64: The Office of the Mountains


In his comment on our last post, Mark Frost mentioned that I haven’t put up anything of late reminding us of Ruskin’s unparalleled ability to make nature come alive.  True enough. If that omission is, hopefully, forgivable (we having been immersed of late in underscoring the continuing importance of our almost forgotten Victorian’s social thought for our modern era–Posts 59-63), the vacancy is at least lamentable.

So today I’ve taken a step toward remedying the omission by presenting a passage from the fourth of Ruskin’s Modern Painters books, pages telling us of the glories which are mountains, pages which readers in his time judged as among his very best.

From his first sightings of the Alps in adolescence Ruskin loved mountains–for their consummate beauty, for their power; for their ability to inspire–because to his keen eyes they were among the great incandescences of nature, gifts from the Creator who made them, and all else, possible. 

Later, he decided to study them and, doing so, learned of their unparalleled (and much overlooked) ability to sustain us; learned, in fact, of their necessity for sustaining life, learned that, without them and their service, little else of delight and beneficent life would be possible; learned, in short, of the eternal office of the mountains. Here is what he said about that office (the first sentence alludes to recent advances in geology which had proven beyond any reasonable doubt that creation had not been a seven day process as recounted in the Bible, but, rather, had been a process which had taken, at the very least, seven eons):

It is not always needful—in many respects it is not possible—to conjecture the manner, or the time, in which this work [of creation] was done. But it is deeply necessary for all [of us]  to consider the magnificence of the accomplished purpose and the depth of the wisdom and love which are manifested in the ordinances [alloted to] the hills… [F]or without mountains the air could not be purified, nor the flowing of the rivers sustained, and the earth must have become, for the most part, desert plain or stagnant marsh.

But the feeding of the rivers and the purifying of the winds are the least of the services appointed to the hills. To fill the thirst of the human heart for the beauty of God’s working—to startle its lethargy with the deep and pure agitation of astonishment—are their higher missions. They are as a great and noble architecture—first giving shelter, comfort, and rest, and covered also with mighty sculpture and painted legend. It is impossible to examine in their connected system the feature of even the most ordinary mountain scenery without concluding that it has been prepared in order to unite, as far as possible, and in the closest compass, every means of delighting and sanctifying the [human] heart… [For] the whole heart of Nature seems thirsting to give, and still to give, shedding forth her everlasting beneficence with a profusion so patient, so passionate, that our utmost observance and thankfulness are but, at last, neglect of her nobleness, and apathy to her love…

[To prove the point, let] the reader imagine, first, the appearance of the most varied plain of some richly cultivated country. Let him imagine it dark with graceful woods, and soft with deepest pastures. Let him fill the space of it—to the utmost horizon—with innumerable and changeful incidents of scenery and life, leading pleasant streamlets through its meadows, strewing clusters of cottages beside their banks, tracing sweet footpaths through its avenues, and animating its fields with happy flocks, and slow wandering spots of cattle. And, when he has wearied himself with endless imagining and left no space without some loveliness of its own, let him conceive all this great plain, with its infinite treasures of natural beauty and happy human life, gathered up in God’s hands from one edge of the horizon to the other like a woven garment, and shaken into deep falling folds, as the robes droop from a king’s shoulders, all its bright rivers leaping into cataracts along the hollows of its fall, and all its forests rearing themselves aslant against its slopes, as a rider rears himself back when his horse plunges. And all its villages nestling themselves into the new windings of its glens. And all its pastures thrown into steep waves of greensward, dashed with dew along the edges of their folds, and sweeping down into endless slopes, with a cloud here and there lying quietly, half on the grass, half in the air; and he will have seen as yet, in all this lifted world, only the foundation of one of the great Alps…

And although this…beauty seems at first, in its wildness, inconsistent with the service of man, it is, in fact, more necessary to his happy existence than all the level and easily subdued land which he rejoices to possess… The valleys only feed. The mountains feed and guard and strengthen us… The sea wave with all its beneficence is yet devouring and terrible. But the silent mass of the blue mountain is lifted toward heaven with a stillness of perpetual mercy… [It is evident that perfect] permanence and absolute security were evidently in no wise intended… Mountains were [made] to be destructible and frail… And yet, under all these conditions of destruction to be maintained in magnificent eminence before [our] eyes…

Fairly easily demonstrable, the truth of these sentences, with the interpolation of just a few pictures from a trip not long ago made with Jenn Morris and Suzanne Varady to the parts of the Alps Ruskin mentions–places which, all his life, he loved. No, that’s too weak: worshiped!

Foothills of the Swiss Alps from above the Lake of Brienzee

Picture from Ruskin's Old Road IV a 226

The Valley and Lake of Brienzee, Switzerland

Picture from Ruskin's Old Road IV a 274

The Great Falls of Giessbach (above the Lake of Brienzee, Switzerland)

Picture from Ruskin's Old Road IV a 237.jpg

The Mont Blanc Range from the Village and Bridge of St. Martin’s (Valley of the Cluse, France)

Picture from Ruskin's Old Road IV a 295

Summit of Mont Blanc from the Summit of The Brevant, Chamouni, French Alps

Picture from Ruskin's Old Road IV a 289

Until next time!

Be well out there!






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3 Responses to 64: The Office of the Mountains

  1. satwood8 says:

    I enjoyed your post, Jim, and the photos as well. Our new neighborhood here in the Portland area is at the top of a big hill. On a clear day, we are able to see Mt. Hood towering in the distance, often looking deceptively weightless, as if floating on the air. It never fails to impress.

    • jimspates says:

      Thanks for your comment, Sara. I’ve seen Hood and Rainier and the whole northward advancing crew in the past and always, like you, have had the same astonished impression. Once, visiting Rainier, having driven in the foothills for an hour and being suitable impressed with these, we rounded a corner and saw THE MOUNTAIN!! It was astonishing! Though it was a half century ago, I still see it looming immensely in my mind’s eye. The first sight of Mont Blanc from Ruskin’s Rock on The Brevant is the same!

  2. cancersister says:

    Dear Jim, Thank you! I’m forwarding the post to my husband who is a great lover of mountains and their geologic history (but also of deserts). The image of God gathering up the plain into a king’s robes is unforgettable. Being a fundamentally visual person, I really was quite taken with the image and will never look at mountains the same way again!

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