While some people want to conquer nature, others seek to share intimate moments with it.
In New Zealand a couple of summers back, I was lying naked on my back on a tilted rock warm as a car bonnet, in the path of Rob Roy Glacier. I felt languid and composed; the feeling captured by painters in their depictions of reclining Venuses: lazy, vain, and slightly aroused.
Next to me ran a stream fed by waterfalls that came directly off the glacier. Moments before I’d waded in and been numbed to the thigh. The sun was out and I’d decided to rest before dressing. Two friends were nearby, gathering their clothes. I tucked my arm behind my head, looked down at my flattened chest, and then back at the glacier.
The blue haunted heart of it glowed beneath a white crust of ice. It looked caught between creeping up or back down the mountain. At one time its tail would have run thick and muscular down the valley, and the scores in the cliffs were like the imprint left in the bed sheets by a lover who’s since gone. I lay beneath it, as still as a painting, enjoying the idea that I looked like a pre-Raphaelite model en plein air, framed by archetypal arêtes, benevolent peaks and sunlit grass. Nude in Landscape. Nymph of the Crystal Pool.
After a while something began to shift, not on the mountain but in my perception of it. The scene abstracted. It was similar to how a word loses meaning after being repeated aloud. I’ve had the same experience lying on my side at the beach, staring at the sea and seeing the facets of water arrayed vertically – the ocean becomes unrecognisable.
The mountain in front of me was losing its human logic. Layer by layer the myth and symbolism fell away, leaving only the greys, greens, blues and whites of the stone and ice. It was no longer a painting or a benevolent presence. It was no longer trustworthy. I couldn’t be sure of what I knew about the place; I’d never seen a glacier before. All I’d seen were beautiful photos.
I was a tourist with no clothes on.
As my fantasies lost their hold, it became clear the glacier was labyrinthine, beyond me. Rock, rushing water, weight. Microbes and minerals. Ancient and vulnerable.
I was a tourist with no clothes on.
Lying in the sun began to feel like a pleasure that was based on ignorance, as though I’d eaten a berry off an unknown bush and was about to get very sick. I’d seen a minor avalanche two days before: a small collapse of snow and granite falling down the shoulders of the MacKinnon Pass. It had rung out in delayed cracks and booms like fireworks across a bay, and fell with a cinematic slowness I associate with disaster.
I realised I was directly below the glacier. My friends were a little distance off, skimming stones across the surface of the stream, hitting knots in the rapids. I remained on my back, aware of the worry in my stomach and the lethargy in my limbs, torn between the impulse to get dressed and the luxury of the warm rock. I had an idea that I would be safe if I breathed quietly, that I could become part of the scenery.
Then one of my friends said we should get going and I hid my relief, dressed and followed them back up to the path.
I recently found an image of the mountaineer George Mallory standing bare-arsed at the base of Mount Everest. He posed for the photo in 1923 wearing only a hat and rucksack, his arms crossed, one knee bent, and his bum angled at the camera.
A year after the photo was taken, while attempting to be the first to summit the mountain, he disappeared into the clouds during the final stage of the climb and never came back. To this day, no one knows whether or not he reached the peak. His body was discovered in a snowy catchment in 1999, seventy-six years after his disappearance, bleached and frozen with his arms outstretched as though he was clinging to the mountain.
George Mallory was a sensual man. He was close to many within the early twentieth-century London art scenes. Virginia Woolf once described him as ‘a divine undergraduate with a head like a Greek God’. He was known to flirt with Cambridge essayist Lytton Strachey who once wrote of George’s body as ‘vast, pink, unbelievable… a thing to melt into and die’. Letters from the time plot a romantic game of cat and mouse between George, Lytton and his younger brother, James Strachey. George sought James while Lytton sought George. When James spurned George, George spurned Lytton, leaving him loveless.
In 1912 Mallory posed for the artist Duncan Grant. He wrote of the experience: ‘I am profoundly interested in the nude me.’ I have to admit I find the portraits compelling, looking at him posed in the studio in a round-arsed stance, the light falling on ripples in the flesh of his back. He looks soft, affectionate and vast.
Mallory had some ambition to become a writer. In the chapters he contributed to the public accounts of the 1921 trip, Mallory romanced Everest from afar:
Gradually, very gradually, we saw the great mountainsides and glaciers and arêtes, now one fragment and now another through the floating rifts, until far higher in the sky than imagination had dared to suggest the white summit of Everest appeared. And in this series of partial glimpses we had seen a whole; we were able to piece together the fragments, to interpret the dream. However much might remain to be understood, the centre had a clear meaning as one mountain shape, the shape of Everest.
– Mallory, Mount Everest, The Reconnaissance, 1921.
The way he pieced together this shape is the exact opposite of how my perception changed as I lay watching the glacier in New Zealand. Instead of perceiving fragments of unknowably detailed rock, mist and ice, he gradually united them all into one human symbol: Everest, with its pleasing pyramidal geometry, imbued with the significance of being the highest place in the world.
Mallory was known to be a man who liked to swim nude at every chance. I wonder what he felt in 1923 standing naked in such close proximity to the mountain, whether he began to feel closer to it, whether he felt he was exploring the sensuality he’d discovered in the artist’s studio.
In his writing Mallory interrogated the reasons for mountaineering, and he rarely seemed satisfied with the answers. He wasn’t always ambitious. He wrote about moments of stillness that tempted him. He was introspective. I recognise his desire for privacy in this (apocryphal) quote, often attributed to him:
Why do we travel to remote locations? To prove our adventurous spirit or to tell stories about incredible things? We do it to be alone amongst friends and to find ourselves in a land without man.
Later in his career, when the pressure to complete the mission was building, Mallory clung to the rhetoric that highest is best and that the mountain existed to be climbed. When asked in an interview why he wanted to summit Everest, he responded like a teenager: ‘Because it’s there.’
It’s a statement that reveals a flash of arrogance and nihilism. He was describing a relationship devoid of feeling, as though he had begun to objectify what he once desired. Perhaps he began to sense the mission’s recklessness, to trace its imperialistic roots, to feel the weight of death and the responsibility he had for others’ lives. He became emblematic of the obsession with climbing, but even he sensed its uselessness.
Today the routes on Everest are crowded with international expeditions. As a result, the climb is more dangerous than in Mallory’s time. In the 2014 and 2015 climbing seasons, the two highest death tolls were recorded, each after avalanches hit porters and climbers on their way to the summit. The camps are so full of rubbish and human waste they’ve become unsanitary and authorities are enforcing visitors to carry at least eight kilograms off the mountain with every trip. Bodies lie trapped in gullies and ravines. Untrained climbers can buy places on expeditions and local guides are still employed to make the dangerous climb carrying gear and preparing routes for customers, and for what? Why is the highest place still considered the most desirable?
At age seven, my parents took me on a guided tour of Uluru. We did a short walk around its base, followed by a helicopter flight during which I could see an ant-like trail of tourists scaling the rock’s slopes. I learned that, even though there is no ban against climbing Uluru, it is offensive to local Indigenous people. I still remember seeing the entrance to the path that led onto the rock: there was a sign but no fence and there were handrails to assist people. Seeing the sign, my young mind comprehended that we were being cautioned by people who knew the land best. It was not something I could easily dismiss; I was awed by the gravity of their warning.
Seeing the sign, my young mind comprehended that we were being cautioned by people who knew the land best.
When I travelled there again twenty years later, I had a chance to read the sign that clearly displayed the custom and law of the Anangu in transparent and compassionate language:
The climb is not prohibited but we ask you to respect our law and culture by not climbing Uluru.
We have a responsibility to teach and safeguard visitors to our land. The climb can be dangerous. Too many people have died while attempting to climb Uluru. Many others have been injured while climbing. We feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land. We worry about you and we worry about your family. Our traditional law teaches us the proper way to behave.
A stream of people were still ambling past – they must have noticed it – onto the rock and up the worn path, still prioritising their need to be on top of something in order to experience it as if there were no satisfying alternative. The words of the Anangu contrasted with the climbers’ steps; to me they all seemed to bumble and trip like they were walking in bubbles. It seemed so obvious that they were possessed by the Western cult of mountaineering and so strange that they would ignore those who cared for the land and who cared for them.
That same day I circumnavigated the rock’s base and found a small side track which led to a pocket in the rock’s sheer face where a waterfall fell into a pond. I was glad the site was protected by fences. Again, I felt it was a place that contained more than I could comprehend – the incongruous trickle of water, the cool air, the orange sandstone folded like the stomach of a bending woman. While I stood there, I noticed every walker who approached it fell silent.
Sitting among a crowd at the beach, I’ll feel the sun on my face and wish I could get a little privacy. It’s a honeymoon urge, a rising desire to be alone with the scenery, far away on a clean empty beach – somewhere to sun my nipples and wade into the water. I find a quiet stretch of coast and feel as though the wisps of grass and curling water, the dappled light and warmth in the air are a performance. The intensity of my satisfaction leads me to admit – I’m a jealous lover.
I’m jealous of the other picnickers at the park, the other swimmers at the river.
I’m jealous of the other picnickers at the park, the other swimmers at the river.
I’ll have just walked to a lookout and been soothed by the purple horizon when I hear the footsteps of another hiker: I’ve been tapped on the shoulder while trying to seduce someone from across the room. I’ll wait politely and impatiently to be left alone while being forced into another admission – seeing the hiker approach is like looking into a mirror. Each of us disturbing the other, yet neither of us able to blame the other for seeking the same silent sunset.
I take my time when I can. If I’m alone, maybe I undress. If I see a glint of water, I’ll scale small cliffs and scramble through nettles. I’ll follow a narrow stream to find a deeper pool. I’ll climb around a rocky point to find a private bay. Being submerged is like being touched after hours of flirting. It’s good to finally be topless, to have the sun on my bum, to feel unguarded. I often prefer the company of a lake to a person.
In the open air I begin to notice the way my bare foot balances on a stone, how the sand cushions my hips, and the sensation of the waterline reaching my navel.
I’ve been seduced by many bodies of water. City beaches at dawn after nights of dancing. Motel pools lined with potted palms. A black stream carrying white leatherwood petals. A shallow cove. A pitcher of water beneath a quince tree.
I know that I’m seeking some kind of acceptance from the landscape, and that it will never truly come. That’s why it plays out as a one-sided romance, deluded but still full of tenderness.
In Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, a strange planet is approaching Earth. People are told it will pass by, coming spectacularly close but never hitting. Each day it hovers closer, chalky-pink in the blue sky, and at night it sits large and luminescent beside the moon. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is quietly terrorised by its approach. In the face of the ballooning planet she craves scientific reassurances and social normalcy.
Her sister Justine (Kirsten Dunst) had been suffering from acute depression before the planet’s appearance, experiencing a deep day-to-day emotional and philosophical melancholy. The radiant, enveloping apocalypse that the planet threatens to bring is something she can easily comprehend. One night Claire happens upon Justine lying on her back beside a stream, making eyes at the planet, stroking her collarbones and bathing naked in its light.
Von Trier contrasts a moral mind that is trying to remain composed, with a mind that has relinquished control. Claire suppresses her fear of the planet while Justine explores it. When she sees Justine naked beside the stream, Claire’s face flickers between shock and envy; her sister, who only hours ago was fatigued, cruel and pessimistic, who she has had to help bathe and eat each day, is now glowing in a private moment of pleasure and communion.
There are lines drawn between eroticism, nature, depression and disaster. Justine enacts those parts of the mind that accept nature’s violence, that acknowledge humankind’s vulnerability, that can act outside morality, that are antisocial, and that relate to the world sensually. She is more capable than her sister of holding in her mind the ideas of beauty and death in one thought. She is able to lucidly face real disaster; it’s not something she desires, but she understands that it’s possible. She sees that there is no reason humans don’t deserve to die.
Von Trier is asking what if the end of the world was imminent? Where does this place those who were able to intuit it? In one of the film’s surreal vignettes, Justine is floating on her back downstream through reeds and lily pads in her wedding dress, a reference to Ophelia from Hamlet, who was also considered crazy and who sung songs about death and sex before eventually drowning in a brook. The funereal image of Justine submerged in the pool fully clothed shows how she has abandoned the narrative of her own life, but von Trier suggests this isn’t because she’s crazy, rather that her mind has unwoven the artifice of society – why marriage, why parties, why love?
Later, the scene of her beneath the rouge planet shows von Trier’s preoccupation with erotic experiences within depression, how they begin to move outside the bounds of social propriety. In this scene she looks happier than at any other point in the film. She has found a force that stimulates her.
Looking back at photos taken at the glacier I realise I was lying in exactly the same position as Justine, both of us beside a stream, angled at the sky. She gazed at a threatening planet while I looked at a dripping glacier. Comparing the images, I can see we both share a sense of lust, curiosity, and a lack of inhibition. As we gaze at the massive forms in front of us, it seems to us both that they are gazing right back. It’s a gaze that makes us bold.
On top of the glacier, even clothed in the same position, I don’t know what I would have seen or felt. Beneath it I noticed the way it clung to the mountain, heavy and glistening. It became easy to intuit how large ecosystems might destabilise, starting with the steady dripping of the ice. Von Trier was generous in his vision – his end of the world was crazy – beautiful, astral and fairly sudden. In reality, there’s a danger that the collapse will be protracted, unjust and violent, as the seas slowly change and fresh water disappears.
The future is so uncertain that I sometimes forget to imagine it. Some people feel invincible, other talk about resource wars. I know that mountains are vulnerable. Bolivia’s second largest lake has evaporated and isn’t capable of refilling because the glaciers that fed it are drying.
I’ve maintained my enormous crush on the Rob Roy Glacier. I think about it still, even though it intimidated me. Lying at its base, I was paralysed by the potential for disaster and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it beauty. Scared to look away. Worried that my breath would push the domino that starts the collapse, but at the same time, desirous of being a part of it all. So I breathed quietly, watched, tilted my thighs to catch the sun, and let the heat and humility settle in me.
Image credit: Vicki Devine