Vail’s Curious Nature: Have you ever seen a mountain walking?
Special to the Vail Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –The Vail Valley’s Gore Range Natural Science School has changed its name to “Walking Mountains: A Science Learning Center.” On first hearing this you might think to yourself, “That’s a fun new name capturing the spirit of being outdoors in the mountains.” But there are deeper meanings in the name Walking Mountains that I’d like to share with you.
First, have you ever seen a mountain walking – the way it shifts its slopes and shakes its talus? You might think I’m joking, but I’m talking about the reality of mountains constantly changing.
The Rocky Mountains are growing due to plate tectonics and at the same time they are eroding. They are actually moving at an almost imperceptible rate.
And when you spend enough time in a place and begin to notice its natural rhythms, seasonal cycles and environmental changes, you begin to gain a sense of just how dynamic the mountains really are – constantly changing. They are in motion, walking. And yet there is more to walking mountains than growing and eroding.
I first came across the idea of walking mountains in the early ’90s while reading an essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gary Snyder. In his essay, “Blue Mountains Constantly Walking,” Snyder interprets Zen Master Dogen’s “Mountains and Waters Sutra” written in the year 1240.
The essence of Snyder’s essay and Dogen’s sutra (scripture) is that “mountains and waters” is a way of referring to the totality of the process of nature. To understand the essence and process of nature, one must walk, one step after another, through places across the land. Snyder notes how the Chinese spoke of the four dignities: standing, lying, sitting, and walking. These “dignities” are ways of being fully human, at home in ourselves.
Over the years, living here in the mountains, I’ve found that walking has become my way of processing, reflecting, gaining clarity and sometimes a sense of direction in life. I don’t actually set out on foot to solve any specific problem. But as I walk, passing through the landscape, thoughts pass through me. I let them flow, and then, usually quite unexpectedly, I have an insight, a moment of clarity or vision that helps me steer my decisions in certain directions.
Someone once said “you have to ambulate to cogitate” and now I know from firsthand experiences just what they meant by this and how true it can be.
In life, it can be one simple step at a time that we develop our sense of ourselves, our sense of purpose and contribution in this world. This is how we learn. It is the process of moving, and not getting stuck in any one particular mindset, that helps us evolve as individuals and as a human species.
Step by step, we become fully ourselves, alive and at home in this world. As we walk (or move) our bodies across landscapes we eventually become more receptive to places, and might then in so doing realize the totality of the process of nature.
We are nature in process.
Just like there are deeper meanings in the word walking, there are also many meanings associated with mountains. For the Ute Indians, the mountains around the Vail-Eagle valley were a source of summer sustenance as well as sacred places.
I wonder, as we collectively envision the future of the valley, what might these mountains mean to us? Do we see them as natural resources – sources of snow, water, and perhaps our economic engines? Or do we envision them differently, as something else more central to a sustained community existence and our evolution with this place?
So how do we “think like a mountain?” What do we see when we envision the future? What do we see when we imagine the reflection in the eyes of our grandchildren’s grandchildren?
“Walking Mountains” also suggests the importance of place-based education. Place-based education is experientially learning about one’s home in terms of nature, culture and even global environmental processes. Research suggest that students who participate in place-based education take a more active role in their own learning, gain a bio-regional perspective and develop political, cultural and educational views based upon the naturally defined region and their home watershed.
Through place-based education, students first learn about the places around them before delving into more distant and abstract places and concepts. In that way, it’s a learning process that connects local to global.
“Walking Mountains” is a playful and energetic new name for Gore Range Natural Science School, but the new name also alludes to the fact that, just like mountains are constantly moving, humans are always in the process of becoming.
We are learning beings – always evolving in one way or another, whether we realize it or not. “Walking Mountains” is the perfect new name for an organization with a mission to awaken a sense of wonder and inspire environmental stewardship through natural science education.
There are so many meanings one can find in “Walking Mountains.” Now that you’ve heard a few that come to mind for me, I hope you’ll take a short walk through the mountains and find the meanings that come to you.
Kim Langmaid founded Walking Mountains (formerly Gore Range Natural Science School) in the autumn of 1997 after writing her master’s degree thesis on place-based education. She holds a PhD in environmental studies and currently serves as the organization’s Senior Educational Consultant. She can also be found when walking the mountains. http://www.walkingmountains.org