Thursday, June 12, 2008

Earth Mercy
How I Survived the Mountains of Navarra
(This is from old journal, April 1997, when I spent a couple of weeks living in the mountains of Navrra, Spain, with my cat Gobelina.)
Up above the world, having reached Pyramid Point, as it shall henceforth be known. Having spotted a couple of “UFOs” (I couldn’t identify them), I lay down for some circle breathing. Sun at the zenith now.

It seems to me, after much contemplation, that the most succinct description of the meaning or purpose of life is this: to prepare for death. Preparing for death can mean only one thing: to learn what it is like to die. This can be done through various techniques, most commonly sex, drugs, trance dreaming, and extreme fright or danger (also of course illness, despair, crisis, and so forth). Note that we have already covered most of the major preoccupations (positive and negative) of the average person during his or her eighty odd years of existence. The problem is that none of these things, taken by themselves as ends in and of themselves, have any meaning or purpose. Hence they become either distractions to be indulged in, or afflictions to be endured. As preparations for the ultimate act of dying, however, they are equally valid, and positive or negative only so far as we use them, or not, to break down our resistance to the inevitable, and come to embrace it. For only by embracing death can we endeavor to dance past it.

I walked down the Northern trail to begin with, then mounted the bank to wander through familiar forestry and find a place for breakfast. Couldn’t quite settle on anywhere, so presently I returned to the path. Spotted a perfect place on the left bank, a grassy seat beside a pine tree, climbed up to it and ate my orange. Stared for a time at a sliver of orange light on a single strand of cobweb, which looked like a dancing light in the sky. Read book (Castaneda).

I took the left trail, then climbed over a fence to take the next left fork down into the valley. I felt a strange melancholy for which I could not account. Forced myself to sing a few bars of “Hi ho,” just to assert my existence to myself. This consolidated my sadness somehow. I have become a shadow to myself.

Trail led down to a familiar spot—how green is the valley—for which I have a predilection. I walked a time in the Sun, stopping only to remove my heavy shirt and thread it through my bag strap. After ten or fifteen minutes, I was struck by the sight of a rock peak to my left, far above me. It was the shape of a pyramid and seemed at once to draw me to it. As I was staring at it, a crow (whose call I’d heard moments before) flew to the rock face, as if to land on it (it didn’t), then glided slowly past. This was all the confirmation I needed—I headed up the mountain.

It was a hard slog. I made a stop early on, by a tree where I found a sort of stone seat, almost perfect for sitting on. I answered the crow’s calls a while, read some more, ate half a banana and set off again. Very heavy going, a steep climb. Rested a couple more times, then ended up straying from the main trail (a wide, red-dirt path cut by a machine) onto a foot path and into the mountain forestry. I knew it was a risk, but it was one I was prepared to take. The path actually led me first of all to a familiar spot, then up into the thick of it, directly below the rock face. I ended up having to rock climb, putting Tyr (my magik wand) through a belt loop, and scrambling up and over. I ended up then in a rather tight spot: the only way was to go on, but it was quite a sheer climb and I wasn’t sure I could manage it. If I fell, I would fall back even further down the rocks I’d just climbed. It wouldn’t have been fatal, but then again, I might easily have broken a leg and been unable to move, in which case I would have certainly died there, barring some miracle. (These were thoughts I had only later.)

I made a vague attempt at it but lacked the nerve to really try. For a moment, I really felt like I couldn’t do it, that my nerve would fail me, that my fear was an insurmountable barrier. I felt myself shaking. I was really afraid, so I admitted this to myself, out loud, then questioned myself. What was I afraid of? (It wasn’t death exactly). I took off my bag and hat and Tyr, and placed them up on the ledge which I was hoping to reach myself. I took hold of a plant with each hand (on the right there was only a spiky one) and pulled myself up. As soon as I began to pull, the shaking in my leg stopped and the fear seemed to pass. I entered I think into the mood of the warrior and abandoned myself to the task—do or die. Not that it was such a momentous achievement, and it would have looked pretty tame in an action movie. But from my point of view, it was a triumph, and a huge relief to get up there safely. From here on it was easy. Though there was lots of rock scrambling, there were no really risky endeavors. I rested a brief moment then finished the climb.

I felt great elevation to arrive here, and let out an appropriate shout. Up above the world. I went to the edge and looked over the sheer drop. I could see from here the path I had taken, and the very spot from which I had first seen the pyramid formation. It was an eerie moment, almost like being in two places at once, the two places joined by my own attention, as it were. It was as if I could leap back and forth in a moment, like opening one eye and closing the other. Of course, I’m here now and with no doubt another fair struggle before me to get down, though not of course the way I came (that would be unthinkable). Also had a crap while up here, and wrote all of the above. Thirsty for lack of water.

What followed was a truly hellish experience in the wilds of nature. This was what I wanted: to experience again, at least once on this excursion, what it is like to be entirely at the mercy of the Earth. It occurred to me, during the ordeal, that getting to know the Earth is rather like getting to know an ordinary woman. One must fight tooth and nail to get close to her, and to extricate oneself from her clutches; but her caresses are all the sweeter for the wounds she first inflicts.

I don’t know if I have the energy to describe the whole encounter. Writing tires me out now and seems very unappealing. This sort of thing is especially difficult to describe. But here goes.

I found a path early on and thought that it would lead me eventually to some familiar spot. I was wrong—it led to one abandoned stone shack and then to another, before petering out entirely (either that or I lost it). This left me with a dangerous feeling of uncertainty about which direction to take. I followed my instincts anyway, heading in what I took to be more or less the direction I had come from (though without returning on my path). I very quickly got tangled up in the forest, and made an effort to avoid this by staying at the very edge/top of the mountain, clambering from one rock face to the next. This worked for a time, until I reached such a huge and impressive rock that I actually felt I was in the presence of a sort of god, a presiding deity. I acted with the appropriate respect. Shortly after this, as the struggle began to get to me, I fell down once, then a second time, landing right on my arse. I sat for a few minutes to “center” myself. This turned out to be a good idea, as immediately after I got stuck climbing over rocks and found I had to go back. It was a precarious situation and quite frightening, but nothing compared to the despair I felt when I found that I simply could not go on any further. It was clear I could not go back either (that was out of the question anyway—a warrior never retraces his steps!). I had only one option: to fight my way down the side of the mountain.

I set off with a heart heavy, for my previous experiences of such endeavors had left indelible impressions. I was trusting that the valley floor I could see from there was the same valley I had originally climbed out of (I was reasonably sure it was), but I had no way of knowing if it would even be possible to fight my way through the bramble and bushes, without breaking my neck in the process. There is something supremely awful about being trapped in the forest. It struck me that it is something akin to being surrounded on all sides by enemy soldiers, yet without even the vague consolation of some human camaraderie, and the possibility of dying with honor.

As it turned out, by this time the worst was already over, because very swiftly, after sliding down for a distance on my arse, I came upon a path which led me, after an excruciating period of staggering and stumbling, back onto the original trail which I had so rashly left (in search of transcendent points of view). I fell over one last time on the last stretch, and for a moment felt the whole world come to a stop. Assuredly the last time I was this beaten down and exhausted was—the last time I got lost in the mountains of Navarra!

Once I was back on the path, I staggered zombie-like towards where I knew water would be. (My thirst had been so terrible that even the option of stopping for a rest had been out of the question, meaning my whole battle had been constant and without respite.) In fact, I found a still-running stream a few yards nearer than the fountain, and sat down and with great gratitude drank, soaked my poor feet a while, before trudging on to the fountain, where I drank some more, stripped, splashed myself, and lay in the Sun. I felt an excruciating sense of pleasure and relief. I had the thought that Hell and Paradise are both here, one and the same—it all depends on your predicament. I ate my banana and read a while, then struggled back up the hill and finally made it home.

Home. A sweet concept indeed.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Quite a trip episode there. Don't let me subert the glory, cause I won't. The entire specifics of a trail day to reach a top and promulgate interiortism challenged by outdoors, meditate on LIFE ITSEF. I got to admit, I will not hit the spot on analysis, say, in my review. First off I scrolled it. Picking up on where you were according to the habits of your methods this day, as you were trailing. Your fine day traveling slow and easy.

mee said...

Somehow, in all my wilderness adventures I've always managed to avoid getting lost- though I have had more than one precarious close call- notably one crossing a spring swollen river above class five rapids in a vinyl raft (really dumb!) and the other skiing into a wilderness hut during a trail obscuring blizzard.

It is fun isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Agree with you about death, and life. Apart from the dramatic heights (lows?) of danger there is also the unremarkable grind of the day-to-day, feeling friendliness towards the body that's pressed against ours on the tube, feeling warmth and breath of a stranger,with a body just like ours,glad it ain't the cold grave, yet humble enough to accept it if it were. If only we don't turn to look back onto our path.