Sunday, April 01, 2007

A tale of two places, maybe three: Part I, Yosemite

The contrast of hiking two different places on my trip to California helped me understand something new about my relationship to landscape. The role of place in the narrative of my life is key to understanding who I am. The places I visited are largely familiar to me, some more than others, and what I realized as I walked their paths and took in the beauty of the world around me is that I meet God in different ways in each of them.

I'm going to do a series of posts which reflect on this new awareness. The first two will be about places I visited on vacation. The third will be on another place, one that wasn't visited, but which I'm now seeing differently because of what I learned while on this trip.

Part I: Yosemite

It's really quite hard to write about the beauty of Yosemite. I take comfort in knowing John Muir, naturalist, writer and champion of Yosemite, resisted writing about it himself. It was years after he lived there and walked its paths daily before he ever put into words what he saw and experienced. In an article he wrote (Our National Parks, Chapter 3: "The Yosemite"), he said,
But to get all this into words is a hopeless task. The leanest sketch
of each feature would need a whole chapter. Nor would any amount of
space, however industriously scribbled, be of much avail. To defrauded
town toilers, parks in magazine articles are like pictures of bread to
the hungry. I can write only hints to incite good wanderers to come to
the feast.*
I write about it for myself in my journal and doing so records the pictures in my mind's eye of the places I saw, the particular feelings evoked, the sense of breathless awe upon seeing nature in its grandest, most magnificent fashion. It is not, I think, that Yosemite is more beautiful or more worthy of praise than any other place in which natural beauty is allowed its fullest display. It is, I think, that the sheer size of its features speaks to me in a louder voice, with words that transcend my vocabulary. Again, Muir says it so well in his own journal (John of the Mountains, 47): "God's glory is over all His works, written upon every field and sky, but here it is in larger letters—magnificent capitals."

Magnificent capitals indeed! When you think of mountains or valleys or waterfalls and trees, to picture how they appear in Yosemite means to see MOUNTAINS, VALLEYS, WATERFALLS, and TREES. And, still such description fails to convey the majesty of the place. It must be seen, experienced up close and in person. You have to know what it's like to feel the mist at the bottom of a waterfall completely soak you in fine, tiny dots of moisture, to hear the roar of its water and know how deafening its sound can be. You have to experience the powerful smell of cedar and pine which cleans the air and invites you to breathe deep, to fill your lungs with its freshness. You have to have your breath taken away upon first glance of the Valley, to take in the forceful effect of a glacier as it slowly inches forward, carving through the granite landscape that once existed there. You have to know what it's like to be intimidated by the size of a rock, and then find that one slow step at a time can bring you to its highest peak.

As we hiked (or sauntered, as Julie pointed out and writes about here) around Mirror Lake in Yosemite, we were in the shadow of Half Dome. Years ago, I hiked the 16+-mile roundtrip trail to the top of Half Dome, the last 600 feet of which is at a 45% grade up a sheer granite face. It is one of the most physically challenging things I've ever done. As we hiked last week, I kept looking up at the mountain, amazed that I'd ever made it to the top. Everything in Yosemite inspires awe, and Half Dome's particular awe for me is the feeling I get when I close my eyes and picture the world I looked out upon from the top of the dome. When I've written about it in the past, this is what I said,
As I came to the last cable rung and saw that one step up would put me on flat ground, I reached with every ounce of energy I had left to hoist myself to the top. A few steps forward brought me to the rock's edge and the most spectacular view I've ever seen. I couldn't breathe. When I looked up, I saw nothing but sky and clouds and solitary birds circling in the wind. The sky was bluer and the clouds closer than any I'd ever seen. When I looked out, I saw the vastness of the Yosemite Valley stretching for miles in front of and around me. Trees and rocks blurred together, creating a view much like an impressionist painting. Though surrounded by friends, I felt completely alone, invisible, humbled. I found conversation impossible, so I walked to a place where I could sit alone for a few minutes. I contemplated the landscape and felt myself slowly disappear, swallowed up in a place bigger than me, a place so enormous that it was scarcely aware of my presence.
The God I encounter when I am in that place is unfamiliar, almost distant, a God of fierceness and strength. Looking upon the face of God in that place, I would quickly look down, hide my face and shrink. I used to fear that God, concerned that I would be overtaken, but what I failed for the early part of my life to realize is that connecting with the fierceness and strength of God is necessary for learning about myself. That God seemed distant and unapproachable because I fear my own strength.

On a summer day years ago, I set out to reach the top of that mountain, not really certain I could do it. Much of it physical, a lot of it mental, I dug deep for strength to walk, strength to overcome fears, strength to endure and I made it to the top. I dared to encounter the fierce and strong God, and came out of it aware that I, too, am fierce and strong. My fear of being overwhelmed by God was really a fear of those very qualities in myself. Like Moses, I saw that face of God and lived. Like Moses, I saw what I feared most in myself and lived.

[to be continued]

* I am indebted to Julie for the Muir quotes. She is a quote machine. I have read a bit of his writing, but not nearly to the extent that I can pull these gems out. Instead, these are things Julie has brought up as we've talked about our experience in Yosemite, things she knows well from working on her kick-ass thesis. You are working on it, aren't you, Julie? ;-)


JM said...

sheesh. transcendentalist much?

Linda said...

I tried to get you to explain transcendentalism to me because I suspected I am one, and I wanted to hear more about it from someone more steeped in the literature of the Transcendentalists. Since we never got around to that conversation, I'll take your comment as affirmation.

JM said...

chalk that up to one of the many things I said I'd talk about and never actually did. i totally suck, I know.

Linda said...

Dude, you don't suck! I could have brought it up again if I really wanted to talk about it that badly.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

This is so gorgeous.

seeker said...


JM said...

um, yes...i'm working on it.

Linda said...

I know you are.