“Mountains are only contingencies of geology.”
The first work I read by Robert Macfarlane was his essay about walking the Broomway. Reading it, I got the sense that this man could write about dragging a shopping cart from his doorstep to the end of the street and could still have people hooked to every word, comma and full-stop. Eventually I got around to reading “The Old Ways- A Journey on Foot” very early on when I moved to Dubai. I love walking and I remember finishing the book with a deep longing to go on a journey along some of the paths that Macfarlane describes in his book.
Only a couple of weeks ago I managed to finally get my hands on his first book ‘Mountains of the Mind’. The full title of the book is “Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination”. The fascination for mountaineering and conquering summits.
“What we call a mountain is in fact a collaboration of physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans- a mountain of the mind.”
The book begins with an account of Macfarlane reading about George Mallory’s ill fated expedition to the summit of Mt Everest as a child in his grandparent’s house and ends with a reconstruction from the author of George Mallory’s actual summit attempts from the letters that he had sent to his wife Ruth Mallory and other accounts. But in between Macfarlane peppers the book with what can be described as the entire history of mountaineering; how people’s attitudes to a sport that “demands some of its participants that they die” have evolved through the centuries and Macfarlane’s own adventures climbing mountains in Scotland and in the Alps.
It was fascinating to read about how people until the 17th century wanted to have nothing to do with mountains- they were only encountered when there was no other way to get from Path A to Path B- a wretched nuisance. But from there, attitudes change over time. Lifestyles and quality of living improves, cities become more urban and people begin perceiving mountains as beautiful. The high places are looked at as being pure and more and more people begin to flock to the mountains. Out of a quest for filling the gaps in our scientific understanding of the Universe at first and then purely for the thrill of it, people begin to climb summit after summit. “Summit fever” catches on despite the high cost that some have to pay.
“We lack wings to fly, but we always have strength enough to fall”- Philip Claudel.
Apart from the final poignant description of Mallory’s attempt to scale Mt Everest, what the author describes as a fatal affair that Mallory had with the mountain, I found descriptions of Macfarlane’s own attempts fascinating. I’m not a mountaineer. I do love the vista of the high places though. Even though I have zero inclination of climbing Everest or any similar peak there was something about the book that made me at least want to go and look at a majestic mountainscape. Some place like Ladkah. I also realised that I’ve never been to the Italian Alps. Only seen them from a distance in a train.
“To understand even a little about geology gives you special spectacles through which to see a landscape. They allow you to see back in time to worlds where rocks liquefy and seas petrify, where granite slops about like porridge, basalt bubbles like stew,and layers of limestone are folded as easily as blankets. Through the spectacles of geology, terra firma becomes terra mobilis, and we are forced to reconsider our beliefs of what is solid and what is not.”
There is something very lyrical and light about Robert Macfarlane’s style of writing and this is indeed one of the pleasures of reading his works. His latest work “The Lost Words” is in fact a kind of poetry/ spell book primarily targeted towards children and including words that have fallen off the Oxford Dictionary because they are no longer used sufficiently by people. You’d be surprised that this list includes words like acorn, bluebell, heron and kingfisher.
Going back to the mountains and in particular Everest. one of my colleagues at work from Sri Lanka had given me a book about her friend who had been the first person from the country to have scaled the world’s tallest mountain in 2016. Going through it right after I read Macfarlane’s book, I was struck by how similar and how different conditions were today compared to nearly 100 years ago when George Mallory made his first attempt to climb the mountain. The mountain itself and the atrocious weathr conditions atop remain the same, but the conditions at least at the base camp for Everest have improved significantly. I was surprised to read that Everest Base Camp includes heated water showers! What a change that must be from Mallory’s times!