Jason McDermott
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The fool on the hill

The fool on the hill

Have you ever had the chance to sit atop a mountain, taking in every detail of all there is to behold, every rock, tree, cloud, hillside, truck, pasture and wind that makes up your small spherical world? It is breathtakingly big, so wide that the most flexible of neck and sharp of eye could not possibly drink in every drop of the scene which unfolds before you. Wide doesn’t even really come close to accurately describing the feeling, the word falling pitifully short of the feeling of pure and absolute breadth. Yet words are sometimes all we have, so we will have to put them to good use. Welcome then, to my mountaintop office.

During the course of the day, perched atop this gusty, quiet, earthly panoramic space, it is possible to observe a great number of small animals going about their daily business. They have quite a serious manner, not wasting time on idle chatter (or so it seems) and taking the least amount of liberty with their movement and energy. The lizards dart by, stopping to take note of an unusual placement of desk, desk-lamp and human, before scurrying off. They intersperse long periods of very little with short bursts of animal instinct, jumping on shrubs to seek after flies, performing the lizard mating ritual equivalent of ‘push ups’, and so on. They pass by my feet nervously at first, as though the unfamiliar sandals might rear up and strike them unexpectedly, then with great confidence as the hours pass. Their sidelong looks never change, though.

The birds circle above, like tireless aerial sailors making every small adjustment to their sails to best catch the available winds. They eye their horizons constantly, avoiding collision with others and always watching for the jerky start-stop movement from prey of all kinds. It’s not often that you’ll spot one shooting earthward with blistering speed and the intent to kill, more likely that you’ll see them soaring afterwards clutching small, colourful creatures in their claws. Much more common is the sight of the eagles circling, ever intent on swiftly bringing death, their cruel talons tightly tucked underneath sleek bodies. The full aerodynamic beauty of these birds can be admired from this proximity, as they very rarely fly much higher than the top of the mountain. This is surely due to the mountainous uplift winds, which make the birds’ airborne job so much easier. As they can see all they need to, any additional height comes with barely any advantage at all. The mountaintop observer is afforded the most generous of vantage points, so close you could almost forget that you aren’t capable of taking flight yourself. The pure effort of flight, at this height, seems like it ought to come easily and you’d be well advised not to try it for yourself. The birds swerve and dive, soar and glide, flap lazily and circle to gain vantage, eyes never giving up the search for new prey. It is mesmerising.

Much like the animal ecosystems at lower altitudes, you will no doubt come into contact with insects. The main difference here being the relative scarcity of ‘urbanised’ city dwelling pests, such as cockroaches, and the abundance of a wide variety of irksome flying creatures, such as flies, beetles and small black weevils. The gusting winds that sweep past me certainly help to keep the insect nuisance to a minimum, but they are almost always nearby.

The sun makes its lazy arc in the sky, pausing only to inspect the skyward side of the clouds overhead, beaming through at times as if to project the highest level of approval. It sweeps around my back, shadowing my face for the brightest hours of the day. It is a strange quirk of the mountain, that the spot most appealing to me for such lengths of repose, might also face away from the most important element of life: the sun. And so I sit, like a child placed in a corner with his back to a disapproving parent. Unlike the child however, I have been given not a dark and penitent corner to sit in and think, but rather I am awarded with the rich tapestry of the earth before me. A gift of the world itself, with not a corner or acute angle to measure in sight. I drink in the earth, savouring its sights until my eyes cannot possibly take in more detail.

The sight of a line of mountains falling away, on both the left and the right, with the vast spreading patchwork quilt of pasture and seasonal crops, is spectacular to say the least. When presented with the entirety of a natural landscape and the minute ambition of human agriculture, something becomes apparently rather quickly. This is the realisation that the sheer scale and timelessness of nature is at once both an illusion and an immutable reality. That this land will continue to be, just so, as circumstance and natural resources permit, is a sobering thought. As is the knowledge that our efforts to shape and bend, cultivate and develop, will exist solely along the timescale of the human lifespan, of a family’s generations, of the duration of culture. That these should seem inconceivably long to us, is only natural. Yet to the mountaintop, that most gentle and generous of seats, these tiny passages of time would fly past, barely noted. And yet we cannot know of a thing more grand and immense than the duration of our own lives, that is, those of us among the more secularly-minded. To be astride the mountain is probably the closest I might come to looking through the eyes of a true believer. To be seeing the world as god might. It is a poor approximation, if ever there were one.

I look until I can look no more and then turn to my other senses, almost for confirmation. If seeing is believing, then are the other senses like spectators to an event? Does hearing have its’ own centre of belief within the mind, which in all likelihood won’t listen to a word of what the taste buds have to say? Does it take an alignment of sensory voices before the mind, the ‘I’, can finally find agreement? I wonder how many votes each sense has, and whether any of them feel drowned out, lost within a sea of input and bias. I make a note to think more on this when I can, before returning to the smell of the clouds as they move in to darken my afternoon.

The world stretches out before me, in all dimensions, at once. It does not so much invite my thought and introspection, it demands it. This is a terrible place to get things done. It is not that I am unable to think clearly, rather that I think too clearly. I think along two timescales almost simultaneously – that of the lizard, the fly, the bird and the churning system of life and death – and that of the slowness of earth and moon, of ocean and stars. The movement of this line of thought is irresistible. I am taken by the flow and constant inertia of both stillness and life and I wonder if one can ever truly be felt by the other.

  • Jason,
  • November 9, 2012

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