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Slayton: Hinton's Hunger Mountain

Hunger Mountain, a 3,500-foot peak in the Worcester Range, is the neighborhood mountain of central Vermont – a challenging climb for hikers, a forested retreat for nature lovers, a home for uncountable numbers of birds, insects and animals.

And recently, for translator and writer David Hinton of Calais, the mountain has been the setting for his explorations of Chinese poetry and philosophy.

Hinton’s latest book, Hunger Mountain , uses a series of hikes he took on the mountain to explore his interest and insights into Chan Buddhism, Taoism, and other eastern systems of thought and meditation. His knowledge of all this comes from several decades spent translating the poems of Tao Chien, Li Bai, TuFu, and other poets of ancient China.

Those poems fit in well with Hinton’s life in Vermont because they celebrate nature, mountains, and a retreat from the busy world of big cities and temporal power. Despite their apparent clarity and simplicity, they often contain subtle concepts that are difficult to translate and hard for western ears to understand.

So when, after his many years of translating the poems, Hinton realized he had a sizable stack of unused notes on the philosophical systems woven into them, he decided to use that material in a book of his own.

“I didn’t want to write an academic book, and I didn’t want to just write about the ideas,” Hinton explained recently. “I wanted to enact them.”

Therefore, he decided to connect the thematic material he’d collected as a translator with his frequent walks up Hunger Mountain. The result is the book of the same name.

It is a series of deeply pondered essays that weave together three themes: Hinton’s ruminations on the mountain landscape, his understanding of Buddhist and Taoist thought, and his explanations of Chinese linguistics and iconography.

All this is strikingly illustrated in the chapter entitled “Dragon,” in which Hinton climbs the mountain on a misty day. The valleys are filled with clouds, which blow over the ragged spine of the mountains range, hiding, then revealing, then hiding it again.

The dragon is the Chinese symbol for the generative forces of creative change, and in the interplay of mist and mountain, Hinton sees that energy – the Dragon, incarnate.

He writes: “…As I watch summits roam empty expanses of mist, ridgelines breathing in and out of view, dragon seems everywhere, rippling and writhing in these mountains.”

Occasionally, Hinton’s scholarly explanations seem forced, and his discussions of Chinese iconography can be difficult for a monolinguist like myself to wade through. But like most poems, Hunger Mountain is a book that rewards careful reading, and rereading. Overall, it is a brilliant piece of work.

One theme of the book that comes forth loud and clear is David Hinton’s love for Hunger Mountain. It is an affection many in central Vermont share, and as another eastern sage, the 12th century Zen master EiheiDogen said: “Mountains belong to those who love them.”

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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