Once I was asked in front of a television camera: “Who is the most important person you ever met?” and I remember answering: “A mountain.” (Etel Adnan, in Journey to Mount Tamalpais)
Etel was wearing a large coat. Afterwards, on the sidewalk, I asked Etel if her best friend was a mountain. I chided myself for the question, but she said Yes. Mount Tamalpais. (Brandon Shimoda, “This Long Century”)
From October 8, 2021 to January 10, 2022, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City ran an exposition of paintings by the Lebanese-born poet and artist Etel Adnan, Light’s New Measure. Adnan passed away a little over a month after the show opened, in Paris, at the age of 96. I had plans to travel from Denver to New York to see the show just before it closed. I’d visited an exposition of Adnan’s work in Paris in 2014 and remembered its bright shapes; even before Adnan died, the world seemed dark and I had been longing to see her oranges and yellows and turquoises again. Afterwards, going to see the show felt like a necessary pilgrimage. But the Coronavirus pandemic had other plans, and when the Omicron variant surged at the end of 2021 and into 2022, I canceled my trip, and the show closed.
Part of my desire to see the show came from my longing to see something different than the grays and browns of winter on the Colorado front range, where from November onward the world seems to dwindle to snow and rock and dry and tawny vegetation. But I had also wanted to see Adnan’s paintings because of her relationship to the natural world, and in particular to mountains. In so much of her writing, Adnan cuts a worldly, cosmopolitan figure. Her imagination shuttles between Paris and Beirut, mapping her life down rainy European streets and over sprawling, volatile global city-scapes. But for decades, the still point of her turning world was northern California’s Mount Tamalpais. In her twenties, Adnan moved from Beirut to Paris to study philosophy; starting in 1958, she taught philosophy of art at the Dominican University of California in San Rafael, and for most of the rest of her life, she spent time living both in Paris and in Sausalito, California, within view of the mountain.
Mount Tamalpais, and mountains generally, also feature heavily in Adnan’s visual art, and in another world this essay would have paired a discussion of Adnan’s exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum with her writing. The world being what it is, though, it is lucky that in late 2021, Brooklyn’s Litmus Press published a new edition of Adnan’s book Journey to Mount Tamalpais, including nine new drawings by Adnan and a new afterword by Omar Berrada. Equal parts philosophy of art, philosophy, and meditation on mountain ecology in the fullest sense, this book offers surprisingly timely thinking on mountains, ecological precarity, history, death, and art-making. It is both a way into Adnan’s work and a blueprint of sorts for living with mountains—with the natural world—in an expansively reimagined way.
Journey to Mount Tamalpais was originally published by The Post-Apollo Press in Sausalito, California, in 1986. (Post-Apollo was founded in 1982 by Adnan’s long-time partner Simone Fattal and is now managed by Litmus; one of its first publications was Adnan’s magnificent novella Sitt Marie Rose.) After living in Lebanon from 1972 to 1977, Adnan lived more permanently to California, and the material collected in Journey was written over a span of more than two decades. A collection of notes, journal entries, observations, and musings, the book is a record of a poet, writer, and philosopher’s sustained engagement with the mountain and its place over time. Or in Adnan’s words, “I noted down some fleeting trajectories of thoughts, questions, intuitions, of inner and outer events, noted things as they came. There is no system to Perception. Its randomness is its secret.”
Journey is held together by its commitments to place, to people, and to the big questions of art and living that it asks. The place, we know, is Mount Tamalpais. Of the people who recur in Journey, two of the most important are Ann and Dick, or painter Ann O’Hanlon and her husband, sculptor Richard O’Hanlon. Ann was Adnan’s colleague and the head of the art department at Dominican University (then Dominican College) and together she and her husband assembled an artist’s community of sorts at the property they owned near the mountain’s base. This is the community in which Adnan’s Journey is set and to which Adnan alludes frequently; the O’Hanlons’ Mill Valley house and workshops provided the space and occasion for much of the book’s thinking. “The early workshops,” Adnan writes, “participated in the newness of the world […] There were fun moments, by the thousand. Laughing in company is the greatest pleasure. Saying meaningless things which fuse out of the mind with the speed of lightning is a moment of great communication.” Beach and mountain walks are almost always narrated using “we” rather than “I,” and at one point Adnan describes a communal painting undertaken at Ann’s initiative and later exhibited at San Francisco’s Cannery: “The collective paintings had, each, more quality, more strength, more ‘unity’ of composition and feeling, than many individual works. […] Through them, a moment, a group, an adventure, a culture, found its expression. They were a being made of us all.” The version of thinking Adnan presents here is communal and supported: the solitary genius alone with the land is not what Adnan is.
The O’Hanlon community that Adnan depicts is also important for its role in her artistic career. As Berrada relates in the afterword, Ann O’Hanlon one day asked if Adnan was herself a painter. When Adnan responded in the negative, saying that her mother had always told her she was clumsy, O’Hanlon responded by asking, “And you believed her?” Adnan began painting in the 1960s in tandem with her decision to stop writing in French in solidarity with the decolonial struggle in Algeria; her painting, like her writing, is born out of politics on an international scale. But at the same time, her growth as a painter was indelibly shaped and inspired by the local community that fostered it, and Journey helps round out our understanding of Adnan’s development as a visual artist. It is, in a sense, a theory of painting developed concomitantly with the painting itself.
Like the book that presents it, Adan’s theory of painting is less a unified theory than a set of commitments, a set too dynamic to be enumerated or ordered. Every time I read through Journey to Mount Tamalpais, some new sentence or declaration blazes out, illuminating the whole differently. In Journey, as elsewhere, Adnan is aphoristic, often gnomic:
Poetry, it is believed, is the revelation of the self. Painting, the revelation of the world. But it could also be the other way around.
I exist because I see colors. Sometimes, at other moments, it is as if I didn’t exist, when colors seem foreign, unreachable, impregnable fortresses. But there is no possession of color, only the acceptance of its reality. And if there is no possibility for the possession of color, there is no possession at all. Or whatever it is.
And yet, if Adnan’s concerns in these passages are abstract, reaching towards concepts like self, world, color, and artistic medium, this book’s art philosophy is also deeply rooted in the physical world:
Painters have a knowledge which goes beyond words. They are where musicians are. When someone blows the saxophone the sky is made of copper. When you make a watercolor you know how it feels to be the sea lying early in the day in the proximity of light.
It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to separate Journey’s strains of thought—theories of painting so easily turn into theories of perception, of nature, or of being in the world. This is part of Adnan’s point: in her writing across genres, as in painting and drawing, Adnan’s subject is nothing less than the nature of reality itself.
Philosophy of art is something of a subcategory of Adnan’s work as, always and everywhere, a philosopher-poet. The nature of reality, or something like it, is the subject for most of the rest of Journey to Mount Tamalpais, as Adnan interweaves thinking about the mountain with anecdotes about friends and fellow artists, history and art history, perception and vision. Sometimes this thinking takes the form simply of observation, as here:
I am sitting in front of that window as if I were in a movie house. The screen is miles away. Tamalpais is spread over it. I am watching a light-show. Clouds are moving in a particular way. I barely see them. All I see is the movement of a large beam of light which slides over the mountain, illuminating it gradually. It is all green, grayish green and bluish green, and the clusters of trees, like woolen balls, roll one after the other.
These descriptive passages are some of the loveliest parts of the book, marked by a meticulous patience that reminds me most of all of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s journal writing. More often, however, perception shades into philosophy:
A pink smoke sweeps the sky from the West to the East. It is the evening fire, the one which leaves no ashes. The sun is far and low, as if absent, but light is fringed with fire and the mountain is of a new translucent grey.
Tamalpais is there, pale and fused with the ocean, with the Bay, with lakes and reservoirs. My right eye merges with colors. The other gets lost in infinity. We are not apples and oranges to be cut in two: we are binary systems yearning to transcend place and time.
Much of this writing has to do with art-making, both in the material sense (having to do with color) and the spiritual sense (the “yearning to transcend place and time” is consonant with Adnan’s own particular Romantic yearnings). Even space travel, a contemporary phenomenon that occupies a large place in Journey, is there for the material and aesthetic transcendence it provides. Adnan writes, “When [Soviet-Russian cosmonaut] Alexis [Alexi] Leonov returning from outer space declared that he saw more colors in space than on earth, I realized that the object of our search is these other colors, related to the arts of fire, born out of the blackness of outer space.”
Most often, though, Adnan's philosophical investigations extend even beyond the human and human artistic concerns to include the mountain itself, situated at the intersection of color, vision, perception, and matter:
This living with a mountain and with people moving with all their senses open, like many radars, is a journey…melancholy at times […] but miraculous most of the way. Somehow what I perceived most is Tamalpais. I am “making” the mountain as people make a painting.
The book ends with something like a conclusion on this point:
In this unending universe Tamalpais is a miraculous thing, the miracle of matter itself: something we can single out, the pyramid of our own identity. We are, because it is stable and it is ever changing. Our identity is the series of the mountain’s becomings, our peace is its stubborn existence.
What is perhaps most important here, and throughout the book, is Adnan’s insistence on the mountain as entity—both as a being in its own right and as a being whose well-being is essential to human existence. Adnan refers to the mountain as a “person” and a “friend” in the epigraphs above, and these statements need to be understood as coming from a deeply social person, as Journey and Adnan’s other works (many of which are epistolary) attest. A relationship with another person, a friend, is not to be taken lightly.
Adnan’s conception of entering into relation with a mountain—entering into friendship—is not some bland nature-lover’s animism. War, imperialism, colonialism, history, and human-caused destruction are never far from Adnan’s mind across her writings. Journey to Mount Tamalpais opens with the theme of ecological devastation. The book begins, “Sometimes, they open a new highway, and let it roll, open wide the earth, shake trees from their roots,” and continues to discuss the death-in-progress of the condor who used to inhabit the mountaintop and was declared extinct in the wild in 1987, a year after the book’s publication. On its first page, too, are hints of conflict elsewhere: “Like a chorus,” Adnan writes, “the warm breeze had come all the way from Athens and Baghdad, to the Bay, by the Pacific Route, its longest journey.” Our senses here are attuned to feel what humans do to or in the world: bulldozers rumble us, the warm breeze carries scents of empire and collapse. Elsewhere, Adnan situates the mountain explicitly and terribly in a war-torn world, and responds to it: “The world around has the darkness of battle-ships, leaveless trees are spear bearers, armor bearers, swords and pikes, the mountain looks at us with tears coming down its slopes.”
In California, Adnan is particularly attuned to the history of the displacement and death of the Native American people who originally populated and gave meaning to Mount Tamalpais and the surrounding area:
The Indian called the Mountain Tamal-Pa, “The One close to the Sea.” The Spaniard called it Mal-Pais, “Bad Country”! The difference between the native and the conqueror is readable in these two different perceptions of the same reality. Let us be the Indian and let be! What is close to the sea is close to the sea.”
In three short sentences, Adnan has outlined the history of the mountain and its surroundings—history that often goes unacknowledged still today, as white, tech-driven, California opulence swallows up the landscape. Adnan is aware not just of the history of colonization but of its contemporary ramifications (“Did they forget that in the summer of 1969 the White Man went to the Moon and the Red Man to Alcatraz?”), and her point is that human-guided historical forces condition orientations that have affected and continue to affect the mountain—and whoever would be the mountain’s friend alongside.
Mount Tamalpais, in Adnan’s cosmology, is the key and the anchor, the matter towards which art and perception both strive—in this sense, her “journey” is almost a metaphysical one, an attempt to reach the mountain from the mountain. But if the mountain represents an ultimate truth, it’s a fragile one, shaped as much by human activity and strife as the cities Adnan loved and saw destroyed. To be the mountain’s friend is to acknowledge its poetry and its precarity, to try to understand its history, to condemn where condemnation is due, to take a side where sides need to be taken, and to continue the art-making that is in a sense the fruit of a friendship. I haven’t written anything about the drawings, new and old, that populate the new edition of Journey to Mount Tamalpais, but this is how they could be seen: as portraits of a friend, the mountain, in all its fragile, gorgeous, singular complexity.