Monday, June 1, 2009

Boils, warts, and wens

"Three centuries ago, risking one's life to climb a mountain would have been considered tantamount to lunacy. The notion barely existed, indeed, that wild landscape might hold any sort of appeal. To the orthodox seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century imagination, natural scenery was appreciated largely for the extent to which it spoke of agricultural fecundity. Meadows, orchards, grazing fields, the rich sillion of crop lands - these were the ideal components of a landscape. Tamed landscapes, in other words, were attractive: landscapes which had had a human order imposed upon them by the plough, the hedgerow and the ditch. As late as 1791 William Gilpin noted that 'the generality of people' found wilderness dislikeable. 'There are few,' he continued, 'who do not prefer the busy scenes of cultivation to the greatest of nature's rough productions.' Mountains, nature's roughest productions, were not only agriculturally intractable, they were also aesthetically repellent: it was felt that their irregular and gargantuan outlines upset the natural spirit-level of the mind. The politer inhabitants of the seventeenth century referred to mountains disapprovingly as 'deserts'; they were also castigated as 'boils' on the earth's complexion, 'warts', 'wens', 'excrescences' and even, with their labial ridges and vaginal valleys, 'Nature's pudenda'."

Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination, Pantheon Books, 2003, p. 15.