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1 - Tisser les liens : voyager, explorer et écrire pour faire prendre conscience / Travel, Exploration and Writing Mindfulness: Making Connections

Making the Connection

Kev Reynolds
p. 21-39

Editor's notes

© Kev Reynolds
Lecture given at the conference:
Anglophone Mountain and Exploration Writing: Meetings between the Human and Non-Human held at the Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès 14-16 October 2016.1

Full text

1One evening in May, after a full day at the word processor, I had need of a walk. I needed fresh air and exercise, needed to smell the dew-dampening grass and to hear the birds' anthems at dusk. I needed to be Out There, for Out There is where I belong.

2It only takes five minutes to walk to the first meadow, with its view north to a line of greensand hills on whose slopes I lived for more than forty years. Five minutes, that's all it takes, and four of those five minutes are along a farm lane flanked by trees and bushes, in springtime bursting with new growth full of colour, fragrance, sound.

3Below the farm I crossed a stream and traced the edge of a second meadow, veering towards a half-hidden pond to study the hawthorn blossom and inhale its musky fragrance. There's a line of oak trees, and all their leaves that evening were of an identical colour and hue—by contrast with a couple of weeks earlier when each tree seemed to have reached a different stage of development.

4From a high branch on one of those trees a blackbird sounded the chip-chip-chip call that tells of the day ebbing away—the feathered watchman warning of night's approach by stealth.

5It was then that I saw a caterpillar—no more than a centimetre in length—apparently hanging in the air, suspended by a microscopically thin line of gossamer—so thin, it was invisible to the eye.

6I studied it from all angles in an attempt to find a natural source of light that would expose the thread—but failed. So there it was, the creamy-white caterpillar suspended by an invisible life-line, gently swaying in the baby's breath of air that drifted across the meadow.

7A moment later it must have unravelled another length of gossamer, for it dropped a few centimetres, swung some more, then lowered itself again and again in jerky motions until at last it reached the meadow grass. And there it settled on a single blade, rested for a moment or two, then, moving its tiny head, detached itself from the gossamer and moved slowly down the grass to its stem. Down there, I guess, it would gorge itself on vegetation until it could morph into a butterfly; unless, of course, it became supper for a scavenging bird or an army of ants…

8I took my eyes off the caterpillar for a moment, and tried to gauge just how far it had descended, and reckoned it must have been at least five metres. That's 500 times its length. Relate that to a human scale, and it will be something like 750 metres! Seven hundred and fifty metres, hanging by a thread—that is one scary rappel!

9By the time I looked down again, the caterpillar had vanished in the grass, leaving me to speculate when I might see it again in the guise of a beautiful butterfly drifting across that same meadow, gathering nectar from one flower-head after another.

10You see, I'd just witnessed a miracle.

11The world Out There is full of miracles. But we need to make a connection—a relationship, with Nature—to recognise those miracles, for without that connection we are merely observers wearing blinkers.

12I'm lucky, for my blinkers were lifted early.

13At the age of nine or ten I found myself in the classroom of a gifted teacher. It was a small school in a country village, whose head master had taught my father, my uncles and my brother before me. There were no family skeletons hidden in our cupboards; he saw through my daydreams and lack of concentration, and while he did his best to feed my brain with every subject in the curriculum, my eyes drifted around the walls that were decorated with pictures of birds and trees and wild flowers. On shelves and cupboards stood glass cases containing a stuffed barn owl, a stoat, a red squirrel and another that displayed a tatty-looking fox with a single glass eye.

14It was impossible to be in that classroom for more than a minute without knowing that the teacher—my teacher—was passionate about Nature. Having survived two world wars, he retained a childlike sense of wonder for the miracles of life Out There—and his passion filtered through every lesson he taught. Any child who responded to his enthusiasm (and I was one) would be treated to nature walks at weekends and in school holidays. There he would encourage us to chew the leaves growing in the hedgerows; to gather half a dozen different grasses and identify each one by taste. He would send us up trees to study a deserted nest and describe it—not just how it was formed and from what it was made, but what it smelled like! At the foot of one or two trees we'd find the furry balls of owl pellets and unravel them to discover the minute skulls or teeth of a field-mouse or vole contained within; we would listen to birdsong and the methodical buzzing of insects, study the tracks of small creatures in the mud of a streambed, and one night we sat in a moonlit wood to see our first badgers. What's more, the familiar low-lying countryside in which we roamed became as exciting as the Amazon rainforest.

15Through those nature walks, and without knowing it at the time, I learned how to connect with the natural world.

16Almost sixty years ago I left school branded an academic failure. What joy! What freedom from expectation that branding gave me! But every few days throughout the six decades that have passed since then, I have remembered that teacher with immense gratitude, for I recognise what priceless lessons he taught me. 'Skip' Seymour (for that was his name) handed me the precious gift of an innocent sense of wonder.

17I've never lost it.

18Long years after he heard his last blackbird, I became a travel writer and compiler of guidebooks, with mountains and the countryside my speciality. I'd like to think he would approve.

19Although I wrote short stories, an unpublished novel and embarrassingly bad poetry for my own enjoyment, it never occurred to me that I might spend more than thirty years travelling to some of the most beautiful places on earth to earn a modest living by writing about them. But serendipity stepped in and a door of opportunity opened. Thanks to my lack of academic ability and a complete disinterest in money, I grabbed the opportunity, and have never looked back.

20You see, I've been blessed.

21An uneducated wanderer is what I am—a dreamer drifting among mountains, roaming, trekking, climbing when I can but rejoicing when I can't. Just being there (Out There) is enough. And if it's enough for me, to be seduced into wild places by the wild places, and there to soak in their wonders, then it should be enough for my readers. Together we can enrich our days… Isn't that the best any of us can hope to achieve?

  • 2 Terry Gifford: Introduction to John Muir: The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books, London: Diadem, 199 (...)

22In his introduction to a collection of works by the great 19th-century conservationist, John Muir—who produced a number of inspirational books on the natural wonders of North America—the climber-poet and academic Terry Gifford commented that Muir's writing "not only walked readers sensuously and slowly into the wild, but gave them a warm sense of their rightful place there. The wilderness, their wilderness, was … a resource for their self-discovery."2

23That, surely, is what the finest travel writers should aim to do—to walk their readers "sensuously and slowly into the wild." (Ibid.)

24Robin Fedden achieved that in his romantic evocation of three journeys made in the Pyrenees in the 1950s. The author of The Enchanted Mountains was not a full-time writer, but in his poetic account of "satisfactions … found in a little-visited region of the Spanish Pyrenees," he entices his reader into the mountains with authentic grace. Here he is, with an unnamed companion, a mule and a Spanish muleteer, having just crossed the Port de la Picarde in the very heart of the range:

  • 3 Robin Fedden, The Enchanted Mountains, London: John Murray, 1962, 32.

'We descended knee-deep through feathery grasses', he says. 'They parted easily, and we walked, scattering myriads of grass seeds, as through green foam.' He describes the Turk's head lilies and patches of iris— 'islands of brilliant blue set capriciously in the green sea.' They saw a huge vulture, and disturbed a quail, but Fedden and his companion said nothing. 'We were silent,' he explains. 'One talks in a hut or by a fire in the open, but not much when walking or climbing: one is either too preoccupied, or too happy. Going down to the Val d'Esera we were happy.3

25That last sentence is surely what Terry Gifford meant when he wrote of John Muir walking his readers sensuously and slowly into the wild. Who could resist the urge to replicate Fedden's joy? Not I, for fifteen years later, I too descended into the Esera's valley from the Port de la Picade, and knew what it was to be happy.

26Fedden's book is truly joyful; his journeys have a dream-like quality that reflects the mountains among which he travels. They are warm and comforting; in summer they neither threaten nor challenge the wanderer, whereas the mountains of the Himalaya in which Peter Matthiessen goes in search of the elusive snow leopard, have a lingering sense of disquiet in their enormity, and in their very remoteness. Discomfort and potential danger are ever-present as Nature sets her own terms for those who are tempted into her high altitude embrace.

  • 4 Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, London: Chatto & Windus, 1979, in which the author recounts an (...)
  • 5 Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, New York: Penguin Books, 2008, 104.

27But Matthiessen, that master of the travel writing genre, makes his celebrated book, The Snow Leopard,4 a hymn of praise to the wild inner recesses of Dolpo, one of the highest permanently inhabited places on earth. A hymn of praise, it is indeed, but unlike Fedden's Enchanted Mountains, it is not sung to a joyful tune. Instead, it contains a hint of melancholy. We may put this down to the harsh and unforgiving landscape through which he travels, or it may be because Matthiessen is not only in search of an elusive animal, he is also in search of himself. That he fails to find either does not detract from his story. It's a wonderful story, so eloquently told, and rich with observations of wildlife ("…the great lammergeier comes, gold-headed and black-collared, a nine-foot blade sweeping down out of the north … [it] arcs round the wall, light glancing from its mantle. Then it is gone, and the sun goes, the meadow vanishes, and the cold falls with the night shadow."5 Beautiful!

28Matthiessen's book was one of the reasons that not long after I first read it, I found myself drawn to that same other-worldly 'Shangri-La' hidden on the far side of the Himalayan Divide. Captivated by his words, Matthiessen walked me sensuously and slowly into the very wilderness he had stepped into in the autumn of 1973.

29Stark and uncompromising, and seemingly hostile to life itself, like Matthiessen I too found that Dolpo threatens to fill the mind of the traveller with introspection. No lush meadows lined with oak trees here, but a brutal, almost barren land in which, when you discover a shrub or a flower growing among the rocks, it comes as such a surprise that you celebrate its very existence. That is one of the lessons Dolpo teaches. Celebrate life wherever you find it.

30On my Dolpo journey I could celebrate life in the great unknowns of adventure, and ponder mysteries I'd rarely considered before—like rocks and water, both timeless beyond age or reason.

31One cold high altitude afternoon I sat beside a Dolpo river born among some of the highest mountains on earth, and was mesmerised by its song, the melody of which was played on the stones in its bed, one brushing against another, turning and rolling, being smoothed by the relentless movement of water. How many hundreds of thousands of years had this song been played, I wondered? Once it would have been ice, frozen water; a great river of ice that moulded the valley through which it now flows. It would have sung a different song then, of course, for the ice of this river would have resounded to the deep growl and groan of a primeval force carving a trench between mountains. But now it has found release—no more ice to bear except in winter—and its song is the song of freedom.

32I gave my ears to the river's song of freedom and tried to imagine its history, that same crunching splash and swirl, the rush and rustle repeated over and over, wearing the mountains down, gathering the debris of broken giants and grinding them into glacial flour to be carried out to the Bay of Bengal. For a brief moment in time I was part of that river and its melody played through my veins.

33Rivers can do that, Out There.

  • 6 John Muir: My First Summer in the Sierra, Houghton Mifflin, Boston / Constable, London, 1911, chapt (...)

34Out There, you see, we have an opportunity to connect with the natural world and all its amazing diversity; the diversity which John Muir himself recognised as an intricate ecological web: "When we try to pick out anything by itself," he said, "we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."6

  • 7 George B.Schaller, Mountain monarchs: Wild sheep and goats of the world, Chicago: The Chicago Unive (...)

35We—you and I—are part of that same ecological web, though we tend to ignore the fact and imagine we are by right beyond and above the birds, insects and animals we share the planet with, and are ready to exploit through ignorance or greed the very foundations of life itself. George Schaller, with whom Matthiessen journeyed in search of the snow leopard, warned that: "As we reach for the stars we neglect the flowers at our feet."7

36As one whose work aims to draw others into wild places, that is something of which I am mindful, for I must ensure that I do not degrade the very things I want my readers to see and experience.

  • 8 Colin Mortlock, The Spirit of Adventure, Kendal: Outdoor Integrity Publishing, 2009.

37I and my readers—indeed, each and every one of us—should recognise the vulnerability of Nature, its delicate beauty and its power to enrich our lives. In his influential book, The Spirit of Adventure,8 Colin Mortlock is convinced that "the more beauty we can see, or be aware of, the more mature we are.' And I agree with his claim that there is an instinct for beauty, and 'Like the instinct for adventure … it needs to be used, [for] if it is unused … it may well disappear altogether" (Mortlock 2009, 183).

38Mountaineer, adventurer and lover of wild nature, Mortlock has spent a lifetime dedicated to outdoor education, adventure and a search for truth, and the Wilderness Message contained in one of the early publications of his Spirit of Adventure Foundation, echoed the words of John Muir:

Everything in Nature is alive in its own way, is on its own adventure journey and deserves its own well-being. Everything in Nature from a grain of sand to a star, from the tiniest flower to a human being, is of no more and no less importance than anything else. (Mortlock 2011, 'The Wisdom of Pure Adventure', 65)

39But are we properly aware of Nature's rich diversity? I rather doubt it. We may read every book on the library shelf of natural history, or watch a hundred exquisitely filmed documentaries on television, but there's nothing quite like personal experience to help us see with every one of our senses. Only then will we truly understand and be able to respond as we should.

40This is where the adventurous travel writer has an opportunity to draw his reader into the wild places, and then reveal their wonders.

  • 9 Joseph Dalton Hooker, Himalayan Journals, London: John Murray, 1854.

41In 1848, Joseph Dalton Hooker, the eminent botanist and plant-hunter, visited the Himalaya to gather plants for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, in London. He was gone for three years, during which time he explored an area of north-east Nepal around Kangchenjunga, constructed a remarkably accurate map of Sikkim, examined glaciers, moraines and geological formations, gathered 2,500 plant species, illustrated more than 700 of them with extraordinary precision, and wrote a two-volume account of his travels that was published with the title: Himalayan Journals.9 First published in January 1854, it was so well-received that a second edition followed in 1855, and was reprinted in 1891. It is now considered to be a minor classic of travel literature.

42I have a copy. A battered, well-thumbed, poorly-produced facsimile printed in India and costing 320 rupees. I wouldn't be without it. You see this particular book has a history; it not only describes a host of exotic plants previously unknown in Europe, it draws the reader into a world in which Nature's complex diversity is displayed with an almost unique extravagance. The land in which Hooker travels is full of excesses: the mountains are immense, the rivers dangerous in their fury, the jungles almost impenetrable. And my copy of Himalayan Journals bears the scars, smells and stains of that very same land, for I have taken it there.

43Four times I have been to Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain—not to climb it, but to make journeys through the wild valleys that surround it, to cross the high passes on research for a guidebook and, on one occasion, to record a radio programme for the BBC World Service based on Hooker's own travels there one hundred and fifty years earlier. Carrying my copy of his book with me, I discovered that very little had changed since he had trudged through the same valleys, visited the same villages and crossed the same passes all those years ago.

44It was a revelation in many ways; not least because when recording that journey on tape, I was astonished to find that my headphones brought to life a richness of sound I never before knew existed. Long before making my way up to the highest regions, and ignoring the roar of river and rockfall, I became aware of the individual calls made by different birds, forest animals and insects—most of whose existence I had previously been unaware. Standing alone in a semi-tropical jungle in the valley of the Tamur River another world was revealed. Among moss-coated rhododendrons and towering trees threaded with rope-like lianas, tree orchids caught shafts of sunlight that broke through the canopy. Up there a bird in silhouette lifted its head and called, its cry like a saw cutting through wire; another clapped its wings and as it launched from one tree to another a host of leaves applauded. I captured the chattering laughter of a family of white-faced monkeys, and no matter which way I turned, ten thousand cicadas competed for attention with a sound so shrill I feared my ear-drums would burst. Meanwhile, creatures unseen rustled the leaves at my feet…

45So far as I was concerned, the big mountains could wait. In the humid forests of the Tamur's valley I was captivated by the richness of Nature's symphony.

46I have Joseph Dalton Hooker and his Himalayan Journals to thank for that.

47Sound, of course, is but one element through which Nature's diversity is revealed to us. Other senses are rewarded in different ways, in surprising places and at times when you least expect it. By refining the art of awareness, and becoming conscious of each moment of being, we may grow sensitive to the miracles that Nature presents.

48In 2003 my work took me to Norway. It was early summer and the weather was atrocious, but each day I would set off alone to work out routes through the valleys, over passes and along whale-back ridges overlooking deep fjords. One memorable day the route I'd planned to take across the mountains proved impossible to achieve, since a river—swollen by melting snow and weeks of rain—barred my way. To attempt its crossing would have been suicidal, so I turned back, and feeling somewhat dejected, found shelter beneath the outhouse of a seater where I crouched beside the long-rotted carcass of a dead sheep and waited for the rain to ease.

  • 10 Kev Reynolds, The Blessings of Bad-Weather Days, one of 75 stories included in A Walk in the Clouds(...)

49When it did, I emerged from my shelter and began to wander down-valley, and there I experienced a reawakening, and discovered that bad-weather days repay the senses. The following extract from A Walk in the Clouds10 describes what I found…

'Had the sun been out I doubt if I'd have appreciated the valley as much as I did. My memories would have been mostly visual and on a larger scale. They'd have been dominated by mountains, reflections in lakes and the sparkle of cascades.
'Instead I noticed other things—smaller, more intimate features of this valley in transition from winter to summer. I noticed the sandwich of quartz trapped in a boulder; tiny plants— some in bud, some daring to open in flower. There were intricate lichens and mosses … and miniature cup-like leaves that suckered onto rocks in a tiny dell of stone and bush. There were toy-sized ferns and fronds the length of a fingernail and diminutive forests of mare's tail, remnants of a prehistoric age…
'I strayed this way and that … gently pressing fingers into the soft, spongy lichens that reminded me of grey-green coral, and when I found a fist-sized piece about to drift away in the wind, I lifted it to my face and drew in its delicate chipped-rock fragrance. Everything in nature has its own bouquet, so I went adventuring with olfactory observations as rewarding as those of sight, sound and touch. Alone in this wild valley there were none to witness my actions; none to condemn grey-haired folly.
'Excitement won the day. A new flower daring to expose itself to the changing light, a plant soft as silk, the juicy freshness of a leaf with raindrops still attached, the scent of damp juniper contrasting that of an acidic bog. And as I faltered and floundered, a stonechat chittered, willow warblers and bramblings came to visit, the cuckoo once more echoed in the mist, and a dipper bobbed on a half-submerged rock in midstream. Having grown deaf to the river's thunder, I became aware of softer sounds. Around me birdsong proclaimed territorial limits or advertised for a mate.
'But it was the lichens that captured my imagination. Unlike any I'd seen in the Alps, Pyrenees or high Himalaya, these were not familiar boulder palettes of lime or rust stain, nor ragged tatters hanging from trees, but deep grey cushions of delicate and intricate beauty, hitherto unknown to me. When wet they took on sponge-like qualities, but when dry (as I was to find a week later) they were … brittle with tiny antlers woven into intense mattresses or cushions that settled on rock and boulder alike….
'I studied, sniffed and tasted lichens whose … very existence is one of nature's miracles, whose secrets lie beyond my depths of perception. Bewitched by the extraordinary diversity of the world about me, I reeled in ignorance and wonder.
'Could I exchange this ignorance for knowledge, would my sense of wonder be enhanced? I doubt it. For the blessings of this bad-weather day were every bit as rewarding as any sun-drenched morning. And no amount of knowledge could improve that.' (189-190)

50Ignorance—and a sense of wonder—these were the only qualifications with which I left school nearly sixty years ago, alongside an ability to connect with Nature—the priceless gift from that primary school teacher. But was it ignorance, or simply innocence?

51Whilst still joyful with innocence—before the rot of sophistication and cynicism takes over—children often have an instinct for simply being with Nature. Peter Matthiessen draws our attention to this in the early stages of the Himalayan journey described in The Snow Leopard, when he grows wistful for a return to the childhood of his son's innocence:

  • 11 Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, New York: Penguin Books, 2008, 38.

'In his first summers,' says Matthiessen, 'my son would stand rapt for near an hour in his sandbox in the orchard, as doves and redwings came and went on the warm wind, the leaves dancing, the clouds flying, birdsong and sweet smell of privet and rose. The child was not observing; he was at rest in the very centre of the universe, a part of things, unaware of endings and beginnings, still in unison with the primordial nature of creation, letting all light and phenomena pour through.'11

52In other words, the child's natural instinct was to connect. At rest in the very centre of the universe, he was Nature.

53Is that not where we all belong?

54As I say, a simple wanderer is what I am—a dreamer, drifting among mountains; connecting. Connecting for myself, and for my readers whom I want to draw into the wild places that mean so much to me, that they too may be uplifted and inspired, their lives enriched by … connecting.

55For much of the time when Out There at work, I'm alone. Researching routes for a guidebook, I'll spend my days among the mountains and other wild places studying the formation of their boundaries, assessing their dangers, absorbing their beauty, tasting their goodness with every breath. I'll perch upon a rock for a whole hour and simply exist (making a connection) until I and the rock are one—at rest, like Matthiessen's young son, in the very centre of the universe. Or I will kneel in a flower meadow to gaze into the jungle of stems and discover a microscopic world—a kingdom ruled by insects whose industry is astounding.

56I'm lost among miracles.

57Then, when I raise my eyes I see another world; the world of hills and mountains—massive, ancient, immovable—or so they would appear. Yet in truth we know they are fragile, for even as they grow, erosion stunts their growth through the natural agents of frost, sun and rain. Get into the heartland of the Alps, the Andes, the Pyrenees or high Himalaya, and you will see and hear their destruction day by day. The timescale may be different, but as with a butterfly's brief life of glory, so too will the mountains of this planet flourish, then wither and fade away. They can change before our very eyes, as John Muir himself discovered when he witnessed an earthquake and its aftermath in California's Yosemite Valley:

It was a calm moonlight night, and no sound was heard for the first minute or so, save low, muffled underground … rumblings, and the whispering … of the agitated trees, as if Nature were holding her breath. Then, suddenly, out of the strange silence and strange motion there came a tremendous roar. The Eagle Rock on the south wall, about a half a mile up the Valley, gave way and I saw it falling in thousands of great boulders I had so long been studying, pouring to the Valley floor in a free curve luminous from friction, making a … sublime spectacle—an arc of glowing, passionate fire, fifteen hundred feet span, as true in form and as serene in beauty as a rainbow in the midst of the … rock-storm. The sound was so tremendously deep and broad and earnest, the whole earth like a living creature seemed at last to have found a voice and to be calling to her sister planets. (Muir 1912, The Yosemite, chapter 4, in 'The Eight Wilderness-Discover Books', 643)

58Even as he witnessed such a catastrophic event, Muir was fascinated by its savage beauty. Having an unbridled passion for Nature in all her moods makes him a true prophet of the wilderness. Through his example we should celebrate the fact that despite every technological advance, Man is still unable to control the world in which we live. Muir teaches us to honour Nature, to live in harmony with her, rather than try to dominate her.

59In one of my Alpine guidebooks I described a walking route from Grindelwald to a little restaurant/refuge set upon a meadow at the head of a glacier gorge. Restaurant Stieregg had the most amazing backdrop, for it was dwarfed by the huge Fiescherwand—a great wall of rock and ice four kilometres wide and 1200 metres high, crowned by a 4000 metre summit. On the eastern side of the gorge rose the Eiger; to the southeast, the Schreckhorn, to the south the graceful Finsteraarhorn. Stieregg's meadow was a green oasis in a world of arctic splendour.

60But that meadow to which I would lure my readers year by year—in order that they should witness such wild beauty—was no more than vegetated moraine; a moraine plateau consisting of glacial debris, accumulated silt and rock and primitive soil. Its surface was lush grass speckled with flowers. You could sit there and watch the antics of marmots, and in the early morning and evening, chamois and ibex would come down to graze. It was the perfect place to connect with Nature at her most basic—from the tiniest of flowers to some of the most savage of her mountains.

61But the moraine was unstable, and over the years that I would visit—often alone, but sometimes leading groups of walkers too—I noticed how the meadow was shrinking at the edges. Every spring time, the deep frosts of winter would melt, chipping away at the exposed crust. A downpour would further add to erosion. As would days of intense summer heat that melted the glue of permafrost. Metre by metre the meadow, its flowers and the burrows of its marmots, crumbled and slid onto the Lower Grindelwald Glacier.

62Then, in the early summer of 2005, the last of the meadow disintegrated—and with it Restaurant Stieregg. Now the moraine is no more, and in its place there's a great well of rubble-strewn ice that stretches along the base of the Fiescherwand.

63That's not all. A year after Stieregg and its moraine meadow disappeared, 1.5 million cubic metres of rock broke away from the Eiger's southeast flank, and an impressive flake about 100 metres tall, detached itself from the mountain and rested in the glacier gorge below where Stieregg once stood—a towering monument to the impermanence of the so-called 'everlasting hills' and a souvenir of climate change.

64Yes, the mountain world is changing year by year. In witness to our planet's evolution, we writers and compilers of guidebooks merely record its history; and that can either be painstakingly slow to define, or violently rapid with terrible consequences.

65We know that drifting among the oceans on their massive rafts, the continents steadily rearrange the jigsaw patterned land masses of this planet we call home. As they rub one against one another, mountains rise and fall. Mankind has no power or influence over that.

66Mid-afternoon on Sunday 31st May 1970, Peru was rocked by a major earthquake as two tectonic plates collided. One hundred and fifty kilometres from the epicentre, Huascaran—the country's highest mountain—shuddered like an enormous crème caramel, then shed an estimated fifteen million cubic metres of rock and ice that sped towards the town of Yungay. Within three minutes all the buildings of the town and 18,000 of its inhabitants ceased to exist, buried as they were by the mountain that had always been their neighbour.

67There are no words to express the enormity of such horror. But thirty years later I was sent to South America to make a journey around the Cordillera Blanca with a group of Quecha Indians, and camped one night beside a lake at the foot of Huascaran, I tried to imagine the last terrifying moments of those poor people who had spent their lives in its shadow. Now they and the mountain are one…

68Only through the passage of time may we record such history, and putting it in context, file it away among the planet's archives.

69That is what survivors do; they record history. It's certainly what travel writers and authors of guidebooks do—whether or not that is their intention. But while a guidebook can become obsolete the moment a change occurs to the physical environment that is its subject, a volume of travel literature can survive any such changes unscathed, and still be enjoyed decades after.

  • 12 Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts, London: John Murray, 2004.

70I think of Patrick Leigh Fermor's acclaimed A Time of Gifts12 which describes a journey the author set out to make from one side of Europe to the other in the 1930s. Were we able to follow his route today, we would discover a very different Europe from the one about which he writes with such eloquence. Yet the power of his writing is such that he captures for all time the voices, faces, inns and castles, as well as the landscapes through which he travels. They will forever be as they were in the mid-nineteen thirties. As for Leigh Fermor himself, though he died an old man in 2011, to his readers he will always be eighteen years old, full of innocence and youthful vigour.

  • 13 Patrick Leigh Fermor, Between the Woods and the Water, London: John Murray, 1986.

71Surprisingly, A Time of Gifts—considered a masterpiece of travel literature—was written, not immediately after his journey was over, but no less than forty years later, when he was 62 years old, while Between the Woods and the Water,13 which continues the story of his travels, was published nine years after that. Based on his diaries and the unreliable memories of a man edging towards old age, we are given a romantic image of the teenager who set out to walk alone from London to Istanbul (or Constantinople as it was then), across a continent that barely exists today, its political and physical landscapes having been changed for ever. But because of the story it tells, and the magical language with which it is told, the retrospective NOW of pre-war Europe portrayed in these books, is laid bare—not as history, but trapped in the aspic of literary genius.

72How much of that story is fact, fiction, or a combination of both, is not clear. Neither does it matter, for it is the story that counts. We do not need a guidebook and route map to follow in the author's footsteps. Instead, we simply revel in his prose:

My path followed a frozen woodland stream into a region where rushes and waterweed and marsh vegetation and brambles and shrubs were as densely entangled as a primeval forest. Opening on expanses of feathered ice, it was like a mangrove swamp in the Arctic circle. Encased in ice and snow, every twig sparkled. Frost had turned the rushes into palisades of brittle rods and the thickets were loaded with icicles… The hush was broken by a succession of claps from a lagoon. A heron was slowly hoisting itself off the ice; then a spiral of slower wingbeats lifted it to the top of a Lombardy poplar that was dark with a multitude of dishevelled nests. Its mate, looking enormous as it paced a white pool, cumbrously followed it; and a minute later, I could see their beaks projecting side by side. (Fermor 2004, 162-164)

73Only someone familiar with Nature would write like that. Peter Matthiessen is one who could, of course. But he was a naturalist as well as an explorer and novelist, whose travels often involved long weeks observing wildlife in wild places. However, his writing differs from that of Patrick Leigh Fermor, in its sense of immediacy. Leigh Fermor's has the polish of one with time and skill to create a masterpiece, while Matthiessen's prose has voracity and a quality all its own that comes from his deeply felt connection with wild nature and an urgent need for expression. I can imagine him curled in his sleeping bag in a tent at 4000 metres, writing by the light of a candle or head-torch as fast as his semi-frozen fingers will allow, with the sounds and smells of the mountains absorbed into every brain cell, his body weary with the effort of a day's activity, his head throbbing with the altitude.

74That is how I write, when Out There, and my journals show the wear and tear of such places, since they are written while observations are fresh, or crackling out of a digital recorder through background distortions of wind or rainfall. But most of my books have only a brief shelf-life, while Matthiessen's are timeless and will be read and enjoyed by generations to come—as have Hooker's Himalayan Journals and the writings of John Muir.

75Unlike works of travel literature, a guidebook is only valid until the physical environment it describes, changes. And as we have seen, mountains are subject to changes of a sudden, violent nature, as well as through the slow processes of evolution. Take last year's earthquake in Nepal as an example. This was a terrible catastrophe that brought death and destruction on a horrific scale, and devastated vast swathes of country through avalanche, rockfall and landslide.

  • 14 Kev Reynolds, Abode of the Gods, Milnthorpe: Cicerone, 2015.

76A minor side effect of that tragedy, was that four of my guidebooks immediately became obsolete, for large sections of the routes they describe no longer exist. On the other hand, a memoir (Abode of the Gods 14) recalling eight of my Himalayan expeditions, remains valid—even though some of those expeditions were to mountain regions affected by that same earthquake.

77The author of guidebooks (especially guides to wild country) has a responsibility to describe physical landscapes with an accuracy that differs from that of the travel writer, whose narrative accounts need less precision when describing a journey. The guidebook writer has no leeway with the truth, no freedom to add or remove a feature to improve a story, for his choice of routes and the accuracy of his descriptions can, in extreme cases, mean the difference between safety and danger, life and death. The wilderness can be an unforgiving place, and choosing routes to recommend to others, must be considered with care.

78In 1987 I was researching a guidebook to the Valais region of Switzerland and planned to visit the Mountet Hut, a refuge built near the foot of the Obergabelhorn. The normal route of approach entailed crossing a glacier, so on a morning full of promise, two of us followed a narrow trail teetering along a moraine crest, then descended onto the ice. There we roped up and set off across the glacier. It was a beautiful summer's day; calm, bright and warm. The glacier untroubled, its crevasses narrow enough to step across without concern, and the way had been marked by the refuge guardian with old tin cans painted red and weighted down with stones. There was nothing to concern us. Yet the moment we began, I felt distinctly uneasy, and that unease only intensified as for no obvious reason I became convinced that we should not be there. An inner voice urged me not to continue; but despite voicing my irrational fear, we plodded on towards the centre of the glacier, until I was physically unable to go any further. Then I turned around and scuttled back the way we'd come, almost dragging my friend behind me—his curses echoing across the valley.

79By the time we reached the safety of the moraine bank his abuse was loud in my ear; I'd stretched our years of friendship to the limit, and he was seething. But as we began to untie the rope that had united us, a sudden roar caused us to stop, and turning round we watched as the central part of the glacier, where we'd been only a few minutes before, collapsed into a large hole that had appeared from nowhere and was rapidly spreading outward. All around the hole, the ice was folding into it and the glacier seemed to be shuddering, for at its widest point it had been undercut, and had we not turned back when we did, we would have been swallowed by it.

80Now—was the inner voice that had warned me of the danger, a subconscious form of 'connecting'?

81Needless to say, that route never made it into the guidebook! My aim is to introduce my readers to wild nature, to enrich their days, not put them in danger.

82A thirty year career among mountains writing guidebooks, magazine features and travel books has been an unexpected privilege, for sharing a simple passion for Nature with my readers has brought riches worth more than those in any bank deposit.

83Four weeks ago I was in the Alps once more gathering information for a new edition of one of my guidebooks. Day after day I wandered among the highest mountains in Western Europe, gazing on its glaciers, snowfields and soaring granite aiguilles. Marmots sat on their haunches and watched me pass. Buzzards called; autumn crocuses coloured the meadows. Each and every day I would perch on a rock for an hour or so and contemplate the wonders all around me, and in the evenings share a table in a refuge with unnamed strangers as they discussed the route they'd been following and the experiences they'd had, innocent of the fact that the author of the guide they were using was sitting with them….

84And now the weeks among mountains are over and at home I discover that in my absence summer has given way to autumn. As I walk along the lane to the farm and across the meadows lined with oak trees, the hedgerows are bright with berries. Gone are the wild dog roses, the hawthorn and blackberry flowers, but in their place the midnight-blue sloes, and bright orange rose hips catch my attention—as does the wren who watches me pass.

85This is no second best. The mountains that have dominated my working days these past thirty years, are no better than the gentle green hills and meadows of home. Just different, that's all. And making the connection, I revel in that difference. And why not? Of an early morning webs of gossamer strung along a fence line are dressed with pearls of dew. The grass is wet. There are no more caterpillars in slow rappel from a branch five metres up, and most of the butterflies have disappeared. But the blackbird sings at the break of day, and at dusk his chip-chip-chip call heralds the gathering darkness.

86Life 'Out There' is full of gifts.

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GIFFORD, Terry, Introduction to John Muir: The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books, London: Diadem, 1992.

FEDDEN, Robin, The Enchanted Mountains, London: John Murray, 1962.

HOOKER, Joseph Dalton, Himalayan Journals, London: John Murray, 1854.

LEIGH FERMOR, Patrick, A Time of Gifts, London: John Murray, 2004.

LEIGH FERMOR, Patrick, Between the Woods and the Water, London: John Murray, 1986.

MATTHIESSEN, Peter, The Snow Leopard, London: Chatto & Windus, 1979.

MORTLOCK, Colin, The Spirit of Adventure, Kendal: Outdoor Integrity Publishing, 2009.

MORTLOCK, Colin, The Wisdom of Pure Adventure, Kendal, Outdoor Integrity Publishing, 2011.

MUIR, John, My First Summer in the Sierra, Boston: Houghton Mifflin/London: Constable, 1911.

MUIR, John, The Yosemite, New York: The Century Co., 1912. [Both Muir books contained in ‘John Muir: The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books', London: Diadem Books, 1992]

REYNOLDS, Kev, The Blessings of Bad-Weather Days, one of 75 stories included in A Walk in the Clouds, Milnthorpe: Cicerone, 2013.

REYNOLDS, Kev, Abode of the Gods, Milnthorpe: Cicerone, 2015.

SCHALLER, George B., Stones of Silence, New York: Viking, 1980.

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1 The lecture can be listened to on:

2 Terry Gifford: Introduction to John Muir: The Eight Wilderness-Discovery Books, London: Diadem, 1992.

3 Robin Fedden, The Enchanted Mountains, London: John Murray, 1962, 32.

4 Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, London: Chatto & Windus, 1979, in which the author recounts an expedition he undertook with field biologist George B. Schaller into the remote region of Dolpo in the far west of Nepal in 1973.

5 Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, New York: Penguin Books, 2008, 104.

6 John Muir: My First Summer in the Sierra, Houghton Mifflin, Boston / Constable, London, 1911, chapter 6 (and Sierra Club Books 1988 edition, 110).

7 George B.Schaller, Mountain monarchs: Wild sheep and goats of the world, Chicago: The Chicago University Press 1977, 336-337.

8 Colin Mortlock, The Spirit of Adventure, Kendal: Outdoor Integrity Publishing, 2009.

9 Joseph Dalton Hooker, Himalayan Journals, London: John Murray, 1854.

10 Kev Reynolds, The Blessings of Bad-Weather Days, one of 75 stories included in A Walk in the Clouds, Milnthorpe: Cicerone, 2013.

11 Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard, New York: Penguin Books, 2008, 38.

12 Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts, London: John Murray, 2004.

13 Patrick Leigh Fermor, Between the Woods and the Water, London: John Murray, 1986.

14 Kev Reynolds, Abode of the Gods, Milnthorpe: Cicerone, 2015.

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Bibliographical reference

Kev Reynolds, Making the ConnectionCaliban, 59 | 2018, 21-39.

Electronic reference

Kev Reynolds, Making the ConnectionCaliban [Online], 59 | 2018, Online since 01 June 2018, connection on 13 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Kev Reynolds

Travel writer and lecturer.
Kev REYNOLDS has enjoyed a lifetime's passion for the countryside in general and mountains in particular, and has spent 40 years writing about them. A travel writer and lecturer, he has written more than 50 books, including guidebooks to the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Himalaya. He has also published a collection of images of the European Alps, Alpine Points of View (2004) and two volumes of memoir: A Walk in the Clouds (2013) and Abode of the Gods (2015). He was made an honorary member of SELVA in 2016.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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