The Geography of Religious Experience


An article in the New York Times (September 9, 2007)

THE greenish hue that tinted the air over the Van Hoevenberg Trail to Mount Marcy, in the Adirondack High Peaks of New York, seemed to emanate from the balsams or the feldspar-mottled creek bed. The morning was cool and clear, the black flies stunned by the previous night's 30-something temperatures. When I stepped out onto the ledges above Indian Falls, where I had walked many times before, an indefinable feeling out of nowhere stopped me in my tracks, disorienting me in time — if not in geography.

It wasn't altitude or nostalgia. Maybe it was the view of the dew-streaked slides on Algonquin and Wright Peaks across the valley, or the combination of chill air and warm sun typical of the High Peaks in late June. Perhaps it was just the full pack I had carried four and a half miles up the hill from Adirondak Loj, a rustic lodge at Heart Lake, and the fact that I wasn't getting any younger.

William James, the American philosopher and brother of the novelist Henry James, following the same route on July 7, 1898, probably labored under a similar combination of suggestion and endorphins. He was 56, two years younger than I was now, and carried 18 pounds — half my load. He, too, started from the Adirondak Loj (though the name of the building that stood there in his day was spelled more conventionally as Adirondack Lodge), and he ended that day in Panther Gorge, on the southeast side of Marcy, by having the kind of transformative experience that his most influential book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” put forward as the basis of genuine spiritual phenomena.

I first read “The Varieties,” which was made up of a series of lectures James later gave in Edinburgh, when I was managing a fishing club deep in the central Adirondacks in the late 1970s. I was drawn by the book's title and the debt it was said to have to Emerson and Whitman. Of James I knew little — certainly nothing of his Adirondack connection. My own experience in nature had made me curious as to how places as much as cultures could produce distinctive expressions of thought and art. “All experiences have their conditions,” James wrote in another book, “Essays in Radical Empiricism.” On that day in 1898, factors besides mountain air and exertion had conditioned his. He had been reading the journals of George Fox, founder of the Quakers, who wrote of having spontaneous “openings,” or spiritual illuminations. And a few days earlier James — who had frequent crushes — had mailed a letter to Pauline Goldmark, a 24-year-old Bryn Mawr graduate across the mountains in Keene Valley, where they had met, suggesting she hike into Panther Gorge with her brother and some friends. There he would meet them, and the next day they would hike back out to Keene Valley, where James, a professor at Harvard, shared a rustic retreat, Putnam Camp, with other Boston intellectuals.

Pauline Goldmark, who later was a social reformer and a sister-in-law of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, was an enthusiastic hiker — what James called an “up at sunrise, out-of-doors, mountaintop kind of girl.” Over a three-year correspondence with James, she had come to embody his romantic, idealized and eroticized projection of the Adirondacks, but there is absolutely no evidence that theirs was anything more than a platonic friendship. (The erotic undercurrent surrounding ideas of nature and camp life in those days is wonderfully evoked in George Prochnik's recent book, “Putnam Camp.”)

Above everything else loomed the talks that James had been asked to deliver at the University of Edinburgh, the Gifford Lectures. He had come to the Adirondacks to escape the demands of Cambridge and his family as he pondered the lectures. With them he hoped to cement his reputation — and that of American philosophy — and demonstrate his belief that the psychological and philosophical study of religion should focus on the direct personal experience of numinousness, or union with something “beyond,” rather than on creeds and ecclesiastical institutions. But he had been stumped on how to frame them.

By including Pauline Goldmark on the Panther Gorge trip, even for a presumably chaste rendezvous, it seems James was priming himself for a breakthrough. His own life experience — the influence of a mystical father, a tendency toward melancholy, earlier experiments with cannabis and mescaline — further conditioned him for some kind of epiphany.

On July 7, he left the lodge at 7 a.m. with a guide and passed over the cribwork structure at Marcy Dam, with its imposing view of Avalanche Pass. (In a rebuilt version, the dam is still there, and it's one of the busiest spots in the High Peaks.) By noon, James and his guide had made the Marcy summit, some seven miles from Heart Lake, and James met two acquaintances from Cambridge — “Appalachians,” as he called them — who had hiked up from Keene Valley, on the northeast side of Marcy. Possibly they discussed the recent American invasion of Cuba and the destruction of the Spanish fleet, which had dominated the news for weeks. They may have lingered, as hikers inevitably do today, over the operatic views of other Adirondack peaks and of the far upper reaches of the Boreas River to the south and the Cold River to the west. It wasn't until 4 p.m. that James began climbing down the southwest flank into Panther Gorge.

At 2,100 feet below the summit, Panther Gorge lies between Marcy, at 5,344 feet the highest peak in New York, and Haystack, the third-highest (Algonquin Peak, near Lake Placid, is No. 2). It is among the most remote destinations in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, known for capricious weather and forbidding terrain that frequently swallow rash or unlucky skiers and hikers.

The steep descent takes an hour or two, and James arrived in the bottom of the gorge, at the rough cabin that stood there then, to find Pauline Goldmark; her brother, Charles; Waldo Adler, the son of Felix Adler, founder of the Society for Ethical Culture; and two college girls “drest in boy's breeches,” as he couldn't help writing to his wife. It had been a rough, nearly 10-mile day, beginning for James at 5 a.m.

The guide made dinner and built a cozy fire inside. But that night James tossed and turned while his other youthful cabin mates slumbered. He told his wife, Alice, in the extraordinary letter he wrote her two days later, that he arose and walked out to the brook that drains the gorge. And then something happened to him.

“The moon rose and hung above the scene, leaving a few of the larger stars visible,” he wrote, “and I entered into a state of spiritual alertness of the most vital description. The influences of Nature, the wholesomeness of the people around me, especially the good Pauline, the thought of you and the children ... the problem of the Edinburgh lectures, all fermented within me till it became a regular Walpurgis nacht.” (Walpurgisnacht is the night before May Day, when spirits walked the earth, according to Germanic lore.)

However deep and meaningful the feeling, he couldn't really explain it — as he later showed others had been unable to explain their own similar experiences. “It seemed as if all the gods of the nature-mythologies were holding an indescribable meeting in my breast with the moral gods of the inner life,” he wrote to his wife. But it was a turning point in his intellectually peripatetic life. After that night at Panther Gorge, he understood spiritual reality not as a concept, or as something privileged, but as an unexceptional property of human consciousness and a fact of life.

And somehow, in the process, the “Edinboro lectures,” he added, made “quite a hitch ahead.” The structure came to him: “load the lectures with concrete experiences” of spontaneously seeing beyond the limited self, reported by predecessors like Fox, the Quaker founder; St. Teresa, the Spanish mystic; al-Ghazali, the Islamic philosopher; and by friends and colleagues from all over the world.

From Indian Falls my son, Noah, and I made the Marcy summit by noon, moving as James had, at a stately pace. The usual 30 or so climbers had gotten there ahead of us, mostly Canadians and Europeans enjoying the cheap American dollar. After an hour, we headed down the southwest face toward Panther Gorge, two miles below.

The view of the gorge from the trail satisfied our most demanding expectations of natural grandeur, the precipitous slides on Marcy and Haystack plunging into its cleft. Copious blooms of clintonia, trout lily and witchhopple were along the trail, and both sides lay under the thickest carpets of white bunchberry blossoms I had ever seen.

Since my last visit, in 1980, little had changed, at least visibly. Deeper in the gorge the rich matte of club mosses and liverworts I remembered had survived the changes of climate and acid precipitation, though trees had grown in and blocked the view of the upper gorge from the stream crossing. We made camp in a lean-to near the former site of the cabin that had sheltered James.

Instead of Bryn Mawr girls and the children of progressive reformers, a group of first-year students from Gordon College in Massachusetts on their orientation outing camped a few yards away, and two young men from Manhattan (one with Google, the other with Microsoft), left their packs with us while making a late dash up the steep southern face of Haystack.

At midnight I woke under a clear sky and gibbous moon and walked along the brook. Much has happened in the Adirondacks — even here, where it seemed nothing had. My experience in, if not of, Panther Gorge fell short of James's, but I had no trouble imagining what he had felt.

Science recognizes no link between place and mind such as I had intuited years before, but those who know of his Walpurgisnacht will always imagine it there, where William James found the insight behind his best-known and most far-reaching work.

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