In 2016, I ventured into the Norwegian Alpine, sharing paths with Arne Naess. A book manuscript came out of the experience, described below.
The Bare Mountain: Synopsis
The arctic-alpine almost overwhelms; extreme, bared down, distilled to the ancient elementals of earth, water, air, and even fire, felt in the sparking life of bud and leaf. Awareness heightens in the immensity of that landscape, so intense that everything crystallizes, each flower, rock, the shape of the cloud, the movement of an insect, the way the water travels through moss, the sound of my own foot on rock. Clarity comes in that expanse where a lone human cannot deny eternity, infinity, and how small, how small we are. This was my feeling on day five of my time on Norway’s Hallingskarvet mountain; this was me standing in the alpine tundra, no place to camp, the weather moving in. This was the day I fully understood that my eleven-day journey had moved into unexpected realms.
I’d gone to explore the landscape that inspired environmental philosopher and deep ecologist Arne Naess, seeking the answer to a question. I walked Hallingskarvet, felt the mountain’s wind, pounding rain, and blessed sunshine; I drank its water, breathed in its air and scents, conversed with its life; all the while, I studied the belief system of Arne Naess, exposing my inner self to Naess’ philosophical worldview, even as I exposed my physical self to the rigors of the alpine world. And in the end, this quest landed me in unknown territory, where, as Naess wrote, “the ecological meets the metaphysical.” Over eleven days, my world had shifted. The woman who walked down from the mountain was a different person than the one who went up to spend time at Hallingskarvet.
The Bare Mountain: A Journey into Arne Naess’ Alpine World chronicles this solo trek in the Norwegian alpine, my days unfolding into a journey that took on unforeseen meaning; I did not expect to so intimately experience Naess’ life philosophy, what he called his “ecosophy,” but that is what happened, and my own life philosophy was shaped and deepened by that experience.
My intellectual journey started long before I traveled to Norway, as I researched and recorded notes, seeking to understand Arne Naess’ ecosophy, a worldview inspired by Hallingskarvet, and the foundation of the 1970’s deep ecology movement. It was this ecosophy that sent me to Norway to explore an idea: how connection to a natural landscape inspires a life philosophy that incorporates what Naess called “beautiful action,” an inclination to care for the planet beyond moral or ethical demands. Spending time alongside Hallingskarvet mountain, in the place Naess named Tvergastein, was an attempt to better understand this concept, something that I’ve experienced and has been demonstrated by the likes of Henry Thoreau in Walden, John Muir in Yosemite, Rachel Carson on the Maine coast, and more.
My physical journey started in Ustaoset, southern Norway, a small town above timberline between Oslo and Bergen, where as a youth, Naess established his life-long connection with nearby Hallingskarvet mountain. A half day’s walk took me to Tvergastein Hytte, the cabin at the base of the mountain where Naess spent years of his life, thinking, writing, walking. There, I set about exploring the landscape that was Naess “Place”, looking for answers. Immersed in Hallingskarvet’s ecology and Arne Naess’ philosophy, the man’s way of seeing that country started to solidify, and the immensity of the landscape sank in; I felt a growing sense of my own insignificance, even as I built bonds with the place, as if individual boundaries dissolved in that environment.
After four nights, I moved camp into a higher, harder alpine landscape. Those days in an extreme environment shattered old ways of being, allowing me to experience something like Naess’ idea of the Ontology of Wholeness, a perception of reality as an interconnected web of life and relations bound together in an intangible mesh, of which humans are a part. To sense that wholeness and belong within it, is to realize our place in the vibrant and interwoven community of life. In turn, that belonging sparks empathy and a deep caring for that community, so that there is no other way to act than with compassion and concern for the well-being of all things. And so I had stumbled into an answer to the original question of how connection to a natural landscape inspires “beautiful action.”
After eight days on the mountain, my sense of the world had shifted. On that eighth day, I walked up to a high pass on Hallingskarvet, and there encountered other hikers. All that I had learned and experienced slipped, threatened by the presence of people out on simple, recreational, fun outings, the world of “normality and duration” colliding with the space I had moved into. Naess, I later learned, felt this collision as well, the difficulty of maintaining that other sense of being, while functioning within and contributing to the world of humanity. Facing that collision, I made peace with it, and so found myself the following day with an overwhelming feeling of liberation, a sense of freedom from the constraints of everyday thought and tasks, understanding that as essential as they are, they are not the only factor in life.
The next day: off the mountain, one last night camped outside of the town where I’d catch a train to Bergen. That contemplative night was not about answers, but acceptance, of what I could know, and what I could only intuit. The following day I went to Bergen, met by the violent news of the world, news of terrorist attacks and bloodshed. And so a plea, a call for what Naess worked for: a paradigm change, a shift in the way we see reality, with values of caring and concern shaping our actions, so that we could move towards a more just and equitable planet – the trumpet call of the deep ecology movement.
I flew out of Bergen, writing on the plane, “That time on Hallingskarvet was humbling… reducing me down to a small speck in a vast Place, an immense universe…and so I participated in something oh so much greater than words can contain.” There is no going back: I had walked into that place, and it had journeyed into me.