Harvey Aughton is a psychopharmacologist, trained in anthropology, who works as a bat conservationist and has a background in outdoor education. He also enjoys writing, mostly at nighttime.
Photography by Co-founder Michael R. Pitter
Wild Generosity on Maunga Pureora; A Speculative Journey
“Either wayDavid Whyte, The Bell and the Blackbird
either way wants you
to be nothing
but that self that
is no self at all”
A mountain is an edifice, a geological memory of deep time. To walk beneath a mountain is to be reminded of Wordsworth, a rambling poet engaged in loneliness even when they are not alone. Climbing an alpine ridge transforms a person and the mountain into a different form of story. The ending might be a body at the bottom of a crevasse, or two men standing on top of the world. There are no certainties other than the single fact in play; when a person chooses to enter the forest and climb mountain slopes, it should be in the knowledge that they receive nature’s generosity. The mountain has been shaped so that ridge and gullies can fall beneath one’s feet. There need be no intention, no impulse, no design on the part of geology, meteorology, or evolution.
The forest gives cover from the wind and rain. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, the humid rainforest warms a trail runner’s body. The high alpine air is thin but also provides existentially charged views of Earth, from the pinnacles of geology to the depths of oceans. Mountains offer us a chance to experience the world as a moment in geological, ecological, and meteorological time. Wildernesses are home to us in a way that continues to be unveiled, and biophilia is a concept which is being advocated for, misused amateur would-be evolutionary theorists, and critiqued in institutes all over the globe. The wind moves tree trunks which are stubbornly stuck to immovable geology while runners travel at their own leisurely pace. Even so, a mountain does ask us to wonder about the limits of what can be given, and what it takes to be generous to another.
A mountain might be considered generous to a tree for providing a slope and weather system within which it can thrive. When natural selection is at play there can be no intention, nevertheless, such an act may shine a light on what true generosity might look like in a human society where altruism is not a term argued about, and people can give and receive resources and information without either party thinking about loss and gain. To my mind, such a world does not exist, nor can it exist, even if altruistic acts are often conducted with the best of intentions. We are not granite, nor are we trees, we have retrospective conscious ‘skin’ in every social game. How we feel matters, and chips away at the sculpture we experience as reality. Human society relies on reciprocal generosity, whereas mountains do not require anything from a person in return for access. However, wildernesses allow us to enter, not the other way round, as the limits of generosity demonstrate.
The choices an adventurer makes take courage. Whether they are conscious of the fact or not, the wilderness is an entity which allows them access to hard-to-reach places. Weather systems swirl in around mountains; a high cool pointed summit around which meteorology meets land, while forests maintain the structure of otherwise loose volcanic soils and therefore save us from constant landslips. The list of interacting elements in the wilderness can go on forever. The question is, where and when does that generosity run dry?
Generosity comes at a price. There is always a cause and effect. While humans are generous with the expectation of returned generosity, wildernesses are generous while hiding inherent complexity; not all parts of wildernesses are generous at the same time or in the same context. Limits to contextual generosity in the wilderness apply to cliffs, high avalanche risk areas, flooded rivers, landslides, severe cold conditions, droughts, flash floods, and white-outs. Just below the peak of Maunga Pureora – an important mountain to local Maori, I was the privy to one of Aotearoa’s less generous moments. Rain moved sideways across my face, making barely visible lines in the swirling fog. The time spent in these wind-whipped, cold, and wet environments should always be as little as possible. In those moments, alone amidst the weather systems usually seen on isobar graphs, a hiker or mountaineer becomes aware that the mountain’s generosity is not limitless. It is possible to overstay your welcome in a hostile, largely foreign environment.
The human brain operates optimally when it respects the forces in the outside world which dictate the need to preserve the health of the body. The moments where a person starts to feel cold and flustered on a ridgeline are the opportunities for a sensible adventurer to travel avenues in time and lonesome space which do not consist of barrelling onwards without a thought, into the unkind white noise. The mountain has transformed from benign to tumultuous, and now one might be better served descending the way they have come or finding a perch out of the wind to consume food, water, and think on the best route forwards or backwards out of a precarious situation.
In those instances, as I experienced when I decided to shorten my stay at the top of Mauga Pureora in the cold misty wind, the mountain and its universe have spoken. Climbers, runners, skiers, and mountaineers are a speck of cosmic dust living through geological space-time. A bird may be able to whittle down a mountain at the end of the world, but the peak will not disappear before all creatures which live alongside humans today are long gone. Therefore, it is as well to remember that the generosity of the natural world exists, is unintentional, does not require reciprocation in the way people do, and is by no means limitless.
From the Editor:
We hope that readers receive In Parentheses as a medium through which the evolution of human thought can be appreciated, nurtured and precipitated. It will present a dynamo of artistic expression, journalism, informal analysis of our daily world, entertainment of ideas considered lofty and criticism of today’s popular culture. The featured content does not follow any specific ideology except for that of intellectual expansion of the masses.
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