Awake from the north and come from the south! Blow upon My garden and let its spices flow. Let My beloved come to his garden and partake of its precious fruit.
— Song of Songs 4:16
Would the world be better off without mankind?
Many environmentalists think so. It’s hard to deny that, from a purely ecological point of view, life on earth would do much better without human beings around to interfere with the natural order.
But without mankind, there would be no point and, ultimately, no reason for the world to exist at all. Only Man seeks to create; only Man strives to become more than he is; and only Man directs his efforts toward ideals that transcend mere survival and procreation.
If we are to act as responsible custodians of the world, however, we have to stop from time to time and let the world remind us what those ideals are.
In the late 1800s, the illustrious Samson Raphael Hirsch announced his plan to travel from Germany to see the storied mountain ranges of Switzerland. This was entirely in keeping with Rabbi Hirsch’s philosophy of integrating worldly knowledge and experience into his religious outlook. That being said, the incomparable leader of European Jewry was well into his seventies, seemingly much too old to undertake such an adventure.
Some of the rabbi’s closets acolytes questioned the wisdom of embarking on such a strenuous journey at his advanced age. The rabbi replied that it was precisely because of his age that he felt it necessary to go.
“I may not have much longer to live,” explained Rabbi Hirsch. “And when I stand in judgment upon my arrival in the World to Come, what will I say when the Almighty asks me, “Samson, why did you not see My Alps?”
Rabbi Hirsch understood what we too easily forget: That the wonder and beauty of the world are here for us to experience, for us to enjoy, and for us to find inspiration in the masterful Hand that fashioned all of Creation.
But North Americans need not travel to Switzerland to find their inspiration. Within our own borders we have the “American Alps.” That’s what Louis Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway, called the mountains of Glacier National Park. It was Hill who found the region so extraordinary that he lobbied congress to designate Glacier as a national park in 1910. And it was Hill who influenced the Alpine design of the park’s hotels and facilities to echo the mountains’ namesake across the sea.
Even from the same continent, getting to the park in northern Montana is no simple matter. My wife and I flew into Spokane, Washington, then rented a car and began to drive, first across the Washington border, then through Idaho, and ultimately into Montana. The roads were mostly straight and flat as the miles sped by; it took us six hours just to reach the outskirts of 1,583 square-mile wilderness. But as my own rabbi likes to say, the best things in life are rarely found on the beaten path.
Our trip would lend plenty of evidence to this truism. As fields of goldenrod, wheat, and alfalfa took turns dazzling our eyes with their radiant hues of gold, yellow, and aquamarine, my mind drifted to the words of the sages of the Talmud, who found the glories of nature alluded to in the profound poetry of scripture:
The fields proclaim: “The Almighty founded the earth with wisdom; He established the heavens with understanding.”
Eventually, mountain ranges begin rising up, first on one side, then on the other, and finally right before us. Our Subaru Outback handles the roads with ease. In fact, we soon notice that we were rarely out of sight of another Outback – clearly this is the car of choice for traversing the long distances and tortuous roads that connect distant neighbors and neighborhoods. Having grown up driving mountainous roads, I fall back immediately into my old habits behind the wheel, while my wife grips her console handle with white knuckles and tries not to whimper.
Once we arrive, however, the travails of the journey are instantly forgotten.
The easier hikes are far more traveled and, although breathtaking in their beauty, we can’t help feeling like tourists on account of the crowds. Parents keep focused on their children. Cameras are everywhere. A high school cheerleader practices her steps and kicks on the way down the trail.
The more challenging hikes evoke real transformation. Something remarkable happens to people when they get free not only from the city but from the crush of city-dwellers. The massive walls of granite and cascading pine trees on every side replaced the skyscrapers of concrete, steel, and glass. Here, instead of being shrunk to insignificance by monoliths of human construction, you find yourself whispered into tranquil humility amidst the magnificence of nature’s grandeur. Instead of feeling alone and intimidated, you feel part of something far greater than anything you could ever be on your own.
It seems to affect everyone. People coming and going all greet one another with a smile, as if we are all brothers and sister in an exclusive fraternity. Voices are soft, idle chatter tapers off, and every sighting is shared with an eagerness to include others in the discovery of new wonders. A pair of muskrats beside the trail. A moose high up on the hillside. A mountain goat with her kid. A black bear foraging beside the highway. A falcon soaring above the trees.
Astonishingly, we all leave behind the distractions of the world of Man. On all our hikes, we see only one person — a teenager — wearing earphones.
For the rest of us, there is no temptation to escape into the coil of electronic impulse that asserts such power over the lives we leave behind. You dare not desecrate this cathedral of creation, which reflects the holiness of the Temple of Jerusalem from 2000 years ago. The smell of pine is omnipresent, like the clouds of incense offered by the High Priest. The naked peaks blaze with sunlight like the fire on the altar. The quiet fills every corner of the park, like the murmurings of the congregation in the courtyards of the Creator. No sound of planes, only the occasional military jet too high to be heard, and the periodic tourist helicopters violating the sanctity of the place, but quickly moving off and away.
Then there’s the water. Everywhere, water. Runoff from glacial ice forming countless streams, rivulets literally springing from the earth and the foliage, crossing hiking paths every few yards, filling pools and ponds, upper lakes, lower lakes, reflecting the surrounding peaks and cliffs and forests. From this place literally at the top of the world – not just the Continental Divide but the Triple Peak Divide – every drop of water will flow down and down without stopping until it reaches one of three oceans – the Pacific, the Atlantic, or the Arctic.
The arroyos say: “Rivers will clap their hands; mountains will rejoice together.”
The difference of a few miles, or even a few inches, one way or the other can send two identical drops of rain to opposite ends of the earth. Who can imagine the forces at play in our own lives that might direct two people to entirely different destinies?
The water itself looks surreal. Glacial water is tinted turquoise with sediment from the marrow of the earth, colored by particles of stone ground away by the shifting glacial ice as it inches its way across the surface of the mountains. Even more fascinating is the movement of the ice itself, which mysteriously shifts more at the center of each icepack than at the edges. Inexorable forces act invisibly, hidden beneath the deceptive appearance of tranquility.
Not so different from human beings: the greatest changes occur unseen, often unnoticed, little by little. Like the waters that flow from the pinnacle of creation, we become different people, for good or for bad, projecting the colors of our transformation for all to see.
There’s a terrifying beauty in water, the source of life and the source of destruction, the mirror that reflects the vastness above while concealing the vastness below. All the more so when it bursts forth from some unseen reservoir and disappears into unimagined depths.
I don’t want to leave this place, contemplating the mysterious wellsprings that cascade seemingly out of nowhere. I don’t want to share it with others who see only a pretty waterscape.
The Hebrew word for blessing – bracha – shares its root with bereicha – a spring-fed pool. Like life itself and the spiritual energy that animates all the living (both of which emerge as if from nothingness), so does water fall from the skies, trickle down as melting snow, and surge up from the hidden places beneath the earth to sustain us.
The waters say: “With a roar He sets abundant water in the heavens and raises clouds from the ends of the earth.”
We follow the trail ever upward, follow the course of waters streaming relentlessly downward, until we reach Iceberg Lake, so named for the giant ingots of frozen water resting motionless in the luminescent tarn. And on the other side, almost close enough to touch, it seems, sheer walls of stone shoot hundreds of feet straight up toward the sky. And there you sit, a hand’s reach from the basin filled by sleeping icebergs basking in the sun as the silent watchmen towering above dwarf you to Lilliputian scale.
Down below, a few miles from the park entrance, travelers play golf and mah-jongg, seemingly unaware of the majesty they have come to behold and immediately forgotten.
The following morning, we board the Sinopah, a 45-foot wooden boat built by Captain J.W. Swanson in 1926, to cross the length of Two Medicine Lake. On either side of us, ragged mountain peaks jut above the treeline with names from different worlds: Rising Wolf, Lone Walker, Rockwell, Sinopah, and Appistoki, to name a few.
There seems to be some question over the origin of the name Appistoki, although there is general agreement that the name came about through a misunderstanding. According to some, the topographer R. T. Evans asked his native guide for the word meaning “overlook” in Blackfeet; instead, the guide responded with the name of the Indian god who “looks over everything.”
According to our tour guide, the mountain was named by explorer James Willard Schultz who, upon reaching the top of the mountain and looking down upon the glorious Two Medicine Valley, asked his guide for a phrase meaning “master of all I see.” Apparently, by the time he reached the bottom, he misremembered the word as appostiki (or something of the sort), giving it the meaning of “one with fleshy ear-lobes.”
So much for self-aggrandizement.
Eventually, the local Blackfeet switched the pronunciation to the current, more dignified name.
Our single disappointment is the sky. Across the border in Canada, forest fires are sending funnels of smoke, soot, and ash into the air. The hazy pall has drifted over the park, robbing the afternoon sky of its splendorous sapphire hue and the night sky of its starry panorama. It has been a decade since I last saw the Milky Way. Who knows when I will see it again.
Day and Night say: “Day following day pronounces and proclaims, and night after night declares knowledge… to relate Your kindness in the dawn and Your faithfulness through the evenings.”
And who knows how the sparks and flames we kindle for good and for ill may change the world for others whom we will never meet.
Fire has a strange effect on the land. Huge tracts of forest have turned white with the skeletons of lifeless trees, victims of wildfires that swept through in recent years. Perhaps it’s the thin air, perhaps the particular variety of pine, but the fire moves so quickly that it strips the trees of their bark and needles while leaving their trunks and branches intact.
The trees of the field say: “Then all the trees of the forest will sing with joy before the Almighty, for He will have come to judge the earth.”
Ultimately, it is not our bodies and brawn that make us what we are, not even our intellect and ability, but the blade and bract that sprout forth from us as the kindness, charity, and concern that we extend toward others. And then, even after we’ve gone, we remain alive through the influence we’ve had on others, like the countless baby trees growing up around the ankles of the passed giants who made way for them to come.
It’s hard to imagine living here all year around. 12 feet of snow is common, 18 feet not unusual. The tourist season that provides most of the local income is brief, and the healing beauty of the mountains lies hidden beneath white blankets most of the year.
But we sacrifice even more when we deprive ourselves of this wondrous testimony to Creation. In fact, a study by Stanford University graduate student Gregory Bratman published last summer in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that a simple walk in the part not only improves our moods but has a distinct physiological effect upon our brains and our behavior.
So yes, by all means, stroll through the park and walk through the woods. But don’t stop there. From time to time, as often a possible, head for the hills, climb the mountains, find the lonely strip of shore or the virgin lake hidden close to the heavens. Flee the noise and congestion of the city so you can hear to the sounds of the universe, and see past the limits of earthly vision to behold the majestic wonders of the great beyond.
Learn the language of nature, then listen for the small, still voice that whispers from behind the curtain to draw you into the company of angels.
All photographs by Yonason Goldson taken on his wife’s Kindel.