Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rationalism and respect

One need not preclude the other, especially in the high mountains

"Police in Malaysia have arrested a British woman and three other western tourists after they posed naked on top of the country's highest mountain in a stunt that some indigenous people believe may have caused a deadly earthquake days later." So begins the Guardian's story about last week's incident atop Mt Kinabalu (and you can read the rest of the report here for yourself).

Bare summit: Mt Kinabalu without tourists (Wikipedia)
To some, it might seem quaint that tourists can be thrown in the clink for dissing a geological feature, even one as high and magnificent as Kinabalu (4,095 metres). And they might find it even more bizarre that the tourists' antics could be blamed for a natural disaster that killed 18 climbers a few days later. One wonders, for example, what the religious commentator Richard Dawkins - recently interviewed, by exquisite irony, in the very same newspaper - might make of this.

To a meizanlogist, though, the Malaysian story comes as less of a surprise. After all, you only have to leaf through Japan's most famous mountain book to find similar episodes. Take Banryū, for example, the Buddhist monk featured in the Yari-ga-take chapter of Nihon Hyakumeizan. After making the mountain's first ascent, in 1828, he wanted to rig the rocky spire with chains, so that his followers could climb it safely. But the local villagers stopped him because, at the height of the Tempo Famine, they blamed his mountain-climbing for their bad harvests.

Nor was this an isolated incident. When, sixty-odd years later, Walter Weston wanted to climb a nearby mountain, the same villagers, or their descendants, reacted in much the same way:

The mountain-loving Anglican missionary came as far as the foot of Kasa-ga-dake in 1892 and the following year, but on both occasions superstitious villagers prevented him from climbing it. It was only on his third visit, in 1894, that he succeeded, on August 1, in attaining the long-sought peak. He was accompanied by a young hunter who laughed at the villagers' fears. Weston loved the rustic simplicity of Japan's mountain villages, but the inhabitants of Gamata believed that demonic spirits haunted Kasa's precipices and ravines. If a stranger were conducted thither, some fearsome tempest would lay waste their village, or so they feared. In the second decade of the Meiji period, people in most remote villages would have believed something of this sort.

Writing in 1964, Fukada Kyūya, the Hyakumeizan author, seems to imply that such beliefs are extinct. And, in some wealthy industrialised countries, they may be just that. Elsewhere in the world, however, the Malaysian incident suggests that they are in good health. In fact, one might expect to find such beliefs anywhere that people feel their survival depends on the bounty, not to say the whims, of nature.

The people who live at the foot of Mt Kinabalu were certainly shocked by the behaviour of the Western tourists. They probably felt a taboo had been broken. Their reactions reminded me of an episode written up by the explorer and ethnographer Knud Rasmussen after his 20,000-mile sledging expedition through the North American Arctic between 1921 and 1924.

Photo from "Across Arctic America" by Knud Rasmussen
Rasmussen undertook this journey to study the intellectual and spiritual lives of the Eskimo peoples. He was particularly interested in the superstitions and taboos of his hosts. The easy bit was to find out what those beliefs were: everyone could tell him what must be done or avoided in any given situation. The difficulty came when he asked them the reasons for their actions. In fact, the Eskimos seemed to regard him as unreasonable for asking them to justify their rites and ceremonies. Until, one evening, one of Rasmussen's Eskimo companions suddenly rose to his feet and invited him to step outside:

It was twilight, the brief day was almost at an end, but the moon was up, and one could see the stormriven clouds racing over the sky; every now and then a gust of snow came whirling down. Aua pointed out over the ice, where the snow swept this way and that in whirling clouds. "Look," he said impressively, "snow and storm; ill weather for hunting. And yet we must hunt for our daily food; why? Why must there be storms to hinder us when we are seeking meat for ourselves and those we love?"


Two of the hunters were just coming in after a hard day's watching on the ice; they walked wearily, stopping or stooping every now and then in the wind and the snow. Neither had made any catch that day; their watching had been in vain.


I could only shake my head. Aua led me again, this time to the house of Kuvdlo, next to our own. The lamp burned with the tiniest glow, giving out no heat at all; a couple of children cowered shivering in a corner, huddled together under a skin rug.

And Aua renewed his merciless interrogation: ''Why should all be chill and comfortless in this little home? Kuvdlo has been out hunting since early morning; if he had caught a seal, as he surely deserved, for his pains, the lamp would be burning bright and warm, his wife would be sitting smiling beside it, without fear of scarcity for the morrow; the children would be playing merrily in the warmth and light, glad to be alive. Why should it not be so? "


Again I could make no answer. And Aua took me to a little hut apart, where his aged sister, Natseq, who was ill, lay all alone. She looked thin and worn, and too weak even to brighten up at our coming. For days past she had suffered from a painful cough that seemed .to come from deep down in the lungs; it was evident she had not long to live.

And for the third time Aua looked me in the face and said: "Why should it be so? Why should we human beings suffer pain and sickness? All fear it, all would avoid it if they could. Here is this old sister of mine, she has done no wrong that we can see, but lived her many years and given birth to good strong children, yet now she must suffer pain at the ending of her days? "

Why? Why?

After this striking object lesson, Rasmussen and Aua returned to the hut, and renewed their interrupted conversation with the others. "You see," observed Aua, "even you cannot answer when we ask you why life is as it is. And so it must be. Our customs all come from life and are directed towards life; we cannot explain, we do not believe in this or that; but the answer lies in what I have just shown you. We fear! We fear the elements with which we have to fight in their fury to wrest out food from land and sea. We fear cold and famine in our snow huts. We fear the sickness that is daily to be seen amongst us. Not death, but the suffering . And therefore our fathers, taught by their fathers before them, guarded themselves about with all these old rules and customs, which are built upon the experience and knowledge of generations.'' (Across Arctic America, Chapter IX, Faith from fear.)

Aua's explanation was reasonable enough from his point of view, Rasmussen had to conclude.

When it comes to rites and ceremonies, the true heirs of Aua may not be the Arctic's present-day inhabitants. Rather, they might be found among modern mountaineers. For, in truth, we are a superstitious and ritualistic bunch. Just look at all those lucky miniature teddy bears dangling from backpacks everywhere. (Be honest, now: would you leave home without yours?) And that seems to hold whether the mountains are in wealthy countries or less developed ones.

Blessing the ropes at Valtournenche (from Matterhhorn: Eine Besichtigung)
On the Italian side of the Matterhorn, for instance, the mountain guides take their ropes to be blessed by the priest of Valtournenche every autumn. There's a similar ceremony in rural Japan, I've heard. In the Himalaya, the Sherpas won't start up a mountain until they have conducted a puja. And rather few of their foreign clients would skip these purification ceremonies, even if such rites are not part of their culture at home.

The upshot is that mountaineers - like the Eskimo hunters described by Rasmussen- must deal with a world that is largely beyond their control. And when all those storms, seracs, crevasses, and avalanches are ranged against you, it seems reasonable - rational, even - to ask for all the help you can get. One might call it the alpinist's version of Pascal’s famous wager.

Yes, it may be that, rationally speaking, it’s impossible to offend a mountain. Any disciple of Richard Dawkins would hasten to reassure you on that point. But who would want to take the chance that they might be wrong. Anyway, it never hurts to show a mountain a little extra respect.

The news about the Kinabalu incident reached this blogger on a stiflingly hot evening. A few hours later, a tremendous thunderstorm broke. For the space of an hour, the lightning was almost continuous – the sort of display that is supposed to happen only in the tropics. In a nearby town, a woman and her daughter drowned trying to get their car out of a flooding underground garage.

After the storm, we swept the shredded leaves off our balconies, and got back to work, no doubt contributing our daily share of greenhouse gases poured into the atmosphere to further rile it. Eleven million tonnes of them according to my back-of-the-envelope calculation, just in one day. Yet, this being an advanced country, nobody suggested that the city's morals were to blame for the storm, still less that Nature needed to be propitiated.

I mean, that really would be irrational.


Knud Rasmussen, Across Arctic America, University of Alaska Press

Fukada Kyūya, One Hundred Mountains of Japan (Nihon Hyakumeizan), University of Hawaii Press

Michael Ganz, Marc Valance, Heinz Dieter Finck, Matterhorn: Eine Besichtigung, Werd Verlag

1 comment:

Iainhw said...

Another thought provoking posting, which has changed my outlook on the Kinabalu story.