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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

In Our Nature: Good Tidings

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunlight flows into trees.

The winds will blow their own freshness into you

And the storms their energy

While cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

  • John Muir

Mountains  have always held a special place in the hearts and imaginations of humanity. To climb a mountain is to come as close as we earthbound humans can come to touching the sky, and from the times of our oldest legends the mountains have been the most romantic manifestation of the wild – an untamed world awaiting our wandering spirits. The mountains are a place we associate with freedom in both soul and body; the solitude they provide creates the perfect setting for the quest of self-discovery which many traditional notions of coming of age require.

When I set out for the mountains last Friday, however, I have to confess that self-discovery wasn’t really what was on my mind. And that’s because, to be honest, last week had me feeling low.

Really low.

It’s something that happens to me from time to time. And when I get into that emotional state, I have a really bad habit of going for long drives in my car. It’s as if with each press of the accelerator I burn through a little more of my misery and frustration and blast it out of my tailpipe to leave it billowing in the dust.

But something about last week was different. As I drove down the highway on Friday, it didn’t matter how hard I pressed the pedal; the darkness refused to burn away. All the anguish and self-hatred clung to my consciousness, and this time, they were laced too deeply in my mind to be eradicated by the drive alone.

Gradually I realized that despite my original intentions, I wasn’t actually heading to the mountains to find myself and broaden my mind; I was going there because I couldn’t handle being myself at all. I wanted to forget who I was, to lose myself entirely. At that point, all the mountains were to me was a place I could run away to avoid facing the reality of the self I had come to despise.

The worst part was that in this effort, I was utterly failing. I couldn’t escape myself, because no matter how hard I could try, not even the whole of the Sierra Nevada range could stand between me and who I knew or believed myself to be.

But I’m not writing this column to tell you about Friday. We all have struggles, we all have moments of darkness and despair. It’s how we get through them that matters, and what comes out on the other side.

I’m writing this column to tell you about Saturday.

Because Saturday, in the driving rain that battered Kennedy Canyon, on a trail that turned out to be far more than I bargained for, I finally started to see what it is to really be me.

That’s the amazing thing about the mountains—the strange, miraculous way they work. You might think they bring you closer to the heavens, closer to high ideals and grand thoughts. That they transcend the world and bring you up to soar with them. And in a spiritual sense, I think that might be true. But what’s truly incredible about the mountains is how they lift you –  by bringing you back to earth.

As I climbed higher and higher over steep slopes, mucky bogs and tall boulders, I couldn’t pretend I was able to lose sight of the crushing thoughts of the day before. There are some things we can’t just forget, some things that force themselves into our view no matter how we want to turn away. But as I pressed onward against the downpour, with nothing but my body and the clothes on my back, I was brought down to earth to see the self beneath my thoughts.  Because underneath the vicious lies and callous truths to which we subject ourselves, we are just bodies moving with ease or hardship through the world. We are legs that walk, lungs that breathe, hands that grasp. Every body has its struggle, but what matters in the end is whether it keeps pushing through, despite the trepidation and the pain.

These are the good tidings of the mountains, and as I ventured there this weekend they turned into a song that rang in my ears. On Sunday at high noon, as I stood on the broad shoulders of the Cathedral Range in Yosemite, the brilliant alpine sun broke through the clouds and bathed the mountains and me in absolute clarity. There is no greater tangible reminder of what you can do than to see snow covered peaks laid out under your gaze in all directions. I, my self, my body – I got there. Through my actions, I gained access to something beautiful beyond compare.

There in the bright Sierra sunlight, I finally could see: I did this. And no matter what life can throw at me, no matter what I may tell myself in my darkest moments, no one can take that part of me away. Not even the cruelty of my own mind.

So if you ever find yourself struggling to fend off the dark, or if you’re faced with a world you feel is just too heavy, I implore you to find something to climb. It may not be easy, and it probably won’t be, but you can do it. Feel your body struggle and feel it emerge at the top in the heavenly sunshine. Look around, and you’ll see how your struggle was so worthwhile. Your life, your pains, your battles: they are worth fighting. Because you are worth it. And no matter what you think you are, it’s what you do that counts – so go do something beautiful.

Climb the mountains and hear the good tidings – hope is in our nature.
Nick Jensen can be reached at njensen@ucdavis.edu

Graphic by Sandra Bae.

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