Mountains are big, very big, but they are also great. Very great. They have dignity and other aspects of greatness … the smaller we come to feel ourselves compared with the mountain, the nearer we come to participating in greatness.
Arne Naess – The Ecology of Wisdom
In a few days time I am leaving the flat plain of London and driving south to Samoens in the French Alps. Already I feel something shift inside, an upheaval of thought capped with longing. Mountain encounters thread across my life like beads on a necklace. Each bead a moment of turning, or returning.
It all began for me high on the Altiplano of the Bolivian Andes. La Paz, my place of birth, nestles some 3500 metres above sea level, sheltered beneath snow-capped Mt Illimani, towering over 6000 metres above. Eighteen years later, in the wake of my father’s death, I found myself returning to the same South American range in search of Inca ruins and continuity. Solid, stable and unmoving mountains offer the most profound solace. A Sanskrit word for them is a-ga, meaning ‘that which does not go’.
Some ten years later I felt the call again. Now 28 I had climbed my own career mountain and was heading up a large department at Save the Children. It was meaningful work raising funds for projects all over the world, but I felt separated, abstracted from the living world, as though a living core of me was fading. I headed East to Ladakh , “the land of high passes” and jagged arid mountains which lies between the Himalayas and the Kunlu range. Here at a height of more than 3000 metres Buddhist payer flags bless the mountain breeze.
What is this sense of blessing which flows between people and mountains ?
Arne Naess, mountaineer and founder of what has become known as the deep ecology movement, carved his passion for the natural world in the mountains of his native Norway. His writing reveals an equal respect for mountains and for mountain peoples. The first thing we must do, he says, is to get rid of the belief that humankind is something placed in an environment. The mountains and the people share in one ‘gestalt’, one whole, which is alive. In this reciprocal participation we can share in greatness. We feel small in our separateness, but great in our connectedness.
In his book ‘The Ecology of Wisdom’ Naess tells us about the Japanese word inochi which means both ‘life’ and the ‘intrinsic value of all living things’. We lose inochi most obviously by destroying our natural environment or by killing sentient creatures. More insidiously we are perhaps killing inochi in our human lives through the replacement of direct, spontaneous lived experience with representations of reality, mediated through screens and curated by the mass media. Dislocated from the ever changing living world we are in danger of being reduced to ‘things’ devoid of life.
This loss of inochi is not a matter of philosophy for me, it is something I suffer everyday as I struggle to keep myself and my children in the experience of a living world and away from our screens. I fight to save our inochi. Mostly this means I take us to parks, to woods, to rivers, to the sea. Sometimes, as now, the severance requires something greater.
It requires mountains.