Notes From the Margins…

Down from the Mountains

  • August 25, 2015
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I’ve just returned from a working holiday in the Pyrenees.  During that time I haven’t done any blogging, partly because good  and sustained  Internet connections weren’t always available, and also because I was doing too many things to be able to sit down and write for long periods.   I went to the Pyrenees because I’m currently researching a book about the chain and its history, and the research process is really engrossing.

My book is partly about the changing perceptions of the Pyrenees in the outside world that have generated clichés such as ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’, and which have paralleled the broader aesthetic transformation in the way that mountains in general were perceived in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.   But it also looks at the various events, people and processes that have shaped Pyrenean history; wars and civil wars; refugee flows; artists and writers; tourists, climbers, and scientists; medieval and early modern kingdoms such as Navarre, Catalonia and Bearn.

It takes in the Peninsular War; the seventeenth century witchhunts in Labourd and Navarre; cave art; the French resistance and the Spanish anarchist guerrilleros post WWII; shepherds and transhumance; emigration and depopulation; the ‘montreurs d’ours’ – bear displayers who were once found across the Ariege and beyond.    All this required a lot of visits to a lot of different places, and I still felt that we only scratched the surface.

More than anything else we walked, at every opportunity, amongst some of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery to be found anywhere in Europe.  Throughout the two weeks the mountains dominated us and everything we did.  We saw them constantly in the distance from France, a backdrop to our rented apartment where they rose up out of the Bearnese plain and formed the great ‘wall’ that so many visitors to the Pyrenees have commented on.  We drove through them, along hair-raising mountain roads with precipitous drops, through thick forest or alongside the ubiquitous rivers or ‘gaves’ that come down from the high mountains and run through the valley floors to towns and cities on either side of them.

On one particularly unforgettable afternoon, we drove through thick fog down from the Pic du Midi de Bigorre along the fearsome Col de Tourmelet – one of the great obstacles in the Tour de France – with endless cyclists flitting in and out of the drifting white curtain and occasional eye-popping glimpses of the void below us.

Most of all we walked, because walking is the best way to experience the Pyrenees.  We walked up La Rhune; around the mighty twin-pointed Pic du Midi d’Ossau; in the Marcadau Valley above Cauterets; above the crumbling former spa town of Eaux-Bonnes; and up above the 300-foot Cascade d’Arse above Aulus les-Bains.  We clambered over piles of boulders scattered millions of years ago, past fields filled with sheep, cream-coloured cattle and semi-wild ponies.  We gaped up at massive waterfalls crashing down from hundreds of feet and down from exposed paths dropping down one or two thousands feet.

We looked down from the summit of La Rhune on a boiling hot day at a great sea of mountains stretching back towards the Mediterranean, looking hazy and almost ethereal in the sunlight.   We climbed through magnificent stepped valleys, past water whose purity and clarity made you think of Tarkovsky films; through forests of beech and chestnut trees some thirty or forty foot high.  Once we emerged on a narrow path thousands of feet above Eaux-Bonnes to find five vultures flying nearby and calling to each other.   On another  afternoon  we entered a high pastureland near the Pic du Midi d-Ossau that was like a vision of the Garden of Eden, with ponies, cattle and sheep all mingling in the same space, and the sound of bells ringing out like some Tibetan prayer ceremony.

Throughout those walks I thought how lucky I was to be there, and also how lucky we are as a species, to have such places available to us – and to those who follow us. Few of us should need reminding how fragile that future is.   For decades, scientists and environmentalists have warned us repeatedly of the damage we are doing to the planet and the need to take ameliorative action before that harm becomes irreversible.

We live in a strange and dangerous present, in which the most horrendous scenarios of environmental collapse and degradation are constantly presented to us, and yet we collectively turn away from them because they are too painful to contemplate, because we refuse to believe them, or perhaps because we have lost faith that we can prevent them.

This summer, as many people in many countries have been unpleasantly reminded, has been the hottest since records began. In July temperatures in Iran reached an astonishing 74 degrees centigrade. At the end of June nearly 1,000 people in Pakistan died in a three-day heatwave.

The world is burning up and we aren’t doing enough to stop it.    We won’t be around to see the worst consequences of this process of course, which may give comfort to the dumbest and most selfish amongst us.   But our children and grandchildren may curse us for what we left them, and what we allowed to happen.

This summer Barack Obama has just authorized drilling in the Arctic – an astonishingly dumb decision with potentially catastrophic consequences that says a great deal about the mess we’re in.  Over the next few decades the actions that we take or don’t take will determine the future of the planet and everything that lives on it.  We need radical and courageous governments that are willing to make the changes necessary  to prevent the dire possibilities that are hovering over us, and if they won’t do this we need to kick them out.

We need to take on our responsibility as caretakers of the planet.   If we  fail to do this we are endanger our own existence as well as condemning future generations to a future that for many of our successors will not be worth living in.    I don’t claim any originality for these observations.  On the contrary, one of the depressing things about the whole subject of ‘the environment’, is that so many  people have been saying all this for a long time, and so little has been done about it.

That doesn’t mean that we should shrug our shoulders and sink into passivity.  It isn’t necessary to go to high mountains to be reminded of what an astonishingly wonderful planet we have at our disposal.

But mountains are a very powerful and unforgettable reminder that this planet was created a long long time ago by natural forces that have nothing to do with us.  They will survive, but our species and our civilisation, with all its achievements as well as its manifest flaws may not, unless we snap out of our dreamstate and take the actions that our position as the dominant species obliges us to take.




  1. Daniel Margrain

    25th Aug 2015 - 4:50 pm

    I fear we may have already reached the tipping point. Economic short-termism is the bane of humanity.

  2. Nik

    26th Aug 2015 - 9:16 am

    Glad to have you back Matt! Reading this I suddenly felt an urge to visit the Pyrenees! But indeed it is more than dramatic what we do to our planet. Sometimes the sensation of utter futility overcomes me when I separately throw paper, plastic, metal etc. trash into the neatly and in a very Austrian way arranged trash bins infront of my flat. I had a british girlfriend years ago who practically fell in love with how obsessed we are over here with recycling and separating our trash into the appropriate trash bin. But given the big picture of global warming and all the things you’ve listed I sometimes wonder if it’s actually worth bothering. To be honest I think it’s more or less over which sometimes makes my envy those who are 50+ years old because they’ll be gone by the time things will get very very ugly.

    To end of a rather fatalistic note: Given the rising see levels I sort of find sarcastic comfort when I think that in a few centuries the Mediterranean Sea might be right next to Austria…

    • Matt

      26th Aug 2015 - 12:39 pm

      Glad that global warming will have some positive benefits for you Austrians, Nik! And remember, it’s not over till the last vulture caws…

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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