The mists are thick today, offering only occasional glimpses of the mountain. Perched on the south side of our little ridge, we look out upon an airy vista and the full north face of Mt Tamalpais. In clearer weather, that is, we look upon it. Today the mists drifted up our valley in thick billows obscuring and quieting everything. Even the birds have gone quiet in the thick white stillness. The mountain energizes this valley with its presence.
At 2,571 feet, the mountain’s East Peak overlooks most of Marin County and San Francisco Bay. And it looms like a guardian over our little valley, keeping watch and casting shadows. It draws the eye and dominates the skyline with an imagined outline of a sleeping lady. It is the source of myth, the place of local history, (including at least two plane crashes, airplane pieces from which you can still find if you know where to look) and a fount of experience and play for many of us who live and have grown up on its slopes.
The Coast Miwok people who lived on the shores of what would later become Marin and Sonoma Counties and inland are said to have believed that the mountain embodied a Sleeping Lady. As the story goes, a heart-sick beauty wandered the mountain pining for her heart’s desire, a gorgeous young man of incalculable attraction who, as it is told, jilted her. The broken-hearted woman laid down on the slopes of the mountain and died – what else to do? – of sadness. The mountain, feeling her pain, gave her a final comfort in an eternal resting place incorporating her into its ridges and valleys. She can still be seen where she lay in the mountain’s outline – from certain angles, to be sure.
It is a story not unlike many you might hear about many mountains, and you shouldn’t be bothered by the fact that it turns out not to be entirely true in that apparently this was not a Miwok belief so much as a white one about the Miwok and their mythologizing of the mountain. In fact, that is true about a lot of the things we tell ourselves about indigenous peoples; the stories and our beliefs about people, upon closer inspection, turn out to be not so much about them but about us. The fact is we don’t know that much about the Miwok and their way of life. But whether it is a story about the Miwok or about the gold hunters who flooded the area in 1848 and their struggle to understand the people living here, the story exists in our local lore and it seasons our relationship with the mountain.
And there is more. In his beautiful book Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Prints, Tom Killion, and his co-author Gary Snyder, gives careful and insightful context to a lot Tamalpais history and lore in the chapter called Poetic Histories, specifically the section in it called The Sleeping Lady: Invention and Appropriation. I am still exploring the pages of this beautiful book, and I am finding it an important addition to the Tamalpais corpus.
As mentioned above there are two sites of circa WWII plane crashes on the mountain. The engine block of one still lies in a creek bottom. It is greatly decayed, of course, but not as much as you might think. It is still easily identifiable as an airplane engine with its jutting piston housings and large center axle. And it is big, really big. I was surprised.
Legend had it when I was growing up in the 70’s that the top of Mt Tam was the site of buried nuclear missile silos, and therefore was a prime target for the Reds, one of the kinder epithets for Russian Soviets in those days. As kids experimenting with bravado, we all said we were glad to be living so close to a first strike site, that it was the best place to be in a nuclear war because who would want to survive? There is, in fact, an old and long since dismantled military base on Middle Peak and there are concrete bunkers and the foundations of large cannon emplacements all over the headlands in Marin, but as far as I know there was never a nuclear weapon buried inside the mountain.
There are several native species of terrestrial orchid that grow in the woods of Mt Tam, including one that some people have assured me is endemic to the mountain, although I have had some difficulty verifying that. Nonetheless, it is a satisfying story and a satisfying hunt in March up at Rock Springs to find the small, delicate pinkish flowers blooming under the firs.
There are stately, grand Coast Redwood trees that were hollowed out by various the fires this area has seen over the years, some so big you can get an entire family inside. And there are a few, relatively hidden or off the usual paths, in which folks I know occasionally gather and sometimes spend the night in candlelight vigil for mother earth. There is a 15 mile circumambulation route that was laid out and first tramped by Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder. It passes through what is called the Serpentine Power Point which has been described as “the spiritual driver’s seat of the Bay Area” – not sure what that means, exactly, but it indicates something, for sure. And there is a place on the north side of the mountain, a grove of trees, firs and oaks and bays, wherein hangs a symphony of wind chimes around a couple of small natural benches. As light filters and diffuses through the trees, winds rustles in the leaves and the chimes sing, and at those times one feels absolutely invited to sit and think and be – to take a moment to experience oneself as a human being, as a friend of mine, an inspired educator, sometimes says. This place is a cathedral as sacred as any stone edifice.
In the time it has taken me to write this paean, the mists have thinned and lifted somewhat. There is a brightening in the valley. I can see across to the far hill where horses graze, and beyond it I can see the ghostly, featureless outline of the mountain resolving slowly into detail. It is becoming present in our valley again. Or maybe it is me.
The truth – of the mountain or history or our lives – is out there, but seeing it with complete clarity never happens. We are always looking for the truth through fog and billowing mist. Sometimes the fog is so thick and settled that it obscures everything into a featureless stillness, a white silence, as it did for me only an hour ago. Other times it breaks and thins and rises, and the mountain appears briefly but with crystalline clarity, reestablishing its presence as we reset our anchors. Most of the time is somewhere in between. There is a rippling veil between us and the world and it mediates our experience. Our perception of the truth is influenced as much by our belief that the mountain is still there when we can’t see it as it is by our senses that tell us otherwise.
To me that is what makes life particularly interesting. I can’t know what the truth is about the Miwok people or their belief in the sleeping lady. And I don’t know if there is really any power at the Serpentine Power Point or if there is anything religious about the Nave of the Wind Chimes. Truth be told, it doesn’t matter too much to me whether the Calypso bulbosa orchid only grows on the slopes of Mt Tam or whether it is widespread and far ranging. It is the story that creates the Truth, and we are as much the authors of those stories, with all the attendant authority, as anything that might be termed that facts of the matter.
Is that right? I don’t know. I am headed outside to find the truth.