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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

Always the Mountains,

  
People often ask me, "Why do you sign your letters, 'Always the Mountains?'"

Then I tend to ask them, "Why do you sign yours 'Sincerely,' or 'Yours truly?'" These things are conventions, no one quite knows what they mean. We do them because someone taught us to do them. They rarely express any definite emotion, instead just formality. The way things ought to be done.

So in a way "Always the Mountains," is just like that. A salutation, a rule, something to do. But I can clearly trace it back to the summer of 1974, when I was twelve years old.

I was spending the summer at Saltash Mountain Camp, one of the famous Farm and Wilderness Camps founded by quakers in the middle of the last century. We lived in cabins in the Vermont forest, took long backpacks into the Green Mountains, cut down trees and built our own log sauna by the lake, and ate plenty of pancakes and homegrown veggies. The directness of life on that lake in the shadow of storied, round peaks seemed so much more real than the studious suburban life I had gotten a seasonal reprieve from. I learned a love of walking across the land and climbing high to look down on it that has carried me on for many years.

My favorite counselor was named H. Pittman Floyd, a soft-spoken southern mountain man. He told me he had long signed his letter "Always the Mountains," because the mountains were the most important places for him. Climbing to their summits you made your own way up land and rock, and from their tops you could see far beyond the route you had walked. Effort takes you farther than you ever thought possible. It's not that they bring you greater command of the landscape, but the mountain makes you feel that the Earth itself wants you to look down.

It was he who first taught me that the ascent of mountains was an act of mystery, a way in to the greatest perplexities of human place in the land. We love to visit their rough slopes, but they are not meant for people to live or stay. We always come down from our mountains.

At the end of my first summer at Saltash, Pittman took me aside and said, "You know, you might not see me again. Last year I injured my kidneys in a climbing fall, and I'm not supposed to live more than six months." I was crestfallen, the first intimation of mortality among someone close to me from whom I already learned so much. There was so much more he could teach me! Wouldn't he still be there?

When I returned the next summer I was overjoyed to see Pittman back again. That year we wandered far into the forest, seeking out trailless peaks and hearing fragments of mountain philosophies old and new. The blue mountains are constantly walking. The smaller we come to feel compared to the mountain, the nearer we come to participating in its greatness. The mountains are calling, and I must go.

At the end of that summer, once again he told me I might never see him again. I don't think I ever did see him again but a year or so later he got a new kidney and lived for many years among mountains and ideas.

Nothing pleased me more than to send him a copy of my latest book, Always the Mountains, named after that phrase I learned at camp a quarter century ago. He displayed it at the bookstore he was running down in North Carolina.

Two weeks ago Pittman Floyd died, not young, not old, but someone who lived a lot longer than he thought he would. I write fewer letters than I used to in this instantaneous electronic age, but every time I write one, I still think of Pittman Floyd and how much his mountain lessons have meant to me.

  

David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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