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Entries in symbolism (2)


Blue Highways: Quechee Gorge, Vermont

Unfolding the Map

Stand on the edge of the rift in the earth.  Feel the wind racing up the sides of the gorge and blowing on your face.  If you dare, look down to the bottom, 165 feet below.  While William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) crosses the bridge over the gorge and moves on into New Hampshire, we'll stop for a moment and think a little about the symbolism of gorges and things that disappear into the earth.  To learn where you might make friends in low places, make a descent to the map.

Book Quote

"....The road crossed Quechee Gorge, an unexpected hundred-sixty-five-foot-deep sluice cut through stony flanks of the mountain; a couple clutched the bridge railing as they uneasily peered down into the gloom."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 10

In the Quechee Gorge downstream of the Quechee Gorge Bridge looking back. Photo by "AustinMN" and hosted at Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host page.

Quechee Gorge, Vermont

As you may have gathered in previous posts, I love mountains.  Thrusting out of the earth with craggy and intensely defined features as in most young mountains, or gently rising in tree covered glory, like many older mountains, I've always found them to be metaphors and reminders.  They are metaphors of barriers in our lives, and at the same time of the heights we can reach.  They remind us of how small we are in a large world and, to a greater extent, in our universe.  They also have metaphorically served as gateways to heaven - a great number of the gods that our human cultures have created have either lived on top of mountains, or going up a mountain was the way to reach them.  Think of the Greek gods that live on Mount Olympus, or Moses climbing the mountain to receive the commandments of God.   There is a continuing trope in literature and comics about the man scrambling up the side of the mountain to find truth.  I recently watched the first movie in the latest series of Batman movies, Batman Begins, and Bruce Wayne has to scale a mountain to reach the monastery where his training will begin and the unveiling of his mission in life will occur.

But this post is about gorges, the exact opposites of mountains.  In fact, gorges can be thought of as hills or mountains in reverse.  They sink into the earth, sometimes thousands of feet, so that one standing on the edge of a gorge might get a sense of vertigo.  To ascend a mountain takes effort, desire and hard work.  To descend a gorge is deceptively easy and, in some cases might be totally unexpected if one falls off the rim!

Whereas mountains are metaphors for our goals, and as barriers calling forth our best efforts to overcome, gorges seem, to me at least, to have much darker meanings.  I've been trying to think of literature that I've read where paths that sink into the earth have had a positive connotation.  It is down in the earth where some of our deepest, darkest fears and horrors have lurked, at least in our cultural sensibilities.  If mountains reach toward heaven and take us closer to God or the gods, gorges, caves and other places that take us into the earth take us toward places that we fear - the deepest recesses of our minds and psyches, Hell, and ultimately death.  Think of Dante descending into the Inferno, Frodo swallowed up in the Mines of Moria, or Orpheus heading into Hades.  Where the earth cracks, darkness is usually present.

This might be overdoing it a bit for a gorge like Quechee.  After all, the pictures I've seen of the Quechee Gorge show a beautiful river carving a slice in the rocks amid trees.  But there are deeper gorges, which but for the intrepid drive of humans might be inaccessible today.  The Hells Canyon on the Snake River, the deepest gorge on Earth, has a wonderful story attached to it about how it was created, combining mountains and gorges and their meanings.  The Grand Canyon was, for all intents and purposes not fully explored until relatively recently in human history.  And talk about barriers - if mountains are frustrating at times until one finds a pass through them, gorges can often be impassable.  I related in a previous post how the Spanish explorers, upon finding the Grand Canyon, almost found the boundary of their explorations and had to make herculean efforts to cross it.  Of all the gorges in the world, the Grand Canyon is still the gorge where the most people die each year (mostly due to human ignorance, ineptitude or the unnecessary taking of risks).

The lowest point on Earth lies in a gorge under the ocean.  The Mariana Trench is a place of fascination to scientific explorers, and a place where, for the rest of us, creatures live that appear to be drawn from our most horrible dreams.  The deepest gorge in our solar system lies in a place that we haven't even visited yet - Mars.  The Valles Marineris puts the Grand Canyon to shame, with a depth of up to four miles and a length that is much longer.  It is interesting that Mars, a future goal of exploration by humans, has all of the metaphors discussed here in gigantic scale - the deepest gorge and the highest mountain (Olympus Mons) yet discovered in the solar system.  It seems to embody, in one planet, our hopes as a species, the barriers and obstacles that await us, the heights that we can reach and the depths in which our fears reside.

It's taken me a while to like gorges.  As I mentioned above, I was always drawn to mountains.  Frankly, I get vertigo looking from great heights straight downward.  On a recent visit to the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico, which on approach is barely noticeable until one is right on top of it, I could barely look down from the bridge to the river more than 600 feet below.  Yet standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, which is immensely bigger, I had a false sense security rather than seeing the danger, as if what I was looking at was somehow less imposing because it didn't seem real.  It was beautiful, almost as if I was looking at a painting of the Grand Canyon rather than real life.  Some years ago, when I happened upon the New River Gorge in West Virginia, however, I was stunned by the beauty of the place and the thoughts that it brought to my head.  I even composed a piece of poetry standing at a viewing spot near its edge.  I now appreciate them for what they are, a part of the same geology that heaves up the mountains and in a way, their own metaphors for challenge and growth.

If gorges can be gateways to those things we fear, they are also passages to unknown places and discoveries that are wonderful and fulfilling.  When we look at mountains, we look at them as challenges to conquer.  We don't necessarily climb mountains to find out who or what is there, we climb the mountain because it is a mountain.  But for me, when I see a valley or a gorge or some other place slipping down beneath the earth, I wonder what or who is down there and what they might be doing.  I speculate on what sights might be seen there or wonders that might be uncovered.  I think about what the perspective might be from the bottom - whether it will be quieter or more calm below than up on top.  I've often heard that standing at great heights, people often feel drawn toward the edge and even over.  Perhaps this feeling that I have is the more benign version of that strange urge - in this case, an urge to climb down and discover.

I think about LHM's couple, standing on the edge and peering uneasily into the mist shrouded depths of the Quechee Gorge, and I understand the uneasy fascination of the deep places.  Life is not only about walking on the plains, but climbing to the high places and descending, at times, to the low places.  Whether climbing up, or slipping down, one is still assured of discovery, learning and growth.

Musical Interlude

I'm nothing if not tenacious.  In search for songs about gorges, I stumbled across this little thing called Scenic Gorges by Boats.  It's an interesting song, sort of catchy in a funny punk kind of way.  Not only that, but I figured out how to embed it from Grooveshark.  Enjoy!

Scenic Gorges by Boats on Grooveshark

If you want to know more about Quechee Gorge Quechee Gorge
Quechee Gorge Village
Quechee Gorge Visitor Center
Wikipedia: Quechee

Next up: Hanover, New Hampshire


Blue Highways: Philomath and Burnt Woods, Oregon

Unfolding the Map

Well, you almost didn't get this post.  I had already completed the Newport post, when I realized that I had missed William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) mention of Philomath and Burnt Woods.  But this actually works, because LHM has been going through a tough time by this point in the book, and turns a corner.  I actually changed the map marker on Corvallis to red to signify that there was something to his time spent there, and now, he has a new purpose.  Read on to learn what, at least in my estimation.  And check the map if you want to place Philomath and Burnt Woods on your mental geography!

Book Quote

"The wind came in over the Coastal Range in the night and blew the sky so clean it looked distilled.  As the sun cast long morning shadows, I went west into the mountains toward Philomath and Burnt Woods.  Either the return of sun or a piece of cornpone etiology from a California cafe gave the feeling I'd begun the journey again."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 4

Welcome sign in Philomath, Oregon. Photo from the Oregon MacPioneers Users Group. Click on photo to go to host page.

Philomath and Burnt Woods, Oregon

This is a short post.  Why?  Because I f***ed up!  I jumped ahead to Newport, Oregon and totally missed that LHM passed through Philomath and Burnt Woods.  So I'm essentially pulling this post out of my a** after working on Newport's.  However, I think there's a couple of things that are important to understand about Blue Highways and LHM's journey at this point.

LHM, by the time he gets to Corvallis, is going through a hard time.  All through California and into Oregon he has been questioning himself and the purpose of his journey.  When he gets to Corvallis, it rains for two days and he stays there, in a sad and morose mood.  He calls his girlfriend, the "Cherokee," only to be rebuffed.  It is in Corvallis, the "heart of the valley," that he seriously thinks about giving up the trip.  He says in Part 6, Chapter 3:

"In darkness and rain I left the library.  I began fighting the fear that I was about to lose heart utterly and head back.  Oh, god, I could feel it coming.  The old Navajos, praying for renewal of mental strength, chant, 'In the ways of the past, may I walk,' but my chant went the other way around." 

He's questioning everything.  He is trying to decide what he hopes to accomplish - why he is even making the trip at all when it seems so difficult:

"'Nothing,' Homer sings, 'is harder on mortal man than wandering.'  That's why the words travel and travail have a common origin."

But, as the quote says above, he has a change of heart.  He finds a purpose in the trip, and takes inspiration from Whitman's lines:

"What I needed was to continue, to have another go at reading the hieroglyphics, to examine (as Whitman says) the 'objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape.'"

I find it interesting that when he resumes his journey, along the way he passes through Philomath and Burnt Woods.  There is some symbolism here, yes.  A philomath is a person who loves learning.  We know that LHM is an academic and a writer, and as such, I would assume a lover of learning.  So the symbolism I see here is that LHM, to find purpose in his trip, has to go back to that love of learning, that excitement about seeing what comes around the next bend, and putting it all into the context of the America he lives in, the life he inhabits and the sum of his knowledge of self and others.

Of course, what's around the bend but Burnt Woods.  Again, I see symbolism.  Burnt Woods was named after the scars of a number of forest fires that can be seen in the area.  A forest fire is destructive.  It kills trees, plants and animals.  But it is also regenerative.  In many conifer forests, a cone can only properly germinate if it is opened in the intense heat of a fire.  It takes a forest fire to clear out the dead underbrush, allowing the newly germinated seeds to take root and grow.  In a sense, LHM's trip is about clearing out the brush in the forest of his life, and germinating something new in his ideas, his outlook, and his life.

LHM states it best:

"I had been a man who walks into a strange dark room, turns on the light, sees himself in an unexpected mirror, and jumps back.  Now it was time to get on, time to see WHAT THE HELL IS NEXT."

Musical Interlude

I can't think of a better song for this post than Alanis Morissette's You Learn.  Because we do.

If you want to know more about Philomath and Burnt Woods

Benton County Historical Society and Museum
Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon
Philomath Chamber of Commerce: About Philomath
Wikipedia: Burnt Woods
Wikipedia: Philomath

Next up: Newport, Oregon