Mountains by Sandra Horn
I’m writing this towards the end of October. A few days ago, I was standing on the shore of Derwentwater on the Keswick side, looking across at the mountains and feeling my soul expand. Feeling welcomed. Feeling that I belonged. That’s what mountains do. Very often, people talk about how mountains make them feel insignificant, transient. I’ve never felt like that. I feel a strange sort of kinship, as with friends so close and so trusted that it’s as if their arms are around me, words not needed. We know each other. I don’t want to ‘mount an assault’ on them, put spikes in them so I can climb up and ‘conquer’ them, that would be inappropriate and insulting; I just want to visit, to be with them in silent communion. I’m hopeless on heights, start to wobble if my feet are more than six inches from the ground, so I duck out when it comes to going up lighthouses, steeples and the like, but I have braved cablecars, including one with a rotating floor, in order to roam about on Mount Titlis, Etna, Vesuvius, the Schildhorn:
At the top, above the clouds,
icy blue air;
blue fissures in the glacier,
blue shadows move below us –
microlighters, alpine choughs,
and there, only just out of reach
or so it seems, three mighty soaring peaks:
Eider, Jungfrau, Mönch
…and slippery-underfoot shale on Helvellyn, Snowdon, Catbells. I never got to the top on any of them; was content to be there, looking down (from a sitting position).
From: The Life and Art of Clifford Webb by Simon Brett, Little Toller Books
In Tolkien’s works, mountains are almost always terrifying, ugly, and associated with evil – ‘and then he saw, rising black, blacker and darker than the vast shades amid which it stood, the cruel pinnacles and iron crown of the topmost tower of Barad-dûr’ Inside, it’s even worse.
In Eiléan Nί Chuilleanáin’s The Angel in the Stone, she evokes an agonised spirit of the mountains in a fallen, discarded stone:
rampled in the causeway, the stone the builders passed over
Calls out: ‘Bone of the ranked heights, from darkness
Where moss and spiders never venture.
You know what ways I plumbed, past what hard threshold;
‘You see our affliction, you know
How we were made and how we decay. At hand
When the backbone splintered in the sea tide, you have heard
The twang of the waves breaking our bones.
‘You look down where the high peaks are ranging,
You see them flickering like flames –
They are like a midge dancing at evening.
‘Give me rest for one long day of mourning;
Let me lie on the stone bench above the tree-line
And drink water for one whole day.’
It’s like a scream. Both of these writers endow their mountains with powerful negative emotions: terror, suffering. We are being warned off. Perhaps that’s wise; mountains are known to exact a toll of life on the brave and foolhardy who like to pit themselves against nature. Idle softies like me don’t pit themselves against anything. We just wander about in a haze of contentment, feeling at home.
Louis MacNeice, in his beautiful, evocative poem Western Landscape, mourns for that affinity, which he suggests we once had but have now lost: we are ‘ousted from the elemental congress.’
The flock of mountain sheep belong
To tumbled screes, to tumbling seas
The ribboned wrack, and moor to mist;
But we who savour longingly
This plenitude of solitude
Have lost the right to residence,
Can only glean ephemeral
Ears of our once beatitude.
This is an almost universal belief – that once we were part of nature but we lost it (c/f Adam and Eve) by doing something wrong along the way and we are now exiled. That ‘something wrong’ is often depicted as despoiling the natural world. There’s no arguing with that. We have. But still, it welcomes and enfolds us, as a mother with her children – especially in its mountains.