The Ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai is perhaps best known for a series of prints called 36 Views of Mt. Fuji. These images vary greatly in their depiction of the mountain; in some of them, Fuji-san is the focus of the picture, while in many others it is a barely noticeable feature off in the distance. The images show people working, playing, on the street, in town, in the country, on boats, and so forth. But the great volcano is there, somewhere, in every frame, and the set gives, in its distributed way, a sense of what a powerful presence the mountain is. Its snowclad, tapering summit often seems to float in a sea of purple mist, as though it belonged more to the heavens than the world below; at the same time, though, it is a looming token of subterranean power and mystery, and an insistent reminder of the ungraspably enormous scale at which the life of the Earth proceeds, and of Nature’s majestic indifference to the fleeting life of Man.
I had been to Seattle once before (it was just last month), but poorer weather prevented me from noticing that the area has a Fuji-san of its own: the towering stratovolcano Mt. Rainier, which, although it is more than fifty miles from town, is so enormous as to seem to be just outside the city limits. During this visit I noticed the mountain again and again — I would turn a corner and see it between two buildings, or glance out the window of a taxi and see it rising above the spruces on a ridgeline. I arrived at my hotel in Bellevue after dark on Monday evening; when I flung open the curtains on Tuesday morning the first thing I saw was the volcano, solitary and immense.
My temptation always in these pages is to trot out a lot of facts and figures, such as that although this mountain’s height of 14,411 feet hardly qualifies it for inclusion among the world’s tallest, this is only because it rises from low ground near the sea, and in fact its base-to-summit elevation, its “topographic prominence“, is greater than that of the lofty K2. But mere data simply don’t do justice to Tahoma’s brooding, Sphinxlike presence.
The locals don’t seem to pay the mountain much mind – any more, I suppose, than we New Yorkers are bowled over by a glimpse of the Empire State Building. But coming as I do from the Northeast, where glaciated cloud-piercing volcanoes are in short supply, I felt awed and diminished every time I caught sight of it.