Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Carl Jung and "The Holiness of Mountains"

Dear Friend,

Last night, as the thunder rolled overhead and lighting ripped apart the darkness, I was reading Carl Jung‘s “The Holiness of Mountains.” I’m not sure what Jung would say of the symbolism of the last night’s storm as a soundtrack for his written word but I’m sure it would be interesting.

Looking back on what I read last night I find that I have highlighted two sentences. One is in the introduction, written by Wayne Grady: “Jung believed that humanity took 'a wrong turn' when it lost contact with its past and with 'the collective unconscious,' which, he said, 'is simply Nature.'" The other comes from the body of Jung’s text: “Knowledge does not enrich us; it removes us more and more from the mythic world in which we were once at home by right of birth.”

Upon returning from a blustery but sunny walk through the Flume Visitor Center with Atticus this morning I was greeted by an email from a Newburyport friend directing me to look at the various informational blogs that have sprung up since I have left town. I took several minutes to peruse them and decided that Jung was right: “Knowledge does not enrich us…” Not always.

I hold nothing against these bloggers and find them to be at times interesting. But they remind me too much of what I did for a living when I ran the Undertoad. There was always a quest for information about what was going on around town; who was doing what; who was doing it whom. I played a role in that political game and made my living off of it, but to be honest, I cannot imagine going back there to do it again.

I have no idea if my present path will pay the bills but I’m much more comfortable here in these mountains, no longer removed from the “mythic world”.

Again, this is no slam against the scribes who record the current events of the world. Lord knows I spend enough of my day scanning various websites all around the world, but it feels good not to have to look upon the political world in the same way any longer.

In my walk through the woods leading up to the southern ledges of the Welch-Dickey Loop two days ago, I found myself in perfect peace. My heart was pumping, my lungs were burning, it was hotter than I like, but I found myself looking through that forest, through those naked trees and into myself. To look at them, you cannot tell spring is here. Nor can you tell by the look of the ground either. No growth was evidenct, only brown leaves littering the forest floor. If someone had just woken up from a year-long coma in those woods they would be hard-pressed to tell whether it was spring or fall just by the look of the forest. What made the difference in telling the difference was the scent in the air. Spring just smells a certain way.

We came to a gentle stream and while I was not tired I decided to sit for a while. Atticus came walking back to check on me, then sat on the other side of the stream facing me, realized I was just relaxing and then relaxed in his own manner: first by sitting watching the stream, then by laying down and chewing a stick.

In watching the diamonds of reflected sun dancing in the current and the clear water turn white while churning over rocks in a succession of mini-rapids I was mesmerized. We sat and enjoyed the soothing song of nature. Here we were, a hundred miles away from the life we used to lead (literally and figuratively) and all alone in the woods and I didn’t feel the slightest bit of longing for company. I was not lonely. It seems I never am when I am up here.

The meditation carried me deeper into myself until I came to a vision of my father. You had written in your letter: “Sadly, he was also flawed and not just a little. He was brought up by a father who beat him and a mother who loved him as a child but not as he got older. Physical abuse is horrible but it is not even close to causing the damage that emotional and verbal abuse does. Your Dad was emotionally damaged. To protect himself, to survive, he closed himself off. Just like the war---what they couldn’t bear to think about, to talk about because it was just too painful, they shut away. What a huge amount of energy it must take to do that, to keep that door shut. Like you, I try to think he did the best he could. I try to believe that he did better by you all than his father did with him, even if it was only a small amount better.”

How he would have loved sitting in these woods where Atticus and I sat. It is ironic that even now that he is gone, we are close in this manner, probably closer than we ever were. I know he loved this place, loved the peace and tranquility of the mountains. But more than anything he did most of his writing by the side of some stream or river. We’d play on the rocks and he would sit on a picnic table and just write.

He did not have the easiest of lives by any means but I believe he made it all the more difficult by shutting it all down, by closing and locking the doors and shutting the windows and drawing the blinds.

Where he was at his best was at his most primordial---up here where nature heals and sets the mind free. Here he was allowed to be innocent again, allowed to be a child with carefree days, something he rarely knew.

Perhaps that is part of the reason I am up here these days, to better understand him. It is not unlike “Field of Dreams”---in being here perhaps I’m creating a place where he can live for all time away from demons.

I also know it’s more than just that, I’m also here for me. The other day, while climbing I felt all cares and worries slip away. It is when I’m feeling the pain of the climb when it all falls away. Talk of walking meditation. Who has time to think of financial shortcomings or sins when breathing and sweating profusely, while concentrating on one step at a time?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who, by the way, is becoming a favorite of mine, wrote: “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”

That’s what climbing a mountain does to me. It strips me down to my nakedness, forces all that is not essential to drift away, to evaporate until I am left bare, my soul revealed to myself. This is one of the reasons I prefer so many solo hikes with Atticus. In the company of others I find it difficult to reach this place where the outside world disappears and the inside worlds becomes clearer than ever. It’s a walking, breathing, sweating prayer.

In looking back on my life, I have succeeded and I have failed, but there was one great disappointment I had, it’s one many can relate to. When I was a child, when I was most innocent, I had dreams about what life would be like. In some ways I have attained some of those dreams, become what I wanted to become. But in other ways I haven’t. There were distractions and roadblocks and roads not taken. What I realize in being up here is that now I get a new chance to be the man I wanted to be, to live the life I wanted to live.

As children we imagine a life worth living. Few of us reach that potential we dreamed of back then. I took a leap of faith in coming here so that I could journey up these mountains and into myself to take an interesting life and make it more interesting.

I was able to make a living for more than a decade writing a newspaper the way I wanted to do it and in the process had the ability to change a community to some extent. How many people can say such a thing? I was gifted with that opportunity. But now that is a life I cannot even imagine. I did my time and now I want something more.

In some ways it was a goal to fix a community. But now, now I get the wonderful opportunity to fix myself by going back to that point in childhood where I dreamt of a certain kind of life that was both special and passionate.

The other day, while in those naked, gray woods I recognized myself. I saw those trees that have spring coursing through them even if the eye cannot see it and I could relate. For I feel a new season coursing through me these days, even if it hasn’t revealed itself to the rest of the world yet.

I recognized something else in those woods the other day. It was the man I dreamt of being when I was a child, the life I had imagined.

Meanwhile, Atticus is here by my side, reminding me it’s time to go for a short walk and do some more stream sitting. He’s patient with me on these days we do not hike but he does not only need to get out to relieve himself, he simply needs to get out. I can relate.

Thank you for your letter. You were accurate about so much and I appreciated reading your words. I will write more later. For now though, the little one is letting me know it’s time to say goodbye.

Onward, by all means,
Tom

1 comment:

Ari said...

You write about the innocence of childhood how removing yourself from the distractions of urbanity and into the solitude of the backwoods of New Hampshire brings you closer to living your own life.

That reminds me of Schlesinger, who once said, We suffer today by too much pluribus and not enough unum.

Keep living for yourself (and for Atticus, of course) and be all you can be.