Minds and mountains

Early ecopsychology considered the mental health benefits of what we call ‘green space’ – natural areas covered by vegetation, such as parks, forests and gardens. Later, we started to think about ‘blue space’ – oceans, lakes, rivers, ponds and streams. The research shows that both can have a positive effect on our mental health. But what about mountains?

I spent my Summer holiday hiking and climbing in the Dolomites, a beautiful mountain range in Northern Italy. Being in the mountains – typically well over 2000 meters above sea level – felt very different from being in the woods or by a river. First, there’s very little in the way of flora or fauna: There are birds of course, plus patches of lichen and the occasional hardy alpine plant. But we were well above the tree line, and most of the water there remained frozen even in late September.

Instead of gentle green or the soothing gurgle of a stream, there are wide open vistas, stunning views, precipitous drops, and mountains high enough to dwarf a skyscraper. At times I’d be at the highest point for miles, looking out across lower peaks with the cloud layer far below. Spaces like that seem to open your mind: The far horizon proclaims a pure vastness that invites a crisp clarity to thought.

A high mountain Refugio seen from afar with distant mountain tops on the horizon.

At other times mountains towered above, revealing just how tiny I am! Psychologists researching the feeling of awe talk about the ‘small self’, and that certainly fits my experience. Awe puts life into a new perspective: Our everyday concerns feel less significant, and we feel more connected with everything beyond the narrow confines of self.

Looking up at a high mountain towering above.

It’s somewhat dangerous being on the side of a mountain that’s 3000 meters high. Common sense and proper equipment reduce the risk, of course, but the perception of danger sharpens one’s awareness. Daydreaming on a woodland walk or a stroll along the beach is fine, but don’t try it on a narrow ledge with a steep vertical drop! Existing research shows that being in nature can create a more mindful state, but that’s in ‘green’ or ‘blue’ space. The same thing happens in the mountains, but there’s an edge – literally. Mountains don’t simply invite presence; they demand it.

I think ecopsychology needs to consider a third kind of natural space: ‘mountain’ or ‘M space’. I don’t think there’s a colour that fits, and ‘M’ looks a bit like two peaks and a deep valley. ‘M space’ is significantly different from ‘green’ or ‘blue’ space. It’s more likely to provoke feelings of awe, seems to encourage more open, exploratory thinking, and often demands a focused, mindful awareness.

Is all this a clue to why Nietzsche valued the mountains so much?

“We do not belong to those who only get their thought from books, or at the prompting of books – it is our custom to think in the open air, walking, leaping, climbing, or dancing on lonesome mountains by preference, or close to the sea, where even the paths become thoughtful”

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Reply