I Want to See Mountains

kirkjufell driveby
Kirkjufell means “church mountain” in Icelandic.

I want to see mountains again, mountains! The mountains I’m thinking of are the distinctive, steep, yellow-green or starkly brown, horizontally ridged mountains of Iceland, which are currently covered in snow. Iceland, where every rock has a story, a name. (Sorry, but “Colors of the Wind from Pocahontas comes into my head at least once a month, as well as Bilbo telling Gandalf what he’ll do after he leaves the Shire for good).

Of course, there are names for rocks and mountains all over. My first mountains as a fully aware person were the Sierra Nevada, Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta and the peaks close by my aunt’s and uncle’s house perched right on a mountainside, whose names I didn’t learn, but whose enveloping presence brought me joy. In Freiburg, where I lived for a year in southwestern Germany, there were Schwarzwald (Black Forest) hills at the end of all the spokes of the city: Schauinsland, Schönberg, other mountains I failed to get to know despite our prolonged proximity to each other. In Bayern (Bavaria) I was tickled to learn the names of the various Alps I encountered over multiple trips:  Zugspitze and Jenner and der Watzmann, with his smaller wife and children, as well as the urban peaks: the names of the churches that make up the skyline of München (Munich). I enjoyed becoming familiar with the hometown of my family friends, learning some of its landmarks and human history as well as its farther-flung natural surroundings.

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Der Watzmann.

In Gathering Moss, ethnobotanist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about raising her daughters in upstate New York, and spending summers in the Adirondack Mountains at her university’s biological field station:

“A good number of the rocks around here have names, and people use them for reference points around the lake: Chair Rock, Gull Rock, Burnt Rock, Elephant Rock, Sliding Rock. Each name calls up a story, and connects us to the past and present of this place every time we say it. My daughters, being raised in a place where they simply assume that all rocks have names, christen their own: Bread Rock, Cheese Rock, Whale Rock, Reading Rock, Diving Rock.” (p. 3)

As I read that, I thought of Michigan rocks with names: Arch Rock on Mackinac Island, Chapel Rock at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. National parks and other public lands make true in some way one of our important American myths: that this land is our land, that the American people own some of the most spectacular and rugged pieces of the continent (powerful and important and worth protecting, although we need to stop forgetting that it is also stolen land, and I don’t mean from the industries who want to destroy it but from the Indigenous peoples of the continent who have lived here many thousands of years). In these storied places, we take the time to appreciate the presence and power of striking natural landmarks, and we remember their names to other people all over the world: Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley, Old Faithful at Yellowstone. Here again, we need to remember that these places have other names from before the American settlers and railroad barons spoke over them.

Building Relationships With Land

I wonder if part of what makes mountain vistas and other geographical features with names appealing to me is that this sort of landscape, these earth entities, are missing in my home. I grew up near the center of a sea of sprawl. We liked to drive along Lake St. Clair, which turns into the Detroit River. But what other natural feature was there to name, what landscapes to know? I think I might have grown up a little place-less, in the suburbs, taxied about in the backs of my parents’ cars.

I knew that I had to bike sixteen blocks from my house to get to the toy store in the Village, one little city over from us. I knew from my dad that Fox Creek once flowed next to what we called the Castle House at the other end of our block, a house built of solid grey stone and decorative tiles salvaged from an old church. An invisible creek, and a castle: I think the buried stream sticks in my mind because it was tied to this concrete example of a past that was not suburban—the old church that has been completely re-shaped.

Beyond that, there were asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks and lots of houses with lush, green grass. The city parks were tamed at inception. The land remains mostly flat, city after city crammed together along the river and the lake, building a massive metropolitan area along the highways.

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Freiburg, Germany.

When you see mountains hugging your city in its valley, it’s a little clearer how the “natural” world connects to the urban. There’s a different kind of context. Even in Ann Arbor, there are trees in the distance, rising up out of Huron Street as you look west from downtown. On my bus ride out to North Campus, I would delight in the forested hills along the Huron River, and from my fourth-floor office there, you could see so many trees.

I miss that, in Detroit. We live on the first floor now, and so we don’t have much of a distance to stare out into. If I walk down to the river, I can look out at Belle Isle and Canada. If you’re standing on the right streets, there are monuments on the horizon: skyscrapers and apartment buildings and the incinerator (my brother and I named that as children—the Skunk—and plugged our noses as we rode past on the expressway).

Sometimes I look at the street I live on now, roads and sidewalks and curbs and house foundations so densely packed, and I think we don’t really live on land anymore—that the front yards might actually be small plots of dirt and grass seed dropped on top after the impermeable grid was installed, leaving no room for roots. But no, of course not, we live on the Earth, the Earth is still here, with continental plates twenty to thirty miles thick. (Plus the rain makes waterfalls in my basement during heavy storms; we at least are open to the elements!)

But the ghosts of the previous landscapes are still there under the streets. We have harnessed waterways as sewers, which people sometimes talk about bringing back to the surface. Many of us in this region live on what was ecologically important and productive marshland that filtered water before it entered the Great Lakes—but these wetlands were filled in to make land for farmers.

Cooper is fascinated with the early history of the city. He shares what he’s learned with me as we walk these streets together, sketching pictures in our minds of the neighborhoods not only before abandonment and demolition, but also before industry, before farming, before European settlement. Identifying where the river shoreline used to be doesn’t make it open to the people and animals who once called it home. Knowing that downtown streets were named for local slaveholders doesn’t free those who they enslaved. But giving words to what is past and hidden is still valuable, don’t you think? 

In another essay in Gathering Moss, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:

“In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationship, not only with each other…” (p. 13)

There’s probably no reason to rebuild long-flattened hills for the sake of historical accuracy, and we can’t name mountains that never existed here to scrape the sky of our marshy home. But we can appreciate and name what was lost along with what was built (and often itself lost), as we do our best to move forward in the present. 

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Porcupine Mountains, Michigan.

And travel to the western Upper Peninsula when we want to experience Michigan mountains.