Mountain Climbing and Environmental Thinking

Director of Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah Jeffrey McCarthy discusses mountain climbing and environmental awareness at a BYU American studies lecture.

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 23, 2017)—What makes an environmentalist? Environmental scholars traditionally promote osmosis – the more time someone spends out in nature, the more they come to appreciate it. Presenting a lecture at BYU, Jeffrey McCarthy – director of environmental humanities for the University of Utah – however, believes it to be more than that. “I think that approach overlooks the physical experience,” he said.

Since the 18th century, mountains, especially the Alps, have been a destination for tourists to experience the sublime. After some time, looking no longer provided a sensation of awe, so the tourists began to climb. This is how, McCarthy explained, they transitioned from “the view to the thing,” crossing the boundary of spectatorship into an actual, physical connection to the mountainous landscape.

“The alpine road to environmentalism goes through the body. We are now in the mountains and they are in us. . . . [Our] physical attention to the ice or the rock pushes us to consider nature as part of ourselves.” He continued, “To be human is to be human amidst the various actors in this world . . . .to reconsider the boundaries of human self and the natural world around us.”

McCarthy challenges the ideas of Western philosophy – espoused by Plato, Descartes and Kant – that through the mind is the only way we can experience nature. He believes that the physical body is another avenue to feel connected to nature. “Human experience in the world is less like Descartes’s rational observer in the lighthouse and more like an egg in a cake,” he said, explaining that through mountaineering, humans become an indistinguishable part of the natural landscape.

McCarthy is not alone in this challenge, exploring the ideas of Thoreau who, in response to his own experience climbing Mt. Katahdin in Maine, said, “I stand in awe of my body. This matter to which I have been bound has become so strange to me.” John Muir, who McCarthy called “a mountaineer’s mountaineer” walked the Sierra mountains without provisions or tent in search of environmental connections and eventually formed the Sierra Club. 

“Living and climbing are both physical – corporeal,” McCarthy said. Mountain climbing involves, he expanded, the “body as an active vehicle of recognition” where it recognizes the safest place for a foot or axe in traversing difficult areas. The sport, he commented, recognizes a force that “connects humanities to nature” and “celebrates our connections with nature.”

There is, McCarthy explained, a stereotype of mountaineers as “thrill-seekers who happen to touch the sublime.” But he believes that sensation can develop into something else. “I hope there’s a connection that a climber feels to the natural world that will change how they live their lives and even their political values,” he closed.

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the American studies program of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Picture from Public Domain Pictures