Land - Symbol and Metaphor - Part 2 - The Mountain in Nature


In a separate article, we looked at The Ground symbol from Primary Scenes, in regard to its real life counterpart in nature.

We saw that the ground beneath our feet, is actually the greatest stage on earth. A place where the drama of nature, plays itself out.

We came to understand that the ground remembers what the rest of the world forgets, from seeds that become forests, to riverbanks that hold the fossils of long extinct giants, to the final resting place that holds us all.

Here we will shift from the lowest of lows, to the highest of highs. We will look at the natural inspiration for The Mountain symbol in Primary Scenes, and see what it has to teach us.

The Mountain in Nature

When trying to understand the role of mountains in nature, we tend to have the opposite problem when compared to the ground. In contrast to the ground, which we step on, drive on, dig holes in, burry things, and even people, in, the mountains don’t seem tangible, unless we live in them as a way of life.

Whereas the difficulty with appreciating the ground is to notice it as something valuable, the issue with the mountain, is to recognize it as something tangible. It is often the case, when great magnitude is concerned, that we lose contact with the subject at hand.

Whether it be billionaire tech CEOs, Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, oceans that span the globe, or galaxy clusters with trillions of stars, they can all begin to feel ethereal and unreal.

So, to put The Mountain, in its true natural context, we will start even lower than the ground beneath our feet, and descend into what is, quite literally, hell on earth.

From The Bottom To The Top

For all the wonderful myths, legends, and tales about the origin of mountains, the reality itself, may eclipse them all.

Before there can be mountains that touch the sky, there must be colossal slabs of earth, colliding on an ocean of fire.

Plate Tectonics

The premise of plate tectonics is simple enough to state, but almost impossible to actually conceive of, when you stop to think about it for a second.

This planet of ours, is not as solid and un-changeable as it may seem at first glance. The land, the stalwart of stability, is actually not as static as we may have thought. The surface of the earth is actually broken into several colossal plates. Not only that, the plates are dynamic and in motion. They do not merely sit still, rather they collide and separate, in various ways over time.

The lithosphere, the familiar rigid outer shell of the earth, is composed of the crust and the upper mantle. It is fragmented into perhaps 7 to 8 various plates, depending on classification.

How is it possible for such enormous masses of land, to move at all?

The asthenosphere is the medium on which the surface of the earth moves and reconfigures itself. It is tricky to define the exact nature of the asthenosphere, as it has some properties we would associate with a solid, and some we would associate with a viscous fluid. The asthenosphere is very close to the melting point of the mantle rock, so at any given time, it is likely that there is some region where the rock actually is melted. Under 1300 degrees Celsius, the land mantle remains rigid, but above that temperate, it acts like a much more ductile material. It is the interplay between these zones, the cooler zone of the surface, and the hotter zone deep beneath the earth, that create this activity of the plates.

It is the rising of the asthenosphere through the lithosphere that creates most of the molten magma under the earth’s crust. A process that is the literal manifestation, of hell on earth.

From Hell To The Heavens

The heat and pressure, of the earth’s plates colliding with one another, is unfathomable. Imagine two enormous NFL linemen slamming into each other, then imagine two tractor trailer trucks slamming into each other, then imagine two aircraft carriers slamming into each other, then imagine two countries slamming into each other. Now realize how insignificant any of those collisions are, in relation to the collisions that form mountains.

When the plates collide, decompression melting creates the flowing fire of liquid rock, nature’s own napalm.

The process of subduction occurs when plates collide and one plate is forced down while the other is forced up. This leads to the crumpling and deformation of the plates near the boundary. As a result, massive mountain ranges such as the Balkan Mountains can be formed. This is also how the mid-ocean ridges come into existence.

Fault blocks are another source of mountains. In this case, the primary activity is higher towards the surface than with the subduction process. What happens is that faults, which are basically fissured sections of plates, split apart, which lowers the section in between. The Sierra Nevada mountains were created this way, as the spreading, dropping, and tilting of the plate surfaces, left a 650 km long scar, on the face of the earth.

The most dramatic and hellish of all mountains, are of course the volcanoes. Although all mountains are forged in some scenario of immense heat and pressure, we normally only see the resulting mound, but not the inferno underneath it. In the case of volcanoes, we get to see what a literal version of hell on earth looks like. The same subduction process, that creates many of the traditional mountain ranges on earth, is amplified at certain points where there is a particularly high degree of plate collision.

The notorious Pacific Ring of Fire, is a well-known hotspot of volcanic activity. It contains some 2/3 of the world's active volcanoes, somewhere in the ballpark of 700 to 900. It is also a home to somewhere around 80% of the world’s strongest earthquakes.

So, here we see one of the great ironies of the mountain’s journey. They start in hell, forged in the blast furnace of plate collisions. They are driven upwards with such ferocious force, that the land itself ascends to the sky. Then finally, the mountain finds its peace, and rests among the heavenly clouds.

If this sounds like an allusion to human narratives about hell, redemption, and heaven, it is. Only, it is not intended to reinforce or reify human stories. The point is to show that if you know where to look, and how to look, you can find the symbols for our human experience in nature, without needing to construct them artificially. It’s not out of disrespect for these kinds of narratives, but rather out of a deeper respect for the universal and non-exclusive values they represent. This is core to how Primary Scenes uses aspects of nature, to represent aspects of ourselves, our lives, and the world we interact with.

“Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them” — Jules Verne

I wholeheartedly echo the sentiment of this quote, but with a slight caveat. This is true if we are thinking in literal terms. If you are looking for literal stories of magic and miracles, then nature always has you beat. On the other hand, if we know we are thinking in symbols, and taking things suggestively rather than literally, well then, in that case, imagination can do some incredible things. I think Jules would agree, as he was known to flex his imagination, from time to time.

Gods Among Us

Is it any wonder that throughout the millennia, humans have looked at mountains and thought they must be gods? We don’t think in those terms literally anymore, but we can certainly see where the suggestive narratives come from. Here we take a look at the real gods among us, mountains of earth, that have powers worthy of Zeus himself, to change the weather, to change the ecosystems, and to change us as a human species.

Changing Weather

Mountains are not merely titans of the landscape, passively standing by. They are influencing the weather constantly.

Make It Rain: Orographic Lift

As air moves across the surface of the earth, it must change in response to differences in the elevation of the terrain.

When the air mass is forced to move up over the mountain, this causes adiabatic cooling, due to the decline in pressure. This also drops temperature and clouds are less able to hold water. This in turn makes it rain. Not a little, but often a tremendous amount.

The northwest coast of the United States is a great example of this. Known for its frequent precipitation, that occurs in large part, due to the orographic lift, when air coming from the Pacific Ocean, hits the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Showers Off: Rain Shadows

Mountains can also have the effect of making the rain stop, or in some case, barely letting it start in the first place. Rain shadows are the other side of the coin, the yang to the yin, of orographic lift.

Again, we can look to the western United States to get a good idea how this plays out. Just as the northwest of the United States is home to tremendous rainfall, on the other side of the Sierras, the showers are effectively tuned off.

Closing Thoughts

In the next part, we will continue to look at the role of mountains in nature, starting with how they change the surrounding ecosystems, and how they changed us as a species.