The Mountain Aesthetic: An Interview with Robert MacFarlane
While MacFarlane has written many titles on various subjects, this particular interview discusses the mountain aesthetic…our societal interpretation of mountains and the mountain landscape and how religion, philosophy, science, and society have shaped that overall aesthetic. MacFarlane wrote Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination in 2003, which goes into detail on the subject.
The interview (O Altitudo!: An Interview with Robert McFarlane), conducted by Cabinet Magazine author Brian Dillon, touches on a number of key subjects, and while deep and heavy at times, it is still very readable and provides a fascinating glimpse on the views and ideas which have shaped our perception of and interest in mountains and the mountain world.
From da Vinci to Ruskin, Bishop George Berkeley to Descartes, religion to geology to art, MacFarlane runs the gamut of our interaction with the mountain world, offering perspectives and insights not generally covered in back issues of Climbing.
Of the entire interview, I was most struck by MacFarlane’s discussion of Descartes and the aesthetic of "the wonderful". As he notes, many – including Descartes – are filled with a sense of wonder while looking at or climbing upon mountains. And, it is this wonder which drives us to learn more, to understand. As MacFarlane says:
Confronted with a wonder, you are at first astonished, and then you
wish to understand how you came to be astonished: wonder, for
Descartes, is the root of science.
And, I would add, wonder is the root of climbing. To me, wonder has always been the catalyst for my forays into the hills. It is not so much to prove myself, to show what I can do and how fast and well I can do it. (I know my own limits far too well to play that game!).
Rather, when confronted with a mountain landscape – be it a staggering Himalayan peak, a rolling Appalachian hill, or a ribbon of ice in the San Juan Mountains – I find myself nearly overcome with a desire to know. I want to understand the landscape on a fundamental level, to feel it under my feet, to smell and taste the air surrounding it, to see the view from high mountain flanks and humble my very being in the process.
As Mallory so aptly put it in 1918:
We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction…fulfilled a destiny…To struggle and to understand-never this last without the other; such
is the law…
Take a few moments to read MacFarlane’s interview. Give it some thought, and let me know what you think about the mountains and the mountain aesthetic.
What drives you to the hills?
Why do you climb, hike, trek, or just adventure?
To struggle and to understand…
– Jake Norton
is an Everest climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational
speaker from Colorado.