Saturday, March 27, 2010

Books in my life: men and their madness for mountains

Mountains of the mind: adventures in reaching the summit. By: Robert Macfarlane. 
[Vintage Books: 306 pp.]

Mountains fascinate me no end, yet, I do not have the you-know-what to be a mountaineer. Altitude drives a peg in my cranium—the pump climbs behind the eyes and works overtime. The vacuum in the rib cage yawns like a chasm.

Occasionally I pick up a book that propels me beyond the stable plain of my flatland existence into the oxygen-starved realm of men, and their madness for mountains.

In the much-acclaimed Mountains of the mind, Macfarlane delves into the psyche of why men climb mountains. The work has as many insights into our characters, as it has descriptions of climbs, and vistas of vertical landscape. It speaks of the pursuit of fear, the concept of geologic time, the fascination for new landscape, and the foolhardy conquest of unbelievable pain, and suffering, both, of those who climb, and those they leave behind—sometimes forever.

One climbs a mountain first in the mind, then physically. It’s a slow process; cannot be rushed, and every climber has to come to terms with time and space that are sculpted and scrubbed over millennia into the ‘aesthetics of inordinate slowness’ (p. 44).

The sense of geologic time that he conveys is what I would like to leave you with. For the entire journey up a mountain, through human history, you will need to read the book.

‘To understand even a little about geology gives you special spectacles through which to see a landscape. They allow you to see back in time to worlds where rocks liquefy and seas petrify, where granite slops about like porridge, basalt bubbles like stew, and layers of limestone are folded as easily as blankets. Through the spectacles of geology, terra firma becomes terra mobilis, and we are forced to reconsider our beliefs of what is solid and what is not. Although we attribute to stone a great power to hold time back, to refuse its claims (cairns, stone tablets, monuments, statuary), this is true only in relation to our own mutability. Looked at in the context of the bigger geological picture, rock is as vulnerable to change as any other substance.

‘Above all, geology makes explicit challenges to our understanding of time. It giddies the sense of here-and-now. The imaginative experience of what the writer John McPhee memorably called “deep time”—the sense of time whose units are not days, hours, minutes or seconds but millions of years or tens of millions of years—crushes the human instant; flattens it to a wafer. Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face, in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures too extensive to envisage. And it is a physical as well as cerebral horror, for to acknowledge that the hard rock of a mountain is vulnerable to the attrition of time is of necessity to reflect on the appalling transience of the human body’. (p. 43).


KB said...

I have read the book a year ago and loved it. Asheesh, guess, we share similar feelings about mountains too!! Thanks for this wonderful review.

Sheetal said...

wow. wow!
I haven't the you-know-what either. I tried a mountain once and felt beaten. I don't mean defeated (it wasn't by any means a battle) but like someone had taken a stick to me.

But I do remember vividly the landscape - the physical and mental landscape - I ventured into.

Sharada said...

They allow you to see back in time to worlds where rocks liquefy...blankets and Although we attribute to stone...our own mutability.

Nothing moves you like the mountains, I guess. Wow! Thanks for the awesome review. Will look for a copy at Landmark.

I admit Snowball Earth by Gabrielle Walker is the only other geologically oriented book I've read in the past but it brought the same feeling in me that Mcfarlane summed up here. Utterly Wow. :)