Why are the mountains so alluring?
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in a July 2004 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.
“To myself, mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery; in them, and in the forms of inferior landscape that lead to them, my affections are wholly bound up; and though I can look with happy admiration at the lowland flowers, and woods, and open skies, the happiness is tranquil and cold, like that of examining detached wildflowers in a conservatory, or reading a pleasant book; and if the scenery be resolutely level, insisting upon the declaration of its own flatness in all the detail of it … it appears to me a prison, and I can not long endure it.”
— John Ruskin, Modern Painters (1850)
Last week, as is her habit each year, my wife, Elizabeth, conducted a watercolor painting workshop at the Appalachian Center for Crafts, which is located near Cookeville, Tennessee. We always camp in our popup trailer at Erin State Park, a nice facility alongside Center Hill Lake just south of I-40. I tag along to do the driving and study the terrain while she’s working.
Situated just off the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau on the rim of the Nashville Basin, it's interesting terrain composed primarily of limestone and other sedimentary materials. Accordingly, it’s a broken, hilly landscape featuring numerous low ridges, step ravines, waterfalls, caverns, and sinkholes that one can take a look at.
The soil is sweeter there, of course, than here in the Smokies region, where rock materials are mostly metamorphic and acidic. This causes the plant life to differ from our region, especially in regard to the ferns one can locate. The bird life is somewhat different, too. Every day there were summer tanagers singing above our campsite. I’ve never spotted or heard even one of those in Western North Carolina.
I had a fine time driving around all day, making the occasional stop to check out promising habitats and trails. Our shorthaired pointers, Maggie and Zeke, were with us. They also enjoy riding around and exploring. As usual, Elizabeth’s workshop went well. So, all four of us were content enough, but by week’s end we were ready to go home. We were glad to break camp and “get back to the real mountains.”
We always say that when we’ve been away somewhere for a week or more. That set me to thinking as we drove east on I-40. Why are we attracted to mountains? Why do so many of us choose to live among them and long to get back to them when we have to leave?
As we were bypassing Newport, Tennessee, we could see the northeastern end of the Smokies looming darkly in the distance. They seemed to be pulling us toward them with a magnetic force. After taking the Cosby roadway south down to Gatlinburg, we finally made the turn into the national park and started winding up toward Newfound Gap. As we passed into North Carolina we looked out over mountain range upon mountain range fading into the distance. Not many miles below Newfound Gap was the little cove at the mouth of Lands Creek where we’ve lived for 30 years. That’s home. It is, as we say, “in the mountains.” Who would want to be any other place for very long?
The air was cooler than in middle Tennessee. The vegetation was more varied. The trees were bigger, the creeks swifter, the views longer. These were, after all, “real mountains” — not just ridges. But I still have a hard time putting my finger on just why we are so attracted to mountains.
John Jerome, one of my favorite writers, tried to do so in the closing paragraphs of his excellent book On Mountains: Thinking About Terrain (McGraw-Hill, 1978):
“It is not for me to try to tell you why I think the mountains have such capacity to move us. I think it is because mountains are always so new. Never mind the billions of years that are implicit in every cliff face, the slow geologic increments by which — according to scientists — the earth builds its mountains. Forget that for a moment; just look. Gradient is the elixir of youth.
“The flatlands are dead; it is all over for them … [They are] worn down to sea level, the lowest common denominator, the ultimate dull average. How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable the uses of such a world.
“Static versus dynamic. What the mountains tell us, in their soaring ridges and plummeting scarps, is that, yes, the land is cut low, time and time again [but] it is always restored …. There are new mountains to come, everywhere, so long as there is an earth to thrust them up — mountains more magnificent, perhaps, than all that have ever been seen before.
“Ah, but we can’t know that for sure, and the ones we have now are coming down pebble by sand grain. The mountains we have are unique; they may be surpassed, overshadowed, but they’ll never be duplicated. Perhaps we’d better go pay them some attention now, while they are here to inspire us.”
Yes, I think that that’s an important part of the answer — the mountains do, day in and day out, “inspire us.”