The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories
― Carl Jung
Landscape pictures can offer us, I think, three verities – geography, autobiography, and metaphor
― Robert Adams
ChatGPT is artificial intelligence software designed to interact with questions and statements as humanly as possible. The goal is artificial general intelligence (AGI) which according to Elon Musk is some years away. We can ask software to compute a maths or physics problem, compose a plot for a novel. That depends on narrative patterns tracing back to the Odyssey, Iliad, and other works. Achilles is the sulky warrior expert persuaded back into battle, so too Deckard in Blade Runner. The special child, another archetype, appears as Harry Potter, Lyra Belacqua, Ged, Lucy Pevensie, Will Stanton, and biblically.
What we can’t do, at the moment, is interact with a computer as we do in a tea shop. How are you, fine, moving onto work, gossip, politics, health concerns, the book you’ve read, one newspaper said this, another said that, it’s cold today, have you heard the latest from Noel Gallagher and do you think Oasis will ever play again. Human sophistication is extraordinary, and it’s hard to imagine how code could compare. But it’s advancing, using the vast amount of data on the internet as a watchable resource.
Literary markets will suffer because of computer written books and there is, now, concern about ignored talent because it doesn’t fit fashion, personal views, or predicted sales. J.K. Rowling had her first manuscript rejected multiple times before one publisher said, I forget the exact line, “have you got any more” or “send me all of it” which then conjured up an empire.
Outdoor writing is my particular interest. What it consists of, who writes it, how it might develop, and why. I prompted ChatGPT with the words “mountain walk in snow” and the results were fascinating. Artificial intelligence said this:
A mountain walk in the snow can be a beautiful and exhilarating experience. The snow-covered landscape provides a stark contrast to the green forests and fields that are typically associated with mountains, and the cold air can be invigorating. However, it’s important to be prepared when embarking on a mountain walk in the snow. The weather can be unpredictable, and the cold and wet conditions can be dangerous if you’re not properly equipped. Here are some tips for enjoying a mountain walk in the snow safely and comfortably:
Dress in layers. Wearing multiple layers of clothing will help you regulate your body temperature and stay comfortable as you walk. Make sure to wear a base layer of moisture-wicking material, such as synthetic fabric or wool, to keep your skin dry.
Wear appropriate footwear. In the snow, it’s important to wear boots with good traction to prevent slipping. Look for boots with a waterproof membrane and sturdy soles to keep your feet dry and warm.
Bring plenty of water and snacks. It’s easy to become dehydrated in the cold, so make sure to bring plenty of water to drink. It’s also a good idea to bring some high-energy snacks, such as trail mix or granola bars, to keep your energy levels up.
Be aware of the weather. Before setting out on your walk, check the forecast to make sure that the weather is suitable for a mountain walk. Be prepared for sudden changes in the weather, and bring along a map and compass in case you need to navigate your way back to safety.
Take your time. A mountain walk in the snow can be challenging, so don’t be afraid to take breaks as needed. Listen to your body and rest when you need to. This will help you enjoy your walk and stay safe.
If you are an experienced walker, you probably read similar words every year when winter arrives. I knew someone a few years ago leaving Britain to live in Austria. She gave me a clear out collection of walking magazines and we agreed how repetitive they were, and how wonderful it would be in Austria. November is here, talk about snow, using crampons, advertise Rab new season jackets. Spring arrives, talk about lengthening days, Teva sandals for approaching summer, and the importance of hydration.
In Britain there are perhaps thirty walks constantly recycled. Have we done Helvellyn recently? Eight months ago. Do it again. Scafell Pike? In summer but not winter. Do it again. Kinder Scout? Last year but there’s a new book about the Protest. Walk it, write about it, again. It’s the same with photography magazines. If you read them, notice how often you see an article called Back to Basics.
Prompt ChatGPT with “walking in Scotland and you see an eagle in springtime” and it says:
Seeing an eagle while walking in Scotland in the springtime would be a truly special and memorable experience. Eagles are large and impressive birds of prey, and they are a symbol of strength and freedom. In Scotland, the most common species of eagle is the golden eagle, which can be found in the Highlands and other remote areas. Spring is a great time to see eagles, as they are more active and visible during this season. If you are lucky enough to see an eagle while walking in Scotland, be sure to admire it from a safe distance and take care not to disturb it. It’s also a good idea to have a camera or phone with you to capture the moment.
The subject of eagles should be approached in terms of their rarity, but the rest of the text is acceptable. Are they more active in spring? That’s probably correct, as it is with all birds, and an impressive remark when it is computer generated. The scarcity algorithm needs refining, which could apply to many topics. The answer to the growing power of artificial intelligence, taking the place of human creativity, is greater natural intelligence. This means a less specialised story about walking up Snowdon, reporting the experience but with no wider interest. I prompted ChatGPT with “walking Snowdon” and received this:
Walking Snowdon is the name given to the activity of hiking up Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. Snowdon is located in Snowdonia National Park, and it is a popular destination for hikers and climbers. There are several routes to the summit of Snowdon, ranging in difficulty from easy to challenging. The most popular route is the Pyg Track, which starts at the car park at Pen-y-Pass and follows a well-marked path to the summit. The walk to the summit of Snowdon typically takes about 4-6 hours, depending on the route and the fitness of the hikers. It is important to be prepared for the hike, as the weather on Snowdon can be unpredictable and the terrain can be challenging. It’s also a good idea to check the weather forecast and the condition of the trails before setting out.
The first sentence is clumsy but the rest is acceptable. The timing, four to six hours, seems to describe the climb not a full circuit and is not accurate, but that’s true with books. In the Pyrenees I add about a third, sometimes another half, to the time estimate of the writer. It varies according to the person.
What you can’t prompt ChatGPT with is “Snowdon, Nietzsche, and mental health” or “Torridon retreat from society” or “South Downs against anxiety.” All three subjects I could write about meaningfully. If you prompt the artificial intelligence with “South Downs” you are sensibly informed about location, wildlife, walking, and beauty. Add “anxiety” and this is the reply:
I’m sorry, but I am not familiar with the South Downs or with any specific programs or activities that are focused on escaping anxiety in that area. I am a large language model trained by OpenAI, and I do not have the ability to browse the internet or access information about specific places or programs. I can only provide general information on topics that I have been trained on. If you are looking for help with anxiety, it may be helpful to speak with a mental health professional or to seek support from a support group or therapy program.
More sophisticated and literary themes recognise walking as a subject connected to place, but not confined to it. Notable examples of such writing are The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd and Hunger Mountain by David Hinton. The first is influenced by Zen, the second by Taoism, as philosophical frameworks. For human sensibility in relation to nature I also recommend Annie Proulx (Wyoming Stories) Cormac Mcarthy (The Border Trilogy) and Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea).
Computers can’t compute at that level, but it’s the deeper human experience. We don’t stay forever at Moel Hebog in Snowdonia, one of my favourite outdoor names meaning Hill of the Hawk. Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra – and he offers another framework – we have to come down again. The different domains must be humanly reconciled. High and low, grass and concrete, noise and silence: which is poiesis not code.
The photograph is of Loch Leven in Scotland. It was my first walk on a ten day trip, camping at Glencoe then Glen Shiel. I met someone higher up the path who lived in Glasgow. We talked about a few things, one of which was how good it was having easy access to the Highlands. I can reach the Lake District and Snowdonia quite easily I said, the Peak District more so, but they’re not the same. Aye, he said, sometimes I come here for the evening. Spring and summer days are long in Scotland. Light in the air at midnight, an owl in the distance, then waking in a sunshine tent.
I write like this is a magazine column. With research, references, and a lot of time. If you like it, perhaps you would support me.