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01 October 2019

Mountains and Limits

I have started to understand why I have such a passion for mountains. Maybe.

I feel connected to them, I respect them, and they give me an intimate sense of joy... yet at the same time this powerful jolt to the soul throws me off kilter, makes me feel vulnerable. Mountains have enlightened me about limits.
The effort required to climb up a scree, the fear upon seeing a bank of threatening clouds above me, the fatigue of my arms’ muscles when I pull myself up. I have experienced all this, and then some. I walk nearly every day – it brings me joy – and has made me think about the efforts of a mountain farmer: always pushing against the limits of his possibilities, and that humble harvest is not always a choice: it is a limit placed by nature itself and the type of fields present in the area. On those hills where vegetation becomes sparser, even flowers have nearly reached their limits, sole companions to the chamois and ibex; flowers which do not always make it to spring after the coldest winters and which, in the hot summer days, overstretch their limits of survival.
A few days ago, I found myself wandering at the top of the Croz dell’Altissimo, a stunning summit in the Brenta Dolomites. The Mountain Future Festival, a beautiful exhibition superbly organised by the local community, had invited me to go and take a look. Annibale Salsa and Simone Cristicchi took us into another dimension, their dialogue a serious yet light affair.

On top of that summit, a wall raging 900 metres into the sky and below me a terrifying abyss... I felt free to let myself go and fall.

I clearly felt my limits, the importance of the erudition of said limit became crystal clear: man is not free – he believes he is, behaves as though he were infinite, but he is not. He is not infinite when caught in the mesmerising glare of shiny store shelves, nor when he is atop a mountain, metres away from its rocky wall.
Today, that lack of a sense of our limits – the result of an abundance of freedom we have been enjoying for some decades under the guise of unfettered emancipation of everyone and everything – has made us even forget how to use our free time between errands. Schools already teach Civics classes, but what about The Good Use of Time? Or Re-creation, that time which re-creates man and has decisive effects on man’s happiness.
In our world, freedom is often mistaken for a trip to Harrod’s during Christmas. The chasm of abundance of a department store can be compared to an actual chasm, a vertiginous absence of everything seen from above; this is what happens to whoever explores the mountains with too light a foot and too light a soul.
This passion for too much freedom equates to rejecting oneself, as Goethe used to say, ‘If I knew myself I would run away.’

We have forgotten that we are nature’s guests and, as the Ancient Greeks said, man is mortal.

Living in a seemingly infinite world robs us of the wisdom we are born with and which, gradually, slips away from us. It goes without saying that, without limits, we are unhappy and cannot even think about living as part of a community. Every community needs rules, to force us, now and again, to do the right thing, and to get closer the one another... just like we do with mountains. An approach based on respect and conscious of its limitations. Hiking in the mountains, therefore, is not only a physical activity; carelessly walking along a ridge, one step out of place means you could fall down into a crevice. Walking sheds light on the vital and mortal boundaries of life.
The fine red hue limning the sky is also a razor thin limit, Homer called it ‘rosy-fingered Dawn’ – which is to be grasped, immediately, to bathe your thoughts in understanding before it vanishes. Mountains give us food for deep thoughts and are subject of listening. Walking becomes a carefree exercise in thinking.
Too much freedom to do whatever the heaven we want seems to make us forget that mountains belong to everyone and to no one. Nobody should feel entitled to transform mountains, and yet here we are, changing their traits, hammering nails, covering glaciers, the totalitarian system using it as a propaganda tool, changing its aspect. We have built ropeways, drilled tunnels in ice, put towers to then blow them up. Natural obstacle courses are torn down in the name of access for everyone, we create playgrounds on lofty heights, easy and safe, not a second thought to it. Is this all wrong? No, not completely.
Mountains are beautiful because man speaks with them. However, mountains should inspire the pursuit of true freedom: that represented by limits. Facilitating access to mountains is not a problem if it means allowing people to experience a stunning world they would otherwise not be privy to. Watch out, however, in granting too much freedom: we do not want to see a Disney World-like amusement park built atop our mountains. The most important lesson mountains can teach us is that limits should always be kept well in sight.

michil costa