Mountains of the Mind (with apologies to Robert Macfarlane)

Zahir article number three, this time on mountains in culture.

It is difficult to define what makes climbing a mountain so exhilarating. Perhaps it is simply the relief of the summit, the rest after a long slog uphill. More likely it is the view from the top, the isolation, the independence that makes the walk seem worthwhile. On top of the mountain, you are free. There is a simple metaphor in the difficult ascent that reveals beauty at the end, but it is one that has been repeatedly used in art and literature, inspiring movements, and perhaps explaining elements of our world today. The beauty of the hill is subjective – Robert Macfarlane titled his book on this subject “mountains of the mind” – and it is certainly an idea we project upon it. Yet most mountaineers feel the power.

This awe of the sublime in nature was a key principle of Romanticism, the artists of which are responsible for some of the most perceptive art reflecting the experience and cultural importance of the mountain. It is little surprise that Wordsworth, one of the key English Romantic poets, spent much of his life in the Lake District. More impressive peaks had a similar influence. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein whilst staying in the Swiss Alps and the novel takes clear inspiration from the setting of its composition. One scene encapsulates mountains in the Romantic mind: the monster’s pursuit of Dr Frankenstein across the glacier at Chamonix in the French Alps. This is nature in the raw, scientific arrogance – and human ingenuity – on the run from the force of the landscape, Frankenstein’s hubris apparent when confronted by the Romantic environment. A more philosophical approach comes from the art of Caspar David Friedrich, especially the painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. It shows a walker gazing out across a rocky landscape blanketed in mist, a rugged peak looming in the distance. The contemplation is not necessarily one of intimidated awe, but rather a consideration of the human state, the wilderness providing room for thought. This remains a draw for the modern hiker, a freedom and independence from the bustle of modern life, a retreat from which appreciate life and nature.

The independence found the mountains can be seen in another Romantic work, Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, describing the journeys of Grigory Pechorin, a classic Byronic hero, through the Caucasus. Yet it is not just Pechorin who is independent; the people who inhabit the range are also defined in their freedom by their environment. The Russian state has long sought to centralize the region, from the wars on the nineteenth century that Lermontov and Tolstoy described to the recent conflicts in Chechnya. Perhaps, without resorting to generalisation, we can see autonomy in many mountain communities, a hardy resilience acquired from the awesome landscape in which they live. From the Highlands of Scotland to the Hindu Kush, the inhabitants of upland regions often display a harsh strength in resisting imperial advances. We can see this in the failure of the Russians to fully subjugate the Caucasus, and the repeated failures of superpowers to control Afghanistan. For the people of these expanses, their landscape can also help to define their identity. Mount Ararat is seen as a symbol of Armenia and its independence, a symbol of nationhood and resistance against Russian and Turkish advances. With bitter irony, it now lies within Turkey, tantalising visible from Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. Ararat is also the biblical mountain on which Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest. Perhaps Ararat shows us our relationship with mountains, the power of nature dominating to an extent where we cannot help but be awed by it, the freedom provided by being on the peak enough to imagine humanity can only have escaped from itself in such a place.

A mountain is more than just geological. It has an inspirational place in the human imagination. Perhaps the key feature of the peak that brings together the art and politics it enthuses is independence, the ability of the natural power of mountains to stimulate and terrify. The Romantic awe that we experience has ignited artistic creativity and national development. Few landscapes could galvanise a nation. We need to protect our highlands, for they provide us with both refuge and perspective. They offer rare solitude and opportunity for reflection in our chaotic world, a place to retreat and admire. Yet our admiration is tinged with fear, a sense of insignificance in the face of nature that we would do well to channel, not because we should feel worthless, but because it allows us to see a bigger picture. We should not be Victor Frankenstein, trying to endlessly strive for domination. The mountains can remind us that we are just a part of this world, and our freedom and independence must come within it.

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