Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Mt. Taranaki Undresses

Mt. Taranaki is beautiful but coy. It is one of the worlds most well-formed cones, second only to Mt. Fuji for the shape and symmetry of its figure. And, as for a lot of mountains and as for other well-formed things, such as cats and horses, every pose that Mt. Taranaki strikes seems to be archetypal: every pose seems to be just the sort of pose that you would expect a mountain to strike. There is, for example, the pose that you see on a fine day if you drive up to New Plymouth from Harewa, cutting (roughly) down the diameter of the (roughly) circular abutment on the West Coast of the North Island of New Zealand, the West fin on Maui’s fish. If you do that you will see that shape and symmetry in full display, the small, tidy peak and the long slightly concave flanks running onto the plain in an immense ramp. Then there is the snow-capped pose, seen from the side, where the top quarter of the mountain is white as a night moon and shines wetly in the sun; the snow line is the same all the way round, but it is not a smooth line, and where the sides are too steep or too nicely aligned to the sun (or something) to carry snow, the mountain juts upwards in long peninsulas of rock. The same mountain, viewed from above, has a puddle of snow that fully covers the rock in the centre and then splashes outwards, like a many-fingered snow-flake.

There are a number of obscured poses as well, where the mountain is partly hidden. Hidden by a foreground hill, the mountain shows only its tidy peak and the curve of one slope, which is usually steeper than the slope of the hill and so curves elegantly out of sight. Hidden by a turban of cloud, only the long flanks show. In the morning or evening sun those flanks can be seen in clear relief, and they have a chiselled, muscular look, starting out very wide and tapering into thin ridges as they go higher. When the sun does not reach those flanks they are softer, not so aggressively three-dimensional, and you notice more the long, slow, curve of the outer slopes, dark against the cloud and smooth except for one or two tiny imperfections, little dents and gashes and wrinkles that show up against the light background.

Most of the time when I was in a position to view the mountain it assumed one or other of its hidden poses. Mostly it was obscured by cloud, thin and ghostly cloud that you can see moving along the ground in slow whorls, or thick grey cloud that makes everything go noticeably darker. Usually there is enough cloud to entice the viewer; too much to satisfy entirely. Standing on the neighbouring Pouakai range, we peered through the cloud and waited like boys peering through the steam at a naked woman in a sauna. Here the cloud whorls away slightly, only to replaced by another confounding whorl. Here it thins, and an outline can be made out in the haze, but it thickens again and the outline is smudged away. You wait an hour and all you get is a dim view of an upper flank, a hazy nipple, an outline of a leg but no detail, the suggestion of an eyebrow. It is not much, but it is enough to hold you there and leave you waiting for a bit longer, stubbornly optimistic.

When the mountain finally revealed herself to us it was late evening, dark and getting darker. On the coast the lights of New Plymouth blinked and jostled. There was a range of low peaks to the South West of us and it was black black black against the pale clear sky. The silhouettes were perfect: precise edges; flat, featureless bodies. It is plausible to describe these silhouettes as bits of black paper stuck onto the sky, but it is not entirely satisfactory, and doesn’t quite do them justice. To grasp their great blackness I find it better to invert the paper cut-out image and imagine that the sky has been cut away rather than added to, that a hill-shaped area of the pale blue sky has been sliced away, and what you see in that sliced-away area is the blackness of space, the blankness of space: a blackness with depth, blackness hiding blackness.

Since it was roughly to the East of where we were standing, Mt. Taranaki was not silhouetted in this way. It was hazy and pale, and we could only just make out the skirt of bush that spreads out from her waist and folds into pleats on the lower stretches, folds into great gullies where the water has worn through the soft volcanic rock, gullies we walked through sweatily the next day.

The moon was silver. Or rather, silver is the best approximation one can find to the colour that the moon was on that evening. For a long time people believed that the moon and everything above it were made of a higher substance, a substance that could not be compared to anything that you could find on earth. Looking at the moon on an evening like this you can see why people might believe such a thing. The strange thing is that, in a place like this, it is easy to imagine that it is not only the moon and the stars and planets that are made out of this lofty matter, the quintessence, but the hills and the mountains as well. Even the bushes and rocks that we sit on and brush against along the track: even these look uncanny, holy.

And the silence is another uncanny thing, another thing that causes a describer to reach for religious imagery in order to capture it properly. It is strange that a landscape as large and powerful as this can be so quiet as this, and so still. There is a short track that leads down to the Pouakai hut from the ridge, and I sit on this track as it gets dark and listen to the landscape. There is nothing to listen too out there, however, so I end up listening to myself listening to the landscape. When I blink my eyes they make a soft clicking sound, and this sound is far louder than anything around me. I feel the blood thumping in my fingertips.

I sit on the track to wait for my tramping companion, Sytze, to come down from the ridge. I expect him to be about five minutes, but he takes about twenty. “It is very touching,” he says when he arrives. Although there is noone around but us, he says it in a whisper, as if in a church. “It is so… perfect.” I don’t say anything, and we pick our way down to the hut in the light of my torch, tripping on roots because the torch is weak.


The Scarlet Pervygirl said...

The first two sentences of this post were perfect in the way I've come to expect only late-Victorian writing--Kate Chopin's, perhaps--to be.

On top of that, they totally made me scream, "Yes! I know exactly what you're talking about! I've noticed that about cats and houses and mountains and have longed to describe it with elegant concision, but never until this moment KNEW I had noticed and longed!"

Michael Bycroft said...

Thank-you, Scarlet Pervygirl.