Path to

Catherine Nixon Cooke explores the spiritual importance of mountains, and describes successful bids to protect and restore sacred sites

From the majestic Himalayas of Asia to the Cordillera Blanca in the Andes, from the legendary sacred peaks of Olmolungring, supposedly hidden behind a towering wall of snow mountains just north of Tibet, to royal Mt. Olympus, where Greek gods sipped ambrosia and planned their escapades, from Kilimanjaro, the roof of Africa, to the magical promises of perfection of Shangri-La – mountains have captured our imaginations for centuries. They have been powerful barriers of rock and ice, protecting civilizations from warring invaders. They have lured great explorers to their summits. They provide freshwater to more than half of humanity. And they are home to about a tenth of the world’s population.

Mountains deserve the United Nations’ special ‘International Year’ designation for many reasons. But given the world’s present precarious state, it is perhaps their ability to rise (literally) above the planet’s troubles, and to unite us in their universal appeal, that makes them such a welcome summit of celebration.

In the teachings of the Bible, in ancient Buddhist scrolls, in traditional Inca practices and elsewhere, people have lifted their eyes to the hills, and found inspiration in the peaks that seem to reach towards heaven, enlightenment and the home of the sun.

Sharing stories
During the Year, the Mountain Institute is working with the US National Park Service, the Ford Foundation, and the Nathan B. Cummings Foundation to share mountain stories, including important Native American traditions, with park visitors through new interpretive materials that will enrich their experience, and teach modern culture some of the sacred lessons of the past.

‘My grandmother told me that if the mountains and springs and trees and minerals in mountains are not wisely used, tragic things could happen,’ Jim Enote, a member of the Zuni Pueblo, told the United Nations General Assembly last December. ‘she knew the world like no other person I knew. She said by triggering the pressure points of certain places at certain times on the landscape or elsewhere in the universe we could willingly or unwillingly control the creation of beings, fertility, or even climate. This kind of knowledge is powerful and even dangerous if it is not respected.

‘From my grandmother’s words I have special appreciation for the sacred power of mountains because there are so many wrinkles, surfaces, and characters upon the mountains and therefore so many pressure points to protect or disturb.’

Pressure points
Some of those ‘pressure points’ are impacted by such aspects of modern progress as tourism, population growth, conflicts between groups competing for resources, and the influx of outside ideas and peoples. And since mountain pilgrimage sites tend to be more ecologically fragile, and regenerate more slowly than lowland ones, the growing number of pilgrims is severely impacting many sacred places. The Periya National Park in southern India, for example, receives more than 30 million pilgrims during one particular week each year. More positively, the refuse problem on Mt. Everest is well on its way to being resolved, just in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the great climb to the summit by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing in 1953.

Many conservation-based and culturally sensitive organizations are working in the mountains. The Year provides an opportunity to highlight some of their projects, as well as to share the threats and opportunities that challenge sacred sites.

UNESCO, for example, in partnership with the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Development, has established protective buffer zones around Ghana’s ‘sacred groves’ in its savanna ecosystem, focusing protection and restoration on the traditional beliefs and cultural values of the local community. The Mountain Institute, in collaboration with The Netherlands Development Organization and Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, has created similar buffer zones in the remote Makalu-Barun region of northeastern Nepal. Behind both projects is the concept that local stakeholders must determine what is meaningful, even sacred, in their landscapes and their lives – and must develop local mechanisms to restore and protect it.

Heart of sustainability
The very heart of sustainability, it appears, is lodged in this concept. It echoes in the words of Jim Enote’s Zuni grandmother, and is exemplified by a project at Badrinath, the major Hindu pilgrimage site in the India Himalaya. Approximately 450,000 pilgrims journey to this holy shrine each year, arriving on roads built in the early 1960s, tramping through once thick forests, and destroying the landscape by pure numbers alone.
‘...the peak of the mountain is associated with a supreme being, as this is where it is most likely to be inhabiting’

Wycliffe, Mountain Voices

In 1993 – at the suggestion of scientists from the G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development – the chief priest at Badrinath agreed to use his religious authority to help restore the site. In a special ceremony, he blessed tree seedlings supplied by the scientists and distributed them to pilgrims and local people to plant as an act of devotion.

He also described how, according to legend, an ancient sage named Bhagiratha prayed to Ganga, the goddess of the sacred Ganges river, to come down from Heaven. Not wanting to leave her comfortable abode, she protested that the force of her fall would shatter the Earth. Shiva, one of the three forms of the supreme deity, offered to break her descent with his long hair. Noting that Hindu texts regard the trees of the Himalaya as ‘shiva’s hair’, and remembering that each summer the Ganges does indeed ‘fall from heaven’ in the form of monsoon rains, the local community recognized that if the Himalayan forests are stripped away, the Earth shatters with landslides and floods.

The priest and the scientists combined to replant trees. The programme has thrived. Plans are under way to re-establish the ancient sacred forest of the region, and the approach has also been extended to a Sikh pilgrimage centre. Could similar models work in other parts of the world?

Mountains can provide us with a path to the discovery of important common ground. People revere mountains in many different ways – as centres of the universe, abodes of the gods, sources of life, tombs of the dead, places of inspiration, glorious opportunities for recreation, and mysterious vessels of knowledge and power. But we all feel reverence and awe when we glimpse a snow-capped peak, perhaps with the sun’s first fleck of brilliance turning a forest to gold.

Mountaineers and merchants, poets and philosophers, farmers, shepherds, bamboo haulers, and adventure travellers all come together on that mountain path, discovering a universal journey that transcends language, profession, education and economics. Peoples on all continents have looked to their own towering peaks – and the sky beyond – for renewal and inspiration.

And so it is that we all meet on a mountain path this year with hope. Chinese writer Lu Xun’s adapted poem captures the special spirit of the International Year of Mountains 2002 like this:

‘Hope is like a path on the mountainside.

At first there is no path.

But then there are people passing that way,

And then there is a path.’

Catherine Nixon Cooke is the President and CEO of the Mountain Institute, based in Washington, DC.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Saving the common land | Aiming high | Mighty, but fragile | Walking the talk | Regreening the slopes | For the people | High priorities | Natural beauty | Prospects for WSSD: Towards Johannesburg | Along a steep pathway | The height of trouble | Disneyland or diversity? | Path to discovery | On top of the issue | Peak condition | Swimming upstream | Cloudy future

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Poverty, Health and the Environment 2001

Complementary report:
Mountain Watch Report