Thomas Starr King
We see, then, in looking at a chain of lofty hills, and in thinking of their perpetual waste in the service of the lowlands, that the moral and physical worlds are built on the same pattern. They represent the heroes and all-beneficent genius. They receive upon their heads and sides the larger baptisms from the heavens, not to be selfish with their riches, but to give,—to give all that is poured upon them,—yes, and something of themselves with every stream and tide.
– Thomas Starr King
THE MOUNTAIN is so many things at once – a geological event, a meteorological force, a region of staggered botanical zones – that it is easy to forget that it is also a metaphysical event, the object of rich and varied contemplation. Mountains are schools and cathedrals, John Ruskin wrote, and all but the most insensible minds are educated and refined by alpine experiences. Mountains are, as Ruskin put it, “full of treasures of illuminated manuscript for the scholar, kindly in simple lessons to the worker, quiet in pale cloisters for the thinker, glorious in holiness for the worshipper.” In rock and ravine, forest and crag, mountains utter spiritual truths, sermons in stone that can never be fully translated into words.
There are mountains of books about mountains. Many of these are guides about natural history, about the dwarf cinquefoil that grows on alpine slopes, the glacial erratics and krummholz, the wind patterns and ice formations that characterize the higher altitudes. Plenty of other books recount mountain adventures and feats, daring expeditions up Everest or Denali. But it is no so easy to find books about what mountains mean, about their influence on the psyche.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a Unitarian preacher named Thomas Starr King took to rambling through the White Mountains of New Hampshire at a time when alpine jaunts were still relatively new to Americans. The book he wrote recording his research and observations, The White Hills: Their Legends, Landscape and Poetry, was a bestseller at the time it was published in 1859 and it remains, despite its occasional lapses into unrestrained rhapsody, one of the most charming meditations on the beauty and symbolism of mountains. Read More »