“To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words…the tangent to the curve of human experience lies beyond the limits of language. The world of things we perceive is but a veil. It’s flutter is music, its ornament science, but what it conceals is inscrutable. Its silence remains unbroken; no words can carry it away. Sometimes we wish the world could cry and tell us about that which made it pregnant with fear–filling grandeur. Sometimes we wish our own heart would speak of that which made it heavy with wonder.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel
Standing on Yosemite Valley’s floor with its immense granite walls rising on either side to 4,800 feet is to be immersed in wonder and to step out of one’s self into a place of awed silence, touched by an awareness of a reality far larger than the mind can absorb, a universe more immense than can be imagined, or at least than I am able to grasp.
Yosemite Valley is the physical expression of an astonishing story. Connected to the shifting tectonic continental and oceanic plates moving across each other, granite’s formation is a tremendously long process created twenty-five to thirty miles beneath the earth’s surface where over time, magma cools then slowly rises since it is lighter than the solid rock it is suspended over. Crystals of various minerals form and bond together as the magma lowers in temperature. Some of the world’s largest mountains, the Himalayas and the Andes, are the result of this type of geologic process. The formations in Yosemite Valley, however, are a combination of this process, as well as glacial activity. Ice carrying its load of gravel and rock pushed its abrasive way in and out of the the Valley, a recurring dance that went on for 30,000 years and then ended 11,700 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch, scouring the Valley into a u-shaped formation. Surface rock eventually wearing away through erosion, the granite domes slowly revealed themselves. Other erosive actions of freezing and thawing carried on, causing sheaves of granite to peel away from the dome’s fissures, creating the sheer faces we see today.
Yosemite is but a part of the three hundred mile long Sierra Nevada baolith, the merger of enormous magma chambers beneath the earth. Pondering the scale of time and the colossal complex processes involved in creating Yosemite Valley and its surrounding area causes one to stand in speechless amazement at life’s vast and intricate processes, of which our passing lives, in all our own incredible mysteriousness, are but a small grain. To place yourself in Yosemite Valley is to allow a ripple of awareness to pass through you, and to touch something of what it means to be human and the miracle of existence.
Maybe humanity is but an afterthought to project Earth and to the galaxy. Whatever the greater reason for humanity’s appearance in this universe, I’m grateful to be a witness to its astounding presence. When driving into the Yosemite Valley, a passenger in the car next to me gazing out the window in astonishment at the scene we were taking in, looked over at me, face aglow, eyes gleaming. Full of joy, our mouths agape, we greeted each other waving vigorously. Later, while bicycling around the valley floor, overwhelmed by the sight my eyes were taking in, I encountered a fellow wanderer walking the opposite way. “We’re alive!” I called out as we grew close. She turned and smiled. In places of such magnificence we sense our common humanity, the desire to express its beauty rising up like a spring overflowing with life’s fountain of incredulous abundance.
The life of a flower is one measurement of time, a human life, another. But places like Yosemite’s granite mountains take us into a realm difficult to comprehend. Granite has a solidity to it. For me, granite brings back memories of boulders I climbed among with my sisters on the hills scattered with these stony outcroppings behind my childhood home. Whether sitting on a boulder staring out over the valley, or lying back and absorbing stored heat inside the rock while staring up at clouds or a circling hawk, granite held a sense of time embodied. Resting on granite, the world slowed down and drew me into its arms. Ursula La Guinn writes in her poem, “Hymn to Time,” Time makes room / for going and coming home / and in time’s womb / begins all ending. Granite rises from both sides of the Yosemite’s Valley floor, creating the sense of being held inside a womb or the curved palm of some great hand where time is fluid, and nothing ever dies but is simply a part of a long spiral of making and remaking.
We need these moments where the immensity of all that is flashes into our consciousness and we see ourselves inhabiting a different realm, one much greater and more expansive than the routines of life or the understandings we walk around in. And we are altered, our sense of reality enlarged. Something in us is moved, a previously unheard music rising inside, whispering a kind of wordless understanding about what it means to be human and alive. I think of these words from Jan Zwicky’s poem, “The Art of Fugue, Part VI,”
Once again, the moment of impossible
transition, the bow, its silent voice
above the string. Let us say
the story goes like this. Let us say
you could start anywhere.
Let us say you took your splintered being
by the hand, and led it
to the centre of a room: starlight
through the floorboards of the soul.
The patterns of your life
repeat themselves until you listen.
Forgive this. Say now
what you have to say.
It is from this place of silent awareness where the music of who we are emerges–some place beyond goals and accomplishments, something to do with the difficult attending to what it means to be, to be present, and for our lives to say what they have to say.