Mountain, sea, forest, desert. Each has its devotees, people who repair to them again and again, forsaking all other temptations. For some it’s the wish to test themselves, for others it’s exploration and the lure of the unknown over the brow of the next hill. For some it’s strictly business, for others it is simple pleasure. For me, it’s mountain, hill and moor, for you it could be something else. But why should this be the case? Why is that these places call us – for it is a call and, notoriously and tragically, a siren call for some.
Anyone who has knocked around with climbers for a while will have a similar story. This is mine. I met Yossi Brain at university and he took me climbing a few times. But what for me was a passing interest became for him the key question of his life. So when he survived a 3,000 metre fall off Mont Blanc he had to decide what was more important – climbing or the journalistic career he had set out upon. The mountains won. Yossi gave up his job, moved to South America and became a mountain guide in the Andes, only to perish a few years later in a stupid little avalanche. His climbing partner on Mont Blanc, who also survived the fall that should have killed them both, predeceased him. In Mike Clarke’s case, an overhanging cornice broke off, fell and snapped his neck. Neither man made it to thirty.
What was it that called them out of the normal and the everyday, through the barriers of exhaustion and discomfort that must needs be endured to climb these sorts of peaks, and took them to their early deaths? According to Aristotle, men desire what is good, at least in their eyes, so where is the good in a pile of rock that is as insensible of your ascent as it is of your death?
Perhaps I can sketch out an answer by first tracing the growth of my own passion, one less lethal than that of my friend, but just as unlikely when I think about it. For as long as I can remember, the woods and rivers, moors and hills of England have been my passion. Yet I grew up, and still live, in a city, as do the vast majority of the population. However, my imagination was primed by childhood reading – The Wind in the Willows, Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine adventures (set in real countryside you can visit the author promised in the foreword to each book) and The Lord of the Rings. Each of these provided a vision of an England unknown and, at least in the case of The Lord of the Rings, unknowable, yet the landscapes they described seemed somehow more real than my world of brick and road and car.
Little did my eight-year-old self know that it was setting off down a well-travelled road. ‘It was in fairy-stories that I first divined… the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine,’ wrote Tolkien and though the tales I read were different, they suffused my imagined England with a secret fire.
We do not see the world with virgin eyes, but rather through a lens that has been ground in the ideas and stories and experiences of generations of our forefathers. Only Adam ever saw the world fresh, and he promptly gave names to everything and changed them forever. But the stories we tell are not static. Mountains were once avoided. They were the haunt of demons and dragons, storm and sudden, unexpected danger. They might provide a temporary refuge for the hunted, and a home for the hunter and the shepherd, but they were generally seen as benighted places. Then, as Romanticism took hold, the mountains became places first of inspiration and then of aspiration. The age of the mountain climber had begun, and it soon produced its heroes and its martyrs.
In the early accounts of mountaineering expeditions there is much talk of conquering and exploring, a language in line with the imperial ethos of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Coming more up to date, the themes tend towards the personal: testing your limits and overcoming them, ideas more appropriate for our narcissistic times. In all this we see our shifting cultural mores reflected and refracted in the heights. A number of writers, notably Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind) and Simon Schama (Landscape and Memory), have written about how we construct our view of the natural world and their books are eminently worth reading. But they don’t ask, let alone attempt to answer, why we should fall in love with a particular landscape. It was the desert for Wilfred Thesiger and Edward Abbey, the woods for Henry David Thoreau, the sea for Herman Melville and the cold of the far north for Jack London. Simply reeling them off gives part of the answer: many of these men responded to what was there. Melville was a sailor, Thoreau lived in thickly wooded New England and a young Jack London set off to the Klondike Gold Rush – what else were they going to write about?
But for Abbey it was love and there lies the mystery. Yes, this love was in part a product of his reading and his culture, and shaped by it, but the peculiarity of this sort of affair is that it survives the encounter with brutal reality, and in fact is strengthened by it. Through stories and films it’s relatively easy to get a view of mountains or seas or deserts as romantic places of untrammelled freedom, but the experience of the places themselves is different. Days of exhaustion and cold, seasickness, the flattening heat, all of these should serve to correct the romantic ideal. And, for many, they do. A long traverse of an all too exposed sea cliff with Yossi was enough to put me off climbing. Nothing is better calculated to give the lie to the post-modern fantasy of a constructed reality than a mountain. Try deconstructing your way down that, Derrida.
Perhaps a clue as to why different people are attracted to different landscapes lies in the different methods of approaching those places. Mountaineers and climbers go into lonely places, but they do so in groups or pairs. There is a little remarked aspect of community to climbers, as well as the more familiar personal testing against limits of endurance. And extreme experiences undergone together make for the sort of bond not found elsewhere. So part of the answer as to why climbers are drawn to the mountains may lie here, in the shared encounter with the wild and the high.
Compare this to sailors. A sailor may be alone or with a crew, but the most vital part of his voyage is the boat. This is seen most clearly with solo sailors, when a deep and intimate union is created between man and vessel. Sailing becomes as rhythmical as the ocean’s waves, and this rhythm once found can be hard to let go, most famously in the case of Bernard Moitessier, a contestant in the first round the world, solo, non-stop yacht race. Rather than finish the race, he kept on going, sailing in the end almost twice around the world.
Although these attempts to find a cultural or social key to people’s response to the natural world are illuminating, I still get the impression that they miss something. Beyond everything else, there is a vision. And, yes, I know visions are mediated through culture and environment, but there is still something lurking at the heart of our experience of the natural world and producing our response to it that seems to transcend cultures and times as much as it exemplifies them. For, more than anything else, it’s the sense that we’re encountering something real that drives us up mountains and onto moors and over waves of water and sand. And I would like to suggest that at the heart of this is the sacramental or symbolic nature of these landscapes. Now, hold your horses at the back there. This is not necessarily a religious view, for we need to understand what is meant by the sacramental and the symbolic in this view.
A sign is not a symbol. A sign points at whatever it is signifying, but it partakes in nothing of the thing signified – road signs are good examples of this. But a symbol both points beyond itself and, simultaneously, makes present in a real way that towards which it points. So a wolf both symbolises the wild and makes the wild present. But, hang on, the wolf itself isn’t interested in human concepts of the wild – it has no idea that it now howls out of any number of T-shirts, usually next to a wise old Red Indian shaman – so aren’t we just plastering our human ideas over something to which they do not apply? That would be the usual argument nowadays, an argument strongly if unconsciously rooted in the default position of relativistic thinking that our culture assumes, but I think it is wrong. Let’s take an example from an area in which there is little dispute that human concepts are an accurate reflection of what’s out there in the real world: mathematics. There are three beans on a table. The beans both point beyond themselves to the mathematical concept of threeness and also bring that number to the table. The beans are obviously insensible of their numeric properties, yet they have them. Similarly, the wolf is unaware that it is wild, but it is.
Our cultural tendency to assign a reality to numerical values that we do not give to qualitative ideas goes back to the French philosopher, Descartes, who famously declared that he thought, therefore he was. He less famously, but more influentially, went on to argue that only numbers were real, being measurable, whereas the qualities by which we actually experience the world – things like colour, touch, taste – were purely subjective and thus, by implication, unreal. And so we come, by long and tortured philosophical byways, to a culture that is unsure of the reality of anything.
The natural landscapes represent the antithesis to this. They are really real, and perhaps never more so than when they destroy our carefully constructed imaginings amid a welter of storm and heat and wind. Somewhere deep inside we know the difference between the airy imaginings of our mind and the deep reality of things, and mountains and sea, forest and desert bring us more closely into contact with this deep reality than anything else in our world today. As such, it becomes possible to see why people will pursue this vision to the gates of death.
St Augustine once said that there is a God-sized hole in man, and we cannot rest content until that hole is filled. Even a card-carrying atheist could accept that Augustine is on to something here, for it seems to me that we have a thirst for something more, something beyond the walls of our increasingly constricted and trammelled world, and the land and the sea, in all their various moods and modes, give us that something more, for they truly do make present what they point towards. What Yossi saw on the mountain tops was really there, and although it cost him his life, the vision was not a phantasm but something real. He died, but not for a lie.
The dreams and visions that take us out of our everyday homes and lives and into the wild places are the place where our cultural and personal histories encounter a wider reality that stretches beyond any limits known to us. A mountain is not just a hunk of rock and the sea is more than a lot of water, and these perceptions we have of them are true. We should not be embarrassed of them.