Thank you to Emma Carter for her insights on Mount Snowdon:
For a significant period of time, I have been wanting to summit Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales. After proposing this to my mother at the beginning of this summer, we decided to book a hostel room and attempt the walk, which is hardly challenging for experienced walkers and takes around 5 hours to ascend and descend. My family enthusiastically seeks naturally beautiful landscapes, which exist in abundance in rural Wales; I also sought the sense of achievement which reaching the top of a mountain brings, and ideally the stunning views which were sure to accompany this. However, thinking deeper into geographical understandings of how nature and landscapes are interpreted, I have come to realise that perhaps my experience of Snowdon cannot simply be boiled down to one of beauty.
My walking party chose the manageable Snowdon Ranger path, which coincides with the popular Llanberis path shortly prior to reaching the summit at 1,085m. Despite a reasonably quiet walk up, in which our encounters with other walkers were only occasional, on joining the Llanberis path this changed drastically. The summit of Snowdon was very busy, a fact that was only augmented by a horde of runners competing in an international hill running race that day. My search for undisturbed and beautiful nature had been interrupted by excessive human presence, which begs the question: is nature really natural?
In common conceptions of nature, a false dichotomy can be observed between nature and society, such that nature is pristine, God-given and unmarred, the raw material exploited by ‘society’ for the purposes of production (Smith, 2010 in Apostolopoulou, 2016). Nature is therefore defined by a dualism which is inapplicable to reality, as my visit to Snowdon suggests: seeking ‘nature’ as a wild, untouched entity is impossible. We expect that nature is grounded in a divided geography, islands of ‘natural’ space surrounded by less ‘natural’ urban or inhabited areas, but inevitably nature and society are inextricably intertwined. Nature has been defined by its distance from humans, and humans therefore seek wilderness – yet this presents a paradox, because any space in which humans are present fails to conform to what we would label ‘natural’. This was evident in the extreme up Snowdon, where the presence of other walkers rendered the scenery ‘unnatural’.
This is a notion much discussed among Marxist geographers, who have investigated and developed Marx’s ideas about the concept of nature writing from the middle of the 19th century. According to Smith (2010 in Apostolopoulou, 2016), Marx suggested that virtually no nature existed any longer which predated human history; simply put, we almost can’t find any piece of nature that hasn’t been influenced by humans. This could be labelled the ‘Anthropocene’, yet this in itself is a problematic term – ‘anthropos’ implies that humans are against the great forces of nature, reinforcing the Cartesian dualism characterising human relations with nature (Moore, 2014 in Apostolopoulou, 2016). Even the way we address discussions of nature with humans as a central role, for example within debate around contemporary environmental issues or designating Sites of Special Scientific Interest, suggests that nature cannot coexist with society and retain its ‘naturalness’.
Furthermore, our conceptions of nature and landscape tend to be limited to outside spaces – yet time spent playing board games in the hostel and looking down the spectacular Pen-y-pass was an equal part of the experience of nature in Snowdonia, as this created a locale in which the mountain was experienced. The ways in which humans experience the landscape are varied: it can even be through representations of the landscape, for example through the maps and pictures lining the walls of the youth hostel. The debate arises as to which provides the most complete picture of the landscape – these maps, including the one pictured, exclude certain aspects of the landscape such as the people who may be encountered on the paths, and how busy they are.
Spinney (2006) argues for a phenomenological approach to landscape, where it is experienced pre-cognitively through the senses – the body and the landscape are intertwined through movements, urges, emotions, or routines. Motility is of utmost importance here due to the body’s capabilities to access a new layer of meaning from the landscape through the senses such as temperature monitoring, vision, and kinaesthesia (Spinney, 2006). Kinaesthesia was particularly important when ascending Snowdon, due to the thick cloud clinging to the mountainside – like Ingold (2000, in Spinney, 2006), I felt rather than saw the contours of the landscape due to the muscle burn of ascending and the shifting of scree beneath by boots.
Overall, looking at my experience of Snowdon through a geographical lens demonstrates how concepts within the discipline of human geography are endlessly applicable even in a setting which many would initially not associate with humans – the wilderness of Snowdon is not, in fact, wild at all, but permeated with human relations.
Apostolopoulou, E., (2016) Nature. [Lecture to BA Geography Year 1]. Oxford University, 30th November 2016.
Llyn Gwynant Campsite (2017). Walking. [online] Available at: http://gwynant.com/activities/walks/ (Accessed: 1st October 2017).
Spinney, J. (2006) A place of sense: a kinaesthetic ethnography of cyclists on Mont Ventoux. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24, 709-732.