The world we know is but a fraction of the world that exists.
Virtually every speck of living matter on earth exists in a sliver of habitable space on the planet’s surface just a few thousand meters thick, an organic film as diaphanous as a soap bubble. This is true of human beings above all. Except in rare places, we occupy only the sweetest spots in the most pleasant, mild, agreeable corners of this gossamer fabric. Every artifact of our species’ brief tenure on this planet – cities, factories, suburbs, farms, telecommunication networks, skyscrapers, sports arenas, interstate highways and the entire din of all humanity in its chattering billions – occupies the merest scintilla of the earth’s surface and atmosphere, a fraction of real estate so insubstantial you could walk in a straight line from the top to the bottom in just a few minutes, if such a thing were possible.
Beyond the whisper of its skin we inhabit, the world is a tumultuous place, feral and untamed, as primitive and raw as if just emerged from a mold, still ragged at the seams. The closer you move to the edge of this boundary, the further back in time you seem to travel. Out at the furthest fringes, the world looks as it must have in its distant youth, primal and new.
At the moment, I find it difficult not to think about this, as the evidence for it is all around me. I’m 2,800 meters high at the tip of the Southern Japanese Alps, on a small rocky ledge of a knife-edged, snow-covered ridgeline that hangs like a slender saddle between the peaks of Houou and Jisodake, surrounded by a sky so saturated with deepening blue it seems almost to drip. I’m thinking also about the 13 hours hike between me and the trailhead, far below, from which I started up this mountain two days before, and I consider the setting sun behind Mt. Kitadake just to the west, Japan’s second-highest peak, looming like a snow-shrouded battleship.
While all this thinking is going on, my body is occupied with its own more urgent mission: gathering, in the failing light, what little firewood can be found at this altitude and calculating the odds that starting a campfire is even possible, given the circumstances. My mind, molten and sluggish with cold, slides between two opposite extremes: the mountain and the inexpressible beauty of the spreading sunset on one hand, and on the other the reality of my situation – stranded, exhausted, feet soaking wet and frozen through, at the top of a mountain covered in two meters of snow, with darkness coming on, the wind picking up, and already freezing temperatures quickly heading south.
Part of me is aware that if I do not manage to get a fire going, I stand a fair chance of losing some or all of my toes, even with a tent and a sleeping bag. Maybe worse. Far below, it’s the end of April and spring is in full bloom. Here, though, it’s still winter in all the ways that matter. On the way up, I struggled through forests whose leafless trees were buried in snow to the height of a grown man, sinking up to my thigh with every fourth step. The sky up here looks clear enough at twilight, but at 2,800 meters, nothing can be ruled out with certainty.
Despite, or perhaps because of, my situation, another part of my mind prefers not to dwell on these depressing facts, to instead marvel at the power and the patience of the forces that hurled these trillion tons of rock up from the bottom of the sea and thrust them into the sky; to blink at the snowflake-fringed millimeter of ice that seems to have locked two rocks the size of buildings together in a balletic embrace; to thrill at the miracle of an ancient, gnarled tree, branches blown sideways like windswept hair, clinging to a rock on which it is bent nearly perpendicular; or to be moved by the sight of mighty Fuji, sleeping since its last cataclysmic eruption exactly 300 years ago, hanging above the clouds 70 kilometers distant like a mirage, a majestic white city floating in the sky. The entire spectacle of the Southern Alps in all its vastness lies spread out beyond and below me, as if I’ve been placed at its very center by divine purpose.
If I have to go tonight, I think, there are worse places that it could happen.