For years, I’ve been a lover of the literature of exploration. I’ve read many books in which men (and some women, but mostly men) hurl themselves at intemperate climates and impossible peaks. In Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane goes about explaining why people do some of these things. What hold do mountains have over us? Why are we so entranced by them, when they are so objectively dangerous — when indeed, hundreds of people die mountaineering each year? How have our perceptions of mountains changed over the years? In what ways do we create mountains in our own image?
Mountains of the Mind is part memoir, part cultural history, and part geology. Macfarlane himself is addicted to mountain-climbing (and it runs in his family: he tells a wonderful story about his grandfather and grandmother, both vigorous mountaineers, who were snowed into a mountain cabin on their honeymoon for three days, “with only a large onion to eat between them.”) His own anecdotes about climbing, often in extremely beautiful and dangerous conditions, make this book vivid and personal — though it would have been fascinating in any case.
Macfarlane makes the geological case that mountains don’t change. Or, no — rather, he makes the case that they change a great deal and all the time, geologically speaking — shooting up from subduction zones, eroding from sharp peaks to softer ones, and grinding into glacial valleys, among other things. But these changes take place over millions and millions of years. In the brief lifespan of a human, mountains look changeless. They are what they are, from one generation to another, and when we encounter them, we encounter their reality: ice, snow, altitude sickness, and often fatal solitude.
But human perceptions change. Macfarlane points out that in the 17th and into the 18th century, mountains were viewed as bleak, dangerous places that no one wanted to climb, excrescences on the landscape. It wasn’t until the advent of the Romantic movement that mountaineering became really popular: the combination of beauty and terror that mountains could provide was the ideal of the sublime (not to mention that brooding Romantic poets look nice on a hill-top.)
Macfarlane also makes the point that the 19th century was the first time that exploration was taking place for the sake of finding new places, rather than for gain. In earlier centuries, it would have been silly to go to a mountaintop merely to conquer it. By the time Amundsen and Scott were racing to the Pole, however, most of the earth had already been mapped. The Victorians eagerly wrote their names on every col, every ridge, and every peak of mountains because they were some of the last blank places left on maps.
One of the heroes of this book is George Mallory, who made three attempts on Everest in the 1920s, and died on that third ill-fated climb. Macfarlane turns his story over and over like a puzzle-box. How could a man with so much at home (a scholarly appointment, plenty of money, friends, a wife he adored, and three children) fall into a deadly love affair with a mountain? What is there about mountains that possesses us? The romance is all one-sided; the mountains are silent.
So what is the value of climbing mountains? “Because they’re there,” to paraphrase Mallory? Macfarlane says that the truest blessing of mountains is that
…they make us ready to credit marvels: whether it is the dark swirls which water makes beneath a plate of ice, or the feel of the soft pelts of moss which form on the lee sides of boulders and trees. Being in the mountains reignites our astonishment at the simplest and most fundamental transactions of the physical world: a snowflake a millionth of an ounce falling on to one’s outstretched palm, water patiently carving a runnel in a face of granite, the apparently motiveless shift of a stone in a scree-filled gully. To put a hand down and feel the ridges and scores in a rock where a glacier has passed tens of thousands of years ago, to hear how a hillside comes alive with moving water after a rainshower, to see late summer light filling mile upon mile of landscape like an inexhaustible liquid – none of these is a trivial experience. Mountains return us to the priceless capacity for wonder which can so insensibly be leached away by modern existence, and they urge us to apply that sense of wonder to our everyday lives.
This book made me ready to credit marvels, too. I saw my local landscape differently after I read it, and I will read my books of exploration differently, too. The cultural history was fascinating, and the geology, and the personality that animated it. Macfarlane is absolutely an author I want to follow.