Mountain Walking: The Books Of Robert McFarlane Saturday July 3, 2010

When I first heard of Robert McFarlane’s Mountains Of The Mind, I knew I wanted to read it. My special interest is the effect of mountains on mood and thought, the imperceptible but familiar process for regular walkers. We romp the hills for a few days and come back soothed, calmed, and refreshed; our psychological perspective changes coinciding with the altered geography. And as McFarlane notes, mountain walking involves a cultural and perceptual attitude that has changed over time: only relatively recently have we regarded the crags and the hills with appreciation rather than dread.

The sub-title of his book indicates however where I lost interest: it’s A History of a Fascination. He explores, in some depth, the history of mountaineering with its famous expeditions and infamous tales. Having recognised the mind-mountain walking relationship (and walking is what I enjoy not climbing), McFarlane considers it historically whereas the psychology and philosophy of the subject is what interests me. His next book The Wild Places is more along that line, although I don’t entirely agree with its central premise that “there is wildness everywhere, if we only stop in our tracks and look around us”. His close friend Roger Deakin made that remark, and in many respects The Wild Places adopts the method and narrative stance of the nature writer whom McFarlane acknowledges as enormously influential in his life. McFarlane says “he was an explorer of the undiscovered country of the nearby”. Nature writing is a genre of work established with people like Thoreau, Richard Mabey, Gary Snyder, Wordsworth, John Clare, Deakin, and others. McFarlane seems to have recognised this and written his own (second) book accordingly, concerned with noticing and appreciating neglected wildness. He’s a Cambridge English lecturer with the learning to go with that, and an elegant literary style of his own. There’s no doubt he knows of the William Blake notion of seeing a world in a grain of sand, and this simple idea further sums up The Wild Places.

In Mountains Of The Mind we learn about McFarlane’s mountaineering, and how he is no stranger to formidable adventure. The Wild Places in some respects develops from one of the ideas in the first book that dangerous mountain pursuits sometimes have to be reconsidered: that no mountain is worth a life, either yours or someone else’s. McFarlane nearly died while climbing, lost friends pursuing the same sport, and reflects on the folly of this: why do it? I understand this theme; although the walking I undertake is relatively tame and modest, it does nonetheless involve inevitable risk and occasional frights. Most notable was climbing up a snow covered Swirral Edge in the Lake District, reliant on kicked out slippery foot holes with neither crampons nor axe. The slightest error up the very steep and exposed face would have sent me slipping uncontrollably down to the bottom – and it wasn’t the kind of ‘error’ situation you could control. I felt a kind of manic desperation because retreating was not an option, but going forward was risking my life. Your attention narrows down at such moments, into yourself, with an inherent solitude. I think the meaning of this is integral to the basis of the hill experience, though not confined to it. On the mountain, I was hyper-ventilating and frightened. On a motorway recently I was forced to swerve at 80 mph, tried to gain control of my skidding car, realised everything was going too fast and a crash was imminent: all of this, perfectly lucid and compacted into a few seconds with a final resignation as I bent forward in my seat waiting for the collision: alone in the universe, possibly about to die. As it transpired, my car hit small trees and shrubs at such an angle it spun round twice at 360 degrees, the impact absorbed with lateral rather than head on force and no other cars crashed into me.

Both incidents were life threatening, but in both cases I walked out unscathed. The first situation taught me about the silent impersonality of mountains, whereby you might fall and die like being in a desert. The second situation leaves me shocked and traumatised, that an utter stranger nearly killed me because of driving stupidity (they were pushing into me from the left lane oblivious to my presence on the right), then sped off without even stopping. Bastard, you nearly killed me. And caused me immense distress, then cost and inconvenience after my car was ruined. I write this therapeutically, into a similar void as was the moment at Swirral Edge.

It would be ridiculous to say nature saved my life on the motorway, but it was certainly a factor: how curious to consider the flexible strength of a young tree in such circumstances, how it absorbs impact while staying rooted when a car crashes into it. There may be man-made structures with similar physical properties, but you don’t find them on motorways. We drive for convenience and necessity (I was returning from Scotland), but never have to step onto mountains if we don’t wish to. In the case of McFarlane’s progression from life-threatening mountain adventure to gentle poetic rambling (it remains to be seen if he will return to climbing in any substantial way), it’s a personal choice over which he and the rest of us have control. Nietzsche might say “that which does not kill me makes me stronger” but that is not always the case. McFarlane notes how mountaineering involves a macho, domineering and competitive spirit; that it’s regarded as a test of manhood and in the case of conquering first summits, of national character and pride. It has a Nietzschean quality. All of which is ridiculous in regard to oblivious shapes and masses of rock, the climbing of which risks your life. The competition, the challenge and the pursuit represent a mountain of the mind: it concerns psychological projection onto inert geographic form. If your life is endangered and you survive, you may be able to spin a tale or two but in no sensible way are you stronger. Similarly, the motorway incident alerts me to the random possibility of death and how stupidity might cause it but nothing more than that; the scare at Swirral Edge taught me how you can die in the hills like the tiny figure of Icarus in the painting by Breughel while daily farming continues. The universe doesn’t care about you dying; it passes unnoticed and even unseen.

Mountain walking is a kind of existential playground, whereby your life and your place in the world feature in its activity. This underlies common feelings of humbleness, new perspective, and re-orientation that walkers feel. We walk, not with habitual shutters of boredom and familiarity, but with refreshing attentiveness and wonder. Not only is it a journey, it’s a journey with a terrific and beautiful scenic encounter and for the duration of the walk that is your place in the world: free to explore, wander, and de-clutter the mind in the simple rhythm of the day.

Gazing across places like this, in the Pyrenees, inevitably evokes such feelings: what is my place in the world?

And then at another moment you find a lovely seductive place like this which feels nourishing rather than challenging because it’s relatively sheltered, and offers the possibility of refreshment:

If you camp in the hills (I recommend it) that adds a further dimension as you fall asleep (good description: fall) and awake with a thrill that you’re still there, opening the tent door (potentially) to a scene like this. Over breakfast and coffee you savour the feeling that for the moment, at least, this is your place in the world:

Place-feeling is, I think, one of the most important facets of the hills: how can we describe it, understand it, and make existential sense of it in relation to our lives.

What we see in McFarlane’s two books is actually the same thing: in the first case, the psychology of challenge (albeit it’s an historic rather than psychological study) and in the second case the psychology of romanticism, by which I mean the Blake notion of seeing a world in a grain of sand or appreciating the wildness of, as he says:

unseen landscapes… in the bend of a stream valley, in the undercut of a river bank, in copses and peat hags, hedgerows and quicksand pools … in the margins, interzones and rough cusps of the country: quarry rim, derelict factory and motorway verge

Neither of these address the phenomenology of (mountain) walking i.e. the psychological and physical experience of being there and its existential facets. In both his books, thinking attitude comes first and the landscape is then perceived accordingly. We can reflect poetically about a bird flying over Essex marshes and how it represents a visiting force of wildness thus a threshold between ours and another world, but this is poetry rather than sensed experience: literary mediation rather than immersion in nature. It’s beautiful, and I enjoyed the recent television programme where McFarlane did this, but it’s an intellectual and aesthetic construct which in the last analysis is not the same as resonating with nature and enjoying how, when we are immersed in the hills, it changes us. In Nature Cure, Richard Mabey says:

It is as if in using the facility of language, the thing we believe most separates us from nature, we are constantly pulled back to its, and our, origins…Learning to write again was what finally made me better – and I believe that language and imagination, far from alienating us from nature, are our most powerful and natural tools for re-engaging with it…Culture isn’t the opposite or contrary of nature. It’s the interface between us and the non-human world, our species’ semi-permeable membrane.

Writing about such matters is most certainly therapeutic; it gives shape and form to our feelings and helps us enjoy and understand them. But when I reflect for example on walking in the Pyrenees I recognise that writing about it, while it’s a pleasurable imaginative exercise, is another domain of experience and on this distinction rests part of the satisfaction of the mountains. They are simply there, irrespective of anyone noticing or writing about them, and on the basis of that oblivious stillness the scatter of emotions and the chatter of the mind are addressed: calmed, slowed, and consoled. It reminds me of a Zen meditation exercise where you rest your gaze on a wall; or others, where you concentrate on colours and shapes to absorb or resonate with their essence as a kind of visual equivalent of listening to music.

It’s a different kind of place-feeling compared to normal life. And the same applies with brief trips of two or three days walking in Wales or the Lakes: the geographic aesthetic soothes and nourishes me as a process I recognise but don’t control, which changes my thought-mood state but naturally so, without effort or intellectual construct.

This, surely, is the point of the mountains and in that respect remarks from McFarlane such as “there was as much to be learned in an acre of woodland on a city’s fringe as on the shattered summit of Ben Hope” are rather misleading, unrepresentative of the high places and their existential dimension. In Place And Placelessness geographer Edward Relph cites “a continuum that has direct experience at one extreme and abstract thought at the other” referring to different modes of spatial experience he calls pragmatic space, perceptual space, and existential space. I’m not sure his use of the latter term coincides with mine, but his recognition of how thinking is a form of spatial experience does: that we develop aesthetic and psychological constructs which then condition and define the world accordingly. In regard to my topic here it’s important to recognise this and how, conversely, the mountain experience differs.

In the last half of his book Relph examines ways in which a place may be experienced authentically or inauthentically: terms borrowed from phenomenology and existentialism. An authentic sense of place is “a direct and genuine experience of the entire complex of the identity of places — not mediated and distorted through a series of quite arbitrary social and intellectual fashions about how that experience should be, nor following stereotyped conventions”

Pyrenees Photographs

Pyrenees Book