I have no doubt that I stand here at the very center of creation. Every fir tree, each of its needles, the movement of wind, all that I perceive and even more that I don't, all resonate with a vital hum. It is the hum of the universe, what the Chinese call the ten thousand things, all of them speaking out, saying precisely nothing. Each is its own center, the exact place where the world begins. "The center is where you are standing," says Joseph Campbell, "and the other center is where I am standing."
Today, this center is a place called Lolo Peak, a lofty summit in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness just south of Missoula, Mont. To get here, I've driven a half an hour on pavement, bumped nine miles up a dirt road, then climbed four hours on foot through the succession of forest. Already I'm in the middle of nowhere — the beginning of everywhere.
From the topographical map, I see that I stand 9,100 feet above sea level. The air is clear, like taking the light of diamonds into my lungs, and if I stand still long enough I feel the borders of my body dissolve, my skin break away. "So this is how you swim inward," writes Mary Oliver. "So this is how you flow outwards. So this is how you pray."
Prayer. It can be a touchy subject. Do I pray when I sit on this rock and admire the lichen that grows? Or recline in the moss watching the sweep of the stars? I believe that to come to a wild place on foot is to approach your life and the life of the land in a meaningful way. Riding a gondola up, skiing or mountain biking down, the importance of being where you are is lost, and neither the land nor the self is visited. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, a Buddhist monk, says, "When mountain climbing is made easy, the spiritual effect the mountain exercises vanishes into the air."
For me, this is the crux of the matter, because a local rancher, Tom Maclay, has proposed turning Lob Peak into a year-round resort, including ski lifts, a golf course and condos. He's carved ski runs into the hillside above his home on his land and has petitioned the forest service to extend his operation all the way to the summit of Lob Peak. He envisions a little Vail or Sun Valley, I imagine, or Alta. Although current land-use plans forbid development, he's looking for loopholes and ways around it — which he just might find.
What is at stake, I believe, is not one more mountain, one less mountain lion, or 10,000 more jobs. It is a sense of wholeness, of integrity and the idea of proportion. What's only now becoming understood, and still very hazily, is the idea that the interior and exterior landscapes depend on each other. What is unhealthy in one is reflected in the other.
Emerson called us "part and parcel of nature," but we behave as though nature is something "out there." That we as a species have severed ourselves from nature to such a degree points to a very real tear in our spirit, and what consequences it holds for the psyche have yet to be seen. Aboriginal cultures, apparently, know this psychological pain. You cannot have a sense of self, they tell us, an identity of who you are and where you have come from, without a home.
In the short time that I've been on Lolo Peak, I've witnessed the full range of light. The alpine light at dusk, especially what is called alpenglow, now coats the land in a blanket of serenity. It is this feeling of peace I wish to bring home. I know from experience it will last only so long, and I will have to retreat again and again, retracing my steps into this community of trees.
As I leave, the last of the day is bleeding into the sky. The mountains look as if they've been kindled from inside. "The way up and the way down are one and the same," said Heraclitus in the fifth century before Christ.
With this thought, I lift myself from the rocks where I sit. I watch as long rays of sunlight pierce the bottoms of clouds. In the transparent light, I take a lungfull of air and start my way down, stepping from rock to rock, center to center, all the way home.