Literary Landscapes

Researching the name of any mountain, village, forest, lake, hill or indeed virtually any other geographical landmark in the British Isles is a journey through layers of language: Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Cumbric, Gaelic, Brittonic, and the myriad other dialects of ancient tribes that remain as a residue in the fabric of the landscape. To the philologically curious, the names of the climbing routes slapped onto its rocks and crags over the last hundred-odd years, invisible except to those for whom they form the geographical reference system of their sport, are a no less fascinating part of that journey.

It’s taken as read among rock-climbing types that the first ascensionist of a climb has earned the right to name that climb. To get to weave a personal legacy into the toponymic tapestry of the natural world is seen as a great privilege among the climbing fraternity, and route-naming is something climbers take extremely seriously, sometimes putting as much effort into devising a suitable name as climbing the route itself.

Kate Lawrence, lecturer at Bangor University, suggests that the name of a climb can reveal a lot about the period when it was first ascended. In a paper presented at the Royal Geographical Society conference in 2014, analysing the names of 145 routes in Snowdonia, she writes: “The names of climbs first ascended in the 1920s and 1930s often give you an idea of how to get to them and where to go, but by the 1980s, a hedonistic culture was prevalent amongst some climbers in North Wales and the names of many climbs are clearly influenced by this”.

While the routes put up in the 1930s went by largely descriptive names, alluding to the shape of the rock or local environmental features, by the late 1950s climbs were being given poetic titles, and come the ‘80s climbers were looking to songs, films and literary works, or choosing names that spoke of the physical or psychological experience of the climb or what was going on in their head while making the ascent. All of the names, Lawrence says, give a sense of the route’s background and origins.

“One Step in the Clouds, named in 1958, describes the feeling of the climb, and you do feel you are tip-toeing across something very delicate where you have to be careful. … Curving Crack, named in 1932, describes the visual aspect and is quite down to earth, and Comes the Dervish, named in 1981, signals the spiritual state of being outside the body.” ‘Cenotaph Corner’ on Dinas Cromlech at Llanberis Pass, named in 1952, “takes on the theme of burial and death — Dinas Cromlech means burial chamber, and the massive crag does look like a tombstone.” In the nearby slate quarries there are routes with names like ‘Sweetest Taboo’ and ‘Is it a Crime?’, named after Sade songs, and one named after the Muse track ‘Supermassive Black Hole’.

As the late Charlie Fowler once said, “anybody can put up a classic route, but it takes real talent to come up with a great route name”, and kudos to the climbing community, there are some really great route names. In a lot of cases it’s probably best not to delve too deep into the process of cognitive deliberation that produced them, but at the same time it’s hard not to see a certain poetry in some of the offspring of this ‘hedonistic culture’ Lawrence talks about.

‘Don’t Touch that in front of Grandma’ (Juniper Canyon, Nevada) for example; ‘Fuzzy Undercling’ (Red River Gorge, Kentucky), ‘Chicago Nipple Slump’ (Joshua Tree, California), ‘Poultry in Motion’ (Shannon Falls, BC), or ‘Bald Women with Power Tools’ (Joshua Tree); ‘Walk We Crawl’ on Rock Creek Wall at Sierra Eastside, California; ‘I Saw a Sleaze Revisit Ed’, next to ‘Isosceles Revisited’ in Yosemite; ‘The Quack of Ducks’, above ‘the Crack of Dust’ at Mission Gorge, San Diego County; others political (‘Unimpeachable Groping’ at Red Rock Canyon; named in the ’90s — go figure), many obscene, and plenty treading the edgelands where bawdiness or black humour collide with outright poor taste.

Contributions to the literary and cultural side of things are numerous and varied. There’s a crag at Red Rock, Nevada, for example, called the Hamlet, every route name on which is an allusion to Shakespeare’s play — so, ‘Goodnight Sweet Prince’, ‘The Play’s the Thing’, ‘Rosencrantz’, ‘The Rest is Silence’, ‘When the Blood Burns’, and others. There’s ‘Summer of Our Discount Tent’ in the Bridger Mountains in Montana, and ‘Too Loose To Trek’ — “a short dirty little climb” at Joshua Tree, southern California; at Donner Summit ‘A Steep Climb Named Desire’, and ‘Climbin’ Punishment’ at Seneca Rocks in West Virginia; ‘Ancient Mariner’, ‘Albatross’ and ‘Upon a Painted Ocean’ at Point Perpendicular in Australia, and ‘The Satanic Traverses’ on Napes Needle in Cumbria, named back in the days when Salman Rushdie was fleeing persecution from 8th century religious throwbacks (on which note there’s also the rather pleasing ‘Cretins Corner’ in Idaho — described as “loose, wet, & overhanging”). And then of course, there’s the whole Tolkien issue.

If the poetics of ‘Hillbilly Sex Farm’ (West Virginia), ‘Magical Chrome-Plated Semi-Automatic Enema Syringe’ (Lumpy Ridge, Colorado) or the inevitable ‘Mr. Hugh G. Rection’ (Pinnacles, California) seem a little, let’s say, incongruous with those of the mountain landscape, there’s a whole other genre of route names of which the opposite is true.

On Pavey Ark in Langdale, I was pleased to discover, when I started delving into it for an article I was writing a while back, there is a certain syntonicity between the personality of the crag and the names of the climbs that crisscross its surface: ‘Crescent Slabs’, ‘Arcturus’, ‘Cruel Sister’, ‘Mother Courage’, ‘Rainmaker’, ‘Fallen Angel’, ‘Impact Day’, and a long list of others that would look as comfortable on an Iron Maiden album sleeve as in the pages of any climbing logbook.

The route names directory for the Napes, on the southern flank of Great Gable, similarly, is a veritable encyclopedia of the ancient, the literary and the chthonic: climbs like ‘Eagles Nest’, ‘Arrowhead Ridge’, ‘Vikings’, ‘Supernatural’, ‘Incantations’ and ‘Lucifer Ridge’, and others that nod respectfully to English folklore (‘Little John’, ‘Longbow’, ‘The Merry Monk’…). ‘The Crowley Route’ on the Napes will always have a slightly sinister ring to it, though like many climbs it’s named innocuously enough after its first ascensionist (it just happens that in this case that was the occultist Aleister Crowley, one of the first generation of climbers to bring their then-nascent sport to the Cumbrian fells in the late 19th and early 20th century). In the United States, ‘Wall of the Early Morning Light’ (Yosemite), ‘Lucifer’s Ladder’ (Utah), and ‘The Eagle’s Gift’ (Virginia) are among the countless other such names in this tradition.

For all my metal sensibilities, as route names go there can surely be none finer than that of a climb in Upper Owens River Gorge in eastern California. Listed in the online directories as ‘Nothing but Trouble’, its full title is: ‘You Have Been Nothing But Trouble Since the First Day I Laid Eyes on You; You are Like a Thorn in My Side; I Don’t Know from One Day to the Next What Stupid Lame Brain Stunt You’re Gonna Pull; Now Get Out of Here, Get Out of My Office, Get Out of My Life, Once and For All, Get Out Out Out Out!’

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Nature, language and law

I’ve spent much of my working life as an editor immersed in the world of law – legal journals, books, court judgments, law reports and the myriad other literary effusions of a world that balks at any linguistic ornamentation that might inadvertently obfuscate rather than elucidate. (This blog, incidentally, borrows its working title, The English Reports, from a collection of reports of judgments of the English Courts reported between the Middle Ages and the mid-19th Century). Many legal editors would gladly concur with 16th century English jurist William Fulbecke, who declared, in a moment of spectacular understatement, that “the books of law … are not pleasant to read, the words or terms are harsh and obscure, dull, and coldly prosaic, the style no whit delightful.”

And yet, however clinical and rationalistic it aspires to be, legal language, like any language, is steeped in images. Of the metaphors that pervade its everyday idiom, particularly any part thereof pertaining to the world of business and commerce, it is fascinating how so many seem to draw on the forces of the natural world, and perhaps above all, how many have an aquatic resonance.

We speak for instance of “keeping one’s head above water”, or being “deep in debt”; of liquidity, pools of resources, and the ebb and flow of the economic cycle. Remaining solvent requires good cash-flow and a steady flow of work. A company is floated; revenue pours in. We speak of a reservoir of capital, a buoyant market, infusions of capital, sinking funds, money being “siphoned off” or “pumped in”. A business drowns in debt, becomes insolvent, enters liquidation; wealth “trickles down”.

We speak of bailing out, going belly-up, pouring money down the drain, going under, shipwrecked companies foundering on the rocks. A firm is offered a lifeboat; a lender pulls the plug. Under a wave of debt a business files for bankruptcy, and we demand that those at the helm be held to account when a country sails into insolvency. ‘Currency’ itself (currere: to run) has a watery resonance, in its associations with currents, as do “affluent” and “flush” (fluere: to flow), both of which convey a sense of flow. Conversely, an account may be frozen, and freezing orders imposed; floating charges crystallise into fixed charges, blocked accounts impede the movement of funds. Stopping a flow is linked to the metaphor of drying out: funds dry up; revenue sources run dry.

These associations with fluidity and porosity and the images at play within them seem a long way from the clinical and rationalistic world of the legal profession. This is, after all, a world traditionally suspicious of image, metaphor, and anything else outside the Cartesian worldview, and yet the language it uses to make sense of itself is imbued with these images that convey subtle understandings, the sensate nature of its expressions enlivening our responsiveness to and understanding of the things they denote.

Cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature”. Imagery and metaphor “govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.” The psychologist James Hillman likewise considered the metaphorical image our “first unlearned language, which provides the poetic basis of mind, making possible communication between all people and all things”. The image, in other words, provides a way of understanding which is not purely conceptual, but which enables connections to be made between ideas and their archetypal roots.

The further we delve into these metaphors, the more we come to appreciate how a residual connection to our roots in the natural world manifests itself through everyday language, the prosaicism of the realm of commerce, and the laws that govern it, mirrored by the dynamism of those very forces, those very laws, devalued and rejected in mankind’s quest to assert its mastery of, and separation from the rest of nature. Through language, these forces reveal themselves in the unconscious: a primordial substrate, quietly shaping our everyday ways of thinking and being. Ironically, taking up Lakoff and Johnson’s point, this very rebellion of the archaic against the Cartesian order plays a crucial role in maintaining the strength, structure, and integrity of that order.