Melissa Matthewson 

Notes Toward Beauty

You can’t know the wilderness of a woman. She comes from a station of trees, somewhere distant, or she is held like a house of fervent desire, something mercurial, wild, erratic on the mountain.

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Alone with my five-year-old daughter at Heart Lake, we discuss lightning and it’s the lightning that compels me to wonder of the self and woman, defined not by a man, but by the ecology of a place, or at least shaped by it, where self is expunged, erased, stripped or becomes something corporeal, like the winter apple tree or the berry bramble, latent and distorted. We are high up in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains having just crossed the threshold into the John Muir Wilderness, on a slope of grass and rock, 9,000 feet above the world. To me, it seems the magnitude has eclipsed the effort, but Ava is not in agreement. We’re the only ones here and we’ve walked in late afternoon straight up this peak with accomplishment and drive on the mind. Why my daughter is here, I don’t know. She likes to walk, but not that much. She said she wanted to see the ghost town of gold and ore. I don’t want to. I’ve seen too many ghosts of buildings and shadows of life—weathered wood, decomposition, former frames of living quarters, bunkhouses, the cook’s cabinets. It’s all the same to me. But for her, it’s something new, so I convince her to hike the mountain first, then we’ll see the mine. It’s my own wish for her to experience this landscape, to feel as if she might fall off the brim of the world. Perhaps to witness a kind of geography composed into an industry of forest work: an oak’s sigh and heave of leaves, a lily’s curved petal, wild rose catching the light and upsetting the entire day. But there is a storm coming and that’s what I’m thinking about most of all. We look up at the dark clouds coming over the mountain, and I worry where I’ve brought her. I look into the bushes around the lake and see bears where there are none. I invent surprise in the trees, violence from the clouds. We take off our shoes and rest our feet in the water. I’m nervous watching her in the lake with the threat of rain in the air. Or even, that a man might take us and our bodies, here alone in this high alpine place far from anything, though there are no men here—no people, no trace of human interaction, just a mix of Jeffrey pine, some Lodgepole, sedge and grass I cannot name. She wants to swim, but I say no, it’s too cold, and though it’s August, I do not take her in for a float. We do not have a towel. And the storm. It’s coming. She sits on a log in the water anyway, splashing around with her tiny feet. She smiles up at me as I take pictures of her face and the clouds. I imagine the shape of her hips filling out her blouse, her body forming into the curves she’ll wear as a woman. I know one day there will be much about her I won’t be able to control, including those hips and curves. And then, a discharge of lightning flashes overhead, a quick voltage of reverberation comes from the clouds striking the crest and sending a shock across the divide. It is both wonderful and frightening. I rush to put her shoes on, mine too, and through the meadow of lupine, we head to the mine.

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There is an urge for beauty in the canyons, where mystery gives way to pleasure—all the slow uprising of quartz and mica into columns and ridges I wish to climb, all of it falling back down the divide into goldenrod and paintbrush, high meadows dotted with balsam root. It’s the first I’ve ever hiked alone, at 39, up to Crystal Lake. Before I go, I send a picture to my husband of the map so he’ll locate me if I need him to, which is unnecessary I find halfway into my hike. I’m on a well-trodden path, heavily trafficked, eager hikers all of us on an early morning in August, the air thin and tight in my lungs. I look for signs of any animal, but there are none. The climb is steep, dirty, dry. I’ve come here to beat back some kind of fear and to dismantle the self, the I, to be something other than me. I pass only a few people. Here in the rhythm of climbing, the woods for me become a place I can escape the constant pressure to be a beautiful woman, or to be kind and generous, someone that is put together, shapely, cosmetic, rosy. Here, I can shuffle off a skin of the feminine and join a landscape that does not discriminate upon tone or rouge or layers of curls softly shaping a cheek. Instead, the beauty resides in the wild rye or violet, the pinedrop or coral root. However decorated these may be, they have no definition of make-up or this is prettier than that, than you. No comparison. But a rudimentary sexuality exists in all of the natural world, and upon entrance, I become a part of that sexual nature, of flesh and skin. Freud referred to female sexuality as a “dark continent.” I find this mystery of a woman’s pleasure such that how can a man ever know? And what is this dark continent of a woman’s sexuality? Is it the unexplored? A wilderness? I know the depth of my own pleasure, my own desire, I know how to access it, but a man cannot. As I stride up the mountain, confident in my body, I like to imagine myself as some goddess in the wild, so divinely in tune with the ecology that I can swell with just a touch of bark, or a bud of the fuchsia, embrace the royal stance of a lupine. Perhaps the connection is between the wilderness of a woman’s sexuality and the dark interior of a wild forest, where only mystery resides, and wonder.

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        interlude: strength
The stylist who cuts my hair says she’d rather die by the claw of a bear than by the hands of some strange and ugly man upon entering the woods alone. I reply with a nod as the day unfolds outside the shop and two men scrub the glass while casting glances our way (a bit of longing in their eyes I notice and to which I smile and gaze back). The air shifts with spray of honey and melon. I don’t disagree with her, but instead say, “Yes, I suppose,” or I want to say, “Cherish your wilderness,” as Maxine Kumin has written, but that would be out of context. Or maybe she’d sigh and say “Yes,” repeating to me, “Let’s cherish our wilderness.” Instead, I tell her of my walks in the Eastern Sierra, the nearly seventy miles of trail traversed, the ridges I climbed alone, the lakes that swung out in shimmer, all of my fear made real in the wandering about looking for radiance in the woods. I tell her, in the woods, I feel my muscles rip and move and stretch and this grounding in my body, the sway in my hips, the fierce tingle in my calves, the thighs all taut, the back wielding power, these are the feelings I look for in-between the trees and on the high crest of rock.

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I walk up the mountain on an angry m