Using the Mountains for a Re-start

View of Pisgah National Forest, specifically Looking Glass Rock and Cedar Mountain (Photograph: Ross Peters)

“I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Psalm 121.

A couple of times a year I reach a point where I become tired beyond the remedy of a single night’s sleep. This is how I feel today. If sleep is the ultimate passive way to recover from tiredness, these particular moments require a more active recovery strategy. I need a recharge, a reset, a full restart. An extra nap, while tempting, does not fit the bill.

Fortunately, I know the approach I will take this weekend, and I am certain it will be successful. Tomorrow, my wife, daughter and I will head to the North Carolina mountains.  Only a couple of hours away, this high ground has always and will always provide the sort of existential recovery I seek. Being in such a lovely locale (even in the rain that is forecast) has the power overcome the exhaustion I feel. Sharing the journey with my family only makes it better.

I wonder why this is true and why I am so confident in its truth. Perhaps the answer comes from another RE-word: re-center. By the time I turned fourteen or so, the mountains had come to represent a place where I built my perspective and where my sense of self was sustained and bolstered. Down below I could lose my perspective and forget what was important. Somehow in the mountains I felt more centered.

My current sort of tired sort is not directly related to hours of sleep lost—it is, I believe, more borne out of a temporary loss of perspective on what is most important. Normal recovery from tiredness involves closing our eyes—in this case, however, it involves opening them.

The Haywood Gap Stream Discovery

View from Tennent Mountain of Black Balsam, Mount Hardy and Little Sam’s Knob (Ross Peters)
In the summer of 2000 I drove into Pisgah National Forest almost everyday. Living in Asheville, NC at the time, I decided I would focus 6-12 mile walks in those parts of Pisgah that I either hadn’t been in a number of years or had never been at all. Having suffered a back injury a couple of years earlier that made it difficult to sleep on the ground or rock climb, I resorted to long walks. I had simple rules, the most central of which was to avoid walking the same route or even more than a half-mile of the same route twice. I carried a map roughly worn at the edges on which I traced my routes with a blue ballpoint pen, and I carried a compass so that I might bushwhack my way in order to avoid retracing previous approaches when necessary. I was always back home by dinner.
I rested in places like Pea, Squirrel, Butter, Bennet, Cat, Club, and Coontree Gaps; struggled up Perry, Pilot, Horse, and Saddle Coves; wandered along creeks such as Slate Rock, Clawhammer, Avery, and Buckeye. I saw a small bear after making a wrong turn, which led me toward Yellow Gap instead of back toward Turkey Pen Gap, and I saw a large rattle snake headed out of Picklesimmer Fields toward Long Branch. For the first time in a long time I spent a great deal of time alone, and I was fully entertained as well as often out of breath and somewhat sore.
View of Pisgah National Forest from Tennent Mountain (Ross Peters)
I initially thought that these hikes would provide me with time to reflect on a school year that challenged me in new ways and offered reward and frustration in remarkably unpredictable rhythms. I even carried along a ratty old composition book just in case I decided to jot something down. Instead of profound revelations about my life in general and specifically my life as a faculty member at Asheville School, however, I found I did stunningly little thinking at all. I stopped thinking and started observing. I watched my step. I made no plans for my classes—I created no agendas for my department meetings. I clearly needed this time—this summertime, and I felt fortunate to have it.
My final walk that summer was near Mount Hardy, one the few peaks over 6000 feet in Pisgah and probably the least visited (the others in the vicinity are are Black Balsam, Sam’s Knob, Tennent Mountain, Black Balsam and Cold Mountain). After hiking about three miles down Buckeye Gap, I came to a perfect campsite next to a beautiful stream. It struck me as a great place to take a group from school someday. The Haywood Gap Stream was replete with outstanding places to soak and wade and explore—enough in fact that it could easily entertain a group for an entire day. As I was thinking about the possibility of returning there with students, I realized that for the first time in many weeks my thoughts were turning back to school, and given that it was already early August, it was time.
After eating lunch I started up Haywood Gap. The walk was rigorous and technical, and at times it was so narrow and overgrown that I could imagine being the first person ever to scramble up those rocks. The spell was broken as I stepped over some of the rusted two-inch cable that is not an uncommon sight in that part of Pisgah. Several steps beyond there was an iron rail wheel in the ferns and between chair-sized rocks ten feet or so above the trail. Both the cable and the wheel are artifacts of the extensive logging that ravaged those mountains a century ago. I clearly was only one of many that had gone up this trail, but this fact does not negate the fact that I was a discoverer that afternoon.
The idea of discovery fascinates me, whether it is the discovery of a beautiful place or it is the discovery that appears wherever vibrant discussions of literature take place. I love the feeling of discovering something, and as an educator and administrator, I wonder more and more how we can best create that powerful feeling of discovery in our students, knowing that some traditional pedagogical approaches are more apt to dull the spirit rather than to enliven it. Perhaps, given the fact that my hikes took place during the first summer of a new century, it is appropriate that the idea of discovery feels so relevant to me in the context of 21st Century learning. It strikes me that there is much work to be done in in schools in order to provide the richness we seek for our students’ education. It also strikes me that it will be worth it. Here’s hoping the view we find at the turn around in the trail will be good!
View of Mount Hardy and Little Sam’s Knob (Ross Peters)

A Way of Seeing: Learning to Make Photographs

                            Headed toward Stressa on Lago Maggiore (Ross Peters)
          In advance of a trip to Italy two summers ago, my wife bought a entry level DSLR camera.  We were going to be there about a month, so the idea of having a decent camera with us made sense.  I never felt much interest in the aspect of travel that involves documentation–being there always felt like enough.  However, something happened to my perspective during that trip that fundamentally changed the way I viewed the purposefulness of carrying a camera along.  The camera redefined my way of seeing what was around me.   The camera became something beyond a means by which we would document our trip  (though it served that purpose well enough too).
                         On the day we left from Milan to head home (Ross Peters)
In the late eighties and early nineties as a climbing instructor at a summer camp in Western North Carolina, I had a somewhat similar experience of having my way of seeing the world altered.  I found that the physical intensity and the logistical challenge of climbing and belaying others intensified the beauty of the panoramic views from Devil’s Courthouse and Looking Glass Rock.  My appreciation for being in a beautiful place increased as I recognized the effort necessary to reach these stunning locales and the privilege borne of that effort.  I came to associate the big view that moments of reflection between climbers and peanut butter sandwiches allowed with the Big View in my life.  For me, the Big View is the one where I can begin to see my life and feel its meaning and relevance beyond the engagement in and at times, static of my daily life.
          This summer, while hiking with a former colleague of mine from Asheville School, Ed Maggart, on Black Balsam and Tennent Mountain—spots high enough that I could identify virtually all the major ridges and mountaintops relevant to my time living in that area—my mind went back to 1989 and 1990, and even better, my mind went to what amounts to the Big View for me.  From up there in one of the rare spots in the Appalachian chain above 6000 feet one can feel as if that is where the weather is made, as if somehow that altitude allows one to stand above day to day-ness.  The life I lead, most of us lead, is far below–so standing at those heights amounts to a full Time Out of sorts.  My experience in that Pisgah region of North Carolina helped recreate my way of seeing, and this summer the echo of all that time re-centered me.  The day also gave me this photograph:

Photo: View from Tennent Mtn. June 2011 (Ross Peters)

           If climbing and being in those mountains gave me a way of seeing the Big View, photography taught me and will continue to teach me how to bring the scale of what I witness into my own internal sense of balance.  I taught Louise Gluck’s latest collection of poetry, A Village Life last spring as part of my 21st Century Short Fiction and Poetry course, a senior English elective I designed at Hawken School.  It is an amazing piece of work, and in the first poem, entitled “Twilight,” she includes this line: “In the window, not the world, but a squared-off landscape/representing the world.”  I find this an accurate encapsulation of the way I have come to see photography.  With a photograph one is able to both “square-off” the “landscape” and “represent the world.”  When this is done well, in particular by hands and imaginations far surer than my own, a photograph can be a uniquely powerful tool.  A friend and classmate of mine from Sewanee, has made a career of making just such photographs.  The work of Stephen Alvarez (www.alvarezphotography.com), now a renowned photographer with a long resume of projects for National Geographic and other publications, provides a unique example of creating a new way of seeing, particularly his photographs of some of the world’s largest rooms in caves.  Stephen figured out how to light these giant rooms, some far larger than the Super Dome, and as a result, gives others a way of seeing what has not been seen before.  Stephen is now working on a project to create panoramic photographs of some of the great cities in Europe.
          While Stephen’s work reaches a world-wide audience, for me the trip to Italy with my new camera—it quickly became mine as I became more and more obsessed—was a personal revelation of what it means to “square-off” the “landscape.”  Through photographs, I could take an experience of a place and a time and represent it through a photograph. Note that I did not say capture it.  Because capturing it would be impossible in all its fullness and scope, a photograph gives me a way of “representing” the truth of that place and time, and thus with a camera in hand I found myself seeing what was around me differently.  It made me more observant because I think I was looking for what framing would best allow me to symbolically hold what my wife, daughter and I were seeing and experiencing.
          I have a great deal to learn about photography, and I have an ever-increasing respect for the people who do it well, a group by the way which includes my father, John O. Peters, whose latest book, for which he wrote the text and provided all the contemporary photography, is entitled, Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery and my sister, Margo Millure, who has a travel site called “The Travel Belles”.
          This summer I had several moments when I actively sought a particular photograph.  At those moments I was hyper-aware of the weather and the light.  My choice for the best of the bunch are below.
View from above Norris Lake, TN after one storm and before another, July 2011 (Ross Peters)
           Another view above Norris Lake between storms, TN, July 2011 (Ross Peters)