Friday 30 November 2012

The writer's relationship with landscape

Aonach Dubh west face diagram
A page from my "crag book"
Like many writers, my work is inspired by one thing above all else: landscape and its human context.

My work is historical fiction first of all, but it's also adventure writing about mountains and mountaineers. These adventurous activities would not exist without the geography of hills, crags, gorges, icefields, cornices, chimneys, aretes, and scree-slopes; and yet, the landscape itself would have no meaning to me as a writer without the human context. Over the centuries, humans have explored their mountainous surroundings, given names to peaks and glens, risked their lives (and often lost them) to make first ascents, left their mark on the landscape.

These whispers of human activity are everywhere in the mountains even though we think they are wild places. The summit is topped with a cairn built by human hands. The hillside is cut by an eroded path. Even the remote cliff face, unexplored for a hundred years and dripping with slime, will often bear some trace of the pioneers who passed that way decades before: a rusted piton protruding from a crack, or the scratch of a crampon point on rock.

Open a guidebook and the trails blazed by human explorers cover the mountains like a thousand luminous threads. Human legacy is everywhere in the mountains.

I used to believe that the wildness of the mountains inspired me the most, but on a trip to Jotunheimen (Norway) in 2010 I actually realised that when mountains were stripped of human context, they became almost meaningless to me. I trekked for days throughout a wilderness more barren and wild than anywhere in Scotland: a place where many mountain faces were unexplored, and many features did not have names. I enjoyed my expedition, but it did not inspire or thrill me like Scotland or the Alps.

As a writer, I draw inspiration from the complex forces that bind humanity to mountain landscape. My time spent in Glencoe was particularly special from the perspective of a writer, because I had an opportunity to develop my own special connection with the landscape around me. I explored the places where people had been before, using the guidebooks; then I put the guidebooks away and sought out the few places that people had never been. I wrote up my explorations in a "crag book" which I illustrated with diagrams showing my routes of ascent.

Without this human connection to a landscape, an artistic mind has a hard time fully appreciating mountains, except as mere scenery. They are so much more than that, but it takes a human connection to achieve it.

Climbing bears many similarities to a good story: triumph, tragedy, danger, and struggle; moments of beauty and moments of defeat. It's no accident that the mountains have inspired innumerable books, poems, paintings, and pieces of music.

Humanity: puny but brave before the awesome splendour of Nature. That's what inspires me the most and what fuels my stories.

Bidean nam Bian

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