Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

William Wordsworth's Mountain

(Photo is of Mount Washington this afternoon.)

Last summer I discovered the poetry of Mary Oliver. Her contemporary words hit home as much as any written in the days of old by Muir, Emerson or Thoreau. Each time I find one of her poems, I read it again and again until it lingers with me. Many of them refuse to let go.

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.”

Wordsworth has been on my mind as of late because he plays a prominent part in the most recent John Muir biography, A Passion for Nature. So when I came upon the Mary Oliver piece it excited me even more. Since then I have found Wordsworth’s own poem, or a segment of it actually, describing that night from his childhood and that looming mountain. It is from his “Prelude” (1850) and it follows below.
One summer evening (led by [Nature]) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of 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 track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon's utmost boundary; for above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,--
And through the meadows homweard wen, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
This is one of the reasons I love the mountains as I do. They inspire thoughts in us so powerful and provocative that we feel a close kinship with the likes of Emerson or Thoreau or Muir or even some of the great White Mountain painters like Benjamin Champney or Thomas Cole.

Monday, March 16, 2009

90 Minutes In Heaven

Before Monday I’ve never stood atop North Moat before but I can now verify what I’ve long been told: of the three Moats the view from the northern triplet is the best.

Stunning, simply stunning! And what a day we had for views, too: just the slightest whisper of a breeze; a warm sun; day-dreaming blue skies without a cloud in sight.

Standing there I thought of something Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Our faith comes in moments…yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.” (I often find myself revisiting Emerson atop a scenic summit.) And that, I thought to myself as Atticus meandered around the edges of the small summit looking out this way and that, is what makes life worth living. It’s all in the magic we find here and there – not unlike stars poking through the vast darkness of the blackest night.

That’s the great thing about these mountains of New Hampshire; they deliver us from the mundane, time and again. You can park your car, and in the case of North Moat, walk into the woods, first keeping company with a ‘little poem’ of a brook (to borrow a term from John Muir), move through a sunlit forest carpeted in untouched snow, climb ledge after open ledge of steep pitches and then reach a place where you can turn your back on the troubles of this life and find a reason to smile, no matter what ails you. And literally, by turning your back to the east and the outlet stores of North Conway below, you face west directly into the wilderness.

At 3,196 feet, the summit of North Moat is more than 3,000 feet shorter than the summit of Mount Washington. But bigger is not always better. I can tell you that simply by looking at my diminutive hiking partner. When planted firmly atop North Moat as we were on this stunning day, try convincing yourself it is anything less than Washington. There’s a good chance you will lose the argument. In many ways, the view is far greater, simply for the proximity to the Sandwich Range to the south and the Pemi Wilderness to the West. It’s as though you can reach out and touch Chocorua or dip yourself into the waters of the Pemi where mountains break from the earth like wild waves.

The climb from Diana’s Baths to the summit is at first easy for two and a half miles, then difficult for the last two, but it is well worth the effort. While summit sitting I had to remind myself it is still winter. But it was so pleasant we stayed for 90 glorious minutes and all I wore over my shirt was my summer windbreaker. No gloves. No hat.

Watching Atticus summit sit – Buddha like – on the various outcroppings, I recalled something I was asked during the Animal Planet interview. I had forwarded the producer my book proposal so he would know about our complete story. In it I wrote about how Atticus sits and takes in the views. He reminded me of the term ‘Buddha-like’ and asked me if I thought of Atti as my spiritual guru of sorts.

At first I laughed. For whenever I think of gurus I think of how in “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth Gilbert went traipsing around the world for a year in search of a guru when all she really needed to do was sit on a mountaintop with a little dog. But the answer I gave was simply: No, but by watching Atticus and following him over these mountains for the last few years I remembered what I long ago forgot. It is all about the primitive. Somehow, we lose it. We grow up and leave much of the magic behind. But by watching him, I was reminded time and again of the best part of myself – the child within. I’d lost him. It took four decades and a little dog but what was once lost is now found.

And so it was that on Monday morning while much of the world was at work, Atticus led me back to the primitive once again and to one of those beautiful Emersonian moments.

Summit Snoozing

What a perfect summit for a little nap. No wind. No cold. No hurry. We stayed on the summit of North Moat today for 90 minutes.

A Picture Perfect Day On North Moat

Today we hiked North Moat. What a glorious day atop this wondrous peak! I'll have more on this later. But for now, here are some shots to tide you over.

Monday, March 09, 2009

An Animal Planet Update From Powderhouse Productions

This from a comment left to one of the posts just down the page. It's from one of the good folks at Powderhouse Productions...

Tom, we're not sure when the show will air. it may not be until september or october of this year! but the piece is being edited and looks fantastic so far. again thanks for your participation. give atticus a pat - and keep in touch. we will do the same.