Till this moment, any discipline of Science and Technology couldn’t satisfactorily fathom out the mystic factor in the healing power of ‘Nature’. It is purely an abstract entity that with its replenishing effect, nature rejuvenates the dejected body, mind and soul. Among the whole components of nature, Mountains are the primary constituent which can easily be reached by man rather than the cosmic elements. Besides, revelation of mysteries by mountains is beyond our comprehension. Hence, mountains do have an incredible and pivotal role in the cathartic trait of nature. Stephen Alter, in his non-fiction BECOMING A MOUNTAIN, meditatively elaborates his experience of purgation purveyed by Himalayas.
Alter delineates about the cathartic traits of three prominent summits of Himalayas as ‘Bandarpunch offers healing and solace,’ ‘Nanda Devi promises ananda or happiness that releases us from anger, fear and doubt,’ and ‘Mount Kailash marks an elusive threshold of transcendence.’ Hence, as stated by Alter, the trinity of these sacred peaks signifies a search for reconciliation and recovery. Alter’s such realization of enigmatic charisma of nature has also been perceived by Thoreau in his Walking, as,
I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. ‘It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way; but we are very liable from heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one. (Finch and John 189)
Having grown up in India, Alter never felt he belonged anywhere else yet with the American passport. He was born in Mussoorie and says that the mountains are his birthright. However, in recent years he has the experience of doubts and discontentment to live in Mussoorie after a deadly attack. In the early hours of a monsoon morning ‘curtained with mist’ in July, 2008, Stephen Alter and his wife Ameeta were beaten and stabbed by four intruders at their Oakville home which had raised an uneasy sense of negligence and loss of identity ‘as if became stranger within sheltering mountains of his birth’. To overcome and recover from the physical and emotional trauma of this ruthless violence, Alter attempted to climb Bandarpunch summit of Himalayas.
After a month since the attack though he had a good physical regeneration, he strongly felt in need of an inner healing too. While in hospital, merely on viewing the steep ridgeline of Mussoorie he grasped a sort of an enigmatic ascertainment which convinced him to be able to walk again; the damaged muscles would carry him up a hill again; and the lifeless fingers would be able to write again.
Regarding nature, an awful mistake of man is an incalcitrant attitude of maintaining illusory distinction between himself and other elements such as animals, trees, water, fire, rock, etc, of nature. Alter perceives with all his experience of trekking that when man gets rid of such a notion of anthropocentricity, he realizes that fact that we are nothing more or less than nature. If he approaches mountain with all such realization, his ego thoroughly merges with the nature of mountain where the authentic inner healing occurs. As Alter justifies the healing power of mountain, the major component of nature, Wordsworth’s emphasis on the cathartic trait of nature is also clearly evident in the poem The Tables Turned as,
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can. (VI. 21-24)
Alter gives an acceptable elucidation about the interrelation between physical and inner healing by paralleling the map of mountain and anatomy of human body. Man could accomplish a corporeal healing and he becomes physically stronger on travel over the trails of mountain on foot. Man’s journey on foot over mountain lets him travel along the inner trails of veins and arteries and with the mountains of muscle and valleys of bones, enables him for inner healing. He insists that such ‘walking these trails you grow stronger. Your pain diminishes, returns, then eases once again’ (Alter 20).
A month after the attack when he was able to step out, he set a goal of climbing Flag Hill, a forested ridge. The Flag Hill was a place of ‘solitude and reflection’ for him, thereby, since from his boyhood he had been associated with the Hill with all kinds of discoveries such as finding snakes and scorpions laid under the rocks. In Flag Hills, by having sit and looked out the white summits and ‘focusing on the sharp profile of Himalayas’ in silent contemplation, his mind would be emptied from erring and straying thoughts.
But while climbing Flag Hill after the assault, even though he had years of relationship with the mountain, suddenly he was gripped with a feeling of fear that was unexpected. The dread was not because of the ‘ropey mass of leopard scat lower down the path’, but the sense of human predators that frightened him. But the desire of climbing, pushed him forward and an optimistic impulse convinced that the presence of ‘high Himalayas’ would heal him. Having reached the top of Flag Hills, all his fears, the image of violent figures and their threatening voices were lifted out by the breeze of the Hill. The ambience settled him down with calm and peace, and he felt like released from the world around him yet in contact still – at this moment, he rejuvenated his lost thing. “I feel calm and unafraid, at peace with myself and the world around me, released but still connected. Whatever I have lost has been restored,…” (35).
Alter clarifies that man’s any sort of physical encounters with mountains such as whether ‘viewing from distance, circling their slopes, climbing their summits, or crossing over glaciers and passes’, it will be limited within the vantage point of man. He illustrates that a mountaineer when he reaches the top of a mountain, he may appear himself so heroic and is quite full of perseverance like winning a contest against nature. However, Edmund Hillary brushes away the ephemeral untrue pride of man, saying that, ‘It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.’
A mountain will become the state of mind of man only when he removes all sorts of expectations, fears and sorrows that occupy his thoughts. Hence, Meditating upon mountain is a traditional technique of freeing the mind endorsed by mystics from almost every tradition…. Whether it be the ziggurats of Mesopotamia or the tiered pyramids of the Aztecs, Hindu temples, Christian and Muslim domes or Buddhist chortens, the architecture of faith attempts to replicate a mountain so that devotees enter its depths and worship at its core. (46)
Alter endorses his perception with a Bhagavad Gita quote, ‘When the sage climbs the heights of Yoga’, the Bhagavad Gita explains, ‘he follows the path of work; but when he reaches the heights of Yoga, he is in the land of peace’. (6:3). (49)
While travelling into the Nanda Hills searching for what he had lost, Stephen Alter had said that he found the objects, ideas, images and experiences that were not possessed by him earlier which were, in fact, unknown to him. He realized that what were lost had been transformed into some other discoveries and observations; followed by a cathartic release that enables to become aware of what was remaining after losing something or everything.
Alter inscribes that nature provides reconciliation and recovery not only to the grown up minds and souls, but it heals even an immature boy’s mind and soul. He illustrates this abstraction by narrating an interesting boyhood experience.
Once when Alter was in high school, he was angry for some reason and miserably depressed, bordering on suicidal thought that comes out of adolescence. He set off into forest himself with a 20-gauge shotgun, and bivouacked under the grove of wild cinnamon trees in the valley near the stream. Sitting alone on a sandy patch of ground, he was staying awake all night. By that time, his walk had settled down the mind and felt much better for being alone in the forest. The next day morning, we went back home. He shares about this cathartic experience as,
I felt cleansed by my aimless walk through the forest, those hours spent in darkness and the sweet perfume of cinnamon still lingering on my fingertips. (130) With a combination of impulse and desperation, Alter decided to travel to Kailash Mountain after two years following the violent attack. He sensed that those violent memories and veins of fear were deeply buried inside his psyche. Though his wounds had healed, ‘the scars continued to erode his physical and mental confidence, like ravines in the mountains scoured by corrosive storms.’ Hence, he believed that only on this yatra, he could find solace and redemption in the ‘sacred aura of Kailash’. As I scrub myself in the clean waters of Manasarovar, I try to imagine the scars washing away, releasing me from the violent memories of our attack. (170)
It can be concluded with the perception of Alter that in spite of all fatalistic interpretations, man has to understand that the state of mountains is beyond our control. We must look at and reach the Himalayas with ‘compassion and logic,’ rather than taming those massive components of nature. He suggests that man should become a part of the mountains even ‘much greater and more eternal than ourselves’. The perception of approaching mountains has to be as said by Alter that,
In this constant quest for high places, we must erase our desires for meaningless victories or revelations. Rather than conquering a summit, or becoming the first to leave our footprints in the snow, we must absorb the lofty knowledge of a mountain’s presence while at the same time allowing ourselves to be absorbed into a greater awareness of what it may or may not represent. (40)
The real happiness occurs when man’s mind and soul is freed from the darkness of vices. Such a ‘catharsis’ is provided to him by the bounty of nature yet the phenomenon is mysterious. Happiness is a transient emotion that can arise out of discipline and meditation…. Suddenly, the dark clouds of anger or distress, and the opaque mists of depression, lift to reveal a sublime panorama of mountains that reduce our human travails to insignificant proportions