The other day I walked to a mountain I enjoy being on and exploring. It sits on Jaitmathang country, on the western side of a mountain range traveled by the Jaithmathang, Taungarung and others for millenia.
I had planned a ‘respectful summit’. This concept I learned in Aotearoa, and had reinforced on Bali – the summits of mountains are sacred places, reserved for the gods. I think it applies everywhere in different ways. In the mountains Gaia bears her bones to us, shows us her raw presence and power. Mountains are sacred and energetic places. So the ‘respectful summit’ is to give that power to the mountain, to stay a step below the peak, to stand in awe and reverence of this earth which created us and gave us the ability to explore and marvel at her secrets.
On the day, I was assisted by the presence of sheet ice just at the final small step to the top. I walked in climbing ‘approach shoes’ (think kind of hardcore sneakers), with no ice axe or even instep crampons. This was fine while there is a layer of snow to kick steps into. On ice, at the top of a mountain with steepness all around? I wasn’t comfortable without my tools.
In my place just below the summit it was so quiet, my breathing was louder than the wind. So still. So perfect. I sat for a long while, absorbed in the space that existed then and now, very far from the clamour of the world. In that time, I had the time to ponder ‘who are you’? She has a name given to her by some cattle herder a hundred and fifty or so years ago, from afar, who didn’t know her nuances, had never explored her slopes, understood her and her offerings.
…so really, we don’t know her name at all.
Her mana – spiritual power (wow. I don’t know the local Jaitmathang expression for spritual power… ‘mana’ is imported from yet another culture) – speaks to me about protection and nurture. This might seem bizarre about an alpine peak which is fully exposed to prevailing westerly winds, and has claimed the lives of both hikers and skiers in winter. I’ve visited her in far less friendly conditions, and even then she’s calling… come, let me shelter you. Come and play, come and understand.
She stands out as a buffer to the storms, and every time I’ve been there I’ve felt welcome – not as a conqueror but an ally permitted to explore, observe, and tell storied like this.
Perhaps she’s offered shelter for thousands of years, protecting a steep valley, feeding rivers that runs year round. In other parts of the world, we have mountains named things like Chomolungma – carrying both spiritual and physical attributes perfectly. This mountain, and all mountains, deserve nothing less. I want to know her name. I want to know if my impressions of her energy are shared. I want to give her that respect, without ownership or ego.
The western trope that ‘respect is earned’ is complete bullshit. How did anyone who demands that we should earn their respect get such an ego? Even as a parent, what did I do that is so special that my children should have to earn my respect? What giant ego monster sets out a system like this?
Respect is meant to be given. Openly, freely, peacefully and without condition.
In the mountains, we do this automatically – the condition of failing to give respect is often tangible and sometimes terminal. No matter what bravado we project outwardly or report to the media or write about in journals or blog posts the reality is that we conquer our poo tube if we’re lucky.
…that is, if we can set our ego aside for long enough. We really go to the mountains to become conquered. And reconquered. That is our search – whatever wrapper we wish to put around it.
We can also apply this to our regular every day lives. Giving respect is not difficult – it means walking the planet with the knowledge that every single thing on it is a marvel to wonder at. Even if we fail to fully understand it’s purpose and meaning. This is something we as colonising cultures fail spectacularly at – we don’t understand a thing outside of the context we place it in, so we dismiss it. Also, the implications of giving respect to something we don’t fully understand are uncomfortable and painful – so we find ways to dismiss it.
This is why we don’t know the name of a mountain. It is far easier to give it a label than to discover its name, which would force us in Australia to recant the doctrine of terra nullius we’ve held onto for hundreds of years and used as an excuse for near-cultural-genocide. We be forced into that uncomfortable admission that our revered ‘discoverer ancestors’ and ‘explorers’ are less like intrepid heroes and more like thieves.
Reconnecting with respect
For this specific mountain, I want us all to know her name. I want us all to know what the people who understood her knew. It is a place to which I feel deeply connected, not by her label on a map but by her presence in the landscape. I want to be able to properly pay my respect to her connection to our deep past and the culture we can create from this knowledge and experience.
As I write this, protests are erupting worldwide about the treatment of people without the accident-by-birth of white skin all across the planet.
In Australia this is particularly relevant. We, as colonists, are too-slowly learning to listen and connect with one of the planet’s oldest and richest living cultures. Too often, we’re busy still trying to wipe it out because it gets in the way of our cosy ideas about ourselves. I was born on Barngarla land, grew up on Kaurna country, lived on Ngunnawal land then the Kulin Nation then on Palawa and now I’m based in Jaitmathang country. In all these travels I’ve never gained any indigenous friends or connections in real life, outside of trying to follow as many indigenous voices as I can on social media platforms.
I don’t have any other home. Nonetheless it feels ‘right’ – respectful – to think about my place in terms of ‘where do my culture and the cultures that have been here all along merge?’, and ‘what is the respectful way of living here in this place?’’. The ancestors of my ancestors came from someplace else, and imposed a structure on this land that doesn’t fit. Slowly, over generations, we are acting on that feeling in our bones that this idea, that we can pretend we’re somehow bringing civilisation, is wrong.
So my question is ‘how can we retool everything to make a new vision which brings to the front an ancient culture which knew what to do here?’’. It feels ‘right’ again to support however I can the work of activists for indigenous rights, it feels right to strengthen and support the ideals behind #blacklivesmatter and #indigenouslivesmatter. I can never fully understand. I can start by giving my respect to people who do however I can.
Wasn’t this about a mountain?
What does any of this have to do with walking up a mountain?
Everything. Reflecting deeply on ‘where we are’ in space, culture and time is a small step toward a larger and brighter future. Whenever we adventure outside, we can choose a mindset of ‘we are conquerors’ or ‘we come with respect’. We do this in all our life – our approach matters. I will always argue that the conquering mindset is old, limiting and broken. It creates division and sets us apart. It cannot survive, and will end with us being incapable of living on our planet. Walking with respect is the opposite – it is a pathway to a future in which we thrive.
We cannot go back and fix things or remake things into what was. We can, and must, go forward and fix things, forging a path founded on respect freely given. We cannot, and must not erase the past because it is uncomfortable. We need to own that discomfort, accept that as colonising people it is ours, and recognise that we have a long debt of respect (and land, and money, and power, and resources) to pay.
If you’re reading this and are Jaitmathang or Taungarung, I’d love your feedback and correction if I’m blowing smoke or misrepresenting anything in any way. I’d also love to hear from you, hear your stories where they’re appropriate to share, and connect.
And to this mountain, these mountains, whose names I still don’t know: thank you, and respect.
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