Archive Page 3


The Teaching of the Great Mountain

A Mountain in Alaska Directs the Mind Towards Selflessness

Photo and Quote from the New Book Moved by a Mountain.

A Mountain Can Have a Profound Effect on our Consciousness.

This excerpt from Moved by a Mountain:


Imagine that you have arrived in a mountainous area during a storm, when thick, dark, low clouds have been pressing down on the earth, preventing any view of the mountains. After a day or two, the rain stops and the clouds begin to thin and brighten. You begin to feel the invisible sun’s warmth on your face. A patch of blue sky is revealed here and there. Then, you turn your head, and are awestruck at the sight of an alpine crest, appearing through a hole in the clouds, far above. Its beauty has a theatrical quality, as when a curtain is lifted to reveal a carefully planned stage.


This can be one of the most powerful visions in the mountains. Perhaps in part because of the conflicting images: an immense mass of rock floating in the sky, defying the laws of Nature. The scene could evoke archetypes of, or deep mental associations with, the supernatural–deities or angels, or God. Maybe the intensity of the experience is partially due to the element of surprise: the shock of the unexpected perspective, and the sudden onset of awe.

No matter what the psychological mechanism, that awe is a signal to us, a communication from the Field of Consciousness, reminding us to see past our habitual thought processes, those rooted in a world-view of our own fabrication.


There is a traditional Zen statement that can be translated as, “Clouds leave, blue mountain appears.” Seeing the mountain is a metaphor for the experience of spiritual insight. Suddenly we realize that we have been living in the cloud of our own mental construct, our fantasy of reality, and our concept of self. The truth has been there all along, eternally, but we’ve been trapped behind a veil of mist, unable to see.

The mountains and the clouds conspire to express what it is we need to know; our need to know it is revealed by our immediate and profound response.


Thomas Campbell’s Foreword to my new book, Moved by a Mountain

Moved by a Mountain

Moved by a Mountain

only 200 copies of the book are available for Christmas. they are pre-publication copies that are embossed, numbered and signed. get them for yourself and for gifts at



By Thomas Campbell

The photographs of mountain landscapes on these pages are not the casualties of ever increasing entropy (erosion), but rather the survivors of an inexorable process dictated by the second law of thermodynamics that moves all things physical toward higher states of entropy with the passage of time. Such mountains stand tall and proud, unyielding to the endless tortures of wind and rain, snow and ice, unmindful of the relentless freezing and thawing of the seasons. Contemptuous of the might of men, they remain unbowed, magnificent, and majestic for all to enjoy and appreciate.   Though they are much older than humans, we are both the result of eons of evolution; enduring the abuse and enjoying the benefits of many millions of years of random destruction and creation to become what we are now, survivors on an evolutionary journey that is still unfolding. Though our paths are very different, the process is the same, and thus, there are lessons we can learn from the wisdom of the ancient mountains.  As it becomes increasingly clear, we are all interconnected in fundamental ways which we are just beginning to understand – all joined as one living small blue planet.

The majestic landscapes depicted by Reed’s photographs remind us of our comparative smallness and insignificance. Simultaneously, we can identify with the persistence and enduring power exhibited by these wild monuments of nature. As Reed discovers in his account of living in the presence of The Throneroom, we can become mentally, emotionally and spiritually entangled with these mountains in a profound way, and the result will resonate with our core as a perfect meditation of being whole and complete in the moment. In that identification of oneness with the mountains, we can begin to realize that we are a part of what is real, and sacred, and grand in the big picture, as well as what is small, profane, and dysfunctional in the little picture–that we too are a piece of something beautiful; a work of natural art that is shaped in the little picture by cycles of birth, choice, and decay.  Through observing the resistance of The Throneroom, Reed awakens to an awareness of the continual struggle against the tide of increasing entropy; that human beings are also in the process of forming something majestic that is bigger than ourselves.  The hope of our species is that our boundless collective and individual potential will one day develop its own expression of beauty and perfection that will be no less a majestic part of this world’s landscape than the mountains in these photographs.

From our perspective, these wild and dangerous places are metaphors for the invincible, powerful, adaptable, and immortal – all things that we, as puny physical beings, are not. Yet, surprisingly, they are good metaphors for “we the people” who collectively animate the form of an evolving humanity that has few limits placed on what it might become. Moved by a Mountain reminds us that we, like the mountains, face the challenge to persist and endure until we become a thing of peace and beauty.  Love is our destination, and the mountains show us our path and urge us on to be all that we have the potential to become.

As we look at these dramatic photographs of The Throneroom, we get a momentary taste of our immortality as conscious beings…a challenge to evolve and become, to persist and grow, as both individuals and members of a race with nearly unlimited potential. Gazing at these photographs, we can sense the awesome power of natural existence, the challenge and uncertainty of a dangerous environment, and the immortality granted by evolution that subsumes the individual. This state allows us a healing and helpful glimpse of a bigger picture that puts our individuality in perspective as a part of something larger, more lasting, and more significant. Thus the mountains speak truth to us. If we listen, we can resonate with their message at the core of our being.  They inspire us, and in doing so become beautiful in ways we deeply understand but cannot express at the more shallow intellectual level of facts and models of human behavior.

These wild places and high peaks put us in touch with our own power and purpose; we see our own potential in their images and find healing and peace in their encouragement to join with Gaia and all of her creations to become all that we can be, a necessary step toward actualizing the potential of the whole.  They nudge us onward to find our destiny as they have found theirs; our destiny, an expression of natural love, encouraged and focused by their destiny, an expression of natural beauty.  Only together can we succeed for, in truth, we are but one.


Moon over the Throneroom

Moon over the Throneroom


Will AWE Allow Us to Shift?

Will AWE Allow Us to Shift?

The link above is to a 1-minute video I had to make for TED. The transcript is below:

Why is it that a human can be moved to the experience of profound awe by viewing a mountain? This was the basic question of my first book, The Granite Avatars of Patagonia.

As a wilderness photographer and author, I have asked, “What is natural beauty?” And I’ve concluded that Natural beauty doesn’t exist. It’s a noun we use to label anything in nature that causes certain emotions, falling into 2 categories: comfort and shock. Comfort obviously serves us, but how can shocking awe serve us?  Maybe it’s to wake us up to the realization that there is something more important than our survival, our comfort and well-being, our freedom from suffering, even our freedom to pursue pleasure. Maybe Awe is what will allow us to shift attitudes and policies and laws so that we can live in a sustainable harmony with our precious environment.


Natural Beauty and aesthetic Arrest (TEDx presentation, Homer Alaska, 9/10/11)

Click Here to watch the TEDx presentation

I’m called a landscape photographer, but when I give presentations to photo clubs I begin by stating that I’m not a photographer, I’m an artist who uses a camera. But even that’s not true. Once I was in my booth at an art show and someone asked if I was the artist. I answered “no, I’m just the photographer,” thinking that nature is the artist. 


We don’t have a word for what I do.  My art is to position myself in the right place and be there at the right time to see something in nature with a certain kind of beauty that is dramatically powerful. Timing is important.  The Greeks had a word for beautiful, that came  from their word for “hour”, indicating that beauty happens at a certain time. I agree.

 My goal has been to produce photographs of nature that I’d want to hang on my wall and look at every day, but it’s taken a few years to understand what I’m really doing and why. 


My quest for an understanding of beauty led me to study with a master of Japanese aesthetics, Shozo Sato. He taught me tea ceremony, flower arranging, and calligraphy, and helped me understand composition on a deep level. But I had a more fundamental question: what is beauty? 


Eventually I realized that beauty doesn’t exist.  It’s a noun we use to label anything that causes certain emotions in us; therefore beauty IS in the eye of the beholder. Because we are all unique personalities with complex psychologies, and all at different stages of our spiritual evolution, different stimuli will evoke those emotions in different people.


What emotions?  We don’t have a word for our emotional response to beauty. We can be pleased, satisfied, satiated, calmed, soothed, relaxed, fulfilled, or, we can be captivated, astounded overwhelmed, awed, enraptured, become ecstatic, or feel harmonious or at one with nature. 

 I think there are two basic emotional responses to natural beauty–comfort and shock. The shock is what interests me.

Denis Dutton, an art philosopher who has given a TED presentation, confirmed my suspicions that humans seem to have inherited an aesthetic sense that causes us to appreciate hospitable scenes with livestock and water and shelter–what I’d call a pastoral scene. This is the type of beauty that evokes comfort. I appreciate this kind of beauty–this is my cabin here in Alaska–but I don’t photograph pastoral scenes.  

Dutton says that “in general, people everywhere who have been subject to the will of nature are less inclined to be charmed by its beauties.”  But I think he’s leaving out the concept of choice. When people of undeveloped areas have no choice but to live subject to the will of nature, then they would love to dominate it, and the beauty of a landscape is of little concern.  But here in the developed world where we have a greater ability to insulate ourselves from nature’s will, we can choose to go into nature, be subject to its will, and still be emotionally moved by its beauty. Many will even intentionally endure discomfort in order to find inspiration from wilderness.  


Inspiration, breathing in, GASP, is our response to shocking beauty. Exhalation, breathing out, SIGH, is our response to comfortable beauty. The in-breath is the renewal and the out-breath is the expiration, the release, the end. When we are stunned by the perception of what is, for us, profoundly beautiful, we first breathe in, and are filled with what might be considered divine. Then the mental construct of self can expire.



In his book, “Mountains of the Mind,” Robert McFarland claims that it’s only in recent times that humans have begun to appreciate the extremes of nature, which have been so inhospitable for all of history. He says that the meaning of awe has also changed. The original meaning had more to do with fear. It comes from an old English word meaning terror and dread.  Todays definition, “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder,” still includes that element, but as you know, in recent decades the word “awesome” has lost it’s potency, the meaning has changed, and so we have lost a means of communicating an emotion that is at the heart of my inquiry –that is, why the inhospitable is profoundly beautiful to some people.  This was the basic question of my book, The Granite Avatars of Patagonia. Why is it that a big rock can shock a human into a profound state of consciousness?



  A few decades ago Joseph Campbell said, “The aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object….you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest.”  “Aesthetic arrest” is what I‘m interested in. Campbell borrowed the phrase from James Joyce who wrote that in the presence of great beauty “The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.”  In my words, the egoic mind is stopped and we are left face to face with the true nature of reality: one immense, infinitely complicated, interconnected miracle that our consciousness is part of, yet can be enraptured by. 


While researching the true nature of reality, I came across another Campbell–Thomas Campbell, a physicist who has been exploring in other dimensions for over 30 years.  This Campbell has written what he calls his big TOE in which he says that all of existence is evolving away from entropy, that is, away from chaos and towards organization, harmony, and ultimately towards Pure Love. This made perfect sense to me. It confirmed my suspicions about human evolution.  But I was confused by the fact that many of my most dramatic landscapes were photographs of the results of erosion, which is an entropic process. Why is entropy responsible for revealing divine sculptures of rock that are shockingly beautiful?  I was stuck on that one, so I asked Mr Campbell, who pointed to the obvious, that the granite spires and canyon walls that I photograph are what resists entropy.  They are what is still standing after millions of years of being attacked by the brutal and relentless forces of erosion. He said they convey a sense of awesome, invincible power, and that in viewing them we can be reminded that we are an integral part of the source of that power. He said that can have a healing effect.  


A majestic peak seems to say, “The world around me may be falling apart, but I stand strong, with dignity and integrity, pointing the way past the ego, to love.”


 We don’t have a word for this spiritual healing by natural beauty.   The Spanish word “alucinante” led me to create a word:  “elucinate, which means “to reveal the truth (or enlighten) by blowing one’s mind.” Please use it if you like it.



 My suspicion is that while we humans are evolving towards love, we are all at different stages. I suspect that fear is associated with entropy, and that fear is what prevents us from experiencing aesthetic arrest when observing nature’s most inhospitable and awesome scenery. When we are fearful we do experience the terror of such powerful landscapes, if we allow ourselves to really look, and we will keep our distance. But as we evolve past fear, we can actually be healed by that same landscape, especially if we enter it. 


 The word “heal” comes from the same root as “whole.” Just as two sides of a wound come back together, we can heal the rift between our individuated selves and the omnipotent forces that rule over all. 

This is why people can have life-changing experiences in dramatic wild landscapes, and why I find compositions in such places, record them with a camera, and show them to others. 


sharing a fish

This is the piece i created in a 20 minute writing program in Homer, Alaska, on the subject of “community”. the session was initiated with the prompt about a Upik native who had a fish and his neighbor had none. the project is called “one city, one prompt” and you can check it out at:

“I got a fish.”
“Shit. I didn’t get any.”
“Lets build a fire and cook it.”

They gathered driftwood and built a fire, and when there were coals, he laid the salmon there and covered it with seaweed.

The salmon came every summer. They came to spawn in the rivers and streams. They came to die in the forest. They came to be eaten, and when they were eaten, those who ate, shit, and their shit nourished the land, and the forest grew from that nourishment.

The flesh of salmon came every year, like a wave of nutrients from the sea, penetrating the land by the arteries of fresh water that drained it of snowmelt. Everyone depended on it. It was the way it was. The bears, the eagles, the seals, and the humans all relied on the annual flood of flesh.

And when it came, it was not yours or mine, but for all, a bounty of providence from the sea for all life on the land. And didn’t the snow come from the sea too? The snow that the salmon used to make their way inland?

The seaweed held in the moisture, steaming the fish from above while it roasted from below. They ate, together, and gazed across the bay, watching the tide rip by. The tide that flooded and drained the bay twice a day, taking nutrients from the land to the sea to feed the fish and the crabs and the mussels.

As they ate, it was clear that all is as it should be, that they fit into this dynamic–were a part of this exchange between land and sea.
And the joy they experienced from the taste of the moist fish–a flavor better than any other fish–and from the heat of the fish in their belly after a long day in a penetrating wind, and from the sharing of the bounty–that joy seemed to be part of the dynamic too.
It all seemed to be screaming some kind of Hallelujah, as if this was all one big divine party.
The gravel of the beach was surrounded by spruce reaching for the sky, fed by the shit of bear, fed by the salmon that were fed by the small fish that fed on others that lived off the nutrients of the land that flowed down with the snowmelt that came from the sea. Sitting there with their butts on the gravel, they looked into each others eyes and giggled at the beauty of it all.


radio interview about The Granite Avatars of Patagonia


The first few pages of The Other Side

the following is the beginning of THE OTHER SIDE, On the Road in South America, available at

watch the book’s video at

Chapter 1

Fight or Flight

This trail parts chest-high chaparral with dense overhead thickets of a bottlebrush bamboo, heading south, crossing a slope that faces the rising sun, with a big lake below. It’s a still and cloudless summer morning in early January, and the tingle of delight I feel entering the Andes for the first time on foot seems to buoy my full backpack.

The route passes through a burned area. The fire must have been low and hot, killing the trees by burning through the bark at the ground. Most of the trees have little charcoal on them, and the twigs are still on the branches. When the trail hits a valley that heads west, into the mountains, it follows the stream in the bottom and enters an exotic forest. Only one species of tree grows in the valley: the lenga, or southern beech, and they stand about sixty feet tall. The improbably dominant lenga comprises the entire forest in all of these mountain valleys, all the way up to tree line. I’m reminded of the claim that the largest living organism on the planet is an aspen grove in Colorado. I’d be surprised if all of the lenga in each valley of these mountains are not someday found to contain identical DNA, with each valley contains a single tree, sprouting countless times as the roots spread through the soils, from the quaggy bogs in the valley floors up to the desiccated scree slopes tumbling down from the eroding peaks. What is it about them that feels so exotic? The main trunk splits low into several branches which continue up, like an elm, then the leafed branches find a horizontal orientation. The leaves are small, and these horizontal layers of fine dark green leaves give the forest a Japanese feeling. “It’s more Japanese than any of the forests I’ve seen in Japan,” I joke to myself.

Proceeding up-valley, the path comes upon a small shelter made of two log walls enclosing the overhang of a huge boulder. The boulder is granite, the size of a small house. It could have ridden on top of a glacier to get here, or it could have come to rest after a violent drop from a peak above. Either way, it’s been here for a long time. The little refuge, maybe half a century old, is just its current state, like a warbler nest in an ancient tree. Who knows, maybe the aboriginal Tahuelche used the overhang for shelter on occasion, or maybe all of the soot on the boulder is from fires built by hikers in recent years.

As elevation increases, the trees begin to diminish in height, revealing broken granite spires on the ridges above. Soon I’m in a sea of dense, low lenga covering the upper valley like chaparral, with a steep stream roaring in cascades beside me; then the trail makes a final lunge for the pass. Up there I find a large tarn, and where its water spills into the valley is Refugio Frey, a two-storied structure of fine cut-stone blockwork. Beyond the refugio and the tarn sits an amphitheater of several spiky peaks appropriately named “Catedral.” The view is a satisfying reward after the climb. Not having seen any photographs of this area, I had no expectations of what I’d encounter, so I’m pleasantly surprised at the regal nature of the spires. They jut skyward like the “drizzled” points I made topping sand castles on the beach as a kid. The scree slopes around them still bear lots of snow, and this month is the southern equivalent of our July, so the snowfall must be substantial here.

The refugio was built fifty years ago and named for a local mountaineering hero. Its first floor is a rustic dining room with three massive tables and benches made of thick timbers, behind it is an even more rustic kitchen. Above is a bunkroom, able to squeeze forty people side-by-side on two long bunks like shelves, one above the other. Rock climbers are milling about, most of them Argentinean; sometimes other languages, English or Portuguese, float through the air. They tell me that a storm is coming and recommend staying in the shelter. One warns me that the snoring inside is incredible. I had planned to pass this valley today, but three weeks of sitting on buses in Chile took away muscle and stamina without my noticing. Travel is like that, the constantly changing environment and complete lack of routine, the strange food, missed meals, and increased alcohol intake all contribute to a less than optimum situation for monitoring one’s physical condition. I was in shape when I left California, but I’m not now, and I’m tired. The enthusiasm I felt when I first got on the trail has dwindled. The buoy has been cut from my backpack. Sitting on a stone wall, I make a ham and cheese sandwich and consider my options. Do I want to sit in a one-man tent through the storm, or hang out at the shelter with a coterie of climbers? I decide on the tent. It’s too much of a scene here. It’s a one-dimensional atmosphere, like I find at international surf spots, or martial arts summer camps. If you’re not a climber you’re on the outside. It’s one thing to be alone; it’s another to be alone in a crowded room.

It takes a traverse of the entire length of the lake before finding some solitude. A tent city fills the spaces in the lenga scrub along the lake-shore. But at the far end there’s a cozy alcove in the brush big enough to throw up the tent. I stash my pack in it, and take off for a walk. Making my way for the snow-covered headwall of the cirque that holds the lake, the refugio, and the climbers, I notice two huge birds cruising along the north ridge. “Fucking condors!” I blurt out. A wave of excitement rejuvenates me. It’s been a hope that I would see them, but given that the California condor has eluded this birdwatcher for decades, I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high.

Feeling much better without my burden, excited by the terrain, and energized by the sight of the giant birds, I climb the headwall with the zest of a kid. Above the snow slope there is another small cirque with another tarn, this little one still more than three-quarters frozen. The granite turrets above it are pink to rust in color, but also fruity— cantaloupe, mango and persimmon in places. I make my way for the pass to catch a glimpse beyond, and meet a Belgian couple in their sixties as I begin a climb on large talus boulders. They are slowly and carefully making their way from the chair-lift to the refuge. I’m impressed. They tell me that the trail had steep drop-offs and was scary, so now I want to see it, and when I hit the pass I keep hiking north along the ridge, on the west slope of it, below the crest, following red spots painted on the rocks—and it’s nothing but rocks. Large angular boulders lie on an angle that barely allows repose below a craggy ridge. These rocks once stood above those crags, maybe in majestic vertical displays like what remains behind me. Those spires of the cathedral have a castle-like quality, due to the highly fractured rock, which resembles block construction. Abundant fingers of rock, called gendarmes, decorate the towers like the gargoyles of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I wonder where the boulder under foot once stood, in what cathedral, and in what cataclysm it came crashing down.

While traversing a buttress of the peak above, the rocks get as big as cars. I round one and see a guy about thirty feet below me, standing still, wearing a new overstuffed red pack on his back, and a big day-pack slung on his chest. I yell down, “Watch out for falling rocks,” and he turns quickly and bursts into rapid exclamations about the magnificent view in Spanish that sounds like sing-song Italian. He’s totally overwhelmed by the beauty, and he hasn’t even seen the cathedral yet. He asks how far to Frey, and I describe the route.

In a while the chair-lift comes into view. I suppose I passed the scary part without knowing it. I still feel strong, so I leave the route and head for a peak. At over 2,000 meters the air is already getting thin for this body from sea level, and I have to stop a few times to catch my breath, but I make it to the top with no problem. The final sixty feet or so is a near vertical rock climb, up a crack and through a chimney. A spot just below the pinnacle offers shelter from the wind, which howls in off the Pacific, crossing Chile in no time, and biting my right cheek. From my perch I face south, overlooking the spectacular granite amphitheater, and turn my head to reconnoiter tomorrow’s hike in the next valley to the west. Beyond my route, ice-covered Mount Tronador, the “Thunderer,” looms high in the sky, marking the Chilean border, and beyond it are the lower slopes of another volcano that is probably Osorno. Its top is mantled with the weather that’s moving in. To the north and south, snowy peaks and ridges continue to the horizons. The Andes are a long mountain chain—three times the length of the Himalayas. The word “Andes” is thought to have evolved from either of two Indian words: anti, meaning “east,” or anta, meaning “copper.”

After studying tomorrow’s route with binoculars, and assessing the snowy pass to be crossed, my head turns back to the south and my eyes catch the movement of a condor closing in from the left, gliding into the wind at high speed and close range. Immediately I reach for my camera bag, but with my thumb and forefinger on the zipper pull, I stop. There’s no time. If I go for the photo I’ll miss the experience—and probably the photo too. The condor is only a couple hundred feet away. I see the feathers of its downy white-collar shift in the wind when it turns its head ever so slightly to look at me. Its wings span ten feet and are motionless as it cuts into the wind. It passes me at about twenty-five miles-per-hour, flying into a headwind that’s thirty miles-per-hour or more, and is gone in a few seconds, becoming a flattened ‘v’ silhouetted against the stormy sky. Its head, described in my bird book as “bare, wattled and carunculated,” is a blue-grey, telling me it’s of the southern race of the species, and the fin-like crest atop tells me it’s a male. I wonder if this fin helps him soar with such efficiency. As he shrinks to a dot in the western sky I come down from the rush, and hear myself say, “Cool” out loud. A sudden feeling—that I could leave now and be satisfied with the entire trip—passes through me and takes me by surprise. Why do I feel so satisfied, so content? It’s not like I came down here to see condors. I came to scout for a new place to live. Not just a new place to live, a place to thrive.


April 2019
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