I don’t think there’s enough poetry, philosophy, rapturous appreciation of the hills. Look at the books, and you find overwhelming emphasis on heroic battling and the claiming of summits. Look at the magazines, and you find a constrained format with a particular house style. Look at the big films and you find The White Spider, Touching The Void, Everest assaults and similar.
It’s tedious. With my literary background I want a great deal more than the above in any book I read. If it’s not there, I’ll read a novel. I’m no longer interested in Wordsworth, Ruskin, Coleridge and their kind because I find it dusty and antiquated and dull. The same applies to Alfred Wainwright. I enjoyed his books when I first discovered them but fifteen years later one gets tired of the same old romanticising myths. More than that, you get sick of hearing about it like the turning of an industrial machine: on the internet, read about him, then click here and buy the book, the tee shirt, the mug.
In my opinion the genre of nature writing is where the future lies for an interesting account of mountains. Six days to get up Everest, I’m cold, I’m tired, my friend retreated because of altitude sickness: I’m not interested. Two days exploring Scafell Pike, I got cold, it snowed, my tent got torn, I bruised my knee, I wore my groovy ABC boots and svelte XYZ jacket: yes, but where is your reflection, your blending of hill experience with the facts of city life, some thinking process elevating walking beyond the merely physical. Rebecca Solnit does this. Richard Mabey does this. Thoreau did it a long time ago. Nan Shepherd did it and so does Robert Macfarlane. If it is only physical you may as well walk in the park. Not challenging? – OK so walk in the park a lot, eight hours a day, and save yourself the thirty or forty thousand pounds it costs to climb Everest. I’m being provocative, I know, and that’s to make a point.
I don’t like all nature writing nor all of Macfarlane’s books. His first and possibly most important, Mountains of the Mind, was for me too much tedious history and not enough philosophy. Yes yes, we get the idea that in previous times people regarded the hills with horror. We understand perfectly well in that respect hill love is cultural conditioning. What we don’t need – I didn’t – is detailed history of this person, and that person, and this Victorian newspaper report and then another to illustrate the very simple premise that a hundred years ago people didn’t like the hills.
What nature writers do however (and Macfarlane blends it with his pedigree as a former mountaineer) is consider relationship, meaning, imagery, poetry. It’s tricky ground because those terms also apply to a kind of hill writing which drives me up the wall with tortuous stuff trying to be a Wordsworth but with limited skill. You recognise it immediately: the tone of it is semi if not overtly religious. It’s not good writing. Speaking as an English graduate and some time teacher I would say it is loosely related to the Romantic tradition which, on analysis, rests on personal emotion presented as something greater. That approach gets cloying unless you hone and edit it very carefully. In terms of style and preference, I’ve recently read a few mountain and outdoor related novels which were refreshingly sparse. I liked it very much, how none of the emotion was described, how they wrote description and plot and the rest was left to your imagination. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier is especially beautiful.
Macfarlane identified Nan Shepherd’s term going into the mountains as particularly important. I agree with that emphasis. It implies a self in action, in relation to environment, and the effect mountains have as we switch from town or city to nature. Shepherd is inescapably linked with Scotland, and the highlands have a uniquely romantic beauty. You can, however, go into Lake District mountains in the same manner as she described; Snowdonia mountains, the Pyrenees, or anywhere you find high mountain walking.
Going into Lake District mountains:
A short video I made trying to encapsulate some of the feeling of mountains, in this case in the Pyrenees:
This is a video encapsulating my feelings about the city and mountain dialectic, filmed in Manchester and the Pyrenees: