#mhawnz It’s been Mental Health Awareness…umm. Well… its been going for more than a week but I’m not sure it’s lasting a full month.
There was a challenge, with the hashtag #mhawnz, where you posted a different type of photo from the outdoors every day to mark the period.
The idea is, from what I can gather, to highlight the general benefits of getting out into nature.
I seem to know a lot of people going through mental health issues at the moment. And – in what now seems like a different life – I was, for five years, a volunteer on Youthline’s crisis line, which gave me a bit of insight into all this.
Personally? I’m not unacquainted with the black dog sniffing around the room at 3am, or waking with what I call the Boulder of Dread on my chest.
Anyone, I’ve learned, can hit overload. It’s not something I dwell on or go on about. I can hyper-intellectualise this by saying self-dramatisation is one of the ills of our age – and that is true, I think.
The other, probably more important reason is that I’m just, culturally and emotionally, a bit of an uptight Presbyterian about these things.
I’m okay with that, by the way. I love and accept my attitude problem.
Anyway, I started doing the photo challenge and then got sidetracked by combination of work and a viral chest infection.
But here’s two pics from the McKenzie area – Lake Benmore, from June a few years back, and just up the road at Omarama, snowing, last year.
More generally, I’ve written about how walking is kind of beaut, last year.
The old mental appetite is certainly stimulated – and fed – by books, as well as by conversations, chats over coffee, shouting matches over the Shiraz, gesticulating over the Glenmorangie.
But it is digested by walking. This is about balance, and the interaction between walking, thinking and feeling.
The full piece, which is a review of a really great book called ‘A Philosophy of Walking’ by Frederic Gros, is here.
It rained, usually.
Nothing so ambitious this weekend, just wombling around the Wellington hills. But I’m kind of happy with that.
and now….you may have seen this before. It’s very popular on the Twitter.
and it’s impossible to watch without smiling.
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis (Vintage Books 2012)
‘We went out into the keen air; it was a night of early moons. Mounting a little rise of stones and faintly crunching under our feet the granular atoms of fresh fallen snow we were already aware of some unusual loveliness in the moment and the scenes. We were not kept waiting for the supreme effects; the curtain was withdrawn.
Rising from the bright mists Mount Everest above us was imminent, vast, incalculable- no fleeting apparition of elusive dream-form: nothing could have been more set and permanent, steadfast like Keats’s star, ‘in lone splendour hung aloft the night’, a watcher of all the nights, diffusing, it seemed universally, an exalted radiance.’
So wrote George Mallory of his first attempt at climbing Mt Everest, three years before he was to make his more famous, and fatal, climb.
By a neat coincidence, I’ve just finished reading Wade Davis’s mighty book on the expeditions undertaken by Mallory, and others, in the wake of World War One just as the fillum ‘Everest’ appeared in the cinemas.
This latest fillum is, of course, about a later and much more famous, at least to contemporary generations, attempt on Everest, even if at least one of the participants in the actual climb has damned it as being less-than-accurate.
The Wade Davis book, though, is one of the most absorbing things I’ve immersed myself in for a long time.
It is only partly about the climb itself: it is very much about the culture and circumstances of the mostly young men who were involved in the first serious bids on the mountain in the years after the First World War.
And, as a semi-aside, they also made the first ever film of the mountain, recently restored and online here. It, too, is compelling, for all its primitive technology and for the fact the film makers couldn’t get beyond a certain point.
The theme of the book is how the climbers – some not so young – were driven by the trauma of World War One, and also by the uneasy feeling the sun which shone on the British Empire was moving past the meridian.
The leader of the first expedition, Charles Bruce, had received bullets through both legs at Gallipoli and lost one of those legs.
He had been told to retire home on his disability pension and advised to take things easy.
Above all else, doctors told him not to attempt any strenuous uphill walking.
You have to shake your head in admiration at anyone who can so comprehensively ignore medical advice.
But the book is peopled with such dotty, obsessive but often quite gentle eccentrics. The contrast with the more consumer-ist approach of today’s Everest industry could not be more profound.
These were men who had no need of a ‘bucket list’. They had seen too much of life, and death, for such a thing.
The man who made the first film of Everest, John Noel, had witnessed the first gas attack on the Western Front in 1915 – one where a fellow officer described men running back with bulging eyes and tearing at their throats as the gas caused a chemical reaction in their lungs which meant they drowned in the poison. ‘I have never seen men so terrified’ he wrote.
Noel himself was wounded in a shell burst the same day and as well as having severe head and other injuries was suffering from neurasthenia by the time he was invalided out.
Another member of the expedition, Howard Somervell, had been a medical officer in the trenches. Working as a surgeon, Davis writes, Somervell,
‘appears to have dealt with the war by maintaining a process and highly disciplined focus on the abstract possibilities of the academic moment. In his free moments he would go sketching, to the most humble objects of nature with his heart yearning to treat every animate being as worthy of respect.’.
There is a nice piece on him here – including the nugget, not mentioned in Davis’s book, that in 1924 mountaineering was an Olympic sport and those on the team which attempted Everest were given medals that year.
Many of the men had been in the Himalayas and wider central Asian region well before they tried to climb the mountain.
Howard-Bury travelled to the region before the war, going through the Karakorams and Kashmir, learning, in the end, 27 languages and closely studying the culture and in particularly the religions of the region. In 1911, aged 31, he inherited his family estate and was able to “retire” – and immediately used his wealth and leisure to trek through the Silk Road and Mongolia, into Russia.
He bought lilies in Omsk and planted them at Belvedere; he bought a baby bear as well who he brought home. The bear grew to seven feet tall: Howard-Bury kept fit by wrestling with it.
‘He spent his time collecting plants, taking notes, and living a life of freedom and whimsy…..He was not a man ready for war, and yet when it came he returned immediately to his regiment.’
He was also at Loos and Ypres. And the Somme. Davis sketches the outline of these battles, and what utter carnage they were.
Ordered at one point to take a group of men and dig a communication trench, he found they were digging not through the earth, but through layers and layers of decaying bodies of men who had fallen in previous battles. “heads, arms and legs crawling with maggots”.
Throughout the war he kept a regular diary – he was, says Davis, a brilliant and observant writer.
Howard-Bury was captured in the final German offensive of the war: his regiment was right in the forefront of the attack and few survived.
The social and cultural aspect of all this has been much written about: Davis also has an eye for the economic scale, with the arresting fact that between 1918 and 1921 the effect of death duties and other taxes meant a quarter of all English land would change hands – a change in property ownership of a scale only seen once before, when William the Conqueror marched in. Not even Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, or the English Civil War saw anything like it.
After the war, notes Davis, many who had served in the trenches wanted to go “anywhere but home”.
‘The long hallucination of the war induced a universal torpor and melancholy, a sense of isolation, a loss of centre….In the months and years after the war the essence of death became redefined, even as survivors sought new ways to deal with the inexorable separation it implied.’
Davis quotes Vera Brittain, who had lost her fiancé, her brother and two male friends and who wrote she had “no one left to dance with. The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were the dead, and would never return.”
The book is peopled with dotty, strong-minded eccentrics, not all who saw war service. There is Charles – later Sir Charles – Bell, the envoy in Tibet, who loved the locals and who, after one of the early expeditions, forbade any removal of rocks for geological purposes because it was upsetting local religious sensibilities.
In fact, the climbers were not removing rocks – Tibetan lamas had got the wrong impression of what was going on – but Bell was appalled by the climbers’ dismissive reaction when he passed on local concerns.
There is, needless to say, a strong undercurrent of colonialism here – in fact ‘undercurrent’ is an understatement. Bell was another odd mix: he insisted on always wearing uniform when meeting Tibetan leaders, as befitting the dignity of a British official, but he would also avoid going outdoors in summer during daytime, like the lamas, because moving around would kill insects and Buddhists believe taking any life is wrong.
And Mallory? He seems to have been a star even before Everest: a mix of brilliance, good looks and athleticism left him trailing clouds of still mostly anticipated glory, if such a thing can be imagined. He was singled out early as a vital part of any expedition – in fact, the best hope of getting to the top of Everest – due to his climbing ability.
There is a vignette of his first glimpse of Everest – noted in Howard-Bury’s diary: unable to sleep, he had risen to watch the sunrise and was pottering around on the pass where they had camped, ‘still clad in pyjamas and bedroom slippers, gazing at the mountain’.
The final, disastrous attempt, is covered in depth: Mallory and his climbing partner, Irving, disappeared into the mist on the mountain and fellow climber Noel Odell, thought he had seen them close enough to the summit to have actually made it there, even though they did not make it back.
Mallory was to complain to Noel he had not come to Tibet to be a film star: one of Davis’s points is despite this it is precisely what Mallory became, in life and – especially – in death. The film made by Noel became a hit at the still-silent cinemas.
Noel could only – especially with the heavy film equipment of the time – climb so far up the mountain. He was to wait: geologist Odell climbed further and watched his friends disappear. As relayed in Noel’s film, they waited longer than they knew they should have had to if the climb had been a success: eventually, the signal came.
Six blankets, in the shape of a cross, in the snow.
By the time this happens, on page 549, the reader is so wrapped up in the tale it is difficult not to feel the dismay.
The book goes on to cover future, abortive bids to get an expedition going, which ran afoul of politics. Hilary’s 1953 bid is, of course, mentioned in an epilogue, and there is the more recent discovery of Mallory’s body, where it is, and what it means for claims he and Irvine got to the top but never made it back.
I’ll leave that to you to find out about that. Read it. This is one of the best books, on any subject, I’ve read for a long time. Occasionally I’ve felt the writing could have been given a bit more pep and pace, but that is a minor quibble.
I love this book, and I haven’t said that about any book for a very long time.
|Yours truly, above Lake Wanaka, last week.|
Must confess I thought, when I saw the title in good ol’ Unity Books, that only a French bloke would find the need to come up with a philosophy of walking.
Shades of Sartre in the scroggin; Pascal in the polypropylene; Derrida in the long-drop.
‘We must really manage one day to do without “news”,’ Gros begins one chapter – one which seems to me to be the core of the book, headed ‘Eternities’.
This may sound strange for a journalist, but I know what he means. One of my favourite political philosophers, Michael Oakeshott, was dismayed to be told, by a star pupil, of an intention to go into journalism, telling the lad, after a long silence, that ‘I think the need to know the news every day is a nervous disorder’.
But they might have quite a bit in common: Gros writes that
‘…walking makes the rumours and complaints fall suddenly silent, stops the ceaseless interior chatter through which we comment on others, evaluate ourselves, recompense, interpret. Walking shuts down the sporadic soliloquy to whose surface our rancour, imbecile satisfactions and imaginary vengeances rise sluggishly in turn….You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of the long grass and the freshness of the wind….’
‘Chatter’ is the big no-no for Gros. For those of us who need a bit of solitude in our lives, it is more of a problem than ever: the ubiquitous smartphone, the addictive aspects of social media, are forever bleeping at us, trying to tug annoyingly at the metaphorical elbows of our consciousness.
“rejoicing in that suspensive freedom, happy to set off, one is also happy to return. It’s a blessing in parentheses, freedom in an escapade., lasting a couple of days or less.’
‘Suspensive freedom’. I love that.
The freedom in walking lies, he says, ‘in not being anyone, for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.’
He is very good on what it’s like: he slows down and notices the process of walking.
There is the ‘strange impression’ made by the first steps each day: you’ve made all the preparations, navigation, food, gear, timings, weather etc, and then
‘you head off, pick up the rhythm. You lift your head, you’re on your way, but really just to be walking, to be out of doors That’s it, that’s all, and you’re there.’
‘…the authentic sign of assurance is a good slowness….a sort of slowness that isn’t exactly the opposite of speed’
‘Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints…When you hurry, time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer.
‘Slowness means living perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone.
‘This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them clearer, like the regular encounters that deepen friendship. Thus a mountain skyline that stays with you all day, which you observe in different lights, defines and articulates itself.’
This is all gorgeous stuff.
There is, if you want it, a bit of Yer Ack-Shul Phillosophee: there are chapters on those famous, and not so famous, philosophers who have liked walking, and the book starts with a quote from Nietzsche
‘We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.’
It is also something I’ve noticed about myself: the better ideas often come while out walking. This is not to denigrate being, in Nietzsche words, ‘stimulated by books’.
The old mental appetite is certainly stimulated – and fed – by books, as well as by conversations, chats over coffee, and shouting matches over the Shiraz, gesticulating over the Glenmorangie.
But it is digested by walking. This is about balance, and the interaction between walking, thinking and feeling.
‘The climbing body demands effort; it is under continuous tension…It’s important not to weaken, but to mobilise energy to advance, to place the foot firmly and hoist body slowly, then restore balance.
So with thought: an idea to rise to something even more astonishing, unheard of, new.
and then again: it is a matter of gaining altitude,
There are thoughts that can only occur at 6000 feet above the plains and mournful shores.’
Every page has a lovely little line like this. If you like walking, thinking, and just slowing down and noticing, you won’t regret getting ahold of this work.
I have a self-compiled CD called ‘The Real Seventies (and none of that disco crap) and this track leads off:
It’s a CD I often put on when I’m packing for a tramping trip, as I have been this arvo.
Very relevant to my own current preoccupations, Cactus Kate has a piece on why she won’t be going tramping.
I don’t mind the walking part, what I do mind is staying in shitty accommodation, having to carry things on your back, eating bad food, not being able to shower, blisters on feet, smelly and wet clothes and sleeping bags.
And the problem is?
Tramping is supposed to hurt, dammit. But in a good way.
Oswald Bastable has joined in the debate here
And he’s right, in a way: any fool can rough it. It’s just a lot of them shouldn’t.
I admit I got into tramping for all the usual idealistic reasons: the great outdoors, New Zealand’s magnificent wide open spaces, and the chance to walk in those great wide open spaces with sturdy, fit young women in shorts.
But now I’m more settled there is something grounding about the whole thing and I like it even more than I used to, although the trips are very different these days. A cynic would say I’m trying to recapture my youth, but this isn’t the case for a number of reasons, one being I have no desire to recapture my youth.
I let that bugger go into the wild a long time ago and I think natural predators have done their bit by now. And a good thing too.
The other being I’m not attempting anything like the trips I did back in the good-in-parts old days. This trip is going up to Arthurs Pass and doing day-walks, not the seven and eight day trips of the past. Leisurely, rather than frantic, something-to-prove trips are now more my style.
Mind you, I did some of those leisurely ones at Uni too. Married someone I met on one of them.
Anyway, this trip: some nice photos, some books to read if the weather turns foul, as is appears is fairly likely.
What a great break.
Snow bloody well everywhere. Spent a few days in the Matukituki Valley.
Got into Wanaka and went to the New World for supplies for the trip. It was full of young types in up-to-date ski gear, plus what seemed to be a few dodgy older blokes.
Then the thought occurred to me that I probably looked like a dodgy older bloke.
However the saving grace was I looked like a tramper, not an old bloke trying to look like a cool young skiier. Easy to pick out: the trampers mostly wear older and decidedly unfashionable gear.
Best example? The Kiwi Tramper is about the only character in the world who will wear shorts with long, and usually multi-coloured, polypro underneath. An English bloke I met trekking in Nepal reckoned it was the only way he could tell the Kiwis and the Aussies apart (to far too many people, the accents are the same).
It wasn’t a foolproof method. Another English guy we ran into was on a long cycling and trekking holiday which had started in NZ. He’d seen the NZ shorts and long polypro look; decided ‘that looks cool’ and adopted it for his travels.