Voices of MW

Edwin Bernbaum

MOUNTAINS AND WILDERNESS Excerpted, with permission of the author, from Sacred Mountains of the World, University of California Press, 1998

When we think of a mountain peak, we usually envision it as a paradigm of wilderness in its wildest and purest form — a spiritually uplifting realm of forests, streams, crags, and snows unspoiled by the works of man. Unlike jungles and deserts, two other features of the natural landscape that embody powerful images of wilderness, the heights of mountains cannot be cut down or made to bloom, transformed into cities and farmland. The few huts placed high on their sides for the use of climbers seem to perch there as tiny intruders totally at the mercy of the environment, easily wiped out by a rockfall or avalanche, if the mountain so moves. The forces of untamed nature — wind, cloud, storm, and cold — find their most powerful expression on the tops of mountains, imbuing the heights with an aura of wilderness in its most extreme and inviolable state. Mountains and wilderness function for many of us as a sacred space, set apart from the profane realm of everyday life. There, far from the civilized world, lies the mysterious domain of the wholly other, governed by natural forces beyond the reach of human control. By exposing themselves to these forces, wilderness enthusiasts seek to awaken a sense of the sacred that will enable them to transcend their usual preoccupations and know, for a brief time, the taste of a more enduring reality. Like the Garden of Eden, wild places preserve for them the primordial purity of creation, a sacred space that remains undesecrated by humankind. Indeed, the wilderness represents, for many of us, a place of spiritual renewal, where we can go to back to the source of our being and recover the freshness of a new beginning. The lure and magic of wilderness, the essence of what makes it so peculiarly attractive, comes from the sense of the sacred that it evokes. There is something fundamentally wild about the sacred itself, the way it eludes all our attempts to control and domesticate it. Like the inaccessible summit of a distant peak, it lies outside our reach, free from the restraints of any artificial order we would try to impose upon it. Its law is its own, not ours. The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau was referring to the sense of the sacred hidden in the wildness of nature when he wrote: “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild, and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of world.” As the last unclimbed mountains are climbed and true wilderness vanishes, replaced with parks and designated “wilderness areas,” we will have to turn to the sense of the sacred to find the wildness that Thoreau regarded as essential to the preservation of the world. That wildness, which we associate with unexplored places, actually lies right here, all around us, in the familiar things of our usual surroundings, if we can see them as they truly are, imbued with all the mystery and splendor of the deepest forests and highest peaks. While doing research in the Himalayas, I went on an expedition to a legendary sacred valley that few, if any, outsiders had ever visited. I wrote of my impressions on reaching this valley after a long and difficult journey: “The freshness of our surroundings brought back childhood fantasies of primeval jungles hidden in the imaginary wilds of my own backyard. This forest had the same remote and mysterious quality, but it also seemed close and oddly familiar, as if I had been here long ago. Although many miles and mountains separated us from the help we would need in case of an accident, I felt at home and secure.” As we grow up, wilderness, the place of mystery, recedes from our everyday lives to distant places, where we feel we must go to encounter it again. But if we know how to look for the essence of it, we can find it where we first experienced it as children — right here in our own backyards, in the wild sense of wonder and awe we felt on seeing everything fresh and new. The sense of the sacred awakened by mountains and wilderness has a crucial role to play in our efforts to respect and protect the environment. We usually treat the things we revere with love and respect, seeking to maintain their beauty and integrity. If something has acquired an aura of sanctity in our eyes, we feel little inclination to tamper with it: it seems whole and perfect in its own right. If we see the environment in this way, we feel an urge to preserve, rather than destroy it. Without such an underlying sense of the sacred to inspire long-term commitment, conservation efforts based only on ecological facts and theories falter in the face of powerful forces determined to use the land and its resources for economic and political purposes. When that commitment does flag, as it will, the mountains provide a place to renew it with a vision of what it is in the world that we really value and need to conserve. In cutting down our forests, poisoning our rivers, and fouling our cities, we do more than imperil our physical health and livelihood: we impair our ability to experience a deeper reality in our lives. When we kill off wildlife and ravage the landscape, we destroy the beauty and wholeness of nature on which we depend for our spiritual well-being. No longer can we look to trees and streams, meadows and flowers, birds and animals, for images with the power to resonate in our minds and awaken a deep and abiding sense of the sacred. One of the greatest tragedies of desecrating the environment is that we cut ourselves off from the depths of our innermost being — from the source of insight and joy that makes life meaningful and worthwhile.


Out there is a world of open space, free-running waters and naive animals, a world still shining from its primeval glory. It is up to us, and us alone, to keep it alive…

When I mentioned the word “wild” during a conversation in which I tried to make clear and justify its use when applied to mountains as an entity, my friend cried out: “But we are not wild!” Obviously, without knowing better – and not wishing to know more – in this case the word was innocently applied not to “the Mountain” but to the mountain population, and suddenly became an insult, to which my friend protested with energy. I must confess, his reaction left me flabbergasted. It showed to what extent certain innovative initiatives are misunderstood and poorly accepted, bringing with them a series of difficulties, if not hostility.

However, the aims pursued by Mountain Wilderness are clear and “transparent” (an expression that recently has entered public life and is of course used often for circumstances or persons that are interested in remaining “opaque”), transparent like ice or crystal.

According to Lévi-Strauss, it is not a matter of reducing to a status of wild living conditions the autochthons, who have often set examples of shrewd and clever adaptation to a particularly harsh natural environment, but to protect in Europe and elsewhere the high altitude territories from aggression that has only one purpose: a new way of making money. Due to this invasion a different kind of structures materialized, such as scrap-iron or similar buildings that are simply catastrophic, both from an aesthetic point of view and for the ecology. The consequences of all this are obvious to anybody, but it would be childish to suppose that the persons concerned will admit any reason other than MONEY for their creation, and MONEY with a capital M.

It is not useless to analyse further this matter, because the damage caused goes well beyond the mere aesthetic result. As a matter of fact, we now focus on the point, which is not often discussed and is not easy to exploit by the media, as it requires a certain amount of personal and open-minded thought.

Why is this High Altitude World so precious for us? Fundamentally precious? Because as it appears it is strictly associated to the key-value of thought, conscious or unconscious thought, as it becomes obvious by the flow of metaphors, symbolic expressions that everywhere and always point in the same direction. The notion and images of ascent, of altitude, of perfect purity are all signs of a Transcendency that have no other explanation; and they are essential for the well-being of the human species. By destroying the practical means necessary for such dynamic and inspiring values, we support and enforce the condition of anguish that is apparently engulfing our so-called modern civilisation. This is the high price we pay to-day for having abandoned the “sacred”.

And for this reason the campaign started by Mountain Wilderness – even though its deeper motivations are not always clearly realized – may be considered a social benefit.

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