Human Sympathies.

From: On Cambrian and Cumbrian Hills (1908)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Arthur C. Fifield 1908 London

Human Sympathies.

  IT is not to be denied, I suppose, that there are times and moods, however transient, when the mountains, by their very strength and sufficiency, which seem to conflict with the more fragile boon of human sympathies, are oppressive even to their worshippers, for, as the author of “Ionica” has written—

The pitiless mountain stands so sure,
The human breast so weakly heaves;
That brains decay, while rocks endure,
At this the insatiate spirit grieves.

This, however, is but the sick fancy of a moment, for to the healthy spirit there is a strong human element in the mountain life; and if the sojourner among mountains is not made aware, as was Thoreau in the woods, “of the presence of something kindred, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary,” it is clear that he has mistaken his calling. Not, of course, that it is not delightful, at times, to travel in company on the hills, or that we do not enjoy those casual meetings with friendly spirits under conditions where the stiffness of first acquaintance is relaxed; but it is the test of the true love of mountains to be able to dispense with society, and if there is a charm, as Mr. Girdlestone has taught us, in the study of the “High Alps without Guides,” why not also in that of the lesser Alps without companions?

  I know that solitary climbing is deprecated by experts, for, as Mr. Charles Pilkington points out, in his essay on Hill Climbing in the British Islands, “it is never well to ascend an out of the way hill alone; a knee can easily be twisted or an ankle sprained, and what if this happened in the solitudes of Camedd Llewelyn? “And another writer, Mr. M. Paterson, refers ominously to the danger of becoming a prey “to the hawks and crows”; but, on the other hand, it has to be remembered that he who journeys by himself is likely for that very reason to be the more wary, and it seems reasonable to conclude that there is at least less risk in climbing a desert mountain alone than in scaling dangerous rocks in a party. Anyhow, as the cragsmen say of their own sport, the risk is worth taking.

  For however delightful may be the fellowship of friends when well mated, there are occasions in mountain walking when it is even better to be alone. I am here reminded of the unlucky adventures of a friend, who, having gone to the highlands with two companions, of whom, as it proved, the one stammered and the other limped, afterwards conveyed to me in a sentence—“Brown couldn’t talk, and Smith couldn’t walk”—the tragedy of his wasted excursion; nor, perhaps, is the chance intercourse with other climbers often of a very memorable character, as when we fall in with some descending tripper or condescending cragsman, .the former of whom will ask us whether we have ever been on Snowdon before, and will assure us as to the quality of the refreshments served at the top, while the interest of the latter in our doings will visibly wane, when he learns that we do not propose to ascend by some grisly gully.

  But apart from the incidental disadvantages of companionship, I would maintain—I trust not paradoxically—the humanizing effects of solitude. There are unfrequented ranges, such as the Eskdale side of Scawfell, or the Aber side of Camedd Llewelyn, where one may walk for twelve hours together without meeting a human being; indeed, the loneliness of the Welsh hills is now even greater than it used to be, since the “hafodtai” or upland farmsteads, where the herdsmen camped out during the summer months, have been abandoned; and the present concentration of both tourists and climbers on certain favoured spots makes the silence all the deeper elsewhere. Thus it is that the pilgrim who is neither tyro nor expert, and therefore not dependent on the companionship of others, on account either of his own incapacity or of the arduous nature of his task, is able on the mountains to profit by a rare form of intercourse which, in the hurry and bustle of modern life, has become increasingly difficult; he can exchange ideas (if he has any) with himself. His surroundings are such as to quicken and foster such self-converse, not by the morbid introspection of the solitary—for, rightly regarded, there is no such thing as solitude among the hills—but by the liberating influence which these scenes exert both on the body and on the mind.

  Nor must it be supposed that there is any taint of moroseness or misanthropy in this mountain seclusion; the contrary, rather, is the case, and the human sympathies are perhaps all the stronger because they are not expressed but implied. In Keats’ words—

But what, without the social thought of thee,
Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?

  Tender human relationships need space to grow in, and the self-withdrawal which allows a fuller, because a freer view of them, does not lessen but rather fosters their tenderness, even as we may understand the hills themselves the better if we sometimes watch them from afar; and it is just this gift of space and freedom that we find in mountains as nowhere else. Therefore it is true, in Muir’s words, that “the darkest scriptures of the mountains are illumined with bright passages of love that never fail to make themselves felt when one is alone.”

  Again, if the mountains can teach us to feel more deeply, they can also help us more effectively to think. I have heard mountaineering deprecated by a learned scholar as having too much of the “animal” in it; but that, of course, depends on the distinction which has been drawn between walking with the body only and walking also with the mind. The mountains certainly are not a thinking-shop; we do not go to them to follow a train of thought, or to solve a mathematical problem, but when we return from them we should be able to think the better, for in their company we have stood face to face with those great natural forces which are the best and most elemental educators of heart and mind alike. As Wordsworth’s” Solitary” said of the “two huge peaks,” that overlooked his hermitage—

Thoughts are not busier in the mind of man
Than the mute agents stirring there.

  For, rightly spent, what we call “a day upon the mountains” is in truth an eight or ten hours’ enfranchisement from a mortal obsession. Our chains fall from us-the small cramping chains of lifelong habit-and we go free. We awake out of the deadly torpor of our everyday “occupations,” and we live. And excellent as is the physical exaltation of climbing—the toil and triumph of the ascent—there is also an intellectual and spiritual element in the mountain-passion, which can lift us out of ourselves, and show us, from a higher plane of feeling, as no mere book-knowledge can do, the true proportions and relations of things. One cannot walk in such regions, consciously, without enlargement of thought. There are heights and valleys which, to those who seek them in a sympathetic spirit, are better “seats of learning” than any school or university in the land; there are days when the climber seems to rise into a rarer mental as well as visual atmosphere, and to leave far below him the crass cares and prejudices of commonplace life.1

  In this sense the humanities of thought do not wither, but rather are fostered and strengthened, in the loneliness of the hills, and the hills themselves, when approached in a fit spirit, become a living inspiration, which enables us the better to know and value our fellow-beings of flesh and blood. “Would that I could give the world some clue to apprehend these strange weird companions of my life, in their higher teachings and ideals. Painters give them up in despair, as impossible, unrenderable; and they have yet to be described in their subtle powers of thought-giving and helpful teaching.” So wrote to me a friend who had dwelt for many years under the shadow of a mighty mountain range.

  It is not surprising, therefore, that poets and nature lovers have ever looked to the mountains for the ideal of freedom in all its forms, freedom of nationality, of character, of manners, of thought. As Shelley wrote—

Our simple life wants little, and true taste
Hires not the pale drudge Luxury, to waste
The scene it would adorn, and therefore still
Nature, with all her children, haunts the hill.

  Here, again, is the tribute of Elisée Reclus—

  The mountaineer has become such as he is beneath the influence of his surroundings; the fatigue of the ascents and toilsome descents, the simplicity of his food, the rigour of the winter’s cold, the struggles with hardships, have made an exceptional man of him, have imparted to him carriage, gait, and movements very different from those of his neighbours in the plains. Besides this, they have endowed him with a mode of thinking and feeling which distinguish him; they have reflected in his mind, as in that of the sailor, something of the serenity of great horizons; in many places also they have guaranteed him the inappreciable treasure of liberty.

  To which may be added the judgment of Thoreau: “A mountain chain determines many things for the statesman and philosopher. How often is it a barrier to prejudice and fanaticism! In passing over these heights of land, through their thin atmosphere, the follies of the plain are refined and purified; and as many species of plants do not scale their summits, so many species of follies no doubt do not cross the Alleghanies.” In like manner one thinks of Richard Jefferies’ description of the influence of the high down-lands on his youthful spirit: “There fell away from my mind, as the leaves from the trees in autumn, the last traces and relics of superstitions and traditions acquired compulsorily in childhood: always feebly adhering, they finally disappeared.”

  And in the same connexion one recalls Ruskin’s testimony: “Whatever might be my common faults or weaknesses, they were rebuked among the hills; and the only days I can look back to as, according to the powers given to me, rightly or wisely in entireness spent, have been in sight of Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, or the Jungfrau.”

Even the poet of pessimism, when in quest of an image of unconquerable courage and endurance, has recourse to the mountains, and it is to them that he turns the gaze of the Titanic figure of his Melencolia2

Over the river with its isles and bridges,
The marsh and moorland, to the stem rock-ridges,
Confronting them with a coeval mien.

Alike to those who are in joy or in sorrow, in hope or in despair, the mountains are the symbol of strength.

  But why, it may be asked, is the mountain lover a “pilgrim” only? Why does he not aspire to be a lifelong anchorite, and to dwell among these objects of his devotion? Well, there are some who have done so; in the minds of others, perhaps, there is the thought that such temples are for them a place not of dwelling but of sojourn, and that it is fitter not to bring one’s daily cares and sorrows past the mountain gates, but to put them off, like shoes from the feet, before standing on the holy ground. We read that among the early tourists in North Wales there were some who were so appalled by the ascent of Snowdon that they “inveighed against attempting so arduous an undertaking in boots.”3 While not advising the modern pilgrim to walk barefoot, I think that the warning, metaphorically taken, is a sound one; for it is well, when we seek these mountain altars, to go untrammelled and disencumbered, as far as may be, of the impedimenta of the mind.

  It may be possible, too, in the truest sense to “live” among the mountains, while we are dwelling very far away; for where the heart is, there in reality is the home. Looked at in this light, the lowlands may be our “office,” our “place of business,” while our “private residence,” far from posts and telegraphs, is all the time in the more truly residential district of crag and cloud; and certainly, if memory be a sure guide, it is there that some of us must be living, for a single day upon the mountains makes more impression on our memory than a year upon the flat, so that going to the mountains is always, as Muir says, “like going home.” Indeed, I have sometimes fancied that this “other country” of the hills and fells has become to me what their coelica mansio was to the monks—a home to be best enjoyed and anticipated in thought; so that in that sense, walking in faith and imagination on those Cambrian and Cumbrian hill-tops, I have been able to exclaim with old Bernard of Cluny—

O bona patria, num tua gaudia teque videbo?
O bona patria, num tua proemia plena tenebo?
Spe tamen ambulo, proemia postulo, speque fideque;
Illa perennia postulo proemia nocte dieque.

Where, too, may those who have loved the mountains in their life find a fitter resting-place when dead? “Having lived chiefly in a mountainous district,” said De Quincey, “I rather cleave to the conceit that a grave in a green churchyard, amongst the ancient and solitary hills, will be a sublimer and more tranquil place of repose for a philosopher”; and the same writer has recorded as the most affecting human suicide within his knowledge the fate of a youth who “walked up Latrigg, a dependency of Skiddaw—made a pillow of sods—laid himself down with his face looking up to the sky—and in that posture was found dead, with all the appearance of having died tranquilly.”

  Best of all, there is that beautiful stanza in Scott’s “Helvellyn” on the death of the pilgrim whose body was guarded by his dog.

But meeter for thee, gentle lover of Nature,
To lay down thy head like the meek mountain lamb,
When, wildered, he drops from some cliff huge in stature,
And draws his last sob by the side of his dam.
And more stately thy couch by this desert lake lying,
Thy obsequies sung by the grey plover flying,
With one faithful friend but to witness thy dying,
In the arms of Helvellyn and Catchedicam.4

There is much pathos in hearing, as one still hears at times in lonely homesteads, of shepherds “starved” on the fells; yet I have thought that for one weary of life there could be no more blissful ending than to die quietly in some lonely spot among the mountains, and so spare his friends the task of burying him.

  Here, then, is the function of mountains in relation to human life. To every one there is opened (if he knows it) his own doorway for stepping out into space—for detaching himself for a time from the heavy environment of customary thought. To many it is music that furnishes this passport; to others poetry; to some few the philosophic reverie, or deliberate practice of the yoga. I have ventured to speak of mountain climbing in a similar relation, and to suggest that, in certain aspects, it is indeed a form of ecstasy, a standing above, and out of, oneself. The mind, no less than the body, has its Snowdons and its Helvellyns—its Crib Gochs and its Striding Edges—and when we climb them we may rise superior, not only to the visible landscape but to ourselves, and survey from a new vantage-point the low-lying flats and pastures, or shall we say the tablelands (too often literally so), of our own tastes and habits. How many astronomers are busily intent on surveying the Mountains of the Moon! And shall we not devote at least equal attention to these Mountains of the Mind, which are far nearer, clearer, and more real to us? Their secret, maybe, we shall never fully read; it is at least our privilege to have guessed at it.

  Thus it is that these our British highlands are sacred ground to some of us. We have gone on pilgrimage to them again and again, until the association has become, in a manner, a personal one; for there are instinctive sympathies with places as with people, and to many, as to myself, the connexion with certain mountains has been a deep and lasting influence. How many days, amounting to months and years of my life, have I spent in their company; and how often have I been keenly conscious of their presence, even when living far away from them in the din and dust of towns! Going back to these mountain shrines, after long and unwilling absence, we find that in heart we have never left them at all.


1 “I suppose that I feel the same awe when on their summits that many do on entering a church. To see what kind of earth that is on which you have a house and garden somewhere, perchance! It is equal to a lapse of many years. If you have been to the top of Mount Washington, let me ask, what did you find there? Going up there and being blown on is nothing. We never do much climbing while we are there, but we eat our luncheon, etc., very much as at home. It is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if ever. What did the mountain say? What did the mountain do?”—Thoreau.
2 The City of Dreadful Night, by James Thomson (“B. V.”).
3 Excursions in North Wales, W. Bingley, 1839.
4 I make no apology for quoting the verse; but if any excuse be needed, let it be found in the fact that in a popular guide-book to the English Lakes, edited by a man of letters, there are just fourteen misquotations in the poem “Helvellyn” as printed, from which I conclude that it still deserves to be better known!

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