Saturday, July 14, 2012

"There Is No Nature," Mount Eerie under the Clear Moon

Read the transcript from the interview with Phil Elverum in Part II: here.

Mount Eerie loomed in white with curtains of mist surrounding it that were too low to be clouds and too high to be just fog. Water hung in the air, constantly threatening to condense into rain, but it hadn’t yet. The mountain appeared to be ever-changing and darkening, continually obscuring the peak. I had come to the mountain following a bright Clear Moon, or what I thought was the moon. That shield of grey made it hard to tell when day ended and night began without a watch.
I was looking to commune with nature. I had packed granola and trail mix with chocolate candies in it. I was looking for a story I had heard. Stories that had been floating around the country for more than a decade about a man living in the woods of Anacortes, Washington. Some said he was the spirit who guarded the mountain. Some said that he was just a guy who liked camping.

I heard that in 2001 the wind had blown him straight to hell and he had lost his head and had to fight to get it back, and in the end he had to face the fact that he was still living. I heard that in 2003 he actually died at the top of Mount Eerie and explored the expanses of the entire universe to become one with the mountain. I wanted to clear it all up, but in the end nothing was clear. There were only moments of clarity. Like the visage of the mountain in the mist, everything was changing and abstract, and more like a feeling.
My hike began in the woods at the foot of the mountain, but I never even made it anywhere close to the mountain. Swishing through the brush and fallen leaves and needles, I caught glimpses of Mount Eerie through the trees, looming before me. I heard something that was faint at first, the sound of guitars. As I walked, they grew louder. It sounded like they were all around me, maybe eight of them, each playing only one chord before jumping to the next one. Then I looked up at the mountain and it changed somehow. It became like a grid. It became rows of blocks of solid colors blurring before me, almost like pixels.
There wasn’t much time to think about it, because I caught something moving out of the corner of my eye. Edging closer, I found an acoustic guitar resting against a log. A little farther away, I saw a head poke out from behind a rather large stump and then jut back just as quickly. I knew it was the person I was looking for. He didn’t emerge again and I had no idea what to do, so I just went over and said hello. The guy jumped up and pretended that he hadn’t been hiding behind a stump. We had a pretty awkward exchange and he said something about how he was just playing guitar in the woods. “I like to be in my own head out here,” he said. “Usually I have some shitty song in my head.” Then there was a long uncomfortable silence as I decided what I actually wanted to say to this guy who I never really expected to find. I thought to myself, Should I just leave him alone?
Photo by Geneviève Castrée
Luckily the rain picked up and he said he didn’t live too far away, so I followed him through the dripping rain and swatting branches. All of a sudden, we were in the middle of a town. I looked behind me and I saw no line between the forest and the place with houses. As I hurried inside, he said, almost reading my mind, “There is no nature.”
I gave a, “Come again?”
He replied, “I don’t believe that nature is a thing that exists.”
His house wasn’t a cabin like I would’ve imagined, but just a house like any other house. We talked about a lot of things as we sat by the fire and watched the storm out the window. He said that he felt really misunderstood. “There’s not ‘nature’ and ‘not nature,’ ” he said, and I could feel the defeated frustration in his voice. He told me, “It just reinforces this dichotomy that we have, which is actually the source of the problem. The source of the problem of people’s alienation from their own lives and their own place where they live. They view wildness and the natural world as something distant and apart from them, when in reality we live among so much decay and life and wildness in our own bodies even.”
From his window, we could see nearly everything. The woods, the town, the storm, the clouds and Mount Eerie behind it all.  Through the swishing and the patter on the glass, a lone bell rang out as clear as the moon in the sky. “It’s actually the sun,” he said. I was stunned for a moment and took another look at it. The layer of fog in front of the glowing orb in the sky made it easy to look at, made it darker, made it seem like night and moonlight. It was a strange moment that sort of felt like something in me snapped or clicked. “I mean the moon as a symbol of being snapped out of some other thoughts that you’re in, that your mind is occupied with and then you catch a glint off a passing car in your eye or a bird flies into your face,” he said. “It’ll remind you in a moment of the existence of the vast alien mystery.”
He went on, “We’re people, we’re alive, we’re on this planet, walking around and going through our lives and we’re in this crazy place. Earth. The experience of being alive is crazy. And for the most part, we don’t think it’s crazy. We just live our lives and do our jobs and watch TV or whatever. Nobody can feel swept away by the wonder of existence all the time. You would just be like drooling in the corner.” He was talking about existence, not just about the wilderness. He was talking about “mountains and websites.” He said, “both are magical and mysterious and they’re all part of the same world. They’re both nature.”
I finally got around to asking him how he died and he told me he didn’t know. He was being chased by barbarians and he ran up a hill to escape them and he just died. “That’s what happens,” he said, “You reach the top of the mountain and you’re done.”
I thought it might be a touchy subject and I suggested we talk about something else, but he said, “There’s so much weird taboo about acknowledging mortality for some reason.” He continued, “I’ll talk about it and people are like, ‘Oh that’s depressing. Are you sad?’ And I feel like it’s this level of misunderstanding or an unwillingness to be honest with ourselves that annoys me.”
When the rain finally let up, I said goodbye and set back out into the woods. Through the trees I could catch glimpses of the mountain and through the trees in the other direction I could see lights from the town below. I was struck by the spinning orientation, in one direction there were people and in the other there were fewer people. Then the mountain before me changed again. I heard music in the wind, this time with synthesizers and saxophones and twinkling digital effects. A voice that had started out so clear became buried in noise and quietude as a woman also sang off in the distance. I looked down and I realized that there was a living creature underneath my feet. A living creature that I lived in and on and that was everywhere. I saw the mountain before me blur again into big pixels of color. Reducing everything to its simplest components. The basic, intricate emotions of awe or something we don’t have a name for yet. Of clarity, life, birth, awareness, knowledge, and hopefully understanding. I remembered him saying, “When you look at the mountain in the distance and it’s this mystifying, alien, beautiful thing, but you could say the same thing for the Internet.”
Then, it blurred back and I thought, well, even if it is about all of existence, there’s still a big emphasis on the wilderness. And maybe it was because it feels better to be awed by a mountain than a social network. Then, I thought about finding the awe in ugly places or just the common places that I pass every day.
I only stopped for a moment more to look back and I saw the house’s shape, just like the silhouetted mountain in the fog. It reminded me that I couldn’t stand there all day drooling and that I had to get going. One of the last things he said was, “The approaching mortality, it’s terrifying. But I don’t think it needs to be. It’s just a fact of life. Everyone is going to die and everything ends. So, why be afraid of it?” I would get to the peak eventually. For now, it was nice just to clear my head. I decided to get into my car and drive to a place that he mentioned called Neah Bay to hear the Ocean Roar.

Read Part II here.

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