Caught by the River

New routes into the mountain

Anna Fleming | 18th November 2018

Anna Fleming sends another dispatch from the Cairngorms, this month learning how to move with – rather than against – the landscape.

I am becoming a boulder.

This October morning in the Cairngorms, I have been set the task of letting go of the visual to see how my eyes move. I stand still on the mountain, consciously relaxing my eyes and the muscles all around them. For ten minutes I slowly turn on the spot, trying to focus on nothing to see what my eyes discern. My sight is drawn to distinctive shapes. A human appears and my eyes are magnetized: they want to take in this form by acquiring the details of clothes, hair and stance. I resist, drawing my eyes back into big, round lenses that try to take it all in, to see everything. I discover I can perceive plenty without focussing on anything in particular. I am aware of passing clouds and blue sky openings; the shapes of the hills encircling me; prominent white-green-grey rocks; heather; distant boulder fields; paths; humans. I see the mountain.

The task is difficult, and I have to keep calling my mind back, constantly resisting the impulse to fix my eyes on particular features. Yet with this change in vision, I glimpse a different way of engaging with the environment. I am no longer an acquisitive human, seeking to know the land by collecting and assembling details as in a jigsaw puzzle; I witness totality. Through this slow, wide perspective, I become part of the landscape. I feel like a boulder.

“How do we empathise with the ecological lens of this place?” asks Simone Kenyon, a dancer, artist and choreographer. Simone is guiding this session in the northern corries, leading a group through a series of exercises to help us find our way into the mountain. The workshop is part of a larger project: ‘Into the Mountain’, inspired by Nan Shepherd, celebrating women’s experiences in the mountains.

Over 2018-19, Simone is working with a group of female dancers to choreograph a live performance that responds to the Cairngorms. On this October day, Simone introduces a group of teachers, outdoor learning practitioners and occupational therapists to her distinctive approach to mountains. Like Nan Shepherd, Simone is resistant to the goal-oriented approach to mountaineering and the culture of pushing yourself against the mountain. She encourages us to slow down and let the mountain speak to us; to try a variety of exercises that enables a multifarious perspective, helping us to notice more, to hear deeply, to identify with the place.

I became aware that to enter into and experience this place – a mountain habitat of heather, moss, grass, boulders, granite cliffs, cold wind and distant sweeping views – I needed to leave my humanity behind, switching off the habitual prattle of human thoughts and concerns (“Did I lock the car?” “How long till I arrive at the summit?” “What shall I have for dinner…?”). These preoccupations are powerful and distracting. They obscure the world of the mountain, preventing one from fully entering the elements, terrain and creatures; the sights, sounds and sensations. To arrive, I must cease to be present in my head (with all its preoccupations and distractions), and become present in body, heart and mind.

Instead of focussing on the spectacles of the outer landscape, Simone asked us to explore our internal landscape. Walking in silence, ten metres apart, we felt the movement of our bodies. The wind pushed my front; with each step, I lifted a heel first, rolling forwards onto my toes for a moment; my ankles twisted and turned around rocks in the path. I felt the gaps in my clothing – the left wrist, my face – here the air pressed cold on skin. As my body warmed, it grew more fluid and I found my own rhythm. Like a boulder set in motion, the body gained strength and certainty in its own pace.

Photo by Lucy Cash

The profound difference that this subtle approach makes to one’s experience in the mountains became apparent a couple of days later. I was crossing peatland in wild, stormy weather. Heavy showers blew in. The bog was sodden. We were en route to a bothy, my bag was heavy, and I grew tired and frustrated stumbling up and down bog hillocks, leaping across pools and channels, the ground squelching. Retracing our steps the next day, we walked direct into the gale-force wind. I was facing another two hours of miserable rage. Something had to change.

I began paying attention to my feet, feeling my ankles roll as they worked with the ground, noticing how the mosses absorbed my step whereas rocks and gravel pushed my foot back up. It was so windy I couldn’t hear the ground squelch. The wind was often full in my face, pushing at my shoulders and chest as I leaned forwards into it. When the path turned, I was sometimes caught by side winds. Lulls and gusts appeared from nowhere. Contemplating my internal landscape, I sought to find a pace that was right so that my body was not pushing against the wind – motoring forwards with a sense of challenge – but working with the wind to discover affordance, a pace that was manageable.

I applied greater judgement to calculate my route. Rather than flinging myself in wild leaps across bog pools (challenging on the hips, with the risk of missed footing or being knocked off balance by the wind), I considered where the best foot placements would be to enable the most efficient travel over the bog. Through this measured approach, I realised that one can read the horizontal plane like one reads the vertical when climbing. One of the great appeals of climbing is that it is immersive: I am completely absorbed in reading the rock to calculate how to move my body through the route. Yet often when I walk, because only my feet connect with the ground, my head can be removed, engaged in some distant mental, emotional or physical prospect. Crossing the bog this time, I called my mind back, preventing it from wandering off by keeping it fixed on the present, millimetre by millimetre. I arrived back at the car much sooner than expected and was reluctant to open the door and re-enter the still world. I had aligned my internal landscape with wind, rain and bog.

My morning with Simone made me realise two distinct approaches to mountains. Our dominant culture construes the mountains as a realm where you push yourself and confront challenges. You take in the summit, you take in the views, you come away with a defined set of objects; you gain a sense of empowered achievement. The other approach is slower and requires a shift in being. By focussing on your body in the landscape, you discover how it can move with the place. Experimenting with different sensory exercises can help you to gain new perspectives on the mountain. When I relaxed my eyes and tried to see everything, for a moment, I felt what it might be like to see the mountain from the position of a boulder. Slow, steady and empathically present. I am beginning to find another way in.


‘Into the Mountain’ is commissioned and produced by Scottish Sculpture Workshop (SSW) and co-commissioned by Dance North Scotland, City Moves Dance Agency, Tramway and Cairngorms National Park Authority. It is also supported by Mountaineering Scotland, Aberdeenshire Council and Creative Scotland.

Find out more about the project here and on Facebook/Instagram.

‘Into the Mountain – A Meet’, a day of talks and workshops on women, mountaineering and dance, takes place at Tramway, Glasgow on 24 November 2018. More info/tickets here.

Follow Anna’s blog/Twitter account.