Then, just this past week, I encountered some of her prose. It is from her book of essays called Long Life: Essays and Other Writings. The essay which will not let me go is “Wordsworth’s Mountain”. It hits me for I too have had experiences like Wordsworth in facing a mountain in darkness. Mine came on a January night after traversing across Middle Carter, South Carter, Mount Hight and Carter Dome before dropping down into Carter Notch and then climbing back up again to travel along the numerous peaks of Wildcat Mountain. When Atticus and I reached the ski slopes – our exit from the mountain top – and started our descent, even in the still of the night I could look across Pinkham Notch below and up at the looming shadow of Mount Washington. It was as if that great peak was breathing, watching us descend, stalking us in such a way that at any moment it could reach out and lunge with all its might at us.
It was an experience both frightening and thrilling. I can remember being foolish enough to turn off my headlamp as so not as to be seen so easily by Agiocochook and feeling my heart beat as if I was being hunted.
It is an experience I will never forget. It appears William Wordsworth, the great English poet who embraced Romanticisms call to nature and individuality instead of to the church, had a quite similar experience as a child. Mary Oliver writes of it here:
“And now I am thinking of the poet Wordsworth, and the strange adventure that one night overtook him. When he was still a young boy, in love with summer and night, he went down to a lake, "borrowed" a rowboat, and rowed out upon the water. At first he felt himself embraced by pleasures: the moonlight, the sound of the oars in the calm water. Then, suddenly, a mountain peak nearby, with which he was familiar, or felt he was familiar, revealed, to his mind and eye, a horrifying flexibility. All crag and weight, it perceived him; it leaned down over the water; it seemed to pursue him. Of course he was terrified, and rowed hard, fleeing back across the water. But the experience led him, led his mind, from simple devotion of that beauty which is a harmony, a kindly ministry of thought, to nature's deeper and inexplicable greatness. The gleam and the tranquility of the natural world he loved always, and now he honored also the world's brawn and mystery, its machinations that lie beyond our understanding — that are not even nameable. What Wordsworth praised thereafter was more than the arrangement of concretions and vapors into appreciable and balanced landscapes; it was, also, the whirlwind. The beauty and strangeness of the world may fill the eyes with its cordial refreshment. Equally it may offer the heart a dish of terror. On one side is radiance; on another is the abyss.”
One summer evening (led by [Nature]) I foundA little boat tied to a willow treeWithin a rocky cave, its usual home.Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping inPushed from the shore. It was an act of stealthAnd troubled pleasure, nor without the voiceOf mountain-echoes did my boat move on;Leaving behind her still, on either side,Small circles glittering idly in the moon,Until they melted all into one trackOf sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen pointWith an unswerving line, I fixed my viewUpon the summit of a craggy ridge,The horizon's utmost boundary; for aboveWas nothing but the stars and the grey sky.She was an elfin pinnace; lustilyI dipped my oars into the silent lake,And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boatWent heaving through the water like a swanWhen, from behind that craggy steep till thenThe horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,As if with voluntary power instinctUpreared its head. I struck and struck again,And growing still in stature the grim shapeTowered up between me and the stars, and still,For so it seemed, with purpose of its ownAnd measured motion like a living thing,Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,And through the silent water stole my wayBack to the covert of the willow tree;There in her mooring-place I left my bark,--And through the meadows homweard wen, in graveAnd serious mood; but after I had seenThat spectacle, for many days, my brainWorked with a dim and undetermined senseOf unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughtsThere hung a darkness, call it solitudeOr blank desertion. No familiar shapesRemained, no pleasant images of trees,Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;But huge and mighty forms, that do not liveLike living men, moved slowly through the mindBy day, and were a trouble to my dreams.