Pyrenees Dreams: Mountain Walking And Memory Tuesday November 10, 2009

I’ve always found the poetry of Wordsworth unappealing, too antique in both its language and outlook. He was though, almost what we might call a mountain poet. Much of his work revolved around the mountain experience, particularly as it’s experienced in the Lake District. There are two passages that summarise his poetic attitude, and illuminate the mountain walking experience and how it integrates into the rest of our lives. The first conveys an idea he called spots of time:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A resonating virtue…
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

This ‘resonating virtue’ concerns memory and recollection. When we think back and imaginatively recall enjoyable moments in the hills, it fortifies us when we return to the daily grind. In some respects this is like remembering a happy holiday but the memory is geographically grounded in unchanging ancient terrain, with which we develop an accumulating relationship, sustained over years of walking. We go back there again and again, experiencing different conditions and moods, and with constant interest. Alfred Wainwright insisted the Lake District fells were never boring, but always beautiful. I don’t entirely agree with this notion and I’m not convinced he really felt that way. The experience inevitably dulls if you walk there for years, where the initial thrill is never recovered. The area is exceptionally beautiful and its compact scale makes it a fine place to walk, but also a place you are quickly familiar with. For me the only real thrill I now get in the Lakes is when I add wild camping to the tapestry of the day, adding another pleasurable dimension.

I’ve noticed hill walkers referring to their mountain fix, or their outdoors fix, like it’s a drug they’re addicted to. I think this conveys the mood altering nature of the activity, how enjoyable it is and how walkers regard it as an essential part of their lives. The nature of a drug is you take it to escape the conditions or feelings of your normal life, but then the effect vanishes and you crave it again. Wordsworth believed that poetry itself could facilitate a positive mood, and this was much of its purpose. He walked the Lake District fells and then wrote poetry as an expression of “emotion recollected in tranquility,” i.e. reliving those moments at his desk. His most famous poem describes this imaginative process, grounded in both words and geography:

For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood
They flash upon that inward eye…
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils.

Wainwright’s books were a labour of love seeking to ground his walking in drawings and writing. We marvel at the detail and intricacy of his art and how much work it required, but his thirteen year project to cover the region must have been enormously gratifying especially when he could no longer walk the fells but roamed them instead in his imagination. Irrespective of how many books he sold, they substantiated and kept alive memories and wanderings very dear to his heart.

According to mountaineer, academic and writer Robert Macfarlane, wilderness is a state of mind rather than a type or extremity of geography. He said once, in a magazine article, that wilderness “is not a condition of place but a condition of mind”, and that it’s a further misconception it must be on a grand scale. His first book Mountains Of The Mind explored how mountaineering developed as a cultural interest, noting that quite recently high and remote areas were regarded with horror and dread. His later book The Wild Places explored far tamer land, suggesting the wild ‘experience’ can be found in ancient Dorset tracks hidden in undergrowth, or at the Essex salt marshes. I don’t entirely agree with this; the impact of Welsh, Scottish or Lake District mountains is greater than anywhere else in Britain, and they in turn are geographically and experientially dwarfed by the Pyrenees.

Macfarlane’s project was a deliberate act of narrative-making, influenced by the ideas of his friend Roger Deakin. It may be true that wilderness or mountain walking is a kind of narrative experience conditioned by culture. However, it rests on a sensory actual reality and this grounding is its significance. Writer Will Self, interested in psychogeography, gave a lecture suggesting a similar point. The demarcation between cities and the ‘wild’ is, he said, derived from Romanticism and artificial: we go to the mountains, because we’ve been told they are more beautiful. No, we go to the mountains because what we find there is massively different from mean city streets.

For two months after my return from the Pyrenees, I felt averse to any walking. I couldn’t bear the thought of the wind, rain, and grey clouds of British hills. My last wild camping before the Pyrenees was in Wales, and an experience I would rather not have. There’s nothing worse than waking in heavy rain and wind, the tent buffeting around, struggling to make breakfast and coffee (the wind whipped under the groundsheet and spilt it), leaving your warm sleeping bag, pulling on cold clothes and the full extent of your protective gear, and setting off into it. My Pyrenees experience was like a dream, compared to the nightmare of Aran Fawddry. Walking in sunshine is one thing; it’s an important matter again to enjoy warm relaxed evenings before sleep, and enjoy a rising sun in vast blue skies.

Additionally, I was protecting and maintaining my memory of the Pyrenees: I knew that once I set off walking in Britain, it would become normal and what I was used to: the dream would vanish.

Yesterday, as I write, I undertook a trip to Lyme Park where it borders onto Peak District moorland. I’ve been there many times; it’s the most rewarding place to visit for an afternoon ramble if I cannot or do not want to drive further afield. It’s quite a modest area, but I felt some mild excitement in my car at the thought of seeing some big views – such an expanse of view that I’d not experienced for two months. As I looked across the Cheshire plains, I recalled gazing down the valley from Refuge Baysellance (2651m) and Refuge Sarradets (2587m). As I returned along the modest ridge, I couldn’t decide if the distant scene was a cloud inversion: it looked as though it was, but I found it hard to believe such was possible from a small hill of one or two hundred feet. When I returned to my car and drove into it, I realised it wasn’t cloud but fog: settled in the bowl of the Cheshire plains and over the Manchester conurbation.

With both examples, gazing across the land and seeing the appearance of cloud, I was mindful of how this was nothing like the Pyrenees. It was the same music, but on an old cassette player compared to expensive modern equipment: the depth of it, the power, resonance, colour and volume, was greatly inferior.

Wilderness – an idea where mountains embody its quintessential example – is a state of mind, but that state differs substantially depending on where you are. It’s possible to embellish an experience of a park and other tame land with a kind of expanded imagination, and I had the appetite for this yesterday. I compared the views to Pyrenean mountains because that, actually, is what I wanted. The feeling of the big views allowed me to feel, again, some part of the Pyrenees experience. I projected onto the flat plains the soaring heights, deep valleys, and geological majesty of the French/Spanish mountains. This is an act of imagination, and an important one for the purpose of maintaining a dream until I can travel there again. As did Wordsworth and Wainwright I recognise the stamp of the mountains, their impression on my soul, and how this lives imaginatively. It is, however, a different mode of experience from actually walking the hills: the condition of my mind at Lyme Park was resonating with the Pyrenees, but the echo and impression of the land did not correspond.

Pyrenees Photographs

Pyrenees Book