thomas m wilson

The Alps

September 3rd, 2023

As my train rolled west from Vienna the countryside became more hilly and alternated with deeply green grass and copses of trees and little villages clustering around a church with a tall, onion domed spire.  And then the Alps…

What can you say about the Alps?  What would Europe be without the Alps?  As I approached a feeling of power and drama came to me.  The power of the world seemed heightened as I saw the colossal rock faces and ridges of the mountains to my south, looming under cloud tossed skies.  It was as though a part of me lit up again, a part of me became alive again.  These mountains emanate a sense of undeniable wildness and sing a song of adventure to the world.  They shrug off humans and our inventions and our cultural fabric, as if we are marginal and they central.  They say nothing and yet I feel infused with a sense of spiritual grace approaching their slopes and peaks.  I know others have felt this – Bruno Manser, Reinhold Messner, Herman Hesse, and of course the English pilgrims such as Wordsworth and Byron, have felt the spiritual power of the Alps.  John Muir spoke about the sense of grace and uplift that mountains can bring into your life more memorably and clearly than anyone in English, even if those words were about a mountain range far away from here.  Forget about the others, my own feelings this night as the train sped down into the valleys of the Alps, past church spires crowned by onion domes, rising up against the backdrop of steep stone and high places, were feelings of happiness.  I felt like I was stepping back into adventure.  The cities of Europe can have great beauty, but I was in need of the song of the earth in my ears. Now it is here. 

The next day in Innsbruck I took two buses up to 800 metres, then walked for a few hours up to 1900 metres on Nordkette.  It was a very steep incline full of loose stones in full sun much of the way.  I drew fast paced gusts of breath and could only concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other and not falling off the slope for some of the ascent.  My legs and my lungs took me to the top, whereas the tourists at the restaurant at the top had paid 70 dollars to get there in the metal cable car.  Cresting a ledge of grass I looked across to a stone scree slope along the flanks of the mountain’s ridge.  The Brenner Pass was to my south, over the other side of the Inn valley.  Thousands of years ago Roman soldiers marched down the Brenner pass, in the middle ages horses and carts made the journey, and after 1945 some of the escaping Nazis fled that way.  So much history below, but up in the sky you could just see distant peaks, covered in snow, and jutting stone ledges pushing into the blue above.  The walk down was sometimes accompanied by wildflowers blooming in clearings that were made for ski slopes when the temperature is about thirty degrees below what it was today. 

The train rolls along the north edge of Europe’s most towering mountain range.
Walking up Nordkette the slope was at a relentlessly steep incline.
On the way up Nordkette the sun became hot.
That evening in Innsbruck looking down at the turbid waters of the Inn river, one of the Danube’s most powerful tributaries.

Today my friend who lives here and I took a bus about an hour west of Innsbruck to Kuhtai, a little ski resort.  Kuhtai in the Tyrol is the highest alpine ski resort village in Austria, with a base elevation of around 2000m.  We hiked up to three perched lakes, and took our clothes off and swam in the last one.  The water was very cold, as you’d expect from snow melt.  The second time I went in it was actually a bit painful – the kind of pain you feel if someone holds an ice cube against your skin for a bit too long – even in the seconds after I got out, this discomfort endured.  But then the day’s warm sun defrosted me and the pleasure of being up at a high, wild alpine lake, sitting on a warm stone feeling clean and new came over me. 

We walked on, and climbed a route up a 2641 metre peak.  A bowl of water below us looked iridescently light blue, Speicher Finstertal, and above it towered jagged aretes atop another mountain ridge.  A tiring steeple chase up and up and up began, pushing just slightly into one’s fear and against one’s hesitation.  And then after an hour or two I am there, and straining quadriceps have elevated us into a realm of stone and ice and cloud.  One’s motivation and muscle have done what almost doesn’t seem plausible when standing low in the valley below.  I looked at the rocky high panorama around me, down into the bowl in the mountains filled with surreally blue water.  At that moment I thought that this alpine climb and this moment high on the earth is one of the memorable moments that I will get in this life. 

Cold mountain water always feels better when looking back from the other side as you dry off.
Can this blue be real?
A sublime bowl of mountains and water revealed itself as we neared the peak.
On the top, enjoying the long view.
After getting down we set off on our journey back to civilisation.

Journey to Prague

August 31st, 2023

Yesterday I began my journey south. I looked out on this grey weather from the left window at the dimples of rain on the muddy Elbe River as it flows past steep grass banks, and yellow and green steeply pitched three-story mansions behind, and wooded slope behind them.  I would soon enter Bohemia for the first time as we cross the border and enter the land of my grandfather’s family, Jewish members of the Hapsburg Empire. 

I feel good to feel free and mobile and agile on the surface of the earth.  The beauty of the river valley to my left was surprising me as we wound forward.  It is the river Elbe, slowing and then quickly flowing through green and lush Saxony in south-east Germany. Mist hangs in the valley above white stone cliffs high above.  This river valley carried our train south and I saw some of the most beautiful and lushly forested landscape I had seen anywhere in Germany. 

The train from Berlin winds along the Elbe river with its high sandstone escarpment.
Perhaps my favourite bit about Prague was just getting there…
Celebrating crossing the border as the price of the beer drops by half in the restaurant car when you enter Czechia.

And so let’s be honest. The old town of Prague has been killed by the huge crowds of tourists in 2023.  It makes visiting the old town square almost unenviable so thickly does the crowd jostle.  But the walk up to the castle at the top of the hill thins out the numbers because the climb is relatively steep.  Up there you can appreciate Prague a little more. 

View from the castle gardens over Prague.

This morning I walked up through the green and quiet park behind my hotel, and over the hill to visit the library of Strahov Monastery.   This was completed in 1679, and there is a surfeit of stucco decoration on the walls and ceiling.  The bellowing American tourists marred the atmosphere of contemplative calm that I was hoping for, but the space is still impressive. 

Theological Hall, Strahov Monastery.

The highlight of this afternoon was watching the Prague Symphony Orchestra perform in Wallenstein Garden.  They were playing in the 1627 loggia whose ceiling is painted with frescoes depicting the battle of Troy.  They played, amongst other things, the score of Lawrence of Arabia, and the visual context couldn’t have been more dramatically appropriate, ancient Trojan battle scenes and all.  A crowd of thousands of Czechs had gathered in the gardens to watch. 

If you have never visited a place it is understandable that certain films or other bits of culture might colour your perception of that place. In 1996 a film called Kolya came out which is set in Prague. The main character is a down on his luck bachelor who lives in a wonderful medieval tower and plays the cello. And so for me Prague has always been associated with classical music and medieval spires dimly seen through misty window pains. It is fitting then that I was able to hear some classical music on my one day in the city.

Tomorrow the journey south continues…

Places of peace and reflection in Berlin

August 23rd, 2023

As I sat on the grass looking across to the Charlottenburg Palace, I could hear a midsummer woodpecker gently drumming up in the trees somewhere above me. I had left the city’s beat.
I couldn’t work out where this bronze sculpture was from…
Later at the Museum of Decorative Arts I saw another copy and worked out that it is Castor and Pollux, a statue that comes from 1st century AD Rome and is now residing in the Prado in Madrid. This is a porcelain copy. There’s another copy in the V and A in London.
Down a long avenue of fir trees in the Charlottenburg palace gardens you find a Doric Temple. Its a mausoleum to Queen Luise of Prussia. Christian Rauch sculpted her tomb from white marble, and here she lays in the cool shadows and silence, 213 years later.

Why do I linger in places like this? Perhaps this is why…

‘Teach me mortality, frighten me

into the present.  Help me to find

the heft of these days.’

-Jack Gilbert

Another place that you can find mental and spiritual space for peace and reflection is the old Jewish cemetery, and so here I returned this morning.

The German reads: Stronger than death is love.

…two great gods in a vault of starlight

  Play ponderingly at chess; and at the game’s end

  One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor

  And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece

  Forgotten there, left motionless, is I….

  Say that I have no name, no gifts, no power,

  Am only one of millions, mostly silent;

  One who came with lips and hands and a heart,

  Looked on beauty, and loved it, and then left it.

  Say that the fates of time and space obscured me,

  Led me a thousand ways to pain, bemused me,

  Wrapped me in ugliness; and like great spiders

  Dispatched me at their leisure…. Well, what then?

  Should I not hear, as I lie down in dust,

  The horns of glory blowing above my burial?

-Conrad Aiken from Tetelestai

…nothing human remains. You are

the earth and air; you are in the beauty of the ocean

And the great streaming triumphs of sundown; you are alive

and well in the tender grass rejoicing

When soft rain falls all night…

-Robinson Jeffers from Hungerfield

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