Observations On Reading ‘Mountains of The Mind’ – By Robert MacFarlane

By Bernie Bell

It might tempt you, to read it too….

1)      Near the beginning of the book  I think he’s a bit hard on Mount Everest, when he says………”When Mallory climbed Everest, it was the last bastion of unconquerable earth, the ‘Third Pole’.  It is now a gargantuan, tawdry, frozen Taj Mahal, an elaborately frosted wedding-cake up and down which climbing companies annually yo-yo hundreds of under-experienced clients”

Everest was something else before it was Everest, and it will be something else again – sometime.  But, since being that particular mountain it’s been ……what it is…….it just is…… Everest. 

It’s not to blame for the numpties being led up and down it.  I suppose that, mostly, it tolerates them – mostly.

If a fine looking dog is dressed up in a baby’s bonnet ( and people do that), it’s still a fine looking dog.

2)      He says of mountains that “they do not kill deliberately”, and I remembered this……….   https://theorkneynews.scot/2021/12/13/the-sea/

              Indeed, the sea doesn’t kill deliberately either.

3)      “The mountains one gazes at, reads about, dreams of and desires are not the mountains one climbs……..” etc.  I thought – that’s like the person you fall in love with, and maybe marry – the initial attraction, dreaming of being with etc. – becomes – real life – just as wonder-full, interesting, exciting – just not so much of the dreamy stuff.

4)      Mr Mac writes of Mr Burnet’s  idea that the earth began as a kind-of ‘egg’ shape, with a ‘yolk’ of fire, then a ‘white’ of water, encased in a shell. Then the fire broke through etc.  and mountains are the scrunched up remains of the ‘shell’.  Fair play to him for attempting to look beyond what was accepted at the time…..but……

It’s hard to believe how some of these ideas are still accepted…..in a note to page 31……“a 1991 poll returned that 100 million Americans believed God to have created man in his own image sometime in the last 10,000 years.” 

Whereas – James Hutton didn’t have much more to work from, but used his eyes and his mind – observed, thought.  Here’s what a colleague said it was like to have geology explained by him…..

“The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.”

When reading this part of the book, I remembered this…………….

It also brings back memories our wonder-full holiday when we stayed at the Inchnadamph Hotel, where the landlord suggested that I’d like to read ‘Hutton’s Arse’.  A real, old fashioned hotel – not been ‘done up’, with dogs in the bar, lovely food, and a landlord who showed us Peach and Horne’s signatures in the guest book…

5)      Mr Mac. refers to Geology as Time Travel, and writes re. Charles Lyell inspiring Charles Darwin……”The HMS Beagle was one of the world’s first time-travel ships – a prototype of the Starship Enterprise, whose warp drive was fuelled by a mixture of Darwin’s prodigious imagination and Llyell’s insights.”

6)      He also explores the biographies of stones – which brought to mind the work of  Mark Edmonds and Hugo Anderson-Whymark on a project relating to the stones of Orkney – the ones which ‘should’ be there, and  the  ones which ‘shouldn’t’ be there, and the biographies of these stones.  A very, very interesting project.  https://www.orkneystonetools.org.uk/about

We have a piece of Granite with bits of Garnet in it which we found, among others, on the beach at Sandside Bay here in Orkney. It’s not natural to the area, so maybe they were brought as ballast in a ship, and dumped. If so – I’m very glad they did that!

And – something more of Orkney’s stones….

Some years ago I had a very interesting exchange with Howie Firth – Director of the Orkney International Science Festival.  To cut a long story short……Howie mentioned how there are old beliefs to do with bones holding the essence of what a person was.  I answered how so much can be learnt from bones now by use of DNA, and with pin-point detail, from a person’s teeth. I said how this could relate to the work that Mark and Hugo were doing, in relation to the ‘biographies’ of stones.

In a nut-shell – biographies of places, from stones  – biographies of people, from bones – stones, being the bones, of the land.

Howie observed that for some ancient peoples stones are seen as being the bones of the earth, so it could be that these various traditions go back to a truth – that various forms of life can be contained in stones, and he wondered if the silica in stones could somehow carry an imprint of something living? 

Traces of life have been found in various rocks – for example…….



And I responded with a memory of an episode in the original Star Trek series where the crew land on a planet where the human colonizers have been having problems with some kind of life-form already there on the planet.  It turns out that this is a silica-based life form.  To the humans she looks like a lump of rock but, in fact, she’s one of a highly intelligent species.  So intelligent that only Mr. Spock can communicate with her through a mind-meld.  Humans trying to communicate with her would have their minds blown! 

She’s one of the original inhabitants of the planet and was causing trouble  because the humans mining was getting very near to her egg chamber where her babies were about to hatch, emerge, whatever silica based babies would do! 

I thought this was a particularly good episode as it brought in the idea of life-forms based on other than carbon, also the whole issue of humans colonizing what they see to be an ’empty’ planet just because the species living there is nothing like them.  As they have done on earth with other countries, again and again – Australia being described as being ’empty’ when first ‘discovered’.


These are some of the thoughts and memories which this book has prompted in me – so far – just a taster……


See also archived story : Sgathaich: Star Trek the Original Series (The Devil in the Dark)

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