This essay was written for the University of Montana journal Camas: The Nature of the West. The Summer 2010 issue was dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Glacier National Park.
I’ve read many times about the inspiration of the mountains and ice. It abounds in the tales of those who spend their lives in the true peaks of the world, and on the constant ice. Many, I am told, spend hours contemplating the massive, seeming immutability of the world of rock and glaciers, and are moved by the constancy of their world. A friend from Alaska has written beautifully of the compaction, the power, the impressed movement that moves so little. I have tried to understand this.
I have spent much of my life conceiving the meaning of God. In this, I am not alone. What can God mean? How can the notion of God possibly be understood in the mind of the mortal human? God is, if God is anything at all, eternal. But how can we know eternity? We die. Death is that which is certain; we cannot escape our own mortality. Yet I cannot help it. When I behold the glaciers of the world I sing with Walt Whitman, who loved all he saw: “Why should I wish to see God better than this day?”
I have seen glaciers, but only with my eyes. I cannot admit to knowing them; I am only a visitor in their world. Once in the Alps of France, my peers and I saw the high-altitude glaciers and glacial lakes that make up that particular part of this world. Likewise, I have seen the glaciers of Glacier National Park, first hand and in close proximity. I saw them as a child, and again as an adult, resting on the mountainside, cozy in the permanent relationship of rock and water. They evoked immovability, and they brought with them questions of God, and Time. Rock and glaciers are about as close as I have come to deep time, and eternity. In my mind, this sense of permanence makes peace in the world by outlasting our human efforts to disrupt peace. If God is, and God is anything that words can describe, God must promote peace beyond our ability to undo it. These are the thoughts that swim in my brain as I behold the glaciers I have beheld.
But these are merely thoughts, and in reality are not so. The permanence, we are learning, is façade. The mountains, after all, were made by time, by movement, and by pressure. These same forces, though indiscernible to my eyes, work at every second of every day to unmake the mountains. The mountains are mortal, too. They will outlast me, but they will go. From a certain view, the mountains are even more mortal than we are. We require the complications of failing organs, the firing of weapons, the crashing of our vehicles, to perish. We are filled with uncertainty and doubt, by the knowledge that we will, in the end, die. Because we do not know how or where it will happen, or even why, we are filled with anguish. I am, anyway. Mountains simply wait out friction.
So to, glaciers. We know they are on the decline. Everywhere the reportage of melting glaciers fills our newspapers and our television screens. But the end of glaciers is not like the end of mountains. The difference is great, for we are the cause of glacial demise, and we can only dream of a solution. In this country, we burn the coal that kills the glaciers. In India, and Peru, and Switzerland, we drive the cars and release the gases that are responsible for the slow death of our icons of the everlasting. Many wish it was not so, and deny that such occurrences are taking place. But in our hearts I think we know it is true. Maybe we are just ashamed to admit that we have found a way to destroy our model for the eternity that we so hope holds our God.
In the years to come, I will return to Glacier National Park. I will see the same things there I saw last time, the lakes, the trees, the mountainous peaks and the glaciers they hold. I presume, to my eyes, they will look much the same, for the death of glaciers is slow, and the death of the mountains they rest upon is even, amazingly, slower. My mind will return to the same questions of eternity, of God and the immutable. It makes me wonder, as the glaciers are melting, is our notion of eternity melting too? Have we finally found a way to dissolve our God into dew? The glaciers are asking you, as Walt Whitman asked you: “Will you speak before I am gone? Will you prove, already, too late?”