Breathing with Mountains

Full Text

For Sydney Levy, who brought me on board.

Geologic Aspirations1A slightly longer, open access version of this essay is available online at

Stone breathes within nature’s time cycle…. It begins before you and continues through you and goes on. Working with stone is not resisting time but touching it.—Isamu Noguchi

Under the suffocating circumstances of lockdown, COVID conditions inevitably wafted their way into the stoned thinking of Pierre Jardin.2See Paul A. Harris, “Stoned Thinking: The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin,” SubStance, vol. 47, no. 2, 2018, pp. 119-148. The pandemic atmosphere made air apparent, and breathing became personal, political, and planetary. People sought perspective in sometimes surprising ways. While many turned to the Stoics, Jardin turned to stone. Suspending his disbelief in “The Hammock of Relaxation” (fig. 1), Jardin stretched his imagination, and set himself adrift in diffuse reveries of rocky respiration.

Figure 1.

The Hammock of Relaxation. Pebble on book cover.

Photo by author.

Jardin composes a life centered in absorbing stone(s), encompassing both a physical process of soaking in a substance slowly and psychological experience of becoming engrossed in it. He feels alive with stone and stone alive in him; literally and metaphorically, he has spent hours looking at stone, listening to stone, and touching/being touched by stone. But he had never seriously considered breathing stone. Immediately, a slew of questions arose: Do rocks breathe? Do mountains? Does the Earth? What would it mean to breathe with a stone, or with the planet? Jardin’s pursuit of lithic and lithospheric respirations came to comprise his geologic aspirations, which are set out here.

Aerial Imagination

Pierre Jardin’s geologic aspirations took inspiration from Gaston Bachelard’s aerial imagination, as described in Air and Dreams. Accepting Bachelard’s invitation to “listen to nothing but our own breathing…, to become as aerial as our breath…” (Bachelard, Air 241), Jardin set about inventing a regimen of contemplative breathing exercises. To do so, he took up what Bachelard terms the “search for a thought hidden under expressive sedimen,ts, [in which] a geology of silence is developed” (Bachelard Air, 251). The question was, what “expressive sediments” should Jardin mine in this quixotic quest? What materials and mental modalities would precipitate a “geology of silence”?

In order to meld minds with Bachelard, Jardin placed a pebble on Robert Lapoujade’s pencil portrait that graces the book’s cover (fig. 2). The results were alchemical: the cobble transmuted into a philosopher’s stone, opening Bachelard’s third eye; the rock launched a basalt on Jardin’s senses that produced an “intoxication of aerial imagination raised to its cosmic role” (Bachelard, Air 241). A gesture as simple as placing a rock on a book crystallized new quartz-veins of thought. What follows are Jardin’s experiments with a variety of “expressive sediments,” a series of multi-scalar meditations and various instantiations of lithic respiration.

Figure 2.

Aerial Basalt on the Senses. Pebble on book cover.

Photo by author.

Atmospheric Compositions

Pierre Jardin’s geologic aspirations began with a Composition of Place, a meditative technique deployed in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. Loyola stipulates that “for contemplation or meditation about visible things… the ‘composition’ will consist in seeing through the gaze of the imagination the material place where the object I want to contemplate is situated” (Ganss 47). Taking “Breathing with Mountains” as the “object” of contemplation stretches Jardin’s imagination to a geologic scale; its “material place” is the Earth’s atmosphere, or more specifically, its lowest layer, the troposphere.

To facilitate his meditation, Jardin scales Earth down to a stunning serpentine stone, which he has mounted like a globe. Holding the stone and breathing slowly, Jardin can visualize the troposphere as the thinnest of films on the rock’s surface. In his active imagination, the bumps, furrows, and ridges in the rough rock texture evoke the constant crumpling of the lithosphere caused by drifting and crashing tectonic plates.

With the stone standing in for Earth, Jardin suddenly becomes a geologic giant representing Anthropocene humanity. As his exhalations cloud the stone, Jardin considers how Anthropogenic expirations are changing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere. An index of human impact is provided by Clément Poirier, a member of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), who calculated the rate of rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the earth/ocean system over the past 15,000 years. The resulting graph charts graphic results: an almost-horizontal line that, at its right-hand end, turns into an almost vertical line. The steep increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide begins around 1850CE, the onset of the Industrial Revolution and burning of fossil fuels; at the onset of the Anthropocene in 1950CE, it becomes a straight-up sign registering a massive amount of CO2 humans have emitted into the air.

Figure 3.

Earth Globe Stone.

Photo by author.

This information gives Jardin’s Composition a turn: how much CO2 is in the atmosphere, and how would one visualize it? Jardin finds an answer in a powerful collaboration between geologist Jan Zalasiewicz and artist Anne-Sophie Milon. Through a series of calculations, Zalasiewicz arrives at a startling image, for which Milon provides a haunting illustration (fig. 4):

Although we intuitively think of gases as weightless—indeed, ‘as light as air’—they do possess mass. That ‘extra’ human-produced carbon dioxide weighs about a trillion metric tons; that’s about the same as 150,000 Great Pyramids of Khufu, hanging in the air above us. Considered as a layer of pure gas around the Earth, it is about a meter thick, and so waist-high to an adult but already over the head of a small child. As it is now thickening at about a millimeter a fortnight, it will, at current rates, keep up with or outpace the growth of that child.”

Figure 4.

Anne-Sophie Milon, The Exhaust (2018).

Used with permission of the artist.

Respirations at Elevations

How vivid is the impression produced by the calm of nature…. Yet, amid this apparent silence, when we lend an attentive ear to the most feeble sounds transmitted by the air, we hear a dull vibration, a continual murmur … that fill … all the lower strata of the air…. There are so many voices proclaiming to us, that all nature breathes.
Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative, pp. 504-5.

Pierre Jardin first geologic aspiration consisted in seeing the Earth’s atmosphere through the gaze of Bachelard’s aerial imagination. This meditative flight traverses an axis perpendicular to Earth, consistent with Bachelard’s stipulations that the action of the aerial imagination is oriented by “verticality and altitudes” (Bachelard 15). This exercise became a thought experiment about atmospheric affordances, a series of observations and speculations gauging how the conditions and possibilities of breathing change with altitude that coalesced as an imaginary map that plotted calibrations of the breathing of all terrestrial beings by elevation.

Imagine Pierre Jardin’s delight in discovering a stunning visualization of the precise respiratory cartography he had vaguely envisioned: Alexander von Humboldt’s Naturgemälde, or ‘painting of nature’ (a term that implies a sense of unity or wholeness). Humboldt began work on the drawing following his famous 1802 ascent of Chimborazo, a truly epic exercise in (literally) breathing with a mountain. Testing the limits of human respiration, Humboldt and three companions climbed to a then-record 19,413 feet. Along the way, he also monitored the mountain’s breathing by taking various atmospheric measurements, using a barometer, a thermometer, a sextant, an artificial horizon and a so-called “cyanometer” to record altitude, gravity, humidity, and the “blueness” of the sky, respectively.

Figure 5.

Alexander von Humboldt, Tableau physique des Andes et pays voisins. (Wikicommons)

Originally published in Essay on the Geography of Plants (co-authored by Aimé Bonpland, 1805), the Naturgemälde crystallized all of Humboldt’s botanical observations and research in a remarkable hand-colored engraving. The three-foot by two-foot tableau, tucked in a sleeve in the back of the book, depicts two volcanoes (Chimborazo and Cotopaxi) in profile, with half the mountains filled with Latin names of plant species placed at the altitude where they were found. Information tables on either side of the image list heights of peaks in Europe, Asia, and South America and indices of plants found at specific altitudes around the world. The composition thus allows the reader-viewer to garner a deep sense for the Earth’s atmosphere at a given elevation by tracking horizontally across the columns in the tables, which indicate temperature, gravity, humidity, and barometric pressure, as well as the plant and animal species found at the altitude across the world.

Breathing One’s Vast

Confined to his studio, Pierre Jardin frequently found himself mesmerized by this viewing stone or ‘scholar’s rock,’ which dominates the top of his desk. Nearly a meter wide and weighing about 15 stone (200 lbs.), it is a White Lingbi stone from Panshi Mountain in China. Prized for its rarity, “White Lingbi” is named for the milky concretions formed from ancient phytolites covered with calcareous-siliceous deposits about 900 million years ago. In geologic terms, this makes the primeval stone coeval with Protozeroic metazoans, the first multicellular animals hypothesized to have evolved.

Figure 6.

White Lingbi stone, China (30″W x 20″H x 12″D)

Sustained contemplations of the stone coalesced in a series of exercises he decided to call ‘Imagination Stretches.’ Each exercise pairs a selected quotation with a specific aspect of stone meditation, and calls for a “slow, dreamlike reading” of both words and rock.

There are two ways in which my existence is continuously connected to something outside: I breathe and I perceive. Now, I can privilege the gaze and the activity of perception, the Greek choice; … Or I can base my conception of the world on respiration: that is the Chinese choice.
(Jullien 136)

How does this change or affect the idea or experience of a “viewing stone”? How would you connect to a stone by breathing it in, or breathing with it, as opposed to looking at it?

I intended to search mountains for this stone,

And, to my surprise, I found the mountains in this stone.

–Wu Men, “Cold Woods Stone Screen”
(qtd. in Hu 67)

Jardin next meditated on the scale-flip that the stone performs under sustained scrutiny.

Breath-energy circulates without interruption through the landscape’s lines of force…. Following the alternations proper to it, rising and falling, soaring upward or sitting down, the mountain brings about the great respiration of the world.
(Jullien 136)

Aware of his limited understanding of Daoism, he tried tracing the stone’s qi and conjuring the stone as a form of terrestrial breathing.

Finally, in an attempt to integrate these dimensions of the stone in his mind, he staged an experiment adopted from Bachelard’s mimological imagination:

The word vast, then, is a vocable of breath. It is placed on our breathing, which must be slow and calm…. It expresses a vital, intimate conviction. It transmits to our ears the echo of the secret recesses of our being…. With it, we take infinity into our lungs, and through it, we breathe cosmically, far from human anguish…. For it is a word that brings calm and unity; it opens up unlimited space. It also teaches us to breathe with the air that rests on the horizon….
(Bachelard, Poetics of Space, pp. 196-97)

Pierre Jardin sits breathing in this formidable ‘scholar’s rock,’ occasionally exhaling “vast” in a whisper. To the degree that his attention narrows, his imagination expands. Simultaneously entering and receiving the stone, Jardin absorbs/becomes absorbed in its animate telluric force; its foliated lineations summon supple seismic waves rippling through a shuddering landscape. This is a rock that not only evokes a mountain range; it exudes originating orogenic power. Reveling in the reverse fractal zoom, it seems incongruous to Pierre Jardin that the stone fits inside his studio (it does), and that his mind fits inside his body (it doesn’t).

Earth’s Respiration Cycle

“The balance of forces on earth is remarkable. Mountains self-destruct at the same rate that they are built. Two processes—erosion and gravitational collapse—act to keep peaks from becoming too lofty. As in a progressive taxation system, both processes exact the most from the highest mountains.”
—Marcia Bjornerud, Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of Earth, 12.

Topographically speaking, the lithosphere is constantly undulating, as crumpling caused by colliding tectonic plates produces cycles of uplifting orogeny and denuding erosion. Writing before the formulation of plate tectonics, Jacquetta Hawkes, in her singular geologic memoir A Land (1951), imagines rising and subsiding mountains as the Earth’s respiratory cycle: “The history of the earth’s crust has a rhythm. Denudation weakens it, the mountains are rucked up and the molten layer below forces itself toward the surface, then the storm dies away and denudation begins again. If the movement were speeded up, as in a cinematograph, we should see a rise and fall as though of breathing” (15). Hawkes then cites her friend W. J. Turner’s lines: “The bosom of the landscape lifts and falls / With its own leaden tide.”

Figure 7.

Medicine Bow Peak (12,014 ft), Snowy Range.

Photo by author.

A Sigh of Release

The geologic aspirations of Pierre Jardin have explored a range of human-geologic respiratory calibrations. In researching the orogenic respiratory cycle, Jardin found that to understand the breathing of mountains, one must traverse and think relations across extremely different timescales. In place of Hawkes’s image of mountains uplifting and eroding as “a rise and fall, as of breathing,” California Institute of Technology geophysicist Luca Dal Zilio describes The Himalaya as “the chest of a rocky behemoth drawing uneven breaths.” In a paper called “Building the Himalaya from Tectonic to Earthquake Scales,” Dal Zilio and his colleagues “examine the feedbacks between long-term tectonic deformation (over millions of years) and the seismic cycle (years to centuries)” (Dal Zilio et al.). The Himalaya, formed when the Indian continental plate rammed into the Eurasian plate 50 million years ago, are uplifting at a snail’s pace as the subducting Indian plate migrates two inches a year. The tectonic stress that accumulates is periodically released in earthquakes, either in small shakes or large shocks, in which mountains can subside precipitously. During the 7.8-magnitude Gorkha quake in 2015, which killed around 9,000 people, Mount Everest dropped by about a meter and a section of the Himalayan range sank nearly two feet. If earthquakes are exhalations, then from a human perspective, they are cataclysmically violent coughing spasms. But considered on the geologic scale, they are forms of stress-release, resembling sighs of relief.

Being at Fault is Stressful

The somewhat sympathetic characterization of earthquakes as geologic exhalations does little to alleviate the stress Pierre Jardin feels whenever the subject comes up—which it often does in the fault-fractured region of Southern California where he lives. The Los Angeles basin is bordered by the Transverse Ranges, named for their unusual east-west orientation, the result of being rotated 110 degrees clockwise over the past 16 million years. These include the San Gabriels, extremely young mountains (having grown within the past 5 million years) that also rank among the fastest growing peaks in the world: forces from the San Andreas Fault to the north and a series of thrust faults on their south side cause them to uplift 1-2mm a year or nearly 8 inches every century. The infantile, volatile San Gabriels have a tortured history of twisted orogenic breathing. Plate tectonics along the San Andreas dating to the Late Cenozoic formed a rotational structural environment known as transpression and transrotation that shaped the range’s characteristic crystalline rocks.

The most striking stones Jardin has found in his explorations of the San Gabriels are gneiss, formed through the metamorphosis of sedimentary rocks at convergent tectonic plate boundaries. In tribute to the turbulent tectonics of the San Gabriels, Jardin used a really nice rock to create a display called “The Power of Gneiss.” Geologic energies are palpable in this bulky boulder Jardin collected near Mt. Baldy, which features serpentine folds compressed under extreme heat and pressure as the San Gabriel Mountains formed. The stone could be a piece of a formation called the Mendenhall Gneiss; if so, it may have a stunning tectonic travel history, possibly originating in a Precambrian formation that geologists have speculatively correlated with the western margin of Laurentia bordering Australia or Antarctica 750 million years ago.

Figure 8.

The Power of Gneiss (2021).

Photo by author.

Holding His Breath

Fueled by an active aerial imagination, Pierre Jardin’s geologic aspirations have scaled mountains and sounded the depths of deep time. His exercises in stoned breathing winding down, Jardin returns to a present that is quite stressful, all things personal and tectonic considered. The pandemic continues to disrupt life, and pressure continues to build along the San Andreas, where major quakes occur every 45 to 230 years. Given that the last Big One was 161 years ago, there is a 70% chance of a catastrophic quake in the next 30 years. In the haunting words of geophysicist Tom Heaton, the San Andreas Fault is “locked, loaded, and ready to rumble”—or, from the standpoint of breathing mountains, heave a huge sigh of release.

At the expiration of his lithic respirations, Pierre Jardin finds himself holding his breath.

Figure 9.
Portrait of the Artist Holding His Breath (2021).
Photo by author.

Works Cited

  • Bachelard, Gaston. Air and Dreams: an essay on the imagination of movement. Translated by Edith R. Farrell and C. Frederick Farrell, Dallas Institute Publications, Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1988.
  • —. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas, Orion Press, 1964.
  • Bjornerud, Marcia. Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of Earth. Westview Press, 2005.
  • Brenson, Michael. “Noguchi Holds Time in His Hands.” The New York Times, July 30, 1982.
  • Ganss, S.J., George E. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. Loyola Press, 1992.
  • Hawkes, Jacquetta. A Land. Collins Nature Library, 2012.
  • Hu, Kemin. The Suyuan Stone Catalog: Scholars’ Rocks in Ancient China. Weatherhill, 2002.
  • Humboldt, Alexander von, and Aimé Bonpland. Essay on the Geography of Plants. Edited by Stephen T. Jackson, translated by Sylvie Romanowski, University of Illinois Press, 2013.
  • —. Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. Vol. 4. Translated by Helen Maria Williams, printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, Paternoster Row, 1822.
  • Dal Zilio, Luca, György Hetényi, Judith Hubbard, and Laurent Bollinger. “Building the Himalaya from Tectonic to Earthquake Scales.” Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, vol. 2, no. 4, 2021, pp. 251-268, doi:10.1038/s43017-021-00143-1.
  • Zalawiewicz, Jan. “Old and New Patterns of the Anthropocene.” RCC Perspectives: Transformations in Environment and Society, vol. 3, 2020, pp. 11-41.
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