When Mountains Are Gods

 The Brooks Range divides the continent north and south. A Student Conservation Association volunteer stands on this divide.

The Brooks Range divides the continent north and south. A Student Conservation Association volunteer stands on this divide. National Park Service (CC0)

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Original Air Date: 
July 24, 2021

If you look at a mountain, you might see a skiing destination, a climbing challenge, or even a source of timber to be logged or ore to be mined. But there was a time when mountains were sacred. In some places, they still are. What changes when you think of a mountain not as a giant accumulation of natural resources, but as a living being?

Human identity cannot be separated from our nonhuman kin. From forest ecology to the human microbiome, emerging research suggests that being human is a complicated journey made possible only by the good graces of our many companions. In partnership with the Center for Humans and Nature and with support from the Kalliopeia Foundation, To The Best Of Our Knowledge is exploring this theme of "kinship" in a special radio series.

To learn more about the Kinship series, head to ttbook.org/kinship.

Poudre Lake is the headwaters of the Cache la Poudre River

Environmental philosopher and bonafide "mountain man" John Hausdoerffer explains how mountains are connected to all life on earth, and what it means to treat them as "living kin."


We're part of an extended web of kinship that includes not just people, but plants, animals, rivers and mountains. For Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, that knowledge has been passed down through many generations.

Hunger mountain's peak
Photo Gallery

Is there a special mountain in your life? David Hinton, who lives in Vermont, told us about the one he knows best — Hunger Mountain - which he's climbed 300 times. His thinking about mountains has been shaped by his study of ancient Chinese poetry.


People in the Andes have been telling stories about their mountains for centuries. Writer and educator Lisa Madera says they tell us something essential about the nature of mountains as geologic marvels and sacred sites.

Show Details 📻
July 24, 2021
March 12, 2022
December 24, 2022
September 16, 2023
May 25, 2024
Ecological Philosopher
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk
Educator and activist
Writer and Translator
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:05):

It's To the Best of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. For centuries people have looked at mountains with awe and wonder. We've climbed them, skied them, gone on pilgrimage and retreat to them, but today from China to Ecuador, from the Alps to the Rockies, the people who know mountains best say something is changing.

John Hausdoerffer (00:35):

So I have two daughters, Atalaya and Sol, at 13 and 9, and we have a game that we call snow hunting.

Anne Strainchamps (00:45):

John Hausdoerffer is a mountain ecologist in Colorado.

John Hausdoerffer (00:52):

Every month we find the snow, which is easy in the Rockies in the winter, but come July, August, September, it's very hard to find the snow. One particular snow field I call Old Reliable. You'll pass above the town of Crested Butte, Colorado. It's kind of an icy little wind deposit that is so tucked away it just never quite melts. It's enough for 30 fun slushy turns in the afternoon. I have been skiing that patch of snow since I first moved here in 1992 from New Jersey with my mind blown that I could ski in the summer.

John Hausdoerffer (01:39):

About three years ago, we had a really bad snow year and I thought, well, let's go to Old Reliable. I was concerned about climate change and snowpack projections of 50% loss of snowpack, by end of century, 75 fewer ski days, but I thought Old Reliable would take care of us. When we got there, it was gone, and that to me really was more powerful than any of the data I have seen through the years as an environmental studies professor on climate change. This look in Sol's eyes when she couldn't participate in a family rite of passage just made it real.

John Hausdoerffer (02:38):

The part that was left of the snow field was a very steep little section through rocks ending in rock that my older daughter was skilled enough to ski and I wouldn't let my younger daughter go. The tears in her eyes were like a weird kind of crying that's for a new Anthropocene, like climate tears or something. It broke my heart.

Anne Strainchamps (03:10):

Crying over the fate of a mountain doesn't seem that unusual anymore, not when wildfires are destroying millions of acres in the West. Climate change is putting pressure on a lot of the places we love, especially mountains, and that's reminding us of how interwoven our lives are with the rest of this living planet.

Anne Strainchamps (03:33):

From his base in Gunnison, Colorado, John Hausdoerffer works with mountain communities all over the world learning to see mountains differently, not as natural resources, but as living kin, and that begins with a simple realization. Mountains and the snow on them are the source of life.

John Hausdoerffer (03:55):

When my kid was really young, she suggested snow was God. I said, "What are you talking about?" She said, "Well, it's the source of everything that lives and you feel like you're flying, you feel like you're in heaven when you're floating down it." She's like, "Isn't that God?" So it's powerful stuff.

John Hausdoerffer (04:23):

I will say that snow is my moral barometer. If my grandkid is taking their kid to ski Yule Pass and there's snow there, then the work my generation did meant something.

Anne Strainchamps (04:39):

How endangered is snow? I mean, not just where you are, but all over?

John Hausdoerffer (04:45):

Yeah. It's hard to generalize. Looking at the climate data, anything under 4,000 vertical in North America is in a lot of trouble. Europe is in a lot of trouble. The high mountains, it varies. We know that Gangotri Glacier, which is the first trickles of water of the Ganges, is receding by tens of meters per year.

John Hausdoerffer (05:11):

In fact, in the traditions of Hinduism and their creation story, snow has a role, and that Gangotri Glacier, it looks like a cow's snout, right? Out of it comes this milky colored water seen as like the mother's milk of the sacred cow of the Hindu people. When I finally trekked to Gangotri Glacier there was a very nice man who came up to me. He was from Shanghai, he was an accountant, he was on his pilgrimage, and he was tearing up. I asked him if he was okay and he said it's just very sad. I said, "Why?" He said, "It doesn't look like a cow's snout anymore."

John Hausdoerffer (05:50):

So you can quantify the necessary vital value of mountains. You can say, indeed, mountains make up 20% of the earth, 13% of human communities are in mountains, just over 60% of all water consumed by humans, whether that's food or energy or water, is sourced in mountains, 25% of biodiversity exists in mountains, and we can say, yes, you can quantify how important mountains are, but you can't quantify the loss of a man's saying his spirituality has been disrupted by climate change, not just how much water will be in the tap.

Anne Strainchamps (06:32):

So John, you do a lot of partnership work trying to build connections between mountain communities all over the world, kind of like the sister cities concept. What have you seen change? If folks in Telluride suddenly feel solidarity with a village in the Himalayas, what changes?

John Hausdoerffer (06:51):

I'm really glad you used the word solidarity. I've always had a lot of hope around snow as a basis of solidarity. Those of us in the Rockies living with a degree of affluence, we're not the experts. Those who live with the consequences of my comforts have far more expertise than me with my PhD and gang of grad students. It's incredibly difficult and vital to bring together not just different data, but different ways of knowing, different ways of knowing and understanding what makes mountains sacred, how do we quantify, qualify, and build solidarity around protecting the sacred as a global mountain community?

Anne Strainchamps (07:37):

You and your wife have a piece of land up at, I think you said, 10,000 feet. It's a place called Terrible Mountain in Colorado. So you bought it, legally you own it, but you've written that you're trying to think of it as almost like the mountain owns you, or at least that you belong to the mountain. So what does that look like in practice?

John Hausdoerffer (08:03):

Yeah, I've always wrestled with what is my position on this place called Terrible Mountain? I do my best to practice kinship there. For example, a tree disease was spreading across the aspen community. When you look at an aspen forest, it's all one organism, so each tree is like a finger on your hand, underneath is a tuber. When you don't have disturbance, when you don't have fire, the aspen tuber can die. So there was disease spreading and we wanted a place to put our shack and so we disturbed by cutting the trees that were diseased and now around the shack are young aspens from a regenerated tuber.

John Hausdoerffer (08:46):

There's a thinker named [Von Ranke Salmono 00:08:47] who has a term called concentric, that is to act in such a way that you're not just like doing less bad, like conservationism saying how do we not overuse the wood, your advancing good as a member of that place, you're co-creating wildness with that place.

Anne Strainchamps (09:06):

Wow. So instead of just picking the spot with the best view for your cabin, you picked the spot where if you built a cabin and took down some trees, it actually would be good for the forest and heal it.

John Hausdoerffer (09:20):

Yeah. So that cabin is heated by, part of it is built by or built from, and cleared from an aspen grove that was dying and being overcrowded by spruce. So the spruce went into building materials, the aspen grove went into heating, and the clearing regenerated the tuber.

Anne Strainchamps (09:44):

That's just kind of beautiful.

John Hausdoerffer (09:47):

It's an environmentalism that goes beyond doing less bad to ask how can I be a member of this family and what is my response? Not what are my rights on this land as a property owner, what are my responsibilities? We're owned by the responsibility, we don't own the right.

Anne Strainchamps (10:07):

You've given us so much to think about. Is there a particular kinship practice you might recommend for anyone who might be, say, heading into the mountains?

John Hausdoerffer (10:19):

Well, if you can find snow or a source of water, whether it's snow or a spring, find the source of water and I would simply recommend just sitting with it. If you're on the east of the Continental Divide, think about what that water goes through ecologically, culturally, economically, socially, who and what it serves before it gets to the delta and the Gulf of Mexico. If you're west of the Divide, think the same for the Colorado River all the way to the Gulf of California. Just let that trickle, both make you present, feel the cold of the snow, listen to the trickle of the water, and whenever a thought distracts you, return to the cold of the snow on your hand, return to the trickle of the water you hear, and just breathe with it.

John Hausdoerffer (11:14):

Start with that moment. Once you're present to the place and the moment, then let yourself go to 30,000 feet and imagine the system and what it's asking from you. You'll learn how to be a good ancestor. The answer is in the land, in the mountains, which are the source of life for all land.

Anne Strainchamps (11:46):

John Hausdoerffer teaches at Western Colorado University. He's a co-founder of the Mountain Resilience Coalition and he works with the UN's Mountain Partnership. He's an editor of the book What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be? and of the Kinship Series Belonging in a World of Relations.

Anne Strainchamps (12:14):

For a lot of cultures around the world, being human means being part of an extended web of kinship that includes not just people, but plants, animals, rivers, and mountains. That knowledge has always been here despite repeated and continuing attempts to wipe it out. Steve Paulson brings us the story of one woman who's fighting back.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (12:46):

My name is Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk and I'm a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. I'm also a former co-chair for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

Steve Paulson (13:02):

Bears Ears is the stretch of land in Southeastern Utah that's filled with ancient cliff dwellings and sacred sites. Its name comes from a pair of 9,000-foot buttes that rise over the surrounding landscape.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (13:16):

It's a beautiful desert landscape made up of red rocks. To the north on the north side, you get a little bit of the feel from a forest mountainy type of landscape. You go south and you're coming off of a mesa. So it's almost like two worlds that have been meshed together and we're very blessed to have that area as some sacred space and many of us have family ties to those locations for a lot of reasons.

Steve Paulson (14:02):

Regina is one of those people. Her family's history in these mountains goes back almost beyond memory.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (14:11):

Probably so far back that I don't think that it actually is recorded. My people have always been in the area and have moved with the seasons, and so depending on what resource and what season it is, you'll find us in various locations.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (14:31):

The Utes roamed the entire state of Colorado, close to two-thirds of Utah, what is currently present-day Utah, and surrounding states that are neighboring to Colorado. As Europeans began to encroach upon these areas of where we hunted, where we gathered our herbs, and where we lived, many of us try to retreat to areas that would provide cover and safety for our families. Sometimes that worked and sometimes that didn't work. There just came a time when the outsiders kept coming and we began to feel like we were being backed into a small place and we began to experience some of the traumas in our history and our existence and numbers of our people began to decrease.

Steve Paulson (15:31):

That history of trauma for the Utes stretches back to the 19th century when White prospectors discovered gold and silver and other minerals in the San Juan Mountains. They came in droves. The U.S. government then reneged on its legal agreements that it ceded much of this land to the Ute people, and today history seems to be repeating itself. The Trump administration shrank the Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and that reopened the area to mining companies.

David Hinton (16:00):

We'll call up Ms. Lopez-Whiteskunk who is a former councilwoman.

Steve Paulson (16:05):

Tribal groups and environmentalists fought back, and Regina was one of the people who testified before Congress.

David Hinton (16:12):

You know the drill. You're recognized for five minutes.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (16:16):

Thank you for the opportunity to testify. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe adamantly opposes H.R. 4532.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (16:24):

We need to learn from the past. If we really are going to forge forward into the future, we cannot keep repeating the same mistakes.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (16:33):

Such legislations prevents the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and other Indian nations to self-determine their own destinies and amounts to the failed federal Indian policies of the 1800s.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (16:46):

We're not doing our next generations any justice by leaving them barren wastelands to try to forge their futures on.

Steve Paulson (16:55):

I would think that one thing that's so hard about this whole issue that we're talking about, especially as it regards to Bears Ears, is this whole question of ownership of land, which is just so ingrained in legal doctrine of the United States, but my sense is that that whole idea of owning land, that was an idea that really didn't make any sense for a lot of indigenous people.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (17:25):

That's correct. We don't believe in ownership of land, water, air, the wildlife, because we believe we belong to the land. My family has long been tied to our traditional healing. My great-grandfather was one of the last medicine men for the Ute Mountain people, the Weeminuche. So during time periods of when our families would gather, like during our social dance, which is the bear dance, which is a time of spring when people gather to honor the females of the tribes or the groups, conducted a dance, which is typically how we revere our new year.

Steve Paulson (18:13):

Why is it called the bear dance?

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (18:16):

Because it was said that a bear, back when our people existed and co-existed with the animals and the plant life, that the animals and the humans could speak a common language, they could communicate, and so it was said that a bear came into the people and shared her stories and what she believed was a time to honor the females and taught the people the songs that would be shared during this time period, and also spoke of the trees that would create the lodge and which direction that opening would be and how the dance would be conducted. So that is one of the reasons why it's a time when the females, the life-givers, are celebrated.

Steve Paulson (19:39):

You mentioned earlier that there is this tradition that your people could talk with animals, they could talk with plants, they communicated with the mountain. Are there still people who can do that?

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (19:53):

There is, but I don't think that you will find very many people openly admitting this because in the society we live in today, it would be quickly, you would be branded as being crazy or being able to do things. So it's a very private, sacred language and action that if that's something that we do do, we're not going to readily admit it.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (20:24):

A lot of that leaves us when we lose our elders, when they pass on, the richness of that and the life. That's something that I want people to understand, these places are not dormant, they are not dead like some might perceive, especially in respect to the field of archeology. These are live active places. These are still a part of our culture. When we conduct pilgrimages, when we go to visit these places, we treat them as a active place that has spirit and still has life. It's very much alive.

Anne Strainchamps (21:26):

That's Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and former co-chair for the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. She talked with Steve Paulson. For now, the Biden administration has pledged to expand the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument.

David Hinton (21:50):

I think we've still got a ways to go.

Anne Strainchamps (21:54):

Coming up, mountain walking in Vermont, and in the footsteps of 8th century Chinese poets. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To the Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio.

David Hinton (22:10):

Okay. Right near the summit is really steep.

Anne Strainchamps (22:13):

And PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (22:25):

Is there a special mountain in your life?

David Hinton (22:29):

That'll be behind us. Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (22:32):

David Hinton, who lives in Northern Vermont, told us about the one he knows best.

David Hinton (22:37):

Okay, so let me talk you through this. Okay.

Anne Strainchamps (22:41):

Hunger Mountain.

David Hinton (22:42):

So here we are starting here. Go down that to the bottom of the hill. That's like one mile or so. It's the nicest hike that I know of around here. So yeah, you'll go down this steep hill and you'll hit another road here.

David Hinton (22:59):

The hike is mostly through hardwoods. There's a sign on a tree that says trail. So it tends to be open and airy. There's usually a little cairn on your left. It has a few streams you cross, which are nice.

Anne Strainchamps (23:12):

There are three potential trails down.

David Hinton (23:14):

You just have to make sure that you.

David Hinton (23:15):

Then the last quarter of the hike is scrambling up bare rock. Well, once you get onto the rock up there, there are blue blazes. Then finally, the summit is bare, so then you have nice 360 views. So if you get a little bit lost, just stop and look for a blue blaze. If you can't find one, just keep looking.

Anne Strainchamps (23:35):


Steve Paulson (23:44):

How many times do you figure you have climbed Hunger Mountain?

David Hinton (23:49):

I think maybe 300. I've been here over 30 years and I probably have averaged once a month.

Steve Paulson (23:55):

That's a lot of times up the same mountain.

David Hinton (24:05):


Anne Strainchamps (24:05):

Why would anybody want to hike the same mountain 300 times? Well, David Hinton is a poet and one of the foremost translators of classical Chinese poetry, work that's steeped in mountain landscapes.

David Hinton (24:18):

Here's the cairn trail. Okay, up we go.

Anne Strainchamps (24:24):

Ancient China had a long and deep philosophical tradition based on centuries of investigating the very nature of consciousness. So when David hikes Hunger Mountain, he's following in the footsteps of the sages and masters for whom mountain walking was a core spiritual practice. Today, Steve and I are following in his footsteps.

David Hinton (24:48):

The sacred isn't really a concept in ancient China. For them, the closest thing to the sacred is something like reality itself, or the cosmos seen as a living constantly transforming tissue. Spiritual practice in ancient China was all about belonging to that tissue or integrating or weaving consciousness into that tissue. There were a lot of ways they did that, but one of the easy ways was by emptying their mind, which involves meditation or maybe just walking in the mountains.

Anne Strainchamps (25:30):

[inaudible 00:25:30].

David Hinton (25:33):

[inaudible 00:25:33].

David Hinton (25:33):

If your mind is empty, it says if you are a mirror, an empty mirror looking at things, the ancient Chinese spent lots of time in the mountains for that very simple reason because their mountains opened that empty mind mirror. That's why they thought of mountains as great teachers, so that the cosmos, the landscape, is self. There is no distinction.

David Hinton (26:00):

There's a poem for that. This is a poem written in the 8th century by Li Po. It's called the Reverence-Pavilion Mountain, Sitting Alone. "Birds have vanished into deep skies. A last cloud drifts away, all idleness. Inexhaustible, this mountain and I gaze at each other, it alone remaining."

Anne Strainchamps (26:34):

Oh, there's one of the [inaudible 00:26:36].

David Hinton (26:36):

[inaudible 00:26:36].

Anne Strainchamps (26:42):

Is any particular ancient poet you've come to know who you can imagine walking on Hunger Mountain with?

David Hinton (26:51):

Yeah, they're my best friends. Because I translated the poet, I basically live inside that poet's mind for a year or whatever.

David Hinton (27:01):

You can see where the rain collected from last night.

David Hinton (27:06):

The first book I did was Tu Fu, who's the greatest of all Chinese poets, who lived in devastating times. He got to middle age, it was the greatest age of Chinese culture, and suddenly there was this huge civil war that killed or displaced two-thirds of the population. He became a refugee and spent the last 10 years of his life wandering the landscapes around the edge of China. He somehow, even though he was desperately poor, one of his kids starved to death, he was constantly moving, he wrote like a thousand poems in those 10 years somehow weaving landscape and war and destruction, all of that, together.

David Hinton (27:49):

He wrote maybe the most famous line in Chinese poetry, the first line of a poem, it's, "The nation falls into ruins, rivers and mountains continue."

Anne Strainchamps (28:04):

I have to stop soon. Stop just for a little break. Okay, break.

Steve Paulson (28:24):

So just to back up just to talk about your personal story a little bit more, you're kind of in the middle of the mountains here in Vermont, what is it that attracts you to this landscape?

David Hinton (28:36):

I think it's just that you can live in the middle of it. I grew up in the West where you would live in the city and wilderness and empty land was all outside of the city. From when I was young, all I wanted to do is get out of the city and go up in the mountains.

David Hinton (28:59):

If you want a story, my favorite story about Hunger Mountain is probably the mountain story itself. It's an incredibly cosmopolitan mountain. It was formed originally by the collision of the European, the African, and the North American plates, and they pushed up a mountain range as high as the Himalayas here.

Steve Paulson (29:24):

Wait, you're saying that at one point these mountains were 30,000 feet tall?

David Hinton (29:27):


Steve Paulson (29:28):

40,000 feet?

David Hinton (29:30):

It's amazing that you can sit there and you look at the rock and you can almost see how it's scoured by glaciers. There were once glaciers a mile deep here, but that rock tells you that there were 40,000 feet of mountain above the current summit of Hunger Mountain.

Anne Strainchamps (29:50):

Rain drops were already ancient when Jesus was born and when the Buddha was born. That's pretty cool [inaudible 00:30:10].

Steve Paulson (30:21):

When you hike up Hunger Mountain, do you kind of lose your sense of self?

David Hinton (30:25):

Oh, it comes and goes, I think, like anybody else.

Steve Paulson (30:28):

Because I'm just wondering sort of when that notion, that idea, that feeling kicks in for you.

David Hinton (30:36):

Oh, it's usually maybe something perceptual happens like a leaf falls, or I have those stream crossings that are moments where I just ground me a little bit, and the waterfall. Actually, it happens to us all the time. Anytime you see something new, striking, very often there's this moment of you're just seeing it and if you can stop and look at what happens in your mind, you see it. In that moment, I wasn't there.

Anne Strainchamps (31:08):

Is it cold?

Steve Paulson (31:13):

[inaudible 00:31:13]. Yep, pretty cold. [inaudible 00:31:22]. Okay. Time for a water break. Just starting to see above the tree line too.

Steve Paulson (31:41):

So it sounds like you're saying that for Zen practice the object is to get past the language to get to this point of empty mind. But can I point out there is a paradox here, what you're doing? You are a poet, you translate Chinese poetry, and you're talking about the ancient Chinese poets. This is all based in language.

David Hinton (32:02):

You are making me do it.

Steve Paulson (32:07):

So what is the problem with language? How does it get in our way?

David Hinton (32:10):

I mean, language is an incredibly powerful evolutionary tool. It's made us wildly successful as a species. We need language, we need ideas, to navigate the world to survive. However, it creates the sense that we're trapped in our little heads, and for a lot of people, for me, there's something very wrong with that.

David Hinton (32:36):

I'll just read one more. So this is Wang Wei, 8th century. Magnolia Park. "Autumn mountains gathering last light. One bird follows another in flight away. Shifting kingfisher greens flash radiant scatters. Evening mists, nowhere they are."

David Hinton (33:02):

Ancient Chinese poems are built on images. There's no hidden meaning, you just read the poem. Just take it in and let it do what it does to you.

Anne Strainchamps (33:13):

What do you think of the way a lot of us pause and kind of just [inaudible 00:33:29] air? [inaudible 00:33:32].

Steve Paulson (33:37):

I mean, I like the sense that [inaudible 00:33:37].

Anne Strainchamps (33:37):


Anne Strainchamps (33:50):

All we can hear now is wind in the trees. We're up near the tree line.

Steve Paulson (33:58):

David, I'm struck by this whole different worldview that you're describing. It was just so radically different, frankly, from the way I tend to see the world, and I'm wondering how you came to think this way. I mean, was there a moment maybe early in your life when you were learning Chinese or learning to translate when it's just like, wow, this is just totally different, it's kind of hard to wrap my head around it?

David Hinton (34:26):

I mean, for me, for it to really radically to start happening was when I started learning ancient Chinese, which is so radically different. My mind was being so twisted around that I had to drink three glasses of whiskey at night just to go to sleep. I actually tried, I said, this isn't me, I can't do this. I'm not really a drinker, it's not my way. I actually tried one night. At two in the morning, I got up and drank three glasses of whiskey.

Steve Paulson (34:57):

Did it help?

David Hinton (34:58):

Yeah, I went to sleep, but I had to get up at five and started studying again.

Steve Paulson (35:04):

So it sounds like your mind did get reorganized?

David Hinton (35:07):

Yeah. But I do want to say that on the one hand, it seems radically different, on the other hand, I really don't think it is. The ancient Chinese are radical empiricists, it's all about just looking.

Steve Paulson (35:24):

I think we've still got a ways to go.

Anne Strainchamps (35:25):


Steve Paulson (35:32):

When you describe it that way, it sounds less like a spiritual practice and more like scientific observation.

David Hinton (35:38):

Yeah, it is. The literal meaning of enlightenment in ancient China, that term, is seeing original nature. That's just like science, right? It's just like seeing what's there. What is there, what is the cosmos, what is consciousness, and how are they woven together?

David Hinton (35:56):

Everything in the cosmos is constantly moving and changing and transforming, and the West loves stability and permanence. That's why you want a soul. That's why you have God. That's why reality is more ideas than it is the stuff all around us because ideas are permanent and the West wasn't comfortable with all this change. But China is totally comfortable with it.

Steve Paulson (36:26):

Okay. Right near the summit is really steep. Just sheer rock. Just climbing. It's not exactly straight up, but it's tiring.

Steve Paulson (36:42):

So I want to come back to mountains here.

David Hinton (36:44):

Okay, good.

Steve Paulson (36:46):

I'm wondering if the notion of kinship with a mountain is meaningful to you?

David Hinton (36:52):

Absolutely. I mean, that's exactly what I'm talking about. Weaving consciousness and the mountain together, that's kinship. When you're meditating, you watch thoughts coming and going, coming and going, and I mentioned how Hunger, this mountain range, has actually been built up to 40,000 feet and erased down to nothing and built up to 40,000 feet twice, and now it's back down to 3,500 feet. So even whole mountain ranges emerge, live their lives, wear away, and vanish, just like thoughts emerge in our mind, go through their evolutions, and vanish. That's kinship with the mountain right there. You watch thoughts operate just like the mountain operates, just on a different timescale. You're always thinking like a mountain.

Steve Paulson (37:41):

Okay, I'm going to talk. I have to say that it feels like a real accomplishment. That last bit just about killed me. But it's incredible. 360-degree views in every direction.

Anne Strainchamps (38:13):

We had a wonderful day on Hunger Mountain thanks to David Hanson, a renowned translator of ancient Chinese poetry and philosophical classics. He's also a poet and author of one of the best books about mountains ever written. It's called Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape. Check it out.

Anne Strainchamps (38:38):

Coming up, mountains that breathe fire and seduce men. I'm Anne Strainchamps and this is To the Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (39:06):

Lisa Maria Madera has known since she was a little girl that mountains are alive like real living, breathing beings.

Speaker 6 (39:31):

[foreign language 00:39:31].

Lisa Maria Madera (39:32):

I was 11 when I first saw Tungurahua. It was Thanksgiving, 1976. We were driving in our white Chevy van from Quito to Cuenca to see the Incan ruins of Ingapirca. We had spread a picnic. I remember the lemonade, the tuna fish sandwiches. I remember the fallow field rippling with wildflowers. Then out of nowhere, volcano, huge, massive, white, closer than my hand.

Speaker 6 (40:17):

[foreign language 00:40:17].

Lisa Maria Madera (40:17):

I was born to volcanoes. The youngest daughter of medical missionaries, I was born in Quito, the oldest city in the new world, and I grew up on the edge of the Amazon in a military town named for Shell Oil. In Quito, I would catch tadpoles on the slopes of Pichincha. In Shell, I would stay up way past my bedtime watching Sangay erupt, mesmerized by the blue and green gases hovering on the jungle horizon, the red lava running down the volcano's perfect cone.

Lisa Maria Madera (41:01):

I was born to volcanoes. I knew them all by name. Imbabura, Cayambe, Antisana, Cotopaxihe, Pichincha, Chimborazo, Sangay, El Altar. So the odd thing, within all those years I had never really seen Tungurahua. Or perhaps more to the point, Tungurahua had never seen me.

Anne Strainchamps (41:29):


Steve Paulson (41:32):


Lisa Maria Madera (41:34):

In Ecuador, Isabel Tungurahua's seductive are legendary. She is known to have had at least two husbands, one lover, and a son of questionable paternity. She smokes and trembles from her many passions and every 80 years or so, she erupts with a hiss of white vapor, a spray of ash, and powers forth without censor the hot red lava that pulses through her stone veins. The seduction timing is everything.

Anne Strainchamps (42:33):

Lisa Madera herself has been seduced by mountains. She's a writer and educator who lives in the mountain city of Quito, Ecuador. People in the Andes have been telling stories about these mountains for centuries, stories in which the mountains are seductive lovers and jilted husbands, and Lisa says these stories tell us something essential about the nature of mountains as geologic marvels and sacred sites.

Lisa Maria Madera (43:01):

Yes. So this is sort of a really old story from the Andes. Pichincha, the mountain that it's right in front of me, is called Guagua Pichincha, and that is the son of Isabel Tungurahua and either Chimborazo, who's the most massive mountain, it's the tallest mountain if measured from the center of the earth. If you stood on Chimborazo, you could be the closest to the full moon ever. So Chimborazo is one of her husbands, Cotopaxi is another one of her husbands, and Sangay is her lover. So they have these stories, the relationships of the mountains.

Steve Paulson (43:38):

Do these mountains have personalities and they are gendered?

Lisa Maria Madera (43:42):

Yes. So it's interesting, isn't it, what kind of personalities do they have? When you live on a mountain you get to know their personalities. They have a really strong sort of feeling to them. I lived on the side of Isabel Tungurahua for many, many years. I thought I would live there the rest of my life except that she erupted and I had to leave.

Lisa Maria Madera (44:05):

The mountains come out in the dawn and at sunset. Some of them are out most of the day, but Tungurahua really comes out at dawn and at sunset and these clouds will come up from the Amazon and just sort of wrap her in these scarves of clouds. I don't know how else to explain it, but she kind of unveils herself and she kind of dances. She has lots of iron in her stones and so she's kind of rocky and red and she just has this really sultry and really magnetic personality. Of course, she has lots of healing springs. People come from far, far away to bathe in her springs and there's miracles, of course, of all the things that happen when you bathe in the springs of Tungurahua.

Steve Paulson (44:48):

Do you think of mountains as being alive?

Lisa Maria Madera (44:52):

I do. I do think about mountains being alive. I think of us like these little, you know how they have all those stories about the little creatures that live in our hair follicles and on the surface of our skin?

Steve Paulson (45:04):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lisa Maria Madera (45:05):

And I think about us on the surface of the mountain's skin. That's kind of how I think about us.

Steve Paulson (45:10):

Tell me, I mean, in what way are mountains alive? Scientifically, that seems to be a stretch.

Lisa Maria Madera (45:16):

Yes. Mountains, I think, are alive in lots of different ways. The stories here in the Andes of course tell that they are alive. There's this sense of the mountain producing water the way we produce water, the mountain produces food the way we produce food, the mountain breathes in and breathes out through their chambers, has this liquid flowing through its veins, and the mountain moves. We're told that those things that are alive move. The mountain moves. The mountain is moving all the time. I feel the mountain shake. We've seen the mountains erupt. They're moving. They're giving birth. The Galapagos Islands are volcanoes that give birth to land. We think we're alive because we give birth to humans, imagine giving birth to land.

Steve Paulson (45:59):

There are recordings that capture some of what you're talking about. I mean, you sent me a link of a recording of a volcano, not when it's erupting, but just in its resting state.

Steve Paulson (46:20):

It sounds like it's breathing.

Lisa Maria Madera (46:24):

Yeah. It's really interesting to hear, isn't it? You hear the rising and falling of the heat and the humidity and the steam. They said, well, it's like a pipe organ, but it sounds like someone breathing. They tape the mountains. They tape the mountains to know how they're moving and whether there's going to be volcanic eruptions, and of course the moving of the land for earthquakes. But they sound like they're breathing, yeah.

Steve Paulson (46:55):

Do you think of mountains as our kin, as part of the larger family that human beings are part of?

Lisa Maria Madera (47:04):

Yes, I do. But I think that they're so big and we're so little that we kind of lose perspective and don't really notice that these huge creatures are all around us. The mountains are so old, so, so, so, so very old, and we're new. I don't know how a mountain thinks or how a mountain perceives the world, but I find it kind of odd that we don't consider them to be to these large creatures that are just right in front of us.

Steve Paulson (47:35):

Right. It's so fascinated to hear you talk about this. It also makes me wonder what it must have been like for the Spanish, the conquistadors, who came to this area centuries ago and they must have heard these stories and I'm wondering what they made of them.

Lisa Maria Madera (47:52):

Yeah. It's interesting that the big story that really drew them is really a mountain story, the story of El Dorado. Inside the mountain is a whole parallel life like our life, and inside the mountain are these golden cities. The conquistadors heard about these golden cities and they came rushing to the Andes to find these golden cities and kept going through their terrible thirst for gold looking for this golden city. But this golden city was really a mythical city of love and reverence that lived inside the mountain and obviously one that they are not going to find if they're approaching the land in the way that they did.

Steve Paulson (48:30):

Do you have a favorite mountain?

Lisa Maria Madera (48:34):

That's difficult. So my favorite mountain today is this mountain that's in front of me, Pichincha. Pichincha has really saved my life, I think literally, because I faced a really difficult time. I think lots of us in our lives, we face moments of crisis and sorrow and loss and depression, and I come from a family that has depression in our veins.

Lisa Maria Madera (48:56):

We're Swedes, and they say in Stockholm even the fish are on antidepressants. So I came here when I was very broken-hearted and I was concerned because of the history of depression in our family's life. I've lost friends to depression. It was such a dark moment in my life and I didn't know how to move forward and it started with looking around me and being so moved by the beauty. I said this year on my birthday I will focus on an intention for the year, and that first intention was live with beauty, live with beauty. In the midst of that darkness and the sadness, that depression, watching the mountain, listening to the birds, seeing the flowers blooming, watching the sunset and the dawn, live with beauty, and just that focus for that year just brought me out of that darkness of the depression.

Anne Strainchamps (49:59):

Lisa Maria Madera is a writer and educator who lives in Quito, Ecuador.

Anne Strainchamps (50:10):

Today's show is part of our project on kinship with the more-than-human world, produced in collaboration with the Center for Humans and Nature, and with support from the Kalliopeia Foundation. You'll find more information about the project at ttbook.org and at humansandnature.org.

Anne Strainchamps (50:29):

To the Best of Our Knowledge is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio by Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe=Kane, Angela Bautista, and Mark Riechers. Steve Paulson is our executive producer. Sound design this week, as always, is by Joe Hardtke. I'm Ann Strainchamps, be well and join us again next time.

Announcer (50:49):


Last modified: 
May 24, 2024