Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/October 1904/On Mountains and Mankind




WE have all of us seen hills, or what we call hills, from the monstrous protuberances of the Andes and the Himalaya to such puny pimples as lie about the edges of your fens. Next to a waterfall, the first natural object (according to my own experience) to impress itself on a child's mind is a hill, some spot from which he can enlarge his horizon. Hills, and still more mountains, attract the human imagination and curiosity. The child soon asks, 'Tell me, how were mountains made?' a question easier to ask than to answer, which occupied the lifetime of the father of mountain science, De Saussure. But there are mountains and mountains. Of all natural objects the most impressive is a vast snowy peak rising as a white island above the waves of green hills—a fragment of the arctic world left behind to commemorate its past predominance—and bearing on its broad shoulders a garland of the Alpine flora that has been destroyed on the lower ground by the rising tide of heat and drought that succeeded the last glacial epoch. Mid-summer snows, whether seen from the slopes of the Jura or the plains of Lombardy, above the waves of the Euxine or through the glades of the tropical forests of Sikhim, stir men's imaginations and rouse their curiosity. Before, however, we turn to consider some of the physical aspects of mountains, I shall venture, speaking as I am here to a literary audience, and in a university town, to dwell for a few minutes on their place in literature—in the mirror that reflects in turn the mind of the passing ages. For geography is concerned with the interaction between man and nature in its widest sense. There has been recently a good deal of writing on this subject—I can not say of discussion, for of late years writers have generally taken the same view. That view is that the love of mountains is an invention of the nineteenth century, and that in previous ages they had been generally looked on either with indifference or positive dislike, rising in some instances to abhorrence. Extreme examples have been repeatedly quoted. We have all heard of the bishop who thought the devil was allowed to put in mountains after the fall of man; of the English scribe in the tenth century who invoked 'the bitter blasts of glaciers and the Pennine host of demons' on the violaters of the charters he was employed to draft. The examples on the other side have been comparatively neglected. It seems time they were insisted on.

The view I hold firmly, and which I wish to place before you today, is that this popular belief that the love of mountains is a taste, or, as some would say, a mania, of advanced civilization, is erroneous. On the contrary, I allege it to be a healthy, primitive and almost universal human instinct. I think I can indicate how and why the opposite belief has been fostered by eminent writers. They have taken too narrow a time limit for their investigation. They have compared the nineteenth century not with the preceding ages, but with the eighteenth. They have also taken too narrow a space limit. They have hardly cast their eyes beyond western Europe. Within their own limits I agree with them. The eighteenth century was, as we all know, an age of formality. It was the age of Palladian porticoes, of interminable avenues, of formal gardens and formal style in art, in literature and in dress. Mountains, which are essentially romantic and Gothic, were naturally distasteful to it. The artist says 'they will not compose,' and they became obnoxious to a generation that adored composition, that thought more of the cleverness of the artist than of the aspects of nature he used as the material of his work. There is a great deal to be said for the century; it produced some admirable results. It was a contented and material century, little stirred by enthusiasms and aspirations and vague desires. It was a phase in human progress, but in many respects it was rather a reaction than a development from what had gone before. Sentiment and taste have their tides like the sea, or, we may here perhaps more appropriately say, their oscillations like the glaciers. The imagination of primitive man abhors a void, it peoples the regions it finds uninhabitable with aery sprites, with 'Pan and father Sylvanus and the sister nymphs,' it worships on high places and reveres them as the abode of deity. Christianity came and denounced the vague symbolism and personification of nature in which the pagan had recognized and worshipped the unseen. It found the objects of its devotion not in the external world, but in the highest moral qualities of man. Delphi heard the cry 'Great Pan is dead!' But the voice was false. Pan is immortal. Every villager justifies etymology by remaining more or less of a pagan. Other than villagers have done the same. The monk driven out of the world by its wickedness fell in love with the wilderness in which he sought refuge, and soon learned to give practical proof of his love of scenery by his choice of sites for his religious houses. But the literature of the eighteenth century was not written by monks or countrymen, or by men of world-wide curiosity and adventure like the Italians of the renaissance or our Elizabethans. It was the product of a practical common-sense epoch which looked on all waste places, heaths like Hindhead, or hills like the Highlands, as blemishes in the scheme of the universe, not having yet recognized their final purpose as golf links or gymnasiums. Intellectual life was concentrated in cities and courts, it despised the country. Books were written by townsmen, dwellers in towns which had not grown into vast cities, and whose denizens therefore had not the longing to escape from their homes into purer air that we have to-day. They abused the Alps frankly. But all they saw of them was the comparatively dull carriage passes, and these they saw at the worst time of year. Hastening to Rome for Easter, they traversed the Maurienne while the ground was still brown with frost and patched untidily with half-melted snowdrifts. It is no wonder that Gray and Richardson, having left spring in the meadows and orchards of Chambéry, grumbled at the wintry aspect of Lanslebourg.

That at the end of the eighteenth century a literary lady of western Europe preferred a Paris gutter to the Lake of Geneva is an amusing caricature of the spirit of the age that was passing away, but it is no proof that the love of mountains is a new mania, and that all earlier ages and peoples looked on them with indifference or dislike. Wordsworth and Byron and Scott in this country, Rousseau and Goethe, De Saussure and his school abroad broke the ice, but it was the ice of a winter frost, not of a glacial period.

Consider for a moment the literature of the two peoples who have most influenced European thought—the Jews and the Greeks. I need hardly quote a book that before people quarrelled over education was known to every child—the Bible. I would rather refer you to a delightful poem in rhyming German verse written in the seventeenth century by a Swiss author, Rebman, in which he relates all the great things that happened on mountains in Jewish history: how Solomon enjoyed his Sommerfrische on Lebanon, and Moses and Elias both disappeared on mountain tops; how kings and prophets found their help among the hills; how closely the hills of Palestine are connected with the story of the Gospels.

Consider, again, Greece, where I have just been wandering. Did the Greeks pay no regard to their mountains? They seized eagerly on any striking piece of hill scenery and connected it with a legend or a shrine. They took their highest mountain, broad-backed Olympus, for the home of the gods; their most conspicuous mountain, Parnassus, for the home of poetry. They found in the cliffs of Delphi a dwelling for their greatest oracle and a center for their patriotism. One who has lately stood on the top of Parnassus and seen the first rays of the sun as it springs from the waves of the Ægean strike its snows, while Attica and Bœotia and Eubœa still lay in deep shadow under his feet, will appreciate the famous lines of Sophocles, which I will not quote, as I am uncertain how you may pronounce Greek in this university. You may remember, too, that Lucian makes Hermes take Charon, when he has a day out from Hell, to the twin-crested summit, and show him the panorama of land and sea, of rivers and famous cities. The Vale of Tempe, the deep gap between Olympus and Ossa, beautiful in its great red cliffs, fountains and spreading plane-trees, was part of a Roman's classical tour. The superb buttresses in which Taygctus breaks down on the valley of the Eurotas were used by the Spartans for other purposes besides the disposal of criminals and weakly babies. The middle regions—the lawns above the Langada Pass, 'virginibus bacchata Lacænis Taygeta'—are frequented to this day as a summer resort by Spartan damsels. The very top, the great rock that from a height of 8,000 feet looks down through its woods of oaks and Aleppo pines on the twin bays of the southern sea, is a place of immemorial pilgrimages. It is now occupied by a chapel framed in a tiny court, so choked with snow at the beginning of June that I took the ridge of the chapel roof for a dilapidated stoneman. I have no time to-day to look for evidence in classical literature, to refer to the discriminating epithets applied in it to mountain scenes.

A third race destined apparently to play a great part in the world's history—the Japanese—are ancient mountain lovers. We are all aware that Fusiyama to the Japanese is (as Ararat to the Armenians) a national symbol; that its ascent is constantly made by bands of pilgrims; that it is depicted in every aspect. Those who have read the pleasant book of Mr. Watson, who, as English chaplain for some years at Tokio, had exceptional opportunities of travel in the interior, will remember how often he met with shrines and temples on the summits of the mountains, and how he found pilgrims who frequented them in the belief that they fell there more readily into spiritual trances. The Japanese Minister, when he attended Mr. Watson's lecture at the Alpine Club, told us that his countrymen never climbed mountains without a serious—that is to say, a religious—object.

India and China would add to my evidence had I knowledge and time enough to refer to their literature. I remember Tennyson pointing out to me in a volume of translations from the Chinese a poem, written about the date of King Alfred, in praise of a picture of a mountain landscape. But I must return to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe; I may go earlier—even back to Dante. His allusions to mountain scenery are frequent; his Virgil had all the craft of an Alpine rock-climber. Read Leonardo da Vinci's 'Notes' Conrad Gesner's 'Ascent of Pilatus'; study the narratives of the Alpine precursors Mr. Coolidge has collected and annotated with admirable industry in the prodigious volume he has recently brought out.

It is impossible for me here to multiply proofs of my argument, to quote even a selection from the passages that show an authentic enthusiasm for mountains that may be culled from writers of various nations prior to A. D. 1600. I must content myself with the following specimens, which will probably be new to most of my hearers.

Benoît Marti was a professor of Greek and Hebrew at Bern, and a friend of the great Conrad Gesner (I call him great, for he combined the qualities of a man of science and a man of letters, was one of the fathers of botany as well as of mountaineering, and was, in his many-sidedness, a typical figure of the renaissance). Marti, in the year 1558 or 1559, wrote as follows of the view from his native city:

"These are the mountains which form our pleasure and delight" (the Latin is better—'deliciæ nostræ, nostrique amores') "when we gaze at them from the higher parts of our city and admire their mighty peaks and broken crags that threaten to fall at any moment. Here we watch the risings and settings of the sun and seek signs of the weather. In them we find food not only for our eyes and our minds but also for our bellies"; and he goes on to enumerate the dairy products of the Oberland and the happy life of its population. I quote again this good man: "Who, then, would not admire, love, willingly visit, explore, and climb places of this sort? I assuredly should call those who are not attracted by them mushrooms, stupid, dull fishes, and slow tortoises" ('fungos, stupidos insulsos pisces, lentosque chelones'). "In truth, I cannot describe the sort of affection and natural love with which I am drawn to mountains, so that I am never happier than on the mountain crests, and there are no wanderings dearer to me than those on the mountains. They are the theater of the Lord, displaying monuments of past ages, such as precipices, rocks, peaks and chasms, and never-melting glaciers"; and so on through many eloquent paragraphs.

I will only add two sentences from the preface to Simler's 'Vallesiæ et Alpium Descriptio,' first published in 1574, which seems to me a strong piece of evidence in favor of my view: "In the entire district, and particularly in the very lofty ranges by which the Vallais is on all sides surrounded, wonders of nature offer themselves to our view and admiration. With my countrymen many of them have through familiarity lost their attraction; but foreigners are overcome at the mere sight of the Alps, and regard as marvels what we through habit pay no attention to."

Mr. Coolidge, in his singularly interesting footnotes, goes on to show that the books that remain to us are not isolated instances of a feeling for mountains in the age of the renaissance. The mountains themselves bear, or once bore, records even more impressive. Most of us have climbed to the picturesque old castle at Thun and seen beyond the rushing Aar the green heights of the outposts of the Alps, the Stockhorn and the Niesen. Our friend, Marti, who climbed the former peak about 1558, records that he found on the summit (tituli, rythmi, et proverbia saxis inscripta unà cum imaginibus et nominibus auctorum. Inter alia cujusdam docti et montium amœnitate capti observare licebat illud:

ʻΟ τῶν ὅρων ἕρως αριστος.ʼ

'The love of mountains is best.' In those five words some Swiss professor anticipated the doctrine of Ruskin and the creed of Leslie Stephen, and of all men who have found mountains the best companions in the vicissitudes of life.

In the annals of art it would be easy to find additional proof of the attention paid by men to mountains three to four hundred years ago. The late Josiah Gilbert, in a charming but too little-known volume, 'Landscape in Art,' has shown how many great painters depicted in their backgrounds their native hills. Titian is the most conspicuous example.

It will perhaps be answered that this love of mountains led to no practical result, bore no visible fruit, and therefore can have been but a sickly plant. Some of my hearers may feel inclined to point out that it was left to the latter half of the nineteenth century to found climbers' clubs. It would take too long to adduce all the practical reasons which delayed the appearance of these fine fruits of peace and an advanced civilization. I am content to remind you that the love of mountains and the desire to climb them are distinct tastes. They are often united, but their union is accidental not essential. A passion for golf does not necessarily argue a love of levels. I would suggest that more outward and visible signs than is generally imagined of the familiar relations between men and mountains in early times may be found. The choicest spots in the Alpine region—Chamonix, Engelberg, Disentis, Einsiedlen, Pesio, the Grande Chartreuse—were seized on by recluses; the Alpine baths were in full swing at quite an early date. I will not count the Swiss Baden, of which a geographer, who was also a Pope, Æneas Silvius (Pius II.) records the. attractions, for it is in the Jura, not the Alps; but Pfäfers, where wounded warriors went to be healed, was a scene of dissipation, and the waters of St. Moritz were vaunted as superseding wine. I may be excused, since I wrote this particular passage myself a good many years ago, for quoting a few sentences bearing on this point from 'Murray's Handbook to Switzerland.' In the sixteenth century fifty treatises dealing with twenty-one different resorts were published. St. Moritz, which had been brought into notice by Paracelsus (died 1541), was one of the most famous baths. In 1501 Matthew Schinner, the famous Prince Bishop of Sion, built 'a magnificent hotel' at Leukerbad, to which the wealthy were carried up in panniers on the back of mules. Brieg, Gurnigel, near Bern, the baths of Masino, Tarasp and Pfäfers were also pomilar in early times. Leonardo da Vinci mentions the baths of Bormio, and Gesner went there.