Words that mountains speak

by Sylvia Torti

In the 18th century, when the Romantics looked up at the mountains of Europe, instead of seeing what their predecessors saw - foreboding rocky obstacles to human advance - they saw sublime peaks. Rather than fear, they felt wonder and desire. In a swift shift of perception, they re-wrote European attitudes towards mountains, initiating the modern age of mountaineering. Today, according to climber Jeffrey Mathes McCarthy, another shift in perception may be on the vertical horizon. In Contact: Mountain Climbing and Environmental Thinking, McCarthy has assembled 23 essays from a wide range of authors, inviting readers to "listen closely to the words mountains speak through climbers, and hear where our culture's attitudes have been and, also, where those attitudes are going."

McCarthy, chair of environmental studies at Utah's Westminster College, urges readers to look past the ropes and crampons to see how climbing narratives resonate in the larger world. An intriguing blend of adventure reading, environmental studies text and pure literary pleasure, this fresh perspective should appeal to climbers, teachers and anyone interested in the environment. To McCarthy, climbing is about more than achieving a summit, facing danger or demonstrating physical prowess; it's about how those summits and risks can transform the self, opening it to new relationships with the natural world.

He writes that "climbing sensitizes the body, opens it to the land's current, and thereby animates it to awareness of the natural world."This "intense physical attention to the ice or rock pushes people to experience nature as an extension of themselves and, thereby, to know it as more than the passive resource our culture of consumption and extraction tells us it must be."McCarthy's book compels readers - climbers and non-climbers alike - to look up and consider not only what we miss when we don't engage with the natural world, but also the consequences of not reaching, as a society, for a better hand-hold.

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