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.


Susan Price said…
Always love your poems, Sandra, and you've introduced me to poets I might not otherwise have come across. Thanks!
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Sue!
Aargh! It's trampled, not rampled at the beginning of The Angel in the Stone! Sorry for not noticing.
In 1962 I first went to the Canadian Rockies and caught mountains. Since then I've been back again and again, even spending three years in Calgary where I spent every weekend I could hiking, cross-country skiing, and simply looking at mountains. I climbed Mount Cascade which looks down on Banff (yes, it was named after Banff Scotland). It's a couple of meters shy of 3,000, and it scared me so much on my first attempt, I had to come back the next year and finish the business by reaching the summit. I yearned to climb over 3,000 metres -- Mount Temple appealed. But time and life and the difficulty of finding a companion skilled enough to be helpful, but not contemptuous of my acrophobia. This past summer I went back to Lake O'Hara, surely the most wonderful mountain setting in Canada, as an 80th birthday present from my wife. We hiked slowly over trails we had followed in years past. We struggled with slopes up which we had almost run on our last visits. We sat and scanned the high paths that follow the shoulders of the mountains all around the vivid patch of fallen sky that is Lake O'Hara.
Let me commend Earl Birney's David to you. It captures the heady ambition that I shared with the people with whom I first hiked the Yoho mountains of (an Indian word which means what I sounds like: an exclamation of wonder.) If you go to the page for the poem, you'll find an essay about the way people confuse fact and fiction.
I can't find a copy of another of Birney's mountain poems, but I remember a couple of lines: "He lived at the base of a mountain so huge that when he looked at it his mind slowed."
Thank you for your blog. It gave me great pleasure to share the wonder of friendly/deadly, inspiring/horrifying mountains that remain so vivid in my mind. Seymour Hamilton
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you so much, Seymour! 80th birthday! Respect to you! It's great to hear from a fellow devotee.
Reb MacRath said…
Thanks for the lovely post, Sandra. And for touting Louis MacNeice, who should be far better known. One of my favorite poets.

Popular posts

I, Wyatt Earp--Hell's Angel by Reb MacRath

What God Said (or why I enjoy writing programme notes) by Julia Jones

So rich and so strange -- Ruth Leigh

Authors Electric, 10 years and counting... Katherine Roberts, Susan Price, Debbie Bennett

Dan Rhodes' Hilarious Rage Against Publishing by Andrew Crofts