I had a crush on Mt. Alfred. Viewed from the lagoon at the north end of Glenorchy, NZ, Mt. Alfred is a self-satisfied thing, its confidence rooted in geometry. The mountain is an isosceles triangle, the left slope equal to the right, and its base exactly twice its height. But the mountain is not stolid; the stability of Mt. Alfred’s shape is offset with the gesture of its edge, which rises and falls like the line of a conductor’s baton, nuanced on the upbeat and decisive on the down. Sometimes the mountain is a sober thing of olive green and deep purple, but then…
the wind picks up and moves a cloud to reveal a fringe of chartreuse willow at its foot. Mt. Alfred sits at the junction of two glacial rivers, the Rees and the Dart, which rush to Lake Wakatipu. The lagoon sits to the east of these speeding waterways and is filled by less hurried sources.
The lagoon is on the Glenorchy Walk, a trail that circles the town, and a small part of the massive system of NZ public walkways. The marshy spots are spanned by a boardwalk, which not only keeps feet dry but also provides percussion, each footfall amplified by the hollow beneath the wooden slats.
The lagoon is a good place to watch black swans with red beaks, and…
to feel the wind as it drags cow-hide patterns across the mountains. The wind in Glenorchy is a frequent companion. At night alone in bed, I hear loose things rub, drag and bang across the exterior of the house, sounding like animals, small and large, on nocturnal errands. The wind is such an assertive presence that I’ve been attempting to draw it.
When the wind is up, I sit outside and trace it, looking for movement in the trees and dust and feeling its direction on my skin. An improvisational process like this often makes for surprising results. In this case the drawing of the wind looks a little like a traditional Maori tattoo, which is a logical reference considering the location, but not one that was intended.
Amused and impressed by the ability of the human brain to sort, wash and fold messy, inchoate bits of information into tidy parcels, I looked up from my drawing and saw Mt. Alfred, once again, in the distance. Infatuated as ever by its shape, its bold placement in the Y junction of two quick rivers and its admiring lagoon, I decided to get to know Mt. Alfred better and climb to the top.
At the base the Mt. Alfred trail was smooth and designed with switchbacks to temper the grade. It was a pleasant start.
The flora was varied in texture more than color. The palette of the Glenorchy region is restrained, blue being the dominant shade gently contrasted with olive and ochre hues.
As I continued, the trail became rougher and steeper and I considered the wisdom of climbing alone.
I had hoped for an opening in the canopy and a stunning vista to reward my effort. But the view was always blocked; the snow-capped peaks and the impressive, gravel plane of the riverbed across from Mt. Alfred were barely visible through the trees.
The light in the forest changed from dappled to brooding. The trees were shorter and broken. The precipices at the edge of the trail became deeper and, with pounding heart, I began to think of a wrenched ankle, a shattered leg and a broken skull. I also inventoried my belongings. “OK, I have a half bottle of water and a granola bar and I’m overweight, so if I fall helpless into a ravine, I won’t starve for a week. I can use my car keys as a saw. My passport won’t provide much insulation between me and the ground, but at least my body will be identifiable.” Ridiculous wimp, onward to the top!
The shapes in the forest got weirder and the abstract improvisations I made a few hours earlier seemed like realistic renderings of the place.
When the trail became so vertical that I began to climb it like a ladder, I stopped. Defeated. I would not reach the top of Mt. Alfred today and expand my chest to take in the air or stand taller to see the vista or feel accomplished and invincible. Nope, the mountain was ready to swat me, but kind enough to let me know in advance.
So, with infatuation replaced by respect, I returned to Glenorchy and made a picture of Mt. Alfred with the lagoon at its feet and the wind at its crown.