“What we call a mountain is thus in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans—a mountain of the mind.”-Robert Macfarlane, in Mountains of the Mind (2003)
I’m juggling three books at the moment; however, I feel like one of them in particular deserves mention on “Down and Out” because it offers some context to this blog’s latest (and my longstanding) obsessions: mountains and British Romantics. That book? Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003).
Macfarlane sets out in this book to explain how the “ways of imagining mountains have altered over time.” He looks at how—three centuries ago—climbing mountains was once akin to lunacy but is now an acceptable pursuit, and he traces changing attitudes towards mountain landscapes, which were once regarded as both dangerous and unattractive. With climbers and skiers dying in the Alps like flies, I can’t say that the danger in these parts has decreased, but the load of tourists hanging about with cameras dangling from their necks has me thinking that Macfarlane’s right: we are fascinated by the world’s high places, and there’s something about them today that we find beautiful. Macfarlane says that his book “tries to explain how this is possible; how a mountain can come to ‘possess’ a human being so utterly; how such an extraordinary force of attachment to what is, after all, just a mass of rock and ice, can be generated.” He does it by telling us a bit of his own attraction to the mountains as a climber, but he also gives us a good dose of cultural and literary history to go along with it.
Macfarlane’s history includes characters such as Charles Darwin, Thomas Burnet, John Ruskin—and of course Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Shelley. These poets and others were particularly important in bringing the Alps into British consciousness, and their works added to a culture’s fascination with the area. Macfarlane looks at how fascination turns into possession, and then obsession. Climbers eventually focus on obtaining higher and higher peaks, until the world’s highest summit, Everest, is obtained.
Mountains of the Mind is interesting and well researched, a recommended read for those harboring their own mountain fascinations or just interested in learning more about the history of a place.
(Photos from the New Zealand Alps: view from Mt. Earnslaw’s summit ridge at top; and, below, view from Mt. Aspiring descent.)