– John Rollin Ridge, “Mt. Shasta, Seen from a Distance” (1850)
“Unimpassioned mind” is an unusual way to describe a mountain. Mountains are often lofty, pure, mighty, noble, or regal, but it’s rare to find one with awareness.
It’s not a kindly awareness. It is solitary, cold, and far-removed from human concerns.
No human breath has dimmed the icy mirror which
It holds unto the moon and stars and sov’reign sun.
Mt. Shasta sees and is seen. Wearing a crown of snow upon its brow, it gazes down upon the valleys and streams of the Golden State, down upon the sea and the lesser mountains. Parents and children sense its divinity. Even the cattle driver:
Oft will rein his charger in the plain, and drink
Into his inmost soul the calm sublimity…
Toward the close of this 76-line poem, Mt. Shasta becomes a symbol for the rule of law, sorely needed in Gold Rush California, where vigilantes did much of the policing. The legal system Ridge has in mind is, like Shasta, devoid of human passion – so much so that:
e’en pity’s tears shall on
Its summit freeze; to warm it, e’en the sunlight
Of deep sympathy shall fail…
Ridge’s belief in a clear, pure, cold legal system – one that would by its impartiality right the wrongs of the past and elevate humankind to a more principled way of life – seems heroic, and quixotic, when you learn he was a Cherokee who accepted American culture and was committed to racial assimilation. It may be that “Mt. Shasta” gives us a glimpse into the mind of a modern counterpart, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Biographical note: At age 12, Ridge witnessed the murder of his father, a signer of the Trail of Tears treaty. His mother, who was white, a schoolteacher’s daughter who married for love, saw to it that Ridge received a good education. Despite his belief in assimilation as the way forward, Ridge knew very well that American society was not blind to race.
Coming to California in 1850, Ridge tried mining but soon turned to journalism, and he wrote California’s first novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, about a young Mexican who tries the American Way but is turned to crime by American prejudice. The story is notable for the hero’s ability to walk unrecognized among the townspeople who feared the very mention of his name, and for the cold cruelties inflicted by his followers, especially Three Fingered Jack. Ridge lived in Grass Valley, 200 miles from Mt. Shasta, and died there of brain fever at age 40.
Find the full text of the poem at https://ualrexhibits.org/tribalwriters/artifacts/Poems-of-John-Rollin-Ridge.html#MountShasta