Monday, 26 October 2009

The Importance of Mountains & Long-Range Vision

"It's space. It's being able to look across and see a great, a high wet desert, as it were, held in a bowl of mountains. We don't get to see space unless we're out at sea. Most of us live most of our lives in short-range vision. And suddenly to have your sight-line opened up like that is breathtaking."
Robert Macfarlane on why he's excited by the landscape with Rannoch Moor

My eyes are tired. Too many hours spent staring at books and a computer screen, switching between two pairs of glasses (one for distance, one for the computer) and bare eyes. There's little relief here for eyes in search of a long distance landmark upon which one might gaze for a prolonged period of time, allowing the eyes to take a deep breath and no worry so much about the foreground. This problem is largely due to a lack of relief here. Geographically, or topographically speaking, of course. There are hills, slight incline in the earth. They seem to come more in ridges than in isolated little mounds of earth. One source describes it as "gently rolling lowland". Gentle, indeed.

I remember my first trip to England. I had also come as a student, but studying abroad for a year at the University of East Anglia outside of Norwich. I distinctly remember having the same thought. Or rather the same feeling. My eyes searched the horizon for something beyond what I could see. For me, the lowness of the land and the natural and built features upon it made the sky feel much, much closer. Made closer yet by regular cloud cover. This perception of my surroundings was accompanied by a feeling of oppressiveness and, irrationally, an impulse to duck. This is when I realized the importance of mountains.

I grew up in a valley, surrounded by mountains. At the age of six, we moved from a house on the valley floor to a house on a hill, in a little nook of the valley that was like it's own little smaller valley. This hill I lived on sloped gently upward from the valley floor and then steadily rose to join the Santa Monica Mountains. The hills across the way were also an extension of these mountains but at a lower altitude. From the second floor of the house, from the big window in my bedroom, I could see the small area of low lying land that lead to the hills and behind the hills stood the mountains. I spent hours staring out the window. I know the shape of the ridge. I know the outline of the trees on the nearby hill. I know the path down, across the valley and up toward the mountains. I do not know how far that dark, distant ridge is, but I know it's a good distance and I know there's something beyond it.

True that an ocean opens up the sight line (horizontally, like an elevated vantage point), but while I've sat on several shores feeling humbled and looking out across to where the water meets the sky, it doesn't fill me with the same sense of what else, what's beyond, what's more and the comfort that mountains do. The ocean draws my eyes and my imagination down. Mountains lift them up.

Today, I sat on the 5th, and top, floor of the library and looked out across the landscape to the horizon -- which here doesn't feel and likely isn't more than a couple of miles. I enjoy sitting on the top floor and look out into the distance. It provides some of the relief my eyes crave. It provides the space and range needed to properly exercise my eyes. Too much time is spent focusing on the very near and the near. They don't get enough time focusing on the distance.

This vantage also provides me with a chance to have a look around me, which is rather hard from the ground. But even up on the 5th floor, my want for a good long look into the distance is unsatisfied. I still want more space and features for my eyes to investigate. I want to know what's over there, what's next, and to see something that would suggest there is something to find. Here the tallest objects are transformers, which stand skeletal and alien in this low-lying, green landscape, and a church steeple. At ground level, I can see as far as the tallest thing. From the top of the library, I can see to the southern horizon, to the top of a ridge. Then the land seems to fold under and, in these gently rolling hills, I feel like I am in a bowl or in a land that has a much smaller circumference than the world at large. Irrationally, I think that if I were to go to the edge of that horizon and go beyond it, I would have to step down.

This sense of convexity and the additional element of clouds today made me feel like I was encapsulated. The dark ground stretched out from below me in a curve to meet the horizon. Curving above, a cap of gray clouds, packed together tightly, forming a cover as solid as the ground. Between the ground and clouds was a narrow band of sky, more white than blue. My eye was drawn to it. A buffer, a frontier, a void. Like a river separating two countries, unpopulated but with developments stretched up to its banks, owned by by neither by visited by both. Like a demilitarized zone, where both clouds and trees could venture briefly without conflict or confusion but would not settle.

As I focused on the void, I imagined the ground and clouds working together to form a second, external set of eyelids, squinting, trying to see into the distance, focusing intensely on it. Still, I could make out nothing more than the bright, blanched light suggestive of moisture and the acute angle of the sun. I stared into it for a while. I knew that soon the sun would dip into this space and warm it to a rich orange. That gap, the band, that bright dividing space between dark and solid features, was a brief reminder that the sun shines and lights an expansive sky, much like the mountains remind me that there is a whole world beyond them.

It's important to me to remember that there is more than just what's in front of me, more than what I can see. This is comforting when the here and now aren't ideal. It's humbling. It's a reminder there's always a bigger pond, there's always a different perspective, and there's probably a better way of doing things. It's a reminder that nature is bigger than me and bigger than what man and society and science define it as. It's inspiration and motivation to act in ways that are respectful of the near and the far, to the then the now and the next. And it fuels a curiosity in me, a desire for exploration and understanding.

No comments:

Post a Comment