Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Alaska Shorts: "Ascent of Mont Ventoux" by Petrarch



To-day I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum. My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer. I have had the expedition in mind for many years; for, as you know, I have lived in this region from infancy, having been cast here by that fate which determines the affairs of men. Consequently the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was ever before my eyes, and I conceived the plan of some time doing what I have at last accomplished to-day. The idea took hold upon me with especial force when, in re-reading Livy's History of Rome, yesterday, I happened upon the place where Philip of Macedon, the same who waged war against the Romans, ascended Mount Haemus in Thessaly, from whose summit he was able, it is said, to see two seas, the Adriatic and the Euxine. Whether this be true or false I have not been able to determine, for the mountain is too far away, and writers disagree. Pomponius Mela, the cosmographer - not to mention others who have spoken of this occurrence - admits its truth without hesitation; Titus Livius, on the other hand, considers it false. I, assuredly, should not have left the question long in doubt, had that mountain been as easy to explore as this one. Let us leave this matter one side, however, and return to my mountain here, - it seems to me that a young man in private life may well be excused for attempting what an aged king could undertake without arousing criticism.



When I came to look about for a companion I found, strangely enough, that hardly one among my friends seemed suitable, so rarely do we meet with just the right combination of personal tastes and characteristics, even among those who are dearest to us. This one was too apathetic, that one over-anxious; this one too slow, that one too hasty; one was too sad, another over-cheerful; one more simple, another more sagacious, than I desired. I feared this one's taciturnity and that one's loquacity. The heavy deliberation of some repelled me as much as the lean incapacity of others. I rejected those who were likely to irritate me by a cold want of interest, as well as those who might weary me by their excessive enthusiasm. Such defects, however grave, could be borne with at home, for charity suffereth all things, and friendship accepts any burden; but it is quite otherwise on a journey, where every weakness becomes much more serious. So, as I was bent upon pleasure and anxious that my enjoyment should be unalloyed, I looked about me with unusual care, balanced against one another the various characteristics of my friends, and without committing any breach of friendship I silently condemned every trait which might prove disagreeable on the way. And - would you believe it? - I finally turned homeward for aid, and proposed the ascent to my only brother, who is younger than I, and with whom you are well acquainted. He was delighted and gratified beyond measure by the thought of holding the place of a friend as well as of a brother.

With hiking season in full swing, I can't help but be reminded of the reflective power a mountain trail, how a hike can inspire me to spend the next few days writing. In the spirit of such a sentiment, I thought I'd change things up a bit for this week's Alaska Shorts and share one of the first nature essays ever written.

The Italian poet Petrarch wrote about his ascent of Mont Ventoux (elevation 1912 meters) on 26 April 1336 in a well-known letter published as one of his Epistolae familiares (IV, 1). In this letter, written around 1350, Petrarch claimed to be the first person since antiquity to have climbed a mountain for the view. The essay illustrates the mirroring effect of nature—that it reveals an equally vast inner world. This is evident when, near the end of the essay, Petrarch writes, “How earnestly should we strive, not to stand on mountain-tops, but to trample beneath us those appetites which spring from earthly impulses.” Read the full essay here.


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