Hiding out in the Mountains
I’ve been feeling increasingly drawn towards mountains. Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to go on several journeys and each time I’ve gone somewhere with mountainous landscapes close by: the Anti-Atlas in southern Morocco; Granada in Andalucia, with its views of the Sierra Nevada shimmering in the distance; the cliffs of Crete, and finally to Colombia, to its Andean highlands and the coastal mountains of the (other) Sierra Nevada.
Mountains put things in perspective. They’re beautiful and brutal landforms that remind you how tiny and silly and insignificant you are, liable to get blown over by the wind at any second. In March, I attempted to scale the 4700m Volcan Puracé in the Cauca region of southern Colombia. I got halfway before getting firmly kicked in the arse by Mother Nature. I didn’t have the right clothes, I wasn’t ready for the brutal winds, the rain, the cold, the altitude. I ended up back at the base camp covered in mud and feeling like a fool.
Nature can be healing and nurturing or capricious and indifferent. As such, mountain dwellers (at least the ones that I’ve met) tend to be calmer, humbler than their cousins in the city. Maybe because they know how harsh and difficult life can be – they’re conscious of the fact that in living closer to the sky, they’re closer to death.
But mountains can put you back in touch with something we rarely encounter in cities: quiet. The sounds you’re met with, if you’re met with any at all, are those of the elements – the howling of the winds and the cry of birds (and the occasional human trying to shriek like a wolf). You realise how much of your brain gets clogged up in city life with the whirring of cars, machines, people and increasingly, the fickle vibrations of social media and the unrelenting information streams of the digital world.
Then there’s the fact that mountains (at least those of my imagination) are hideouts for rebels and outlaws: the Jamaican Maroons of the 1700s waging war on the British from their base in the Blue Mountains; the Tairona culture of Colombia, undefeated by the Spanish conquistadores; the Berber hill tribes of the Rif mountains, resisting colonial incursion in 1920s Morocco; the Zapatistas declaring autonomy from the Mexican state, hiding out in the hills and forests of Chiapas.
Something in me is being pulled towards wilderness. Maybe it’s because staying sane in the city feels like a constant battle, especially as I’m constantly skirting the edge of vagrancy – temporary accommodation, temporary work – struggling to keep up with the hamster wheel of employment (or lack thereof) and consumption while the notion of ‘worldly success’ of any kind feels like a distant fantasy. Even now, while I sit in my local library, I’m plotting escape routes, ways to get a bit closer to the elements.
The last few weeks, I’ve been on a massive reading binge. On separate occasions, friends have mentioned the book Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths, and then a copy showed up for me to read. Wild rips apart the foundational myths that facilitated the spread of European colonialism, the repression of indigenous cultures and the ‘taming’ of wild nature. It unpicks Western depictions of wilderness as irrational, dangerous and uncontrollable. It also sheds light on how wilderness has been understood as feminine and therefore in need of conquering by the ‘logical’ minds of men.
Griffiths refutes these ideas with knowledge gleaned from the cultures she encounters – in the Amazon, the Arctic, among Indonesian sea peoples and Aboriginal Australians – to reveal the complex systems of meaning, belief and reciprocity that indigenous cultures have developed in supposedly ‘empty’ landscapes.
One thing that stood out from her writing was the fact that her nomadic voyages came out of attempts to escape from the ‘wastelands’ of her own depression. Rather than seeing wilderness as empty and devoid of meaning, she argues that it is those of us “lost in the wastelands of the psyche” who are most in need of the healing that can come through time spent in the wild.
She also notes the detrimental effect that living supposedly civilised, settled lives can have on nomadic or indigenous peoples. For example, among some Canadian Inuit communities, suicide rates are 13 times higher than the national average, a jarring statistic she puts down to those communities having lost touch with the ancestral knowledge that allowed them to survive the harsh conditions of the Arctic in the past.
Wastelands of the Psyche
I’d argue that feeling lost in the wastelands is now the default state of being for many of us living in late neoliberal capitalism (or wherever it is that we are). Mental health difficulties like anxiety and depression are becoming endemic – a permanent feature of trying to navigate a world that’s moving very fast, which measures human worth solely in economic terms and then sells us self-help books and wellbeing packages to ameliorate our own loss of self.
Consumer-capitalism, aside from the exploitation and environmental degradation that it produces, is fundamentally at odds with our own mental health. How are you supposed to live in a culture whose underlying premise is your own inadequacy (the solution to which is always to Buy More Stuff) and not feel alienated and depressed?
Mark Fisher, one of the master chroniclers of late capitalist culture (whose own depression led him to tragically take his own life last year), addressed this in Capitalist Realism, arguing that neoliberalism brought with it a ‘privatisation of stress’, where our mental health difficulties are seen as our own individual pathologies, divorced from the social realities we find ourselves in.
I’ve spent a lot of my adult life in the wastelands, lost in quagmires and endless loops of anxiety, self-doubt, inertia, confusion and sometimes outright self-loathing. The wastelands are fundamentally a landscape of alienation: of disconnection from ourselves, from each other, from work and from the natural world. (Psychologist Gabor Maté also has much to say about these forms of alienation and how they are toxic to our health).
Gradually, I’ve been discovering routes out: more time in nature, more time immersed in creativity, trying to be more present in my body, the occasional psychedelic odyssey to loosen up the brain waves. But I think a fundamental shift on a collective level is needed. I’m not saying we should all flee to the hills to raise chickens. Obviously that’s not an option for the vast majority. But if we continue to believe that we’re not part of the natural world, and that human beings are no more than economic units to be tallied up on a spreadsheet, then we’re only creating bigger wastelands to get lost in.