scary. We need such encounters to keep our own instincts healthy.

Sometimes I meet other owners of the mountain. How does it seem to them?, I wonder. What are their perceptions of it? Where I see an impenetrable tangle of mountain mahogany, the deer see a feast, and a safe hiding place from which to watch my passage. Where I see an attractive grassy slope, they see a place to bask and browse in the morning sun. We can perhaps guess some of their perceptions, being mammals as they are, but what is the mountain to a butterfly or a bug?

How many mountains can this one mountain support? As long as our varied perceptions do not threaten the mountain's integrity, its perception of itself, the mountain can go on being a mirror, being something quite different to each of us. With care, the mountain can be big enough for all our perceptions. It was big enough to accommodate the perceptions of a very big dreamer in 1910, big enough to hold the excitement of his early auto races as well. It was big enough to absorb both, almost without a trace. And the mountain can be big enough to support the many perceptions of future generations, non-human and human, who come to it.

I know that Open Space considers the mountain theirs, much as I consider it mine, John Brisben Walker considered it his, and the deer and snakes, no doubt, consider it theirs. Whose mountain is it? In the end, it belongs to those who truly dwell there, only temporarily to those who visit it to shape a new reality.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
—John Muir

Originally written 1988.

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