Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mount Washington: From Divine to Benign (and some slight social commentary)

The summit of Mount Washington, topping off at 6,288ft above sea level - the tallest peak in the northeast, is a cultural symbol and source of pride for New Hampshire. It is steeped in both fear-inducing granite passes and legend.

A Syntagmatic History:
The Abenaki Indians who inhabited the land we now call New Hampshire had their own name for our beloved Mount Washington; they called it Agiocochook meaning “Home of the Great Spirit.” For the Abenaki, high mountain summits were home to the divine, so, out of respect, they rarely reached the peaks. When the white man came, he found his way to the top of Mount Washington and the rest of New Hampshire’s tall peaks. Then he/we began carving trails to the tops of these mountains in the name of ‘Murica, because what is nature if not something to be conquered and claimed. The Crawford Path which ascends the mountain from Crawford Notch and traverses the southern Presidential Range was laid out in 1819. Thanks to this hiking trail, the summit of Mount Washington became accessible to the heartiest of people determined to stand at the summit given the will of their own two feet. Then, in 1861, the Mount Washington Auto Road opened, taking tours of people to the summit from the east side of the range. In the late 1860’s, the cog railway was open for business, taking throngs of tourist to the summit from the west side. At this point, and to this day, the summit is now accessible anyone with a little money and a camera, and they don’t even have to stand on their own two feet to get there – unless you count standing in line to get a train ticket. The once  majestic and divine summit revered by natives has become an emasculated ant hill. If the gods ever resided there at all, I am sure that they moved out long ago.

I let my emotions get away from me. Mount Washington is nothing to laugh at. It is a behemoth of a mountain whose mass is intimidating and awe-inspiring. The strenuous hike and the temperamental weather in the alpine zone still claim lives every year. It was only two weeks ago that the weather station at the summit of Mount Washington recorded the second coldest temperature in the world (without wind chill). However, the ease of access afforded by the auto road and the cog railway cause tourists to underestimate the beast. The summit of Mount Washington has become more about purchasing an overpriced sweatshirt from the summit gift shop, waiting in line to take a picture at the “Mount Washington 6,288ft” sign (or the grotesque hiker statue installed last year), or receiving a bumper sticker announcing “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” or “I Hiked Mount Washington” than it is about the journey to get there. The natural majesty of the mountain is lost to most.

What does Mount Washington represent?
As I mentioned, to the native Abenaki’s the mountain represented a place of divine presence.
The renaming of the mountain from Agiocochook to Mount Washington represents an ethnocentric mindset and an American compulsion for invasion and possession.
For New Hampshirites, the mountain symbolizes the rugged and dangerous wilderness that sets New Hampshire apart from the rest of the east coast.
To tourists, the mountain symbolizes a roadside attraction and photo-op. It is a backdrop and a picturesque view to see out of the windows at the resort.
For business owners and the hotel industry, the mountain is money. Anything with either a picture of it or simply the words “Mount Washington” can be sold to any tourist for a pretty penny.
For serious and respectful outdoor enthusiasts and environmental activists, Mount Washington represents all that is wrong with tourism. Activist Edward Abbey, in his acclaimed work Desert Solitaire, dedicated an entire chapter to what he called “industrial tourism.” Industrial tourism, in a nut-shell, is the creation of easy access to the natural world and natural wonders for tourists who would prefer to stay safely confined within the climate-controlled realm of their automobiles instead of putting in a little work. It is not only detrimental to the environment, but also detrimental to the population’s perspective and attitudes toward the environment. It is the decline of reverence for nature. The auto road and the cog railway yield extremely heavy foot traffic at the peak (so much so that many summer hikers would rather bypass the summit than fight the crowds at the top) and also heavy industrial traffic. The summit of Mount Washington (and perhaps the gods who once resided there) asked for neither but are being overwhelmingly consumed by both.
The most interesting thing, is that for Mount Washington – and the wilderness surrounding it – “Mount Washington,” as we know it, represents absolutely nothing. The natural world in which the mountain resides is completely indifferent to whatever meaning we choose to give it. 

1 comment:

  1. Very good start! I say start because if this were truly going to be a full semiotic analysis, you would want to show evidence for every point you make here. "For business owners, the mountain is money": for example, on this we would want to show tourism ads or quote business owners to show how the discourse of the mountain changes to be about economics when we look at it from a certain angle. So all of this is awesome, but a true semiotic analysis would really be looking at specific concrete images and texts in order to show how the meaning is constructed.