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.

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.

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.

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.

I walk up the mountain on an angry morning. My mother texts me constantly. I hear the beep in my backpack. I should turn my phone off, not worry that she can’t handle my children for the two hours I hike each morning while living in Mammoth Lakes for a few weeks. Back home, someone has violated my farm, taken down a political poster from my fence, trespassed as an obvious statement that tells me I should not have the right to speech or expression. I tell the world, I will not be silenced. I storm up the mountain, and soon, beyond the mechanisms of hate and prejudice, softness falls over me. I stop soon at the top of a tough section, climb to take in the entry of wilderness, each tree’s embrace of shadow and space, a door to empathy and grace. Here, the human emotions go dormant, as in the self, and what rises is a static contentment with being alive. I want to consider what it means to become transcendent: of circumstance, of place, of self. Isn’t it that we all tire of ourselves often enough that we wish for the mind to take a turn from its own imaginings? Perhaps that’s always what I’m looking for in the wild: some spiritual aspect of myself, or a toughness, or a forgetting. I’m attracted to the woman alone in the high mountains, that vision, maybe because I’ve never been that woman, and now I want to be her, until I am left with “my naked life” as Adrienne Rich suggested. A woman is chaotic, though I want to think this chaos is a thing of beauty. Outside with the elements pushing my back and pinking my cheeks, I discover the structure of an ice bridge, spy the cap of a pileated woodpecker, wonder about the crash of the wind, and think, these are the houses to occupy.

interlude: feminine
I go to the mountains to embody the power of the wild, to not conquer, or be conquered, but simply, to regain a sense of my own subversive nature, of the non-negotiable need to possess beauty, my own and the woods, and as Freud suggested of the feminine, to engage what is not easily understood, what is riddle, what is awe. To compare this state of being in the wild to what Joseph Conrad wrote of a woman in Heart of Darkness: “She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress,” which calls back to the feminine in nature: the rounded water, the columbine or penstemon, perhaps cardinal flower and poppy, the gash in soil, the bands on an open rock face, the glacial (of slowness), the plum berry, the curves of a hill, paradise of gender and texture and soul. Simone de Beauvoir argued that we only see the masculine in nature, from patriarchy to desire to the sublime to romanticism, but what of the birth of a seed opening like a woman? Or the run of a river? I think too, we have it all wrong: what of the feminine as freedom and sexual identity existing across a spectrum? That we’ve created arbitrary titles of identity when nature does not is a statement of our failure of imagination, of rigidity. There are no seams, only multiple definitions of woman, of wild, of (un)feminine.

interlude: body
I drew a line for how far I would go—a woman alone on a mountain cliff. This isn’t a new story, it never is—of womanhood, of individuality, but the remarkable thing is the quiet, which is not absence, but an attendance. In a meadow of saffron brush and sage, I sit by the shallow creek and recall a winter walk to the sea in a new place, the evening settling with cold houses and lights dim, a forest shadowy and complex. I had not prepared myself for the remarkable span of mountains, range, sea, island. For the cold even. I could not contain my relief and despair as the sun lowered on miles of coastline far from home. There on the surge narrow, I watched a pelagic cormorant, all black and royal with iridescent wings and emerald eyes, posed as in statue. Nothing social about this bird, just a solitary meditation at the crisp edge of ocean, where the bay created a shore of pebbles and sea rock. I wanted to believe that it was waiting for some message, or its mate, but it sat for as long as it took for the sun to sink low, until it eventually waddled away with a clumsy gait. A serene and sovereign sea-bird, staking claim like it reigned with grace and buoyancy. And it did, but above all what it reminds me of is the body. Meridel Le Sueur, writer and anarchist, wrote “the body repeats the landscape” as if what we do to our own physical self reflects the strange curtain of mountain and sea. And vice versa. Yes, it’s like a dance of two people can be a mimic of the play of light on grass and water, a choreography of radiance. I think of a morning then, a Christmas day, my husband and I dancing among the wrapping paper, a soft ballad on our daughter’s new boom box, the light stretching across the floor, our bodies twined despite all the pieces of the world against us.

At Emerald Lake, I see no one for the two miles it takes to reach the water, backed by the booming and gargantuan range of rock, a geologic wonder of the Mammoth crest, all eruptions, lava, and sense of time, as in 57,000 years ago. In the Sierra, it isn’t a man I’m afraid of. It’s the unknown. Or death by hunt. Or being alone. I’ve watched too many films where innocent women are killed by murderers roaming the woods. I can’t shake the image from my mind while walking the trail. In a resort bar later, a man will sing of chainsaws and women and the audience will laugh, and the Syrah will be so smooth I’ll keep drinking from the glass and chatter to the friends I’ve made at the table. We will eat pizza and the patterns of parsley on the table will resemble spring and I know I’ll want the attention of anyone who will say, “She is a woman. She is mystery. She is complex design,” as in nature, where the innocent stripes of a zebra form on the skin, creating a symphony of alignment or structure. Or the map puffer fish, whose streaks do not follow any one sketch, but offers itself as a maze of shape and line. Moth wings engage the sense of vision in order to push away the predator, to blend with the landscape, to assume toxicity, to make the strange and beautiful. The atlas moth resembles a snake when its wings flutter quickly. Mimicry becomes enigma. I look for these patterns at Emerald Lake, the decorative spectacle: in the wild, the definitions of my American culture have no value here. Instead, it’s the tiger lilies and the wild swamp onion that matter, with the blue crags of the mountains creating space and mystery. It’s lush in this place, the hillside stained in fireweed and emerald, ranger buttons and a cascade of water down the grass. Blue gentian wilds the landscape even more and I wish for someone to share this alpine glow with me, though I am alone—the mystery remains enclosed in my own experience. I think of glow worms then, who weave silk in a dark cave far away from this place. I think of their mastery of such craft, the dedication to creating a web of delicate thread in the darkness. The fabric hangs from the cave ceilings, creating structures of fragile columns, something you might wave your hand through and watch the movement and play of silk across the dark. It dangles far into the empty space of the cavern, capturing prey—midges, caddisflies—in its snare. The silk, in its luminosity, becomes stars.

coda: power
On one of my last afternoons in the Eastern Sierra mountains, I climb higher toward Agnew Lake, a backcountry reservoir in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The heat is inexpressible and large. As I struggle over the rocks, I become like Artemis, the goddess of wilderness. Bouphagos wanted to rape her, but he could not: she strikes him down. Sipriotes also wanted to rape her, but she turns him into a girl. The hunter Actaeon spied on her while she was bathing, so she transforms him into a stag, his own pack of dogs unleashed to tear him apart. A virgin huntress, Artemis roamed the forests, nurtured the young, delighted in the wild, exerted vigor and brawn in the marshes and woods. I think of her as I pass a pack horse and rider dangerously descending the mountain, the east side of the trail dropping off thousands of feet below us. I look down the face of rock and then continue on, soon following abandoned tram tracks once used for transporting supplies to the water tower at the top of the lake. My father used to work at the dam when he was a teenager. He has told me stories of how they’d work all day in the brush and heat, then walk miles into town for booze, and return past midnight to sleep for a few hours before rising again for work. How youth allows you that liberty. But, this place is rugged and far from help and I can’t imagine traversing this mountain at night with liquor in my blood. Though with me now, I carry beer and when I arrive to the water, I lay down on the shore pebbles, rest against a downed tree and drink. I could pretend here—anything I wanted.

Melissa Matthewson’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, River Teeth, Hobart, and Sweet among others. She currently teaches writing and literature at Southern Oregon University and runs an organic vegetable farm.