What is it about mountains?

What is it about mountains that attracts so powerfully? Answers may range from that of the quintessential adventure-seeker of the '20s, Richard Halliburton, who was challenged to his first exploit by a photograph of the lofty Swiss Matterhorn, to that of people like us who voluntarily leave the intense activity of a very urban environment for the quietly varying landscape of the northern Adirondacks.

The accompanying photograph is startlingly like our scene on a moonlit night. But, of course, it is not one of mountains at all but of an example of suiseki (literally, water stone). This collector's art, like the more familiar bonsai, originated in China probably during the T'ang Dynasty but is now practiced mainly in Japan.

Stones, selected with stringent care, were at first chosen to evoke the idealized or celestial landscapes in the contempoary literature. This would be comparable, say, to reproducing in allusive miniature the caves of Moria or the groves of Lorien imaginatively described by Tolkien. The emphasis changed to those suggesting more natural scenes and this one is intended to communicate all the tranquillity, grandeur, and beauty of actual mountains in a simply but appropriately mounted stone.

Although its title, ''Yamato Murayama,'' signifies an ancient Japanese mountain group, the universal character and appeal of mountains everywhere are its true expression. This stone fulfills the highest requirements of the art: taken from a mountain river; untouched by cutting or polishing; composed of very hard rock. It has been in the museum collection of the Rai family of Kyoto since its discovery over 150 years ago.

Nowadays, stones are also displayed for their colorfulness, fanciful patterning, or shape. But purists still prefer a stone that permits one to hold the mountains in one's hand.

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