We simply need wild country available to us...for it (is) a part of the geography of hope - Wallace Stegner
I went to see the film Mountain for words as much as visual thrill. If you know Robert Macfarlane from Landmarks, The Old Ways, The Wild Places or The Lost Words, you may have missed Mountains of the Mind. It was his first book and my first. I‘ve looked at it again and enjoyed it anew. Mountain is arguably a continuation of that book blended with film and music. It also expands on the book, showing different endeavour with exceptional drama. The audience around me was mostly silent, but with occasional gasps.
I’m a walker-photographer not a climber but most of us have sympathetic understanding of mountaineering. Hike the Alps, Pyrenees, Scotland, Wales and similar for years, and you will taste fear with unsought moments of technical difficulty. Your feet slip in precarious footholds, you balance across a dangerous ridge, you navigate scree which, if it slips, won’t kill you directly but will cut, bruise, break bones. I know what it’s like to feel you might die in the wintry Lake District, which is usually gentle. “Knowing that at any minute you could die” is one of the poignant lines of the film.
Robert walks, ambles, and also climbs. It’s fascinating seeing the progression in his books from big mountains to paths in soft southern England. He doesn’t talk at length about personal experience in Mountains of the Mind, but mentions losing friends to high rocky places. I got the feeling he felt the need to mellow and diversify. Nature is a spectrum whether it’s Everest, a South Downs path, or goldfinch charms in The Lost Words. Which is not to say he no longer climbs; I understand he was recently climbing in Norway.
I can’t accurately speak for others but feel this mellowing myself. I walk big mountains but also like afternoon ambles and weekend day walks. The photography is different but can be equally satisfying. Big mountains are, however, part of our imagination even if we don’t climb them. Everest, Robert says in the film, was a turning point. After Hillary and Tenzing Norgay the fascination, walking and climbing grew.
Mountains of the Mind is a historic account of the attraction of high places which hasn’t always existed. Those ideas are part of the film. Partly too, the film narrative explores the conflicts and magnetism of danger. We hear about the opposites of holy and hostile, peril and beauty, and the fact that three hundred years ago mountain exploring was viewed as lunacy. It is “a kind of madness” Willem Defoe reads, but a “siren call” we can’t resist. We live in “arranged environments” and seek the “wild and ungovernable” to discover different parts of ourselves. The film begins with Nietzsche: "Those who dance are considered mad by those who cannot hear the music".
Mountain has sumptuous phrasing, a beautiful orchestral score, and startling imagery. Mountains are a source of both “danger and allure.” They have “unspeakable beauty.” They are a “testing ground on which the self can best be illuminated.” As a hiker I don’t feel any attraction for biking, base jumping or skiing but those are unforgettable moments in the film. Downhill on snowboards and skis, falling through sky with parachutes and flying suits, walking a cable stretched across stark precipitous summits. We hear of the struggle to do what no one else has done, the “crowd control” trips up Everest which are no longer exploration and the unsettling fact that those who risk most are those who have the least. As we hear this in the film, we watch Sherpas carrying backpack loads.
The film concludes with poignant philosophy, soft music, ravishing views. “Anyone who has been among mountains knows their indifference...In small measures this feeling exhilarates." Back from the mountains “you can feel like a stranger” with experiences you can’t communicate. Mountains are ancient and “time has flown over you but left its shadow behind.” They are indifferent but “shift the way we see ourselves (and) restore our wonder.” The final words echo Stegner: “Mountains...want nothing from us (and) more than ever we need their wildness". It's a pleasure seeing Robert bring so much focus onto inert geography from such rich sources. Walk the hills (I do) and think about why you do it.