Stone Palaces. Geofrey Childs. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2000. 217 pages. $22.95.
Teewinot and Stone Palaces are of a similar literary genre. They both attempt circumscribing what is unique about the climbers’ lifestyle. Yet their differences are vast. Turner’s Teewinot is definitely more disciplined and ambitious, forming a narrative whole that attempts to describe what it is like to climb and live in and around the Tetons. Childs’ Stone Palaces is a collection of previously published essays. Therefore, Turner’s book forms more of a complete entity, whereas Childs’ feels like more of a collage.
Like most collections of essays, there is an unevenness of quality in Stone Palaces. The book is broken up into five parts: Routes, Journeys, Profiles, Humor, and Fiction. Some of these stories were published back in the 1970s in the classic hippie rag, Mountain Gazette, so they read like the sort of thing you see only in publications that are found in coffee houses next to universities. Some of these essays are so alternative I am not sure I get the point. Some of them are just plain weird, such as the story of the guy who falls in love with a goat (?), or the adolescent make-believe world of Poontanga.
But there are also some real bright spots in Stone Palaces. Childs’ introduction, a pithy four pages, is absolutely terrific (I wish there were more!). And his article on Jim Bridwell that appeared in Climbing magazine is the very best of its kind, coming very near to capturing what “IT” (climbing) is all about. His short piece about trying to work a real job in New York City is also haunting.
Never is Childs’ prose more powerful than when he is writing profiles. “Life is hard on dreams, harder on dreamers. Climbing was built for them. For in climbing success and failures both lead to the same place, to new resolves and new possibilities. Life should be so good” (p. 107). Or, “Bridwell widened the definition of Yosemite style to encompass everything that went into building a life around climbing. Climbing was not just a pastime but the definition of who and what he was” (p. 111). And finally, my favorite: “Every summit for him was laced with a sense of incompleteness; every insight braided with a mixture of ambition and alarm; every dream a path stretching out through the graveyards of lost friends and forfeited ambitions” (p. 124). Like I said, these were by far the best essays in the book. But that leaves you with the same feeling you get when you buy a CD with a couple of great songs on it only to find out you really don’t care for the other 15 tracks.
Although I am generally prejudiced against American Buddhists (in my experience they always seem to leave wives and children scattered behind), I have to make an exception for Jack Turner. You have got to love a guy who proclaims to be a Buddhist and an elk hunter. You also have to appreciate such a sustained attempt to capture in words a life lived in and around some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. He makes you think that maybe it is not just about going up and down. Maybe it’s more, like living and being among the mountains themselves.
Sometimes it seems like Turner is trying to rewrite Walden. There is a lot of stuff about little furry animals that hang out around the cabin, and the really neat weeds that grow in front of the deck, and birds that, well, fly around. For me, it’s too much Bambi. If you like to read about the change of the seasons and ground squirrels and lupine and the dipper birds, then you might like this book. I guess it must be all the chapters on the birds and the bees that make the section on guiding the Exum Ridge seem positively thrilling—but I just don’t understand how one can write a whole book about living in and around Jackson Hole and not have one reference to beer drinking or bar fights. Maybe that’s just me. Or maybe it’s just that Buddhist thing again.
Turner’s musings on the Park Boundaries comprise his most interesting writing. Do we revere nature on one side of the boundary and not the other? What does that say about that which lies outside the margins? How arbitrary are such boundaries and how should they affect our attitudes to the wild? But Turner also disappoints here. He claims to have read too much [post?] modern French philosophy (p. 175), and yet he never carries this discussion to its obvious conclusion: he fails to fully deconstruct the boundaries. Are they simple arbitrary constructs of meaning? Can we even say that there exists a natural world outside of our human constructs? No philosopher I know of, not even the Deep Ecologists, have adequately addressed these questions. Turner, like me (and Childs), was educated at an Ivy League school, in philosophy no less. But I get the sense that, even though there are occasional references to various philosophers, he really has no message. This can be a fatal flaw in a writer. Once again, one could say, “Well, that’s a Buddhist thing.” But the Dali Lama has lots to say in his books. He points to compassion and ethics all the time. It seems that Turner, like so many other writers today, is afraid to offer any real opinions.
Don’t get me wrong. I am very sympathetic to the attempts to describe what it means to live and breathe the life of a climber. For this is part of a much bigger question: How did we get to be who we are? Or: How do we become what we want to be? The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (whom Turner quotes also) called this our lebensform, or form of life. What thing or things are indicative, characteristic, and idiomatic, of the climber’s life? What is it that we do that makes us different and unique? And what do our lives say by how we lead them? No, climbing is not just about going up and down. It’s about organizing a whole life around the up and down.
As Childs’ writes in that beautiful introduction of his, the life of the climber is a collage of things, unique to that person but nevertheless sharing a strange intangibility. For him it is about “being born in Detroit and living in Mazama” (Washington State). It’s about “surviving a happy childhood and driving taxis, trucks, motorcycles, and more nails than we care to remember.” In Childs’ litany of memories, climbing is about going to school (and dropping out), spending a weekend in jail, trying to get published, going back to school (and dropping out again). It’s about working at ski areas and construction sites, in forests and in education. He tells us he has experimented with “firing a gun and riding a snowboard” (he skipped the tattoos), all the while “learning a little something from my worst mistakes.”
Yes, the climber’s life is sometimes nothing more than “climbing peaks and routes unclimbed by anyone else and skiing snow unserved by any machinery than our own slow approach.” Sometimes it is simply “hearing the silent thunder of our own heart and the roar at the end of everything.” But it is also about “being terribly afraid and terribly happy, cold to the core and warm as a peanut, having been rich and poor, overfed and undernourished, ducking at the right times, avoiding the worst forms of dental surgery, and never having chronic back pain.” And finally, in his biggest stretch, Childs wonders if climbing is really about just having good knees and going to the Louvre (pp. 10-11). I’m not sure what it is about going to the Louvre that’s so important to Childs. But on the other hand I’m not so sure about what makes any one of these things in and of themselves so important. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s not about just going up and down.
Living low and living large. The climbers’ life is a great tapestry with many threads, all of them important. But there is one special thread that runs throughout, and that is our passion, a passion that knits our lives together. Like a climber’s rope, it is the thin strand that connects all the pitches, all the people, all the joys, and all the difficulties
In the final analysis, I must applaud Turner and Childs, for to try and capture that passion in words is a most difficult thing indeed.