Many speak of the lure of the mountains. Of a spiritual element in ascending to the heights, a realization of earthly beauty in the passage, a leaving behind of humanity's petty struggles, a fulfillment of purpose—a summiting, some would have it, of one's own soul.
None of these points can be argued against, but there are other, less romantic ones to make. One which doesn't get much traction is the general piquing of curiosity that mountain travel engenders. And I don't here refer to the banal wonderings of explorers in the What's over there? and How do we get to that other peak? sense. I speak instead of the deep-rooted curiosity that has propelled human evolution to the lofty heights of understanding we now possess as a species. This may be the most important element because it opens doors, often by degree, to the worth of any existential consideration.
It begins with the simple reality of mountains: why and how they formed; what kind of processes were involved; and which of these might be ongoing. This is the realm of plate tectonics (planetary perspective), geology (the actual rock involved), and geomorphology (the formations and landforms that result from uplift, glaciation, weathering). There's enough mulling in that troika alone to keep my mind occupied on any walk in the hills. But naturally and inevitably, there's more.
The idea that geodiversity and biodiversity are linked goes back to the late 18th-century travels of explorer Alexander von Humboldt, and was deftly born out in the writings of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace as they came to understand the processes driving the ever-changing surface of our four-billion-year-old planet. Thus, as someone who has dipped a toe or two in the waters of professional biology, I am constantly equating that which I observe in the plant and animal realm with what the land they occupy is composed of, what sort of nutrients are available to support these relationships, and from whence (both physically and in time) these come. I often catch my mind soaring over the land like a bird: up gullies, down streams, over meadows, into the forest. Such unconscious mental perambulation delivers endless fascination with wherever I am, and not infrequent amazement. Mountains may be labyrinthine in form but can be likewise in nature—and thought.
What this also delivers—and which is more in line with the traditional curiosity of map-readers—is a desire to switch perspective on the land before me, to see it in another light or different way in order to better understand it. A view that might deliver more dimensionality—one of the many amazing constructs the human mind is capable of considering. First Nations well-understood this, as the land and its waypoints always had a life of their own.
This switch in perspectives has also long been the realm of the photographer and cinematographer. Think of early stereoscopic aerial photography, the moody black and white images rendered by Ansel Adams, or the work of any modern landscape master. Their genius is in helping us see the land and the processes that shape it in another way, both answering our curiosity and stimulating it. And now, in the era of helicopters, drones and shockingly high-resolution cameras we are delivered of an entirely new and more intimate aerial perspective, one that often borders on phantasmagorical.
The real pull of mountains lies in their allure as dimensional beings. And if we can see—and think of—mountains this way, why not other landforms?? that determine the places humans settle, live, labour and love?
Here's where I'm going with this. As another summer dawns with the opportunity to discover more of this great land we call Canada, I find myself excited for the possibilities. It strikes me that the true depth and breadth of this nation cannot be measured by any yardstick of contemporary culture or oral tradition or industrial tally. Rather, it's the many intimate connections of daily endeavour to geology that yield the greatest sense of our diversity and, perhaps not so obviously, our unity. The multitudinous nature of the land speaks to us in a way we don't always consciously acknowledge, even when, for instance, we live on its very edge, forging a terraqueous existence with the sea.
Consider that the provinces and territories, otherwise historical artifacts of political expediency, are, from a geological standpoint, stitched together in deterministic quilt: mountains unite the Yukon, B.C. and Alberta; Alberta shares its Prairie underpinnings with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, both of whom are married to the NWT, Ontario and Quebec by the granitic arc of the Precambrian Shield; Southern Ontario and Quebec are inextricably connected by the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers. The Gaspé Peninsula, Magdalen Islands and Labrador create a link between Quebec and the Maritimes that cannot logically be usurped.
From recreational pursuits in the mountains of B.C., to the work of avalanche forecasters, miners, fossil-hunters, gravel-pit operators, coastal fishermen, and even urbanites living on Toronto's lakeside islands, it all ties in to geological history. And here's where we can truly summit our own souls: by acknowledging that to which we are inextricably tied—the ground beneath our feet.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.