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Fall 2000, Volume 18.1

Essay

 

Robert B. SmithPhoto of Robert B. Smith.

The Fourth Face of Folly


Robert B. Smith (Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley) is a retired Professor of Chemistry and university provost who lives in Ogden, Utah, when he can't escape to Southern California's San Jacinto Mountains. His monthly column appears regularly in Ogden's
Standard-Examiner. He has published two previous essays in Weber Studies, one of which won the 1992 Utah Arts Council Original Writing Competition. Read other essays in Weber Studies by Robert B. Smith:  Vol. 9.1Vol. 11.3Vol. 22.1.

 

We are more accustomed now to thinking of "the truth" as something that can be explicitly stated, rather than something that can be evoked in a metaphorical way…something alive and unpronounceable.

—Barry Lopez (69)

Rummaging one afternoon in a box of college mementos, I came upon a short, descriptive theme I'd written for a freshman composition class forty years earlier. It was an inept bit of writing about an obscure Southern California mountain called Folly Peak. But with the paper's chance reappearance at the end of my academic career, I realized just how early I'd become attached to this mountain. My first reaction was simply to wonder, after a lifetime of summer visits to the family retreat beneath Folly's foot, how I'd write that paper now. Acting on the impulse, however, soon unearthed questions about both the source of my peculiar sentiment towards a chunk of rock and its broader influence on me.

That my life is entwined with mountains is obvious. Family roots tunneled the soil of Southern California, where at every turn Earth's shattered crust juts upward. And though I was born in the East, my parents, able to abide neither the flat landscape nor the narrow attitudes they met during their temporary exile in New Jersey, soon moved back home. So, in 1939, I became part of the family's third generation to be raised amid towering islands of granite entangled in the web of geologic faults that has shaped coastal California. Since then, I've lived almost continuously within sight of some uplifted rocky mass—if not California's strung-out ranges, it's been Oregon's Mount Hood or Nevada's Spring Mountains or Utah's Wasatch Front.

Why one particular peak should stalk me from childhood, however, remains far from obvious. Folly is hardly the highest peak in Southern California's San Jacinto range, and its name is known to few. Local tradition attributes it to a disoriented climber, who, mistaking Folly for the range's highest point, fell and injured himself while hurrying toward his real goal, neighboring San Jacinto Peak. A name born of pique, however, seems too shallow for a mountain whose manifold personality varies so distinctly with the points of the compass. Viewed from the north, Folly inspires awe as a tall guardian of San Gorgonio Pass, the gateway between seacoast and desert. From the east, atop San Jacinto Peak, Folly's summit appears as but a bump at the end of the ridge that forms the roof of the range, protruding like a breakwater into the sea of smog that inundates the desert below. From the south, in a basin called Little Round Valley, the peak is barely discernible above its timbered flank. But from the west, where it rises 4,500 feet above my refuge in the bottom of Fuller Mill Canyon, it seems the top of the world, the most commanding landmark in sight, dominating the view above the treetops. Decades would have to pass before I began to suspect that this fourth face of Folly might exert more than solely visual force.

 

Growing up, I adopted Fuller Mill Canyon as my own. It offered a young boy its tiny creek for wading, calm pools for piloting hand-carved wooden boats, heaps of rocks for pursuing lizards, abundant gray dirt for imaginative play, and warm weather for outdoor living. Its fir, pine, oak, cedar, and willow became the ceiling and walls of home, its manzanita, azalea, lupine, and fern the furniture. Its June bugs, lizards, jays, squirrels, frogs, coyotes, deer, ants, and snakes variously became members, friends, or enemies of the family. I learned to treasure the chill of the swimming hole on a hot afternoon, the aroma of cedar, pine or fir smoke from the campfire, and the shimmer of moonlight on pine needles.

Amid my summer sojourns in this personal paradise, Folly Peak's west face often caught my eye. On clear days it stood sharply etched, impassive, and remote. In stormy weather it camped under a silver awning or hid in a gray shroud. Each morning it launched the summer sun on its voyage over Southern California. At dusk it pilfered the pink essence of sunset, reflecting it into darkening canyons below, softening the arrival of night.

Once away at college, I had no such mooring. Instead, I found the Illinois prairie shapeless, disorienting, oppressive. Its sky perpetually hung low over the earth, bringing blizzards, downpours, thunderbolts, or suffocating humidity. Returning to the dry valleys, steep ranges, and expansive skies of the West was for me no luxury, but a necessity of life.

Berkeley served as a halfway-house, still remote from real mountains, but within striking distance of passable substitutes like Diablo Peak or Mt. Tamalpais. Then, luckily, I found my first job in Las Vegas, where a new branch of the University of Nevada put me but a five-hour drive from the San Jacintos. That allowed visits to my mountain refuge not only during summer vacations, but even on occasional long weekends.

During those visits, I slipped into a morning habit of dragging a chair into an opening among the oaks and evergreens, there to sit alone in the silent serenity of sunrise, facing Folly Peak, sipping coffee, and reading or writing. I told myself I was doing this merely to counter dawn's chill by soaking up the radiant energy that passes with ease through thin mountain air. But my habit would evolve to a compulsion, and I'd then wonder whether my solicitous pose betrayed some deeper connection renewed with each day's first ray.

Years later, when my curiosity about the meal-grinding metates scattered about the canyon would lead me to study their makers, the Cahuilla Indians, I would learn I was not alone. For thousands of years, until the twentieth century ended their traditional way of life, Cahuilla clans from the desert below made annual visits here to gather acorns and elderberries and to hunt deer and squirrels. They attributed mythical qualities to Folly, San Jacinto, and the other tall peaks atop the range, as home to their legendary Creator, Mukat. I had noticed long before that the steeply plunging edge of Folly's west face suggests a human profile. Today, I can't view that familiar profile from the depths of Fuller Mill Canyon without imagining the ghost of Mukat.

 

Why I chose to major in chemistry, when vocational preference tests suggested alternatives ranging from bookkeeping to forestry, remains obscure. But once the choice was made, my deep aversion to abandoning familiar ground precluded any change of direction.

Happily, the subject held my interest, and in due time I found myself doing time as a graduate student in a deep academic canyon, where the artificial human boundaries of disciplinary tradition narrow the intellectual landscape. For my doctoral research, I joined a group investigating chemicals produced by plants—so-called "natural products"—but only those that contain the element nitrogen. My task was to create molecules never before seen on this planet, yet resembling the obscure wares of certain plant families, and in the process to become the world's authority on my square inch of chemical knowledge. Although other groups in our building were also working with natural products, the mores of my group forbade overt interest in their work. If it didn't contain nitrogen, it was beneath our dignity; the others were pleased to reciprocate.

Once on my own as a novice professor, however, I yielded to the temptation of those once-forbidden categories of nitrogen-free substances and abandoned my narrow dissertation topic, while continuing to work at synthesizing new molecules. But it soon became clear that while conventional schooling somehow had failed to dampen my curiosity, I lacked the creative spark and self-sustaining intensity demanded by serious research.

On the other hand, I was finding ample reward in guiding students toward mastery of the well-worn trails that crisscrossed my sequestered scientific valley, so I channeled my energy into exploring better ways to teach chemistry. That called for recapturing a student's state of mind, a challenge that reoriented my curiosity from the present frontiers of chemistry to its early history, when pioneer investigators knew little more than do today's beginning students.

Only much later would I realize that it must have been the aesthetic pleasure of tinkering in a laboratory that lured me into organic chemistry. I never tired of transforming a rust-brown goo or a black tar into a transparent liquid or a forest of gleaming crystals. In contrast, when I probed my products with infrared or ultraviolet rays to confirm an experiment's success, the sterile, squiggly traces that quantified the news on chart paper seemed anticlimactic. This preference for aesthetics over rigor would resurface, when my interest later drifted beyond science toward the arts.

 

A low, nameless ridge radiates westward from the foot of Folly Peak, separating Fuller Mill Canyon from neighboring Dark Canyon. At the age of fourteen I first accompanied my father over that ridge in search of fishing holes hidden somewhere in the family's collective memory. We lost the trail and never found the fish, but we did happen upon the first rattlesnake I'd seen outside a zoo. That encounter burned itself into my store of frightening memories, yet the outing also intrigued me with my first close look at sights like dense buckthorn blanketing the higher slopes and a profusion of Coulter pines, with their huge, woody cones, lining the crest of the ridge.

Nowadays, before sunrise at least once during each visit, I feel compelled to ascend an unpretentious knob of decomposing granite atop this ridge, some five hundred feet above Fuller Mill Canyon's floor. Sitting in the cool, clear air on its boulder-strewn summit, I can hear the faint roar of the San Jacinto River spilling through Dark Canyon far below. Somewhere a woodpecker taps on a dead snag. A squirrel on its predawn errands chatters through the treetops. Otherwise, all is silence. The still-hidden sun paints a halo over Folly's brow. From this height the mountain's familiar, fourth face screens the eastern sky like a wall just beyond arm's reach. Then a gentle pulse of moving air announces the rising sun. My spine tingles, as a blinding point of light bejewels Folly Peak, and I lower my eyes to watch its shadow sweep eastward, gradually unveiling the familiar terrain of my canyon. The entire watershed is spread before me, revealing its contours, the locations of its springs, and the rock structures that channel their flow into the creeks I've enjoyed for so many years. My eye can trace the trail I walked every summer as a teenager, starting from the base of this knob, snaking over ridges, through forested canyons, and across chaparral slopes on its way upward to the foot of Folly Peak, where it disappears into Little Round Valley. The peak itself beckons me irresistibly toward the center of the range.

 

Near the end of my graduate studies I found time to audit a biochemistry course. Peering, fascinated, from this unfamiliar ridge between academic domains into the canyon of biology, I began to wonder less about how to synthesize exotic molecules in the lab than about what they must do for the plants that seem to manufacture them without effort. That tiny broadening of perspective would prove irreversible.

The campus where I chose to work upon leaving Berkeley was in the process of creation, which promised freedom from ossified traditions. Included in the price of such freedom, I soon learned, was immersion in mundane tasks of academic governance. But unlike most of my colleagues, I was not put off by the tedium of committee deliberations that led nowhere, by the stress of selling an inventive curriculum to skeptical reviewers, or by the puzzling tribal behavior of professionals perennially in conflict. This strange world beyond the laboratory appealed to me. Like fresh air bearing the scents of unexplored canyons, scholars with viewpoints foreign to me offered new channels to guide my curiosity into more humane realms. With formal schooling finished, my real education had begun. I was learning to see a multifaceted world through the eyes of historians and geologists, poets and philosophers, psychologists and politicians. Simulta neously inheriting the chairmanships of both a tiny academic department and an embryonic faculty senate was another step in the broadening process begun in that Berkeley biochemistry classroom.

Yet, until the humanistic psychology movement of the 1960s began to crack my introvert's shell of emotional isolation, I was reluctant to consider full-time administration. Then, reading widely and spending evening after evening talking with friends, I reinterpreted my values and fit them into a new outlook. I began to see teaching and administration as forms of the same function: to create and sustain an atmosphere that encourages others to achieve their purposes. I knew I enjoyed teaching and had some evidence of success at it, so I presumed I could likewise master and enjoy administration.

As I passed thirty, an unexpected chance to test that presumption emerged. Though leaving safe ground was out of character for me, I found the courage to accept appointment as dean of the science college. I'd abandoned the practice of science, but retained my fascination with its substance. Now I found myself free to wander the canyons of all the scientific disciplines. But as my responsibilities made me spend disproportionate time on the ridges between the sciences, mediating disputes, laying plans, discovering and bringing together people with complementary interests and abilities, the natural world soon coalesced into a continuous intellectual landscape. Like trees blanketing a distant mountain watershed, all scientists began to look alike. My curiosity then enticed me down a trail blazed by physicist Thomas Kuhn, exploring the philosophical roots and sociology of scientific practice. To my surprise, the more deeply I understood our endeavor, the more I doubted my fellow scientists' claims to "discover truth."

 

I earned my first close look at Folly Peak's north face the hard way. One blistering August day, my father, a few friends, and I clambered through dense live-oak thickets, around chaparral patches, and over tilted boulders, up the steep wall known as Fuller Ridge that forms the head of my canyon. Guided by occasional glints of reflected sunlight, we sought and found the wreckage of a small plane that had crashed into the ridge the previous winter. This discovery paled, however, when I climbed a short distance above the mass of twisted metal to the top of the ridge. There I stopped, breathless, confronted with the full sweep of the sentinel standing guard over the desert gateway far below. This face of Folly is one of the continent's spectacular escarpments, a continuous, two-mile drop from summit to desert floor. From Fuller Ridge that day I beheld a curtain of cliffs and slabs hundreds of feet tall, a vertical razor's edge separating two sheer canyons, linking extremities, the silent clarity of subalpine wilderness above and the hazy congestion of freeway, railroad, commerce, and dwellings near Palm Springs below.

A decade later, the Pacific Crest Trail was built along the spine of Fuller Ridge, providing a new route into the high country. I now use it for most of my hikes toward the center of the range, and not merely because driving to a trailhead two thousand feet above the canyon floor eases demands on aging muscles. Adding an extra mile or two to each walk offsets that advantage. There are more compel ling reasons than comfort for choosing this trail.

One is the view. Minutes after leaving the trail head, I begin to see, unfolding before my eyes, the overall shape of the San Jacinto range and its relation to the larger world. Almost at my feet is the trace of the San Andreas Fault, carving the pass between coast and desert. To the west, another steep wall marks the San Jacinto Fault, which guides the range's jerky ride toward the junction of the two faults on the northwestern horizon. The steep angle of every slope, evidence of the range's youth and instability, reminds me of the energy astir beneath my feet. Seeing the mountains' migration paths in plain view on the desert floor makes it easy to understand their structure and imagine their history through geologic time.

Another reason I walk Fuller Ridge stems from the energizing environment of the high country; the sooner I'm in it, the better I feel. Buckthorn blossoms hum with bees. Chaparral warmed by the midmorning sun exudes an incense already halfway to honey. Manzanita clings to the contours of rock and soil as if cultivated, its leaves a brighter green, its bark a deeper red than in the canyons below. Beyond Fuller Ridge, the water from successive streams and springs becomes colder and tastier with altitude—or so it seemed before the spread of Giardia dimmed the pleasures of trailside refreshment. As I climb higher, clearer vistas open amid the thinning limber and lodgepole pines. As treetops become stubbier, daylight intensifies. Undergrowth dwindles to patchy evergreen ground cover, giving me more freedom to roam.

But other trails into the San Jacinto high country also offer instructive views and good sensations. Fuller Ridge's unique asset is its short, direct path to the foot of Folly Peak. While walking from there to San Jacinto Peak, I have one or another of my mysterious mountain's four faces always close at hand. Yet I've never felt inclined to try ascending Folly's flanks or to set foot on its summit. Similarly, Nepalese Sherpas are said nowadays to attribute little significance to overrun Mt. Everest, but they refuse to guide expeditions to the peak they hold sacred, neighboring Khumbila, home to a protective god and still unclimbed. Folly Peak, too, seems a place to observe, not to violate. It inspires rather than invites.

 

After a dozen years in the same dean's office, I was overdue for change. But the job's familiar routine itself freed me to enjoy its most valuable fringe benefit, the chance to roam intellectually among and beyond the sciences. To keep touch with the university's central mission, I had continued to teach, but always in collaboration with colleagues outside chemistry, together inventing more effective ways to share the meaning of science with our students. Beyond the classroom, I had also joined them in stimulating projects, such as using Jean Piaget's psychological theories to understand introductory students, or presenting public programs on the idea of evolution and its influence on all the sciences. Now my curiosity pulled me toward the center of the university, where ever broader horizons awaited exploration.

My appointment as vice president at long-established, but newly maturing, Weber State University brought the only geographic move of my career. It was a dramatic change from the barren Las Vegas desert to Ogden, Utah, which perches on a spectacular seam joining Great Basin with Rocky Mountains. Although this put me a long day's drive from my California retreat, less frequent visits simply intensified its powers of rejuvenation for work back on campus.

During my sixteen years as the university's chief academic officer, I saw more clearly its place in society and the ways local history and community mold campus culture. The more widely I circulated, the more I came to see musicians and criminologists, accountants and radiologic technologists, family therapists and manufacturing engineers as inhabitants of watersheds sharing the same academic mountain. Along the way, I learned to appreciate how complex and fragile academic life can be, how essential is its constant sustenance from headwaters of material and moral support. I learned, too, how publicly the power of purse and pulpit must be wielded at a level where little organizational underbrush exists to hide decisions good or bad. Sanctuary in such a place was rare and temporary.

 

The climax of a hike to San Jacinto Peak, Folly's taller neighbor, begins near the ten-thousand-foot level, when the trail mounts a muddy incline through a chain of springs and enters the lush meadow of Little Round Valley. Bisected by the gurgling headwaters of the San Jacinto River, this haven invites hikers to pause. Chickadees flit and chipmunks scurry in all directions. Hundreds of seedling lodgepole pines ring the grassy flat, their branches looping and drooping like fantastic cartoon stick-figures. A half-dome looming, pulpit-like, above the valley's portal conveys a feeling of security in the wilderness. This is a place to linger, while daylight and summer weather last, beneath the sky's blue canopy and Folly's green slope. Respite in Little Round Valley is a useful prelude, as well, to the exhausting, final thousand vertical feet up San Jacinto Peak.

Once I'm on the summit, however, fatigue evaporates in a rush of exhilaration. I've reached the top, the day's goal fulfilled. Only here do all the bits and pieces of scenery visible along the trail unite into a single panorama of Southern California, from the Colorado River to the Pacific Ocean, from the Mexican border to Los Angeles.

But euphoria soon fades into enigmatic unease. There's little to see at the top that hasn't already entered those fragmentary views on the way up. More troubling, the rich life of the range, its creeks and meadows, its flowers and sounds and aromas, has receded into oblivion. This impoverished perch, so exposed to sun, wind, and weather, is no place to stay. I may pause to explore the maze of passages among granite slabs randomly wedged together on the summit, or to snack while resting on a bed of pine needles beneath a bonsai-scale lodgepole, or just to gaze at the now unimpressive hump of Folly Peak on the ridge below. But soon I hurry back to Little Round Valley, there to flop on the grass in the meadow, soak up afternoon sun, listen to the brook, ponder the forest on Folly's flank, and be at peace. 

Most of my professional peers automatically aspired to a presidency. Too many of them, I think, were attracted by the inexplicable deference shown to chief executives in all sectors of American society and by the outlandish rewards bestowed on those who merely manage to arrive at the top. I, too, went there on occasion as a prospective or acting president. Basking in the attention the office attracts, I considered what it might be like to live there more permanently, buffeted constantly in a political atmosphere, forced to sort through an unfamiliar culture's ambiguous morals and confusing commerce, shielded by bureaucracy from a clear view of the university's primary work as an agent of learning. Despite being at the center of the institution, I felt oddly disconnected from the stimulating intellectual life around me. The scene was alluring, but the circumstances were alien. Each time, I returned to my own office, more conscious of the satisfactions I found in a place of influence that still let me remain in touch with the bedrock of teaching and learning at the heart of the enterprise. I felt relieved to let others engage the contentious culture outside.

It was a fortunate lesson. As a president, I would have been ill-served by my personality. While I crave respect and welcome the recognition the highest office affords, I'm too introspective and deliberate in action, in temperament too reliant on a dependable environment to have been happy there. Despite my drive to poke around in every branch of human knowledge, I cherished my privacy, masked my feelings, and rarely made close campus friends. Always reluctant to entertain a more responsible position before I could see a match between it and my values, in the end I realized the match would never materialize for me at the top. For once, I deferred to the wisdom of a simple principle: Stop while it's still fun.

 

Looking back, my professional career was less a series of positions than a continual process of balancing curiosity with disposition. Intellectually, I followed my curiosity on a long journey into a larger view of the world, venturing further afield in each successive role, until what had started in chemistry laboratories ended in the company of creative writers and English professors. Personally, I was disposed to settle patiently into each new role, master it, shape it to my personality and priorities, then spend years reaping the benefits of familiarity.

This blend of change with continuity recalls Fuller Mill Canyon. Over the past sixty years, I've watched it evolve, its trees maturing and shrubs burgeoning, its human artifacts aging, its squirrel and deer populations waxing and waning, its life enriched most recently by the return of bears after a century-long absence. Folly Peak, meanwhile, has remained undisturbed, untouchable, holding my gaze, steering my hikes, a dominating presence strangely mirroring facets of myself.

I've come to doubt that coincidence is sufficient to account for such parallel personal and natural histories. In the presence of Folly Peak, I can appreciate the sense of awe once evoked by all mountains. There was a time, long before the Cahuilla arrived in the San Jacintos, even before gods became institutionalized in human affairs, when primitive peoples made Earth comprehensible by populating its rocks and animals, its rivers and forests with kindred spirits. Respectfully sharing life with all objects invested the world with its own satisfying logic.

In contrast, our modern, scientific world view leaves no room for communion between human mind and inanimate rock. Instead, we've added to matter an abstract, but equally mysterious, complexity. For that we pay a price, a large part of which is the loss of respect for the land so evident in the interchangeably "developed" real estate that cheapens the spectacular settings of the places I've lived and worked. Recovering lost respect, getting back in touch with the land, may require a Folly Peak.

Mountains are in my blood, and though I hope always to dwell in their presence, only beneath the fourth face of Folly, that familiar west face, am I truly at home. Professional work may have fed my body, as learning fed my mind. But Folly Peak feeds my soul.

_____________

Works Cited

Lopez, Barry. Crossing Open Ground. New York: Vintage Books, Random House,1989.

 

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