Magic mountain collective

Jesse Paris Smith - Interview

Jesse Paris Smith is a musician, pianist, songwriter, activist and co-founder of of Pathway to Paris, a non-profit organization dedicated to turning the Paris Agreement into reality and offering tangible solutions for combatting global climate change, helping cities to design and implement ambitious climate action plans to go 100% renewable/zero emissions by 2040. Jesse is the daughter of singer and poet, Patti Smith and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. “For Jesse every day is Earth Day – said Patti – all her efforts whether great or small resonate her love, care and deep concern for the fate of our troubled world”. Jesse spent her childhood in St. Clair Shores, Michigan. Actually she plays regularly with her mother in the band. And now, from NYC, where she lives, shares with Magic Mountain Collective her extraordinary and overflowing passion for mountains. A way to escape the lockdown for Coronavirus.
How would you describe your personal relationship with wilderness, nature and mountains?
«My relationship with nature, is simply that nature is home. Nature is the place of restoration, of recalibration, of restoring peace, of tuning oneself. It is common for humans to see themselves as separate from nature, due to the fact that what is created by mankind – buildings, infrastructure, industry, is not found in nature. So we see ourselves as something separate, measuring ourselves by our productivity, feeling ‘at home’ in buildings and houses. However, the truth is, we are nature. So in order to fully and truly get back to our roots, our oneness, we must spend time outdoors, Experience the elements, to root ourselves fully in the natural world, if even for small moments at a time. I was born in Michigan, and spent my early childhood immersed in days of out-doors playtime, much of our time spent near, on, or in the water. No matter what is going on in my own life, when I get out onto water, walk by the shore of an ocean, breathe the salty air, jump into a lake, step into a forest, anything that is truly wild and alive, I feel the effects immediately, and realize I needed it more than I realized. It allows for all of my troubles to float away, for things to be put into perspective, for my breathing to slow and deepen, for my heart to be filled with love. In these moments I remember how truly interconnected we all our with the natural world and with each other all of us part of the earth, beings of nature».
Which are your best memories connected to mountains?
«Though I did not grow up in or near the mountains, and though I am not a mountain climber, heavy trekker, or risky adventure seeker, these majestic landforms have become through experience and relationship, deeply meaningful to me. My family on my dad’s side are from Appalachian country, in West Virginia and Kentucky. This part of the country is definitely one that is mountain country, and so in a way, it is there in my bloodline in our history. When I was younger, I developed a fascination with Patagonia and the Andes mountains, in particular with glaciers.
I learned about global warming, and the glaciers and parts of the world with glacial mountains became a symbol to me of what would be lost, and what was to be protected. I became dedicated to fighting global warming, and wanted it to be my life’s work.I dreamed of becoming a climate scientist, and traveling to parts of the world to study the landscapes and their changes. Mountain life was different than there I had come from, lowland lake landscapes, but I could tell there was something very healthy and clear, fresh about this kind of place. I remember when I was about 11, I went with a friend and her family to the Catskill mountains. It stands out so cleary in my memory, the quality of the air and water there, and truly recognizing the difference in leaving the city and transitioning into that environment. I have distinct memories of the feeling of the air on my face as we drove, and of the feeling of the water while sitting in a stream. It was very cold, more cold than I had expected, but I didn’t mind somehow because it felt so fresh, and I remember looking as the water moved down the mountain, seeing to the bottom, watching my feet on the rocks».
Do you remember a particular experience that marked you deeply?
«Though I have still never been to Patagonia and seen the beautiful glaciers there, a time that changed my life forever was when I first went to Iceland, the first place outside of Michigan that ever felt deep and truly in my heart, to be a home. I think it was 2004 when I first went there, and I remember everything about it. I hadn’t usually recalled travels all that clearly, disappointed in myself about the way that memories of cities and towns had blended and blurred together. But it was not like this with Iceland. I connected so deeply to the land and its people in a way I never had before, and each footstep, breath of air, and sight to be seen was seemingly forever etched into my mind. We made friends with an adventurous local, who is still dear to us now, and knowing all of the most breathtaking landscapes, would take us on excursions all around the country, visiting to the volcanic glaciers, every view in sight like being suspended inside of a dream. I felt I was home. I remember the first time I saw Snaefellsjokull mountain, a 700,000 year old glacial volcano, and one of the most famous views in Iceland. I had never heard of it or seen it before in a photo, but it truly did feel like I already knew it, as though I had been there before. I continued to return to Iceland nearly each year, wishing it could be my home, feeling that restored energy from the water, land, air, the minerals, the energy of the people, the light in the sky. It was all something I had never experienced before and never wanted to end».
What was your first American mountain experience in adulthood?
«The first that comes to mind was around 2008 when a friend and I took a road trip of almost three months, driving along the eastern seaboard of the United States, stopping whenever we felt to camp in the woods. It was perhaps one of the most freeing times of my life. We didn’t have a camera, our phones, or our computers, only food, camping equipment, notebooks and pencils, musical instruments, and our eyes. We didn’t take one photograph on the entire trip, and I really do have no true proof that it even happened, save for the memories in my mind, all that I learned, and the ways that I evolved and grew as a person from sharing in this incredible journey. One of the most special moments of this time was when we stopped at the Great Smoky Mountains, a sub-range of the Appalachian Mountains along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. As I mentioned before, my family on my Dad’s side came from this part of the country, and we were able to stop in West Virginia to where he was from. I had never been to West Virginia before, and standing there on that land, that mountain country, I felt the ancestry in my heart as though I could hear singing echoed in the distance. Though I do not remember all too many details of this time, I can immediately access the feeling of being there, the energy of the land, the quality of the air, the feeling of the people, and the inspiration we were able to access. Since then I have been back to those mountains, and two years hiked up ten miles with two friends. I do have many photos from that visit. Even if it is only ten miles, there is something so incredible about climbing to the top of a landform, even a hill. It feels as though you have accomplished something great, something more than you believed you could before».
Can you tell us the story of your project Everest Awakening?
«In 2015, the same friend that I went to Nepal with and I found ourselves flying to Nepal in January, which was such a moving and life changing way to begin the year. For most of my life, I had been very involved with Tibet, one of my most important collaborators and dearest friends being a Tibetan singer and activist, Tenzin Choegyal. My family had been involved with Tibet House and Tibetan freedom movements since I was a little girl, and I had become very involved with Tibet House US in NYC, and sat on the Associate Board. Tibet and Tibetan culture were much in my life, but I had never been to that part of the world before. I decided I wanted to go to India and Nepal, and this wonderful opportunity came up to travel there and stay in a monastery guest house owned by a friend’s uncle. During our time there, though we were on more of a spiritual visit, unequipped for much heavy adventure, and are not professional trekkers or climbers, and though we did not get too close to the great and majestic mountains or the Annapurna circuit, the truth is, when you are in Himalayan country, you feel it. Everywhere you go, everyone you meet, the animals you see, every step you take, it is mountain land. It is the land of sherpas, of nomads, of a rich and beautiful cultural history of music, food, mysticism, ways of life that are inspired and guided by that of mountain life. Out the window, on the terrace, on a hike, in the distance you see the Himalayas, and mighty Everest, the roof of the world, reaching above to the heavens. It is here that I truly developed my soul connection, love, and understanding of mountain country. A few months later in April, the devastating earthquake hit the Himaylan region, causing the most of its damage in Nepal. The news was shocking and felt especially heavy because I had only just had my life forever changed by this place. Immediately we took to action, wanting to help. I pulled together a project called ‘Everest Awakening,’ with the help of many musician friends. In hearing of this, I was immediately connected to so many incredible Nepalese and Tibetan musicians, activists, climbers, sherpas, artists, poets, and individuals living both in NYC and in Nepal. I developed such incredible friendships and collaborations during this time that are still deeply important in my life. One in particular became one of my dearest friends, and we now run Everest Awakening together as a full and highly active non-profit initiative based in Nepal and New York. Working with other organizations as well such as Mountain Resiliency Project and Tibetan Home of Hope, helped to bring added awareness to the on the ground action taking place in Himalayan countries. Everest Awakening is still going strong and has many active projects and initiatives.
We work closely and with the sherpa community, and have trained fourteen everest summiters and have an annual International Mountain Guide photography course. This course gives sherpas and climbers skills to take beautiful photos, documenting all that they see while exploring the great majestic mountains of our world. This project will develop high altitude photographers and the sherpas can use these new skills in photography as a new source of income and to explore new projects. They are the ones who see the changes to these mountains overtime due to climate change, and they are the witnesses to the fleeting. We also with supporting many schools, homeless, Everest widows, and have women’s empowerment expeditions».

What are you doing for the global health emergency?

«Recently, we distributed twenty liters of hand sanitizer and 1000 masks in old age homes in the border of India and Nepal, where they are preparing for self quarantine of 100 people due to the Coronavirus, and 50 liters of hand sanitizer and 1000 masks to those who are handicapped. Masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves also supplied to volunteers».
What does Mount Everest represent for you?

«Mount Everest and the mountains of the Himalayan region are highly meaningful for me. Mount Everest, being the ‘roof of the world,’ is highly symbolic in the climate movement, of which I work with my non-profit organization, Pathway to Paris. Tenzin Choegyal, who is on the board of Pathway to Paris, and is also a regular performer at our events, always leads our audiences in a beautiful gesture and pledge, informed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, calling for protection of Mighty Everest. He illustrates it metaphorically to bring attention to the need of action in the movement saying, ‘if the roof of your house was leaking, you would fix it, so let’s not let the roof of the world, leak”».

You also visited Japan and his mountain areas.
«In 2016, Tenzin and I went to Japan, where we spent many weeks traveling the country playing concerts, exploring nature, meeting new friends, and sharing wonderful and exciting new experiences together. Similarly to Nepal with mighty Everest, when you are in Japan, the great majesty is that of Mount Fuji. We saw many places when we were there, from the busiest bustling cities, to the quietest Samurai villages, ancient cemeteries, spiritual temples, small towns, to the most open and vast landscapes of farm county. One day we did a special trek to get close to Mount Fuji. I remember the moment when I first saw it in the distance, the light shining, so clear and seemingly humble and peaceful, allowing itself to be fully in view. It was like seeing an old friend, but even moreso, it was like seeing a postcard image. It was hard to believe it was real, something so familiar, a shape that I knew so well, from paintings, movies, logos, and drawings. We smiled so much, like little children taking photos, staring into the distance. We did our ‘roof of the world’ gesture in front of it while standing in the water, and Tenzin sang a nomadic song. I can still see it so clearly in my mind, and it gives me the feeling of life, peaceful abundance, nurturing, and a wealth of beautiful nourishment. Though the image of Mount Fuji does produce a comforting and friendly feeling somehow, and a spiritual one being a sacred pilgrimage site, the truth is, it is also an active volcano, and like the glacial mountains in Iceland, along with its beauty exists a somewhat harrowing idea of possible looming disaster. This only adds to the notion of the true power of these landforms».
I know you’re very fascinated by Dolomites.
«Last summer I settled down in Milan, wanting to make some roots in Italy, one of my favorite places on this Earth. I had been studying Italian in NYC, and continued my studies once I got to Italy, taking lessons in a school, working on music, and building a community and team for Pathway to Paris in Europe, centered in Milan. I loved living in Milan and felt at home there very quickly. One of the most important experiences for me that took place during my time in Italy was visiting to the magical town of Auronzo di Cadore, and finding a family connection that feels set forever. The Dolomites are a World Heritage site, proclaimed by UNESCO in 2009, there in the square of Auronzo. Tatiana Pais Becher, the Mayor of Auronzo di Cadore, invited me to visit there during their summer arts festival, and also invited me to perform and share about Pathway to Paris and our work in the climate movement. I took the train from Milan to Venice where Tatiana picked me up, and I felt immediately connected with her. Driving to Auronzo, as soon as I saw the mountains in the distance, I felt their power and their peace. Entering this town, I was overcome with joy, and I remembered other places I had visited which held similar energy, towns near the arctic in Norway, Sweden, the Great Smoky Mountains, and even Nepal. I felt at home. I didn’t have any climbing gear, so we visited her father’s wonderful alpine shop where her kids also worked, and they suited me up with everything I needed. Her family was wonderful and I loved them all immediately. We spent the next handful of days on daily treks and hikes, as Tatiana showed me Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Lake Misurina, “the pearl of the Dolomites,’ the Artorno alpine lakes, and everything wonderful in this magical place. The quality of Misurina air, low oxygen density and no allergens, has made it’s Pio XII Institute internationally renowned for asthma treatment. We visited there to the hospital, and even stepping into that building, I felt truly connected, moved, and inspired. There was so much love and genuine care there, and the children made such beautiful artwork. Everywhere I went, I was deeply touched. The art and music I heard in the Dolomites moved and inspired me as though it had been created by the trees themselves. The people were so kind, full of hope, and the land was super charged with such incredible energy. Tre Cime di Lavaredo are the symbol of the Dolomites UNESCO, and they are ‘three mountains that can symbolize a natural trinity elevating towards the sky.’ After a long hike, looking at them up close, you feel their great power, and they are truly inspiring. The location of them coincides with the border between Austria and Italy, and during WWI, a great deal of deadly fighting took place here.
Standing in that spot, with a 360 view all around of the most beautiful, open, and freeing nature, it is nearly impossible to imagine any thoughts of hatred or violence being able to enter the mind. But it is true that thousands of soldiers actually died there in battle.Now however, Tre Cime have become a symbol of Peace, Justice, and Freedom. Many incredible activities have taken place there, including massive and symbolic human chains for world peace, mountain top concerts, festivals.It is a place for gathering, for hope, and there are great activists living and working here. Pathway to Paris is very excited to continue the deep rooted collaboration and partnership with the Dolomites, Auronzo, and Tatiana. Because of the world crisis of Coronavirus, these plans which we were developing for this summer, have been put on hold, but they are only postponed for the future, and our energy and motivation is still fully intact. I am truly inspired by my friends there, the climbers of these mountains, Tatiana’s father Gianni Pais Becher, a great climber and adventurer, and incredibly wise and beautiful person. I am inspired and moved by him just as I am of the sherpas of Nepal that we work closely with, our friends there, the true heros of Everest».
What do you think about the real essence of the mountains?
«Something magical happens when you are so far up in the sky, reaching high up to the heavens. Maybe it is something that resides in the ground beneath you, something that takes place inside the body when trekking, walking, living that style of life where you are so deeply and continuously connected with the Earth, the sky, the animals, and the stars, where you are always aware of your oneness with nature. Think about the music, the art, the food, the ideas that come from mountain country. Think about the connection. In 2018, my father was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, and we traveled there to accept the award in his honor. When I arrived in West Virginia, I was greeted by such incredible warmth, kindness, and love, as though I was greeted by family who had known me all my life. It was astoundingly beautiful. Listening to people gathering in circles, completely spontaneous, joining together in song, their eyes closed, heads back, hearts open, and the mountain songs and hymns pouring out of them with all their soul, this is not unlike the love and collaboration I witnessed in any of these other places. I have a friend, Shyam Nepali, who is a musician from Nepal. He plays the sarangi, a bowed instrument. He has a friend who is a musician from Virginia, and they have a collaborative effort called the Mountain Music Project. Now, though these musicians would seem so different, from such different cultures, languages, worlds, when they get together and play music, it all flows the same, and you realize that the energy of the music, while influenced by their own particular cultures, is so alike in its sound, even down to the melodies that are performed. They laugh together, and falling into this musical mountain language, you realize they exist among a place of connection that cannot be explained, it is felt. It is influenced by the earthly ground and water beneath, by the air and sights all around, by the sky and stars, moon, sun, and the heavens above. It is the energetic language of the mountains. So why did I feel so at home in these places? Why does my face exude such peaceful ease and calming heartfelt joy in photos from these places? Why is there such a theme of positive energy, unconditional love and welcoming, and beautiful and soulful art and music? Because as I mentioned before, getting into the wildness of nature, we reconnect with our truest selves, we find ultimate restoration and renewal. We can hear the free and open voice of our most authentic selves, our intuition, we reconnect with each other, with the planet, and we realize how deeply and truly interconnected we all are, and that we are not separate from nature, that we are part of nature. We find ourselves truly, and most welcomingly, back where we belong, back in tune, in our bodies. With spirit, mind, heart, body aligned, our feet planted firmly on the ground, our heads in the sky, we find ourselves at ease, we find ourselves home».
Written by Guido Andruetto