I turned forty this spring, protesting all along that the number meant nothing, and found to my chagrin that it meant everything they said it would. Maybe not everything; I was surely not so basic as to have a midlife crisis. But whether by some biological clockwork or by having watched too many movies or whatever, something unpleasant did come on over the summer.
I don’t mean the arthritis (arthritis!) that appeared out of nowhere in my left hand, though that was demoralizing enough. The feeling was of someone rudely turning my head, so as to look down for the first time from a tightrope. Behind me, lining the way of my thirties, were endless rows of diapers and spreadsheets, Slack threads and grocery lists, things that now seemed cartoonish and tasks that seemed absurd, Sisyphean. Ahead of me, below me, all around me, was…nothing. A dizzying nothing, but an aggressive one, too, that sneered back at me: You thought you were something?
Since I was not so basic as to have a midlife crisis, I tried to cast these events in a more sophisticated light. Like Dante at the same age – nel mezzo, midway through life, as his story opens – I was coming to myself in a dark wood; what now? Unlike Dante, who could hope to simply clamber back onto the diritta via, the straight way, I as a postmodern individual did not seem to have that luxury. But we shared one thing at least: the urge for a better view. Reaching the end of his valley of shadow, the poet looks up to see a hill with its shoulders bathed in sunlight, and with a burst of hope begins his climb. As for me, before I even remembered Dante, driven by some mythical instinct, I started looking for a climb of my own.
This was not new. To the introvert, to the idealist, and especially to the smaller person, mountains are hard to resist. To stand on the highest thing around is to feel one has a handle on things. I’d always sympathized with the highpointers, that club of fanatics who try to summit the champion peak of every geographical region. It is an intrinsically absurd venture. The first of the highpointers, the self-styled “wandering telegrapher” and bachelor Arthur H. Marshall, took seventeen years to finish off all of the lower forty-eight states. His final conquest was of Hoosier Hill, Indiana, which rises some thirty feet from the surrounding cornfields. But he conquered the Sierras, too.
Not having seventeen years at my disposal, I set my sights more modestly. The trouble was that the region I live in, the Piedmont (“foot-hill”) of the United States, is literally defined by not being mountains. What it does have is what feels to an introvert like an enormous number of humans: humans who often value themselves, judging from their bumper stickers, by their visits to regions outside of the Piedmont. Slope and wave, surf and ski: the ruling class around here demand access both to Wintergreen and to Kitty Hawk, and thus put up with living in the giant foot in between.
But here is the Piedmont’s secret, a secret I hesitate to tell. It does have mountains, and just my style of mountains, too: not sloshing into one another in waves of purple majesty, but standing aloof, as lone eccentrics. They are eccentric mainly because they are extremely old. Our rocks here were laid down by the crashing of continents a billion years ago, and then by their tearing apart half a billion years later, in successive spurts of sand and clay and lava and tiny seashells. When they decided to crash into each other yet again, in order to make Pangaea, they crushed and melted the big layer cake in their path and shoved it up on its end. By the time the dinosaurs had come and gone, it was pretty well worn down to table level. But some of the layers had gone down easier than others, and the others now stuck out, like nuts in a fruitcake.
Mixed nuts, I should say. For each one of these Pied-mountains has a particular and often flamboyant character. They are called monadnocks after one of their leading members. A granite dome like Stone Mountain, Georgia (really quartz monzonite, if you want to split hairs) was born as a pocket of magma trapped far underground, and had its nakedness exposed only much later. It still seems resentful of the affront, and the huge Confederate generals gouged into its back aren’t helping. Life has mostly avoided it, and those few living things that brave its summit, clinging to puddles of rainwater, are not normal: they include an obscure plant called snorkelwort, and a clam shrimp not seen in eighty years.
Of a different character is Carter’s Mountain, which lounges next to my previous hometown of Charlottesville like a great lazy caterpillar. Carter’s Mountain is the sort of mountain that a man feels up to putting his name on. The stuff inside it was magma once too, but a heavy, rich magma from deep in the crust, which flooded the tearing Precambrian surface as lava and cooled into basalt. This rock crumbled benignly into a soil brimming with calcium and magnesium and other nutrients, and was soon enveloped by a lush forest. It was here at the caterpillar’s head that Thomas Jefferson planted his seat of civilization at Monticello, and the fertile earth rose up to greet him, they say, as though welcoming a god from Olympus. At this summit nowadays you’ll find not clam shrimp, but apple orchards and sunset concerts.
The most familiar monadnock near my new hometown is Candler’s Mountain, or the mountain formerly known as Candler’s. This is the place that Jerry Falwell, following Jefferson’s lead with somewhat less subtlety, declared to be his congregation’s Promised Land. After God in his wisdom tipped him off that the land was for sale, Falwell asked his audience on the Old-Time Gospel Hour to perform a miracle by sending the money for it within thirty days. It came to pass, and the mountain is now Liberty Mountain, branded with a red L that is no doubt visible from space.
I don’t think I have a lot in common with Jerry Falwell, but we seem to agree, along with Dante, that a mountain offers promise. This gave me some strange encouragement.
Beyond the celebrity monadnocks, and off the beaten path, it turns out there are many Piedmont peaks and peaklets that no one seems to know what to do with. From Google’s satellite view they sprout like dark, wrinkled lesions; the tentacles of the county road systems strain toward them and mostly give up. I soon found one I liked the look of. It had a compact shape, more of a knob than a spine, and was near a bend in the James River: perhaps it offered a nice vista. At some eleven hundred feet, it was tall, but not so tall as to attract undue attention. Best of all, it was within thirty minutes’ drive without being particularly near anything. Such a mountain could be known, and jealously kept to oneself.
It was in the months leading up to my fortieth birthday that my community had collapsed, or rather my idea of it. Five years earlier, as an introvert and an idealist, I’d leapt into cohousing with grateful abandon. My kids needed a village; I needed people I couldn’t hide from; the world needed more sharing, damn it, and why not start here? There was a glorious honeymoon phase in which we all cooked big pots of soup and shared power tools and all of these dreams were realized in full Technicolor. A bunch of good, friendly, liberal folks, melding together like Captain Planet to make themselves a beautiful little world: what could go wrong? Then the coronavirus arrived. Along with it came the reminders that a) we were still enmeshed in a brutal global machine, and b) it had left us all with baggage that was not so easy to relinquish.
The children, as they do, made all of this much clearer, much faster. A big part of the draw here had been our nostalgic vision of our kids running free together, doing dumb kid stuff. The stuff we did, or imagine we did, in our own childhoods before the internet tempted us out of Eden. And they happily obliged. They ran free, as free as they could within a six-acre bubble surrounded by us: parents who were not themselves free, who’d spent their lives hovering and being hovered over, who largely worked from home and were all too available to swoop in and police a conflict. When that dumb kid stuff got extra dumb – a kid stealing the mail keys, a kid clocking another with a two-by-four, kids playing questionable variations on the Naked Game – it quickly turned out that some of us were a lot more freaked by that than others. No sooner had we begun to sort that out than the Covid wrench was hurled into the mix. Our feral little ones were already threatening our own fragile boundaries; now, those boundaries were under full siege from a new and remorseless invader.
The specter of disease derailed the trust we’d all started building. It also dialed up the stakes on everything. To some, neighbors that had once seemed “square” now seemed threateningly uptight; to others, neighbors that had seemed “offbeat” now seemed dangerously loose. Those little parenting differences widened into chasms, and our fantasy of freeing the kids gave way to a dark spectacle of hushed judgment and hygiene theater and (on at least one occasion) calls to Child Protective Services. Committees proliferated. Through no fault of anyone in particular a culture of control settled in, draining and replacing the spirit of dreamy adventure we’d begun with. Meanwhile our lovely, rickety old common house was effectively boarded up, stranding us all separately in our sterile modular duplexes.
The pandemic would pass, the neighborhood would survive, but we were shaken. We’d expected, my wife and I, to discover new forms of intimacy and solidarity. Instead we came out feeling that we were a good bit weirder, and less compatible with the rest of humanity, than we’d imagined. Left on a mountaintop, contemplating the ruins below. Ruins of…what, exactly? Had they ever been real?
In the end we bought a lovely, rickety old house of our own, in a different town where that big old house cost as much as our little modular duplex had. It’s nice here, and we can take our time cleaning the spiderwebs off the porch. But we don’t know anyone, and that transition is a gut punch. I have guilt still about not working harder to realize the communal dream, in the same way that I had massive guilt about not “fighting” for my first marriage, lost cause though it was. I suck at fighting, if we’re being honest, and at the moment this feels like part of the midlife assignment: coming to terms with the things you suck at, and picking some to work on and others to let go. Triage.
The dream of the diritta via is not so easy to shake.
To get to my mountain you drive out past the county dump and keep going. The roads turn to gravel, and some of them turn out not really to be roads, in which case you try a different one and keep heading uphill. Graceful tuliptrees and pawpaws give way to crooked chestnut oaks and mountain laurels; the soil thins and cracks, developing a lichen crust, like a grandfather’s face; there are glimpses of a broadening view through the trees. You start to feel in your pelvis the hardness of the quartzite underneath, and you wonder about your minivan’s suspension.
Now you are nearing the summit. Though it all belongs to someone, this far up no one bothers with NO TRESPASSING signs. You checked the parcel records before you came; the one at the very top is labeled LAND CORPORATION. Whatever that is. At the thought of being apprehended, dystopian scenarios play out in your mind.
You find a shoulder of sorts and park the car. On foot now, you round a bend and suddenly a bear sow and her two cubs block your path. Your lungs catch. They’re upwind and haven’t noticed you, yet, but they too are headed uphill; it occurs to you that you’ve encountered the real owners of the place. Later you’ll think of the three beasts that appeared to test Dante’s resolve: leopard, lion, wolf. You wait for them to vanish into the brush and you press on, making more noise now, brandishing a stick. Whether because you look threatening or because you look like an idiot, the beasts stay out of your way.
At the very, very top, there is at last a gate, though a half-hearted one. It guards the road’s last steep stretch as it approaches a radio tower. Here you duck around the gate and pant the rest of the way up. Behind the tower the trees part to reveal a boulder with only sunshine behind it, vestite già de’ raggi, dressed in rays. Step out there. The wind whips your gaze off towards the horizon. A family of ravens materialize to check you out, riding the wind, careening for no reason, croaking in five different keys, full of their signature insouciance. Look around: you’re in a different world.
I mentioned that my mountain, unlike Stone or Carter’s, has bones of quartzite. Really this is just sand: sand that’s been ground down from long-gone mountains, strewn out along long-gone shorelines, slowly glued together into sandstone, and then mangled by tectonic clashes into something even tougher. Just as the beach is not a great place for a plant, neither is a block of quartzite, or the stuff that weathers from it: sand grains offer little purchase for nutrients or water, and the soil that forms here is droughty and acid and poor. Where it’s had enough of a chance to collect, a forest will eventually grow, though a simple one.
But out here on the mountain’s southern shoulder, that has not been the case. The slope suddenly drops off into a chaos of unsteady boulders, laying the raw rock bare with its flush of raw pink. If the other side of the mountain is a trying place to be a plant, here on the cliff, baking in the noon sun, it is near impossible. The trees, as it were, that do grow here are dwarfed and gnomish, sometimes barely recognizable as themselves. Still, they cling to every little pocket of dirt and duff, hunkering against the wind.
Most of them are of a type that is not of the Piedmont, and that I have never seen around here. I don’t recognize it at first. Field guides call it the table mountain pine, Pinus pungens, but there is another name for it, drawn from a romantic novel. This was a Great War-era bestseller, beloved by homesick doughboys and (unexpectedly) by Gertrude Stein, and was later adapted into a play which I now know is the Official Outdoor Drama of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The book is The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.
Its hero is an enterprising geologist from the low country who arrives in the Cumberland Mountains to size them up for coal. He gets very distracted from this by a wild and beautiful local girl, and then gets himself all tangled up in a feud between clans. The old tree of the title, which stands at a pass between the hollows of the mountain folk and the encroaching civilization, comes to symbolize many things: it points the way to the Outside and stands guard against it; it warmly shares the lovers’ secrets, and stoically keeps its own. All along it is quite obvious that the mountain folk are destined to be loved right out of existence, a pattern that is deeply familiar to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which is still for lovers as its tourism board keeps reminding us. There are far fewer table mountain pines than there once were to watch over this process of love.
I wonder if any botanist knows, or has ever known, about the pines here on my mountain. They do look lonesome, individually and collectively – many miles from any others of their kind, each one gazing out across the dark valley. They are small, but could be a hundred years old, for all I know. No range map shows them here, nor does a search of herbarium records turn up anything. No forester would bother looking, for P. pungens has no place in the economy. In Donald Culross Peattie’s affectionate dismissal, “this intransigent Pine has no business future, nor will it —slow-growing, stingy of shade, without one concession to grace—ever find a role in horticulture. Its place is high on mountain ridges, where it looks down on the soaring buzzards, where the wildcat lives and the rattler suns his coils.”
Because I am also doubting my place in the economy, and grappling in my own way with extinction, I identify with these trees. They are creatures of fire, which is appealing to the imagination. You see it first in the cones. Our other pines have reasonable cones, modestly sized, borne regularly on the ends of branches, opening gracefully at the allotted times. P. pungens has what look like grenades spiked with velociraptor claws, sprouting grotesquely from every part of the tree including its trunk. For thirty years sometimes they remain glued shut, until a wildfire comes along to melt the resinous glue. Only then, assured of a freshly made bed underneath, complete with a fertile ashy blanket, will the pine soften and release its seeds.
In fact every part of this tree is built for a pas de deux, ancient and ongoing, with that most fickle of partners. Each little seedling has a characteristic kink in its stem, which helps it lay flat to avoid being scorched. Each trunk is brimming with sticky pitch, which helps seal off burn wounds. Each tree sheds its lower branches as it grows, which helps guard its tender crown from the flames. And so on. P. pungens is a monument to survival amidst chaos, amidst conflagration. Unfortunately those things did not turn out to be amenable to twentieth-century management plans. Our fear of them, our need to control fire and all it represents, has made the tree’s dance all but undanceable.
In my delight with this secret forest and my hunger for symbol, I read all kinds of meaning into my encounter. O for how long have I stood alone on my mountaintop! Et cetera. Like the lonesome pine, I think romantically, I’ve kept one face toward the gathering clouds of civilization, and one toward the receding green wilderness, feeling forever estranged from both. Like the pine, I think tragically, I am a child of chaos in a world hell-bent on extinguishing it. Perhaps, I think dreamily, I’m just waiting for my own fire return, like a Saturn return, when I will at last be released into my next stage of life: a stage, no doubt, of opening up and gracing the earth with my seed.
The ravens whirl overhead, croaking their laughter.
Thirty years after Dante’s fantasy climb, his countryman Petrarch embarked (if we’re to believe him) on a real-world equivalent. The target was Mont Ventoux, a six-thousand-foot, impressively balding slab of limestone that looms over Provence. Petrarch has been put forward as the first mountaineering tourist, though it’s well established now that he wasn’t even the first to reach this particular summit. In fact he meets one of his predecessors on the way up: a crotchety old shepherd who serves much the same function as the beasts of Dante. Don’t waste your time, warns the old man. I made it up there fifty years ago and got nothing for it but ripped clothes.
The poet soldiers on anyway, though he’s out of shape, trying several times to find a more roundabout but less steep way up. At the top he exults for a moment and then surrenders to a predictable melancholy. Gazing off towards the Alps and his homeland beyond, he’s seized by perspective. For nearly three years now, he reflects, he’s been at war with a “perverse and wicked passion” (which he declines to name). If this battle rages on until he turns forty, will he then be able to face death with serenity, with hope? Looking for some clue, he opens the book he’s brought with him, Augustine’s Confessions. The first words he sees cut like a knife:
And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.
There you have it. Petrarch packs up and heads down, chastened by this reminder that the soul is the only truly worthy object of contemplation, that by comparison even the great Ventoux is “scarcely a cubit high.” That night he jots all this down in a letter to his confessor, Father Dionigi, begging forgiveness for the “vague and wandering thoughts” that mirror his route up the peak. The letter survives by some miracle. Scholars of a far later age will assign to it an epochal significance: Petrarch’s turn within, according to some, marks the dawning of the Renaissance!
We’re all Petrarchians, then. So why are we still climbing mountains? What are we looking for up there? What am I looking for up here? How pathetic is this, that we – and by we I might mean midlife men, especially – still haven’t successfully internalized the clear message that heralded our modern age?
Here on my humbler heights, I wish I had a book to throw open, some serendipitous words to go by. In fact that wish is so strong that it leads me to confess something to myself: what I’m looking for is not just perspective, but a revelation. A bolt from the blue, sent to change everything, to galvanize my vague and wandering life into something hard and pure and brilliant. Petrarch was galvanized by Augustine, who had himself once randomly opened the Bible, and been galvanized by a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans (“Not in rioting and drunkenness…But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ”). Once upon a time you could count on such reliable pipelines of revelation.
Or: a burning bush. The sign that met Moses on his mountain, the bush that burned but was not consumed, flagror non consumor. Glimpse of divine glory and grace; sneak preview of the virgin birth. Who wouldn’t want to receive a calling in such a flaming fashion? And lo! I’m surrounded by them, these trees that thrive on fire, that are burned but not consumed! Are they my sign?
The path had ended at the top of the cliff, where the boulders and pines began. Now there was no path. I picked a rock to sit on to catch my breath.
The view was everything I’d hoped for: clear to the Blue Ridge to my right, clear across the great bend in the river and out towards the coastal plain to my left. With a perspective like this, with clarity like this, the right thoughts would surely come. I trained my eyes on the horizon, let them drift out of focus, waited for the universe to pass through me.
And waited. After a couple of minutes, a tiny insect entered annoyingly into my field of vision. It hovered there as if daring me to swat it. I recognized it as an old friend, a species I’d encountered many times before: a little fly called Toxomerus, the Calligrapher, after the fine black inking on its yellow abdomen that helps it pretend to be a scary wasp. A type of hoverfly, or flower fly, so named because the only thing they ever attack is nectar, and occasionally salt.
I remember identifying the Calligrapher Fly for the first time, as a kid exploring my mother’s garden. I was awed then by the revelation of an entirely new scale on which things can be multifarious and beautiful. On my front porch in my cohousing neighborhood, where during good times I brought my laptop to work and to be pleasantly disrupted by conversation, Calligraphers were constant companions: touching down on my arms and forehead to sample my salty sweat, visiting so often that I started to fancy I could recognize them as individuals. The brushwork on each was ever so slightly different, inscribing a different message.
This one eventually touched down, too, landing on the back of my left hand. Its hind end – her hind end; her wide-set eyes and rounded figure gave her away – bobbed up and down against my skin. What was she doing up here? There were hardly any flowers around. I held her up close to my face, and maybe because there was only sky behind, I felt I was seeing her in more detail than ever before. For the first time I really noticed the halteres, structures like golden sewing pins of astonishing delicacy on either side of the body, which serve as ultrasensitive gyroscopes to help the fly instantaneously correct her balance. I watched the proboscis, like the sponge-tipped arm of some perfect nanobot, as it worked me over harvesting the minerals I’d secreted on my hot hike up. When she finally whirred off, I imagined I could feel those bits of myself going with her.
The shift in attention, from thirty miles off to three inches, had been dizzying. I laughed in my head at the thought that I’d climbed a mountain in order to commune with one of the humblest beings in creation, a creature I could have found anywhere. So very predictable, all of it. Getting up, I started to look for a route down the cliff, to see what I could find amongst the pines.
For Carl Jung it came on at thirty-eight. That was when he was seized, in the middle of a train ride, by a vision of half of Europe drowned under a sea of blood. It was the fall of 1913; the Great War would break out the following summer.
Jung had been on top of his chosen world, an academic star, president of societies and grantee of honorary doctorates. But all those trophies were starting to ring hollow, and he was feeling a needling discomfort with the psychoanalytic establishment – in particular with Sigmund Freud, a man he’d embraced at first as a sort of lost soulmate. Where Freud treated the unconscious as a dead thing, to be excavated from its repression and inspected like an ancient artifact, Jung had started to suspect that “there was something living down there.” Now that something was lurching into his own consciousness in terrifying fashion.
The vision of blood was followed by others, equally vivid, over the next several months. This outburst seemed to Jung to spectacularly crystallize not only his own private anxieties, but the anxieties of his whole prewar society. It felt like a vast shared reservoir of myth was leaping its banks and filling him up to his ears. By April he had resolved to quit all his public appointments and devote himself to a new, far more private project – one he called a “confrontation with the unconscious.” This took the form of intense work with select patients, but also of intense sessions with himself, exploring fantastical buried realms through his emerging techniques of active imagination. His discoveries there were meticulously recorded and illustrated in what he named the Liber Novus or simply the “Red Book,” which came to resemble a great medieval illuminated manuscript. When he died, his heirs locked it in a bank vault for twenty-five years.
All along he fretted about losing his mind. The more he dared to let it go, the more bizarre its contents revealed themselves to be. When a cast of recurring characters began to establish itself, led by an old man with bull’s horns and kingfisher’s wings, Jung quietly placed a loaded revolver in a drawer by his bed. In case things got out of hand.
The night I first opened his Red Book, I decided to try this active imagination thing for myself. Having no idea what I was doing, I laid down, closed my eyes, and promised to follow whatever images came up, wherever they led. I wrote down what happened:
Almost immediately I saw a sun framed by distant hills, either rising or setting, and then, at the base of the hills, a large black pool. As I stared at the pool, things that looked like tentacled appendages started to emerge from it here and there. Then, without warning, an enormous dragon lifted itself from the water. Psychedelic, in purple and magenta, with eyes like spinning kaleidoscopes. It opened its jaws wide, and wider, until I was sucked in and found myself riding at breakneck speed along its unzipping neck. A beautiful woman in white appeared briefly, motionless and serene in midair – my wife? but not only my wife – and I flailed at her but was moving too fast to make contact. At last I was deposited in the belly of the beast, with the growing feeling that I was the beast. Here I was surrounded by a red-stained darkness, above which its wings, my wings, were straining to lift us. Explosions were happening everywhere, bursts of light and sound that were felt more than seen or heard, and as we hovered there straining the bursts became more and more intense and alarming. Eventually I was unsettled enough to snap myself back to reality.
Dr. Jung would not have had a hard time sorting that one out. Nor, I imagine, would he have lifted an eyebrow at the events of the next few days, when the rabbit synchronicities set in. This began when my ancient outdoor cat, whose hunting days I’d thought were long behind her, somehow caught a baby rabbit. I heard the commotion and found it still alive in her jaws, its big black haunted eyes looking right at me, and lunged in a desperate effort to save it. She ran away and later deposited its mangled corpse beside my favorite seat on the porch. The floor there is now stained with baby rabbit blood, permanently as far as I can tell. This might have been sign enough, but it seemed to open the floodgates for an unaccountable barrage of rabbit images: bunnies in cartoons and children’s books, bunnies in memes, tame bunnies at the farm sanctuary I visited with my kids, wild bunnies (including one being chased by a cat) on the way there. The next time I tried the active imagination thing, all I could see was a rabbit being torn apart by rays of light.
My conscious self was looking for mountains to climb; my unconscious self was looking to drag me down a rabbit-hole. It occurred to me for the first time that these might be opposite manifestations of the same urge. Perhaps the climbing was really a recoiling.
When you’re descending a cliff and paying attention to every foothold, you notice the small things. It helps that there are so few of them: life here is mostly empty space, each outpost a testament to a near-hopeless act of interstellar colonization. But here and there amongst the impossibly white shards of quartz are lush oases of moss, each a nebula of green that resolves up close into hundreds of feathery stars. Pick up each oasis and you can split it open to reveal a self-contained layer of soil: it’s a whole biosphere. There are lichens, too, tattooing the rock in a dozen different earth tones, each species with its own evocative name, as I learn later, like “Golden Moonglow.” Species – that term doesn’t do lichens justice, as each algal-fungal “individual” is in fact an inconceivable partnership across kingdoms, the fruit of a forbidden alien love. We carry scandals like these within our own bodies, of course. How laughable our insistence on boundaries.
And charcoal everywhere. In planks, flakes, briquettes. Beneath the layer of pine needles that builds up between the boulders, there is a salt-and-pepper mix of sand and ash, very inviting to the fingers; I do not blame the trees for longing to drop their seed there. Probably someone who knows fire could tell me how long it has been since this all burned. Not all that long, I guess. The pines around me seem utterly unfazed. What set it off?
One more step down and there is the answer. Halfway down the slope on a knob jutting out toward the void: the remains of a tree. A jet-black carcass with only its lower trunk still standing. Limbs laid out at its feet like weapons surrendered in battle. Gash down its side, exposing at its top the secret record of its life, decades’ worth of xylem chronicling seasons sweet and harsh, a Red Book written in rings. One burnt bush, among all the miraculous unburnt. This is the real Lonesome Pine, sacrificing itself to the lightning that its tribe might be restored.
Clambering back up the cliff, dreaming over what meaning to glean from all this, I miss a foothold. (Not to worry, “cliff” sounds more dramatic than it is; though it’s not exactly Hoosier Hill, this is the Piedmont.) I skid half-sideways and land awkwardly a couple feet down, on a ledge of sorts, catching myself with my nose a few inches from the rock. There beneath me, half-glued to the surface, is a big dead beetle. Really it’s just a couple of wing cases, a head bent pitifully into a fetal tuck, and a dried-up granola of innards. Some little predator has done to it what my cat did to that poor rabbit. We stare at each other for a moment, then I lay down next to it and look up at the sky.
These are not the signs I had come for. I climbed up here to stick one to Death, not to have my nose rubbed in it. I am longing for clarity, for rarefaction, to catch sight of a Way, even if it’s not the lost Right Way. Instead everything in me and around me is pulling me toward the dark, the mundane, the muck, the offal.
Prostrate here on my ledge, I think about prostration. There is a word, metanoia, that Jung uses in examining the midlife crisis. It’s a Greek word that was popular among the authors of the New Testament. It can be literally translated as “change of mind,” or Christianized (as in most modern Bible translations) as “repentance.” But the meta- here really means beyond, not just changed; it implies transcendence, rather than mere reversal. Like metamorphosis.
In Orthodox Christianity the gesture of prostrating oneself during prayer is also technically termed the metanoia. One must submit in order to transcend. The caterpillar knows this; it eats and eats and eats, stretching its skin to the breaking point, then at last submits and lies down and lets its insides liquefy. From that alchemical substance, wings somehow sprout. But the Hallmark version of this archetype is misleading, for the wings are secondary. The fundamental move in going meta, going trans, is not a rising above but a dissolution, a spilling out past your skin. The crucial thing about the butterfly is that it can now love, and give of itself.
In my preoccupation with mountains I have been following an old script. As old as 1965, certainly, when Elliott Jaques – the psychologist who coined the term “midlife crisis” – quoted one of his struggling patients:
Up till now, life has seemed an endless upward slope, with nothing but the distant horizon in view. Now suddenly I seem to have reached the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight.
Or as old as 1943, when Jung himself observed:
Our life is like the course of the sun. In the morning it gains continually in strength until it reaches the zenith-heat of high noon. Then comes the enantiodromia [another hundred-dollar Greek word]: the steady forward movement no longer denotes an increase, but a decrease, in strength.
Or as old as the twilight of the Middle Ages, when the first humanists climbed mountains and confronted themselves. And far older than that, surely. It’s human nature to feel our youthful exertions as an ascent, an upward slope, and it’s human nature to want to extend that slope as long as possible, while the illusion can still be believed. Only when we veer too close to the sun does the real work begin. The work of falling. To quote Jung one last time:
In my case Pilgrim’s Progress consisted in my having to climb down a thousand ladders until I could reach out my hand to the little clod of earth that I am.
Haruki Murakami tells a story from his childhood about a cat that belonged to him, a much-loved snow-white kitten. One day without warning it dashed up the trunk of the tall pine in the family’s yard. At the top, far out of reach of any ladder even, it realized its mistake, and the boy listened to its helpless mewing until night fell. The next morning there was only silence. He never learned what became of the kitten, but was haunted long after by the thought of it still up there, or its shriveled remains, clinging on with frozen claws.
To climb down the thousand ladders, for this little animal, was too much. Our journeys through the morning of life get us into similar predicaments. We think only of the climb until we run out of branches, and only then do we look down and remember what we left at the bottom. But to undo each of those steps seems exhausting. The descent demands a different kind of agility, a different kind of poise, and we cannot see clearly whether anything will still be waiting for us down there.
The ego must die. I know this already; you know this already; that one New Agey Facebook friend of yours, the one you’ve privately ridiculed, would happily have told you (and maybe has). If none of us take it seriously, maybe it’s because the prospect of vacancy afterwards is too disturbing. What are we supposed to show to the world, after this thing we’ve spent so much time building is in ruins?
Here’s the best answer I can come up with. The vacancy is not real, just as the burned tree is not really burned, because I am not a tree; I am a forest. I extend indefinitely; I connect mysteriously. I am the soil, seething with death and life, as much as I am the foliage straining for the light, or the raven with its wings brushing against it. To let the tree burn is merely to return its stuff to the earth, to the greater me. To free it into the ash of potential. To provide for a renaissance.
The mountains, these precious little peaks where we each flatter ourselves to stand: they are not real. From sand and magma they came, and that way they will go. For a time we each play at being quartzite or granite or basalt, we mound ourselves up and pose across the valleys, flaunting our separateness, but always the earth is shifting.
That all sounds right, but I admit I don’t really know what to do with it. I do know that I wasn’t ready for what I thought I wanted from community. For all my big ideas about trust, I hadn’t yet learned how to trust me. Which meant that truly giving of myself was impossible. The thought of being porous, of letting bits of myself out and the currents of the world in, of trusting those boundaries-not-boundaries to self-regulate – that thought still brings some anxiety. It is true that our culture underprepares us for such things woefully. We are trained to see each other through the eyes of a forester, not an ecologist.
So for now, anyway, I’m still stuck here with my fears. I might as well put them down here: That I will never figure out what my life’s work is supposed to be. That I’ve deprived myself of real friends for so long that I’ve forgotten how to make them. That all my creative projects are doomed to die before they’re born, going slowly up in the smoke of dithering “research.” That the energy my beloved kids have sucked from me will prove to be a nonrenewable resource. That my beloved wife will go on brilliantly actualizing herself, leaving me as a withered gray thing groping at her coattails. That my mulish independence, my allergy to joining and following, will condemn me to solitude. That my lack of memory will keep me from integrating my life. That my lack of trauma means I have nothing worthwhile from it to share. That I will never manage to escape my own mind, or truly speak it.
Summer now turns to autumn. I finish this piece, and contemplate publishing it, and the doubts, like vultures, gather round and press in. It’s boring to read about such a lack of incident, such a piedmont of a life. It’s obnoxious for a white man to complain about his midlife crisis. It’s uncool to be seen doubting yourself.
Clearly nothing’s burned just yet. But we’re out here facing the lightning now, and there’s oxygen getting in, in a way there never was before.
Back at the top, I pause before stepping back into the woods, onto the path. The gang of ravens comes by for one last pass. I’m still the most interesting thing around, apparently.
One makes a soft throaty honk I haven’t heard before; another spins off a barrel roll. Every time I see these birds I marvel at their inability to go from point A to point B in an orderly fashion. No creature I know better embodies a joyful submission, a willingness to mess around and find out, to be taken by the wind and thrown into the possible. Small wonder it so often appears in myth as the one who tricks, who transforms, bringing the world to its knees and binding it together in the process.
Bringing the fire, and watching it burn.