Watched this after a friend sent it. What a film and what prose. Willem Dafoe reading from Robert Macfarlane’s book “Mountains of the Mind”:
Yeah, no, I’ll be good with this.
Okay, I’m ready.
To those who are enthralled by mountains,
their wonder is beyond all dispute.
To those who are not, their allure is a kind of madness.
What is this strange force that draws us upwards,
this siren-song of the summit?
Only three centuries ago, setting out to climb a mountain
would have been considered an act of lunacy.
The idea scarcely existed that wild landscapes
might hold any sort of attraction.
Mountains were places of peril, not beauty.
An upper world to be shunned, not sought out.
How then have mountains now come to hold us spellbound,
drawing us into their dominion,
often at the cost of our lives?
Because the mountains we climb
are not made only of rock and ice,
but also of dreams, and desire.
The mountains we climb are mountains of the mind.
To humans, high mountains were once considered the home
of either the holy or the hostile.
There was nothing in between.
A realm to be revered from below, but never entered.
Go around mountains if necessary, along their flanks,
but not up them,
for only gods and monsters dwelled at height.
The upper world was a sacred landscape
to which we directed our devotion, and our rituals of awe,
but always from a safe distance.
Daily life brought ample hardship and danger.
There was no need to seek out more.
Gradually, though, the dragons and divinities
were put to flight and our feelings toward mountains
underwent an astonishing change.
Fascination replaced trepidation.
Adventure replaced reverence.
As cities grew and we insulated ourselves away from nature,
the mountains called us back.
The magic of mountains strengthened: their fierce beauty,
their power to enchant, their challenge.
We went in search of places
that were intimidating and uncontrollable,
that inspired in us the heady blend of pleasure and terror,
which we came to call the sublime.
This search for the sublime drew us outwards and upwards.
The great peaks of the world
began to exert a force upon the imagination.
A siren song that was easy to hear, hard to resist,
and sometimes fatal.
But legends of death in high places
spread the spell of the mountains wider still.
Slowly, the blank spaces on the maps were filled in.
The imperial aim was to grid, girdle
and name the upper world,
to bring it and its peoples
within the realm of the known and the owned,
to replace mystery with mastery.
And the greatest mystery of them all: Everest.
And so began the campaign to vanquish it.
Everest was placed under siege
until, at last, it succumbed.
This was the moment that mountaineering as adventure
entered the popular imagination.
Our fascination became an obsession.
Now our need for mountains runs deep and wide.
For most of us exist for most of the time
in environments that are humanly arranged, and controlled.
But mountains are wild and ungovernable.
This is the source of their danger
and also the source of their allure.
And so, a longing for the unknown beckons us onwards.
Like Echo’s Cave, the unknown will answer back
with whatever you call into it.
To travel to the high peaks is to cross a threshold
into a space where time warps and bends,
and sensations are thrillingly amplified.
Stone and ice, though, are far less gentle
to the hand’s touch than to the mind’s eye.
The mountains of the earth have often turned out
to be more resistant, more fatally real,
than the mountains we imagine.
These are matters of hard sharp rock and driving ice,
of bone deep cold.
But they are also places of unspeakable beauty.
And so the peaks summon us still,
sharpening our sense of being,
setting life on a knife-edge.
For danger can hold terrible joys,
Today mountains are considered
among nature’s most exquisite features.
No longer do their chaotic forms
upset the spirit level of our minds.
Now, we migrate to them in our millions each year,
pursuing our strange pilgrimages.
A very modern mountain worship has taken hold;
a worship that requires the modification of the mountains,
and the management of their risks.
And in doing so,
we have come to forget something of their power.
What odd devotions we undertake.
What curious performances we put on,
with the mountains as our theater.
To certain people, the call to adventure is irresistible.
As everyday life has become safer
and more comfortable for some,
we have begun to seek out danger elsewhere.
We court danger.
We pay for it.
Risk has become its own reward.
At height, you can be taken right to the brink,
for you never feel so alive,
knowing that at any minute you could die.
So up to the mountains we go,
in headlong pursuit of peril
or a testing ground
on which the self can best be illuminated.
Today’s adventurers are driven by the lust
to reach somewhere no one has reached before
and to do something no one has done before.
Our wish to be first induces in us forms of insanity
and forms of grace.
Adventurers sometimes liken fear to a rat.
When you take risks, you feed the rat with fear.
But each time you feed it that fear, it grows fatter.
So then you must feed it more fear to sate it,
and yet more again, and then still more
until a madness bites.
How has it come to this?
The mountains as a stage-set for a pumped-up poker-game
of high stakes and high returns,
all driven by big brands and online views.
Many who travel to mountaintops
are half in love with themselves
and half in love with oblivion.
Today’s mountain mania culminates on Everest,
where the wish to test one’s limits,
or to battle one’s demons,
draws thousands of people to the peak each year.
Attempting Everest offers a way
for the ordinary person to be briefly extraordinary.
But the nature of the challenge has, in many ways, changed.
This isn’t climbing anymore, it’s queuing.
This isn’t exploration, it’s crowd-control.
This is the modern industry of ascent,
in which the risks are often taken most
by those who have least.
But mountains exceed our command.
They slip our grip.
And there is no glory for those who are left behind.
Mountains are so much more than a challenge,
or an adversary to be overcome,
for mountains humble the human instant,
and reveal our insignificance.
They live in deep time in a way that we do not.
Behind and beyond the mountains stretch eons too vast
for us to comprehend.
They were here long before we were even dreamed of.
They watched us arrive.
They will watch us leave.
Born of fire, born of force, mountains move.
Over epochs they rise and fall.
This is the symphony of the earth,
a rhythm of uplift and erosion
that makes not waves of water, but waves of stone.
And from these waves of stone flows life.
Being in the mountains can ignite our astonishment
at the simplest transactions of the living world.
Anyone who has been among mountains
knows their indifference,
has felt a brief, blazing sense
of the world’s disinterest in us.
In small measures, this feeling exhilarates.
In full form, it annihilates.
Coming back to earth from the high peaks,
you can feel like a stranger,
bearing experiences that are beyond expression
and beyond price.
Time has flown over you, but left its shadow behind.
Mountains don’t seek our love, or seek our deaths.
They want nothing from us.
And yet, they shift the way we see ourselves.
They weather our spirits,
challenge our arrogance,
restore our wonder.
More than ever, we need their wildness.