Mountain Ideas: Culture And Freedom Friday October 25, 2013

I read Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind maybe eight years ago. It’s sub-titled A History of a Fascination which I didn’t like. It’s a study, not of the idea of cultural conditioning and what that means, but how in different times and places people have felt and written about mountains differently. This climber did it first and led the way, reporting back and telling everyone he’d enjoyed it. That climber or walker was described in a Cumbrian newspaper as a daring but foolish pioneer for attempting Scafell Pike: that kind of thing.

What interests me more is the concept he considers as opposed to documenting it historically. Further, I think there’s a “something” about mountains which it’s possible to recognise and describe in some tentative way, which doesn’t reduce down to relativist sociology. I can’t ‘prove’ this or substantiate it and won’t attempt to: this is more a statement about my hill interests and how they coincide with my photography.

Macfarlane probably wasn’t the first to make the point that perception or appreciation of mountains is culturally conditioned but he did it eloquently and skilfully. He cites Wordsworth as a pivotal influence. Prior to Wordsworth and other Romantics the Lake District was apparently regarded as a place of horror inspiring dread not pleasure. Wordsworth is sometimes described as the ‘mountain poet’ and for good reason. His life and his work were embedded in the Lake District and some of his most famous poems make direct reference to the place.

I’ve asked the question, if I’d lived before Wordsworth would I have walked and enjoyed the hills. Probably not, because I don’t think I’d have the derring-do character of the first “pioneers” when it ran contrary to common opinion. In that respect I acknowledge my love of the hills is culturally conditioned insofar as I was introduced to the hills – and the Lake District was my first area of exploration – through the medium of pictures and the culture of hill walking. I bought a little second hand book for ten pence. The cover was torn but it didn’t matter because the photographs were intact. It’s possible I still have it lurking in a dusty cupboard but unlikely, because I haven’t seen it for years. As I explored the Lake District year after year I bought about thirty photographic books. I don’t have a collector personality but liked the idea of collecting those books: any I saw in the tourist shops which I liked. Nowadays I take my own photographs.

Alongside this I learnt more about the craft of hill walking which included seminal magazine moments. Chris Townsend wrote, many years ago, big heavy boots derive from the alpine tradition and usually aren’t needed in Britain. He explained how weight is a hugely important consideration, for boots and all the rest of your kit. That’s where I heard about this idea and then discovered it was correct from my own experience. I’ve since learnt there’s an interesting history of lightweight walking and people did it decades ago before Goretex, eVent, and Silnylon existed. It was idiosyncratic and against the trend, making your own kit while hill walking was even more alpine style than it is today. In my early walking years I never considered weight. Few people were talking about it or understood why it was important. There’s now a slight division in the outdoor community where one group fully adopts the light weight approach and the other is more traditional. TGO magazine represents the former whereas Trail magazine has, in recent years, expressed slightly unfavourable remarks about the topic. It’s a matter of preference not right, wrong, fashionable or unfashionable, but it gets discussed like a trend with too little emphasis on the individual. You have to find what you want in terms of comfort, weight, protection and cost and nothing else matters.

Two years ago I met a chap at a Glen Shiel camp site who was the most enthusiastic highland walker I’ve ever known. Curiously, I met him again last year as we both climbed Slioch on a wonderful blue sky day. He was half way through his second Munro round and had visited around sixty Scottish islands. We spoke of books and magazines but not kit. He objected to the remark of a well known writer who said if you don’t experience bad winter conditions you’re only “half a walker” in Scotland. “Well then I guess I’m only half a walker” he said ironically, because it was clearly not the case. He preferred the sparse details of Scottish Mountaineering Club books to any which express an opinion. I’d said Slioch was overlooked in my books but we agreed it was a superb hill: his second time there, my first. We spoke of magazines and he told me he never reads them. His kit, I noticed, was nothing special, more Blacks and Millets than Patagonia or Arcteryx. He was a far stronger walker than me despite my light sandals compared to his boots. Light kit works for me partly because I struggle with a big load. For him it didn’t matter and he wasn’t interested in innovations or trends or gossip. At work, he told me, he also kept his hill love to himself. It was a private interest not cultural.

My early hill walking was cultural conditioning because other people enjoyed the Lake District and portrayed the area seductively and kit advice assisted me. This doesn’t mean however my enjoyment of the hills is conditioned, as such, when I actually walk them. It’s a subtle idea.

I relate to the hills mentally in terms of ideas about geography, route, expectations, and knowledge which is based on experience. I relate to them emotionally in terms of the pleasure and joy of walking which for me is substantially aesthetic. I relate to them physically, obviously, in terms of walking. These are experiences, sensations, movements, moments, impressions, which you can’t describe as culturally conditioned. It makes no sense: it’s a subtle idea.

What I find especially interesting is the subtle unhooking process where I leave society behind and its corrosive internal effects. My mind settles. After a few days in the hills the worries I carried there dissolve. My emotions are calmed. The clean vital air feels not so much a tonic, after a few days, as a natural condition. As such, city pollution is an aberration which conditions me whereby I want to escape it. I sleep well. After a long trip I like returning to a bed but given the choice I would remain in my tent: in the hills, on the grass, immersed in nature, free from conditioning.

Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West. More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. At bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans. Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made – Robert Macfarlane.

Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame
― W.B. Yeats