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Conversations on the Mountain

Terrain.org staff reviews Always the Mountains by David Rothenberg

image, Always the Mountains, by David Rothenberg.It’s not often a book review begins at the back of the book—for fear of giving away the ending. Here, though, we’ll go beyond that. Beyond the Epilogue. Beyond the Endnotes and Acknowledgements, and into the Index. The Index?

Yes, the Index, for sometimes that can quickly tell us about the book better than the jacket cover (inside or out) or the Contents. Not better, of course, than the essays within the book itself (as in this case), but we’ll get to those in just a bit. The Index begins on page 275 with Abbey, Edward, and ends on page 281 with Zen and music. From beginning to end, then, David Rothenberg’s Always the Mountains is a book of philosophy and music. Glancing through the interior of the Index confirms this admittedly acute conclusion—Alnœs, Finn; Burke, Edmund; ecology, deep; listening; Naess, Arne; silence; and so on.

Published by the University of Georgia Press in 2002, Always the Mountains is an eclectic mix of essays, stories, and even one long poem from environmental philosopher, clarinetist, teacher, and Terrain.org editorial board member David Rothenberg. But just as it’s not fair to peg Rothenberg into these categories (for what is an environmental philosopher versus philosopher, anyway, if we accept that the environment is all around us, even within us?), it’s not fair to try to fit these essays into a category, even the category of “eclectic,” which makes them seem like a random mix.

And yet even Rothenberg thanks the Press’s Barbara Ras “for convincing me that it could all fit together into one book.” Perhaps the fundamental question, then, is this: Does it all fit together into one book? Our answer is a resounding yes! Not only do the eighteen essays and one long poem fit together, but they play off each other in a dynamic, uncalculated way that takes us on an exploratory journey not unlike climbing a mountain:

I remember first a long walk up through mist. I am a child, stepping through the trees, those green disappearing shapes against the gray. It’s disturbingly dark and strange. Endless up, marching up the wet and rocky trail. Higher the trees give way, get smaller. Then a vast world of stone looms up. I am so small that the rock seems so much bigger than it could ever seem to me today. It is too much rock, too much to comprehend or want to walk on. I want to run, back down into the safe cool woods. But another part of me is happier in this rock world than anywhere else.
— from “The Innocent Climb”

The journey begins with Rothenberg’s simple question: “What exactly are we climbing when we speak the word ‘mountain’?” From there, he leads us not only to a series of places, but more viscerally into a discussion—between the author, other characters, and the reader—that teaches us how to question what the place actually is. Not only does Rothenberg share his philosophy (and sometimes he purposefully doesn’t), but he clears the path for our own deep thinking. Reading Always the Mountains is like hiking a trail with both friend and mentor, with every step a new discovery and subsequent, exciting conversation.

The path looks something like this:

So how are we to walk with the mountains? And to whom will it matter? The pragmatic questions of our time beat against still lingering mysteries. Just look at the mountain, feel it as it comes into view, or—as you walk toward it or upon it—consider everything about our apprehension of it.
— from “Ways toward Mountains”


You may smile and write this off as just another part of the “Mainely Maine” experience, but I know that back then, haggard, exhausted, underfed, underweight in the prime of adolescence I wanted more than once to burst into tears, collapse onto the trail and scream, “I give up, I’m yours, take my blood, please.” The insects seem poised to win. Now I look back, and the whole episode seems but a small tribulation—we both win. There’s enough blood for all, parasite and host.
— from “Contact! Contact!”


“Why is it that there are so many more options when one looks to neighborhoods and places of the past? There may have been more respect for diversity, or more likely a much slower pace, and less opportunity for single developers to exert their swaths of power over the land. You cannot buy or sell community, and that must be why it is so hard to find.”
— from “Beyond the Selfish Landscape”

The most exciting discoveries for us are in the conversations Rothenberg has either with or, in a way, on behalf of other philosophers and critical thinkers of our time. Or even well before our time, as with “Will the Real Chief Seattle Please Speak Up?” a sharp, historical investigation of the oft (mis)quoted speech from Seathl to Isaac Stevens, Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the new Washington Territories, in 1854.

From there, we are introduced—or perhaps re-introduced—to philosopher Henry Bugbee, desert curmudgeon Edward Abbey, Norwegian deep ecology philosopher Arne Naess, composer John Cage, and many others. The series of conversations summits, however, with the essay “The Firefest,” a post-partem dialogue between Rothenberg—who at the time is conducting research for one of his books—and Norwegian author Finn Alnœs, “known as a writer of long, turbulent novels, the most artistic spokesman of the country’s økobevegelse (eco-movement).”

Over a four-day period, Rothenberg chronicles his secretive visit to Alnœs’s home, where he and the Norwegian author exchange ideas and passages—and we have the good fortunate of “reading” Rothenberg’s thoughts all the while. The essay is complex and enthralling, the writing brilliant, the characters utterly fascinating:

After much deliberation, we decided to watch an American film on television that night. It was about a time when the media controls all, when a TV newscaster goes through a metamorphosis, first to madman, then to a comedian, then to a prophet of the uplifting spirit of humanity… A ridiculous film, really. In the end they have to kill him. Finn asked three questions during its course:

“Why is there always so much shouting in all American films?”
“Not all.”

“Do people live in these skyscrapers, or just work in them?”

“Both, actually.”

“Is she sexy? Speaking of Faye [Dunaway].

“She is supposed to be. But there is a brooding kind of evil to her in this film that tempers it.”

“I really shouldn’t see such films. I’ll turn into a troll in the morning.”

After scaling the mountain and meeting so many new voices, we are reminded of the character in A.R. Ammons’s poem “Prospecting:”

At dawn returning, wet
to the hips with meetings,
my loneliness woke me up
and we merged refreshed into
the breaking of camp and day.

Or, as Rothenberg concludes:

Inhabit the ambiguity, don’t try to resist it. Keep spiraling in and away from the center at once, doing all you can to make it hold. Move on without despair. Sing it all into significance.
— from “Epilogue: From the Summits to the Sea”


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Always the Mountains

by David Rothenberg

   University of Georgia

   November 2002
   ISBN 082032454X


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