Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite is a significant book, but not for its politics or approach to current issues. Mark Liebenow’s River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize winner explores far deeper issues—life and death in the human journey.
Unlike in many books dealing with this theme, Liebenow does not spend any time exploring death or reliving the life he had before his wife of 18 years died. Instead he travels to Yosemite in winter to begin a 12-month voyage in the wilderness of Yosemite to face death and see if life is possible.
“Going into the wilderness after a death of a loved one has been a rite of passage throughout the centuries and across cultures,” Mark writes. “Only when the past is set aside, one’s fears confronted, is the new reality accepted.” (p.20)
Mark knows Yosemite. It is a sacred place, and he weaves together many strains of spirituality—his own and the Native spirituality of Yosemite’s early residents; the spirituality of the land and water along with all the living things that breathe spirit into Yosemite.
Liebenow is a literary and spiritual descendent of John Muir, whose own Yosemite journeys clearly mentored him. Quotes from Muir open each chapter and guide each month’s search. Mark—and Muir—take us up trails, over snow bridges. We sit in meadows in different seasons getting wet or covered with snow. We wait for the nightly visit of the author’s friendly bird companion, a Water Ouzel (American Dipper). In these many visits and hikes Mark seeks to deepen his own vision of life by first going into the wilderness. He is forced to narrow his vision to what is right in front of him, whether it is the big picture Yosemite specializes in, a narrow trail with a thousand-foot drop, or a musky smell that could be a bear.
He then applies what he finds to his search for meaning and life without his wife.
“In the valley I have only enough energy left to sit like a plant, so I head for a meadow, plop down, and vegetate … I watch a family of acorn woodpeckers, costumed in their clownish white, black, and red outfits, fly repeatedly across Cook’s Meadow with hundreds of acorns and then push them into holes they had drilled out earlier in dead trees. I’m content to watch them work.” (p. 130)
Mark’s command of his language is exquisite. He has spent hours honing his words and sight. You know what he is trying to accomplish for himself in these monthly reflections, but it is never overwhelming. Too often these kind of memoirs focus on death. Yes, it is there, and shows up as a given. Death, however, becomes a companion to life and rebirth. They are yin and yang—inseparable, and impossible to know one without the other.
As Mark describes the wilderness of Yosemite in rich detail, we are lifted into a natural world that is the enduring thread of all life on earth. This is the wilderness Mark lived through in his personal life as well as in Yosemite—harsh winter winds and summer storms, stark black and white winter vistas, and rich golden and green summer sunsets.
“When I began this journey I wanted to know why I felt so comfortable in nature. I no longer care about this because I realize that this journey is one that does not end but continues to take me deper into nature’s spirituality… Nature does not need me to survive, but I need it, and there is so little time to be part of this beauty.” (p. 190)
I repeat, Mountains of Light is a stunning book. I keep wanting to call it a “future” classic. It deserves to stand with the great books of the iconic authors of this genre—Muir, Aldo Leopold, Sig Olson, Terry and Renny Russell. This is a book that cries out for wide availability. It is a book to be read and re-read. I want to study it for what I expect are many deep connections Mark Liebenow has made as he wrote and re-wrote and edited it. This is a book of uncommon humility, honesty, great insight, and finally, ending again in winter, a book of eternal hope.