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Mount Rundle as captured in 1949 by Walter J. Phillips, an artist who came for a visit and stayed 20 years. (Collection of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies)
Mount Rundle as captured in 1949 by Walter J. Phillips, an artist who came for a visit and stayed 20 years. (Collection of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies)

Ian Brown: Why we are so drawn to the magnitude and beauty of mountains Add to ...

Mountains have this macro-scoping effect. The weather can shift and turn circumstances deadly on 10 minutes’ notice, even on a mountain highway: You have to pay attention and plan for a range of eventualities. The reward for such deliberateness is both a sense of being able to handle yourself and resignation in the face of inevitable change and random chance. When Eduard Feuz was helped up to the high country for a last visit before he died in 1944, he stood and called out goodbye to each of the surrounding peaks. I can only imagine how devastated he must have been, knowing that he would never return to that clean, pure, practical place.

The outside world breaks through the protective ring of the mountains regardless. From Banff, via Twitter and cable and website, last week’s bombings in Boston were clearly horrific but somehow seemed to lack the conviction of international terrorism. (Deaths notwithstanding, the maiming they caused may be the most persistent legacy of the Tsarnaev brothers, their most potent symbol.) Everyone in Banff seemed to have watched the footage, but – as was not the case in cities in the East – no one mentioned it unless I brought up the subject. Maybe it was because Boston is a long way from Banff. Or maybe the mountains make you private.

One evening while I was asking people why mountains mattered, I had dinner with Charles Noble, a well-known western poet, and Dave Eso, an emerging one. Mr. Eso is in his 30s and was taking part in a workshop for experimental spoken-word poets at the Banff Centre. He admired the work of Mr. Noble, who is in his 60s and is a part-time Banff resident, and had invited him to dinner at the centre. The poets in the seminar were lively types, working on monologues and performance pieces and songs about such subjects as fear and drunken dates and what it means to say “I love you,” especially prematurely.

Charles and Dave are intimidating conversationalists. They talked about Marx and Heidegger. They talked about forms of rhetoric, about how sometimes experimental poets want to avoid “intentionality” or any appearance that they are doing anything so dorky as actually “writing” a “poem,” because that way they might attain a less artificial authorial stance and hence deeper feeling. Poetry is a brainy pastime, especially these days.

Suddenly, I realized that experimental poets and people who like to look up at mountains are doing the same thing, just in opposite directions: The poets try to take something abstract, like an idea, and make it concrete, whereas admirers of mountains try to take something huge made of rock and ice and snow and turn it into an abstraction they can carry around in their minds, a mental key chain from a place that is hard to get to but gorgeous to think about.

I suppose what the mountains seduce us with, in the end, is the promise of solitude – the chance to get where hardly anyone gets to go, up high, to the top, alone. Among the high peaks, the promise whispers, you will finally have a chance to think for yourself, to be an individual, beholden to no one, and nothing, and no event – a ridiculous fantasy that has been criticized by Freudians and philosophers as the irresponsible selfishness of thrill-seekers and introverts and narcissists.

In 1972, in a paper entitled Psychopathology in Alpinism in the Canadian Alpine Journal, a group of researchers concluded that the “mean personality type” of alpinists displayed “schizothymic features and a tendency to avoid contact with other persons.” As if that were a bad thing.

But mountains also make you humble. They remind us how much we need to experience beauty, and how rarely we do; of how crushing it can be not to get where you always longed to go, and how that disappointment can make you deeper. They remind us how carelessly we surrender our privacy and our solitude to the phone, the screen and the keyboard, and to others.

I know Elder Tom and the Blackfoot say there is nothing at the top of the mountain, but that presumes nothing has no value. Because this is the other thing: When I step out on my tiny balcony to see those peaks, I often remember poet Mary Oliver’s questioning of “the empty spaces of the wilderness:” For something is there,/ Something is there when nothing is there but itself,/ that is not there when anything else is.

“Formless yet palpable,” as she put it, “Very shining, very delicate. Very rare.” Something you need to believe still exists when you return to the flat, hot, terrified city.

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