MOUNTAINS OF THE MIND – Robert MacFarlane

 

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The subtitle is : A History of Fascination.

My son-in-law pressed the book upon me, and I politely accepted it. The book languished, unread,  and then I accidentally donated it to my local Library book sale , rescuing it  only on Sale Day!  I carted it home and thought: I’d better read a few pages so I can say something sensible about the book when I return it. 

A few pages in, and I was hooked. For starters, Robert MacFarlane writes like a dream . I discover he’s currently a Fellow in English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  His prose is clear, elegant, with occasional  little sharp asides – I feel his Scottish-ness gleaming through these little comments. Don’t think the book is a dry, academic  treatise about mountains (although Macfarlane is an enthusiastic mountaineer); it’s about landscape and nature.

His introduction to mountaineering stems from his boyhood in Scotland. He recalls happy times spent tramping over the hills and mountains of the Cairngorms; he continues to hike and climb in wild places.

The opening chapter delves into the history of geology in the most entertaining way. Again: not a dry history lesson but a fascinating glimpse into the lives, minds, discoveries of the greats like Charles Darwin, John Ruskin, Charles Lyell – to name a few. He traces the start of the science of geology during the 1800s. I had no idea that geology was such a young science.

The Victorian age was consumed with interest pertaining to Nature, private citizens collecting and displaying specimens from the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdoms, in their homes, in elaborate cabinets and cases.

We hear about explorers, travelers, cartographers, the political Great Game in Asia; the enormous Great Trigonometrical Survey of  India which immediately reminded me of one of my favourite books Kim by Rudyard Kipling. I learned, to my mild astonishment, that the world’s highest mountain, Everest, was named after  the Surveyor General of India, George Everest, in  1856. I’d never given any thought to the name of the famous mountain, but when you think about it, why does a mountain deep in the Himalayas bear an Anglo Saxon name?  As Macfarlane points out, the mountain already had a Tibetan and a Nepalese name but of course, the British Raj paid no heed to those!  With typical colonial arrogance, they renamed it. Just one of the many fascinating snippets I picked up in the book.

Macfarlane’s book is crammed, literally every page introduced a new, glittering nugget of fact or history, it’s like eating a very rich Christmas fruit cake.

I could rave on for pages. What a wonderful read.  I can’t recommend the book highly enough. Do yourselves a favour, and try it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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