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Research at its peak: alternative side of mountaineering

Environmental historian Dr Ben Anderson, discusses his research around the explosion in mountain leisure among English and German-speaking Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I am an environmental historian based at Keele University, whose central curiosity lies in people’s perception and cultural uses of the natural world. I’ve also been a (fairly average!) mountaineer for the last 15 years, and it was in part to examine contradictions in contemporary mountaineering culture that I first began my PhD at Manchester University.

My current research, which has emerged from that work, spans the 19th and 20th centuries. It focuses on English- and German-speaking Europeans and the explosion in mountain leisure that occurred in the late-19th century. My career to date has been hard work of course, but punctuated by some real successes. I received some important early prizes and have now been selected as one of the 2018 Arts and Humanities Research Council/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers.

I’m now involved in a series of new projects that I hope will guide my research over the next few years, from work on ‘rural modernism’ to community-based research in Stoke-on-Trent. At the same time, I’m also hoping to write a history of ultra-violet light in the late-20th century when UV emerged as one of the first man-made existential threats, became an everyday reality of holiday-making, gave birth to giant charity campaigns and entered into popular culture. In doing so, my work will contribute to a more detailed understanding of what being ecologically aware might mean, and how we might encourage it in others.

What is your research?

People go into mountains for solace and simplicity; to escape the complexities and vicissitudes of the modern world. Or so we are told. Yet we gather in the same places to do the same things. We seek protection with the latest textiles and gadgetry, and insist that nature is managed for our own benefit. Alongside the escapist romanticism of mountain leisure, ideas such as progress, technology, speed or profit are never very far away.

My current research seeks the origins of this alternative side of mountain leisure, focussing on ramblers, mountaineers and skiers in Britain, Germany and Austria-Hungary. For these outdoor enthusiasts, who set the tone for European mountain leisure, the mountains were not so much an escape from, as an expansion of their modern lives – a place where they could take part in ‘progress’, secure their place at the forefront of civilisation and discuss what future society might be like.

Far from seeking to leave modern life, mountaineers looked for ways of affirming their status as ‘modern’ individuals, capable of keeping up with an ever-changing world, but also capable of asserting that modernity onto the landscapes through which they walked, climbed or skied, often against the wishes of those already there.

Why is your research important?

My research aims to reveal the interconnectedness of our predominantly urban lives, and the landscapes that we visit in order to ‘escape’ those lives. It suggests that mountains or moorlands, national parks and reserves were shaped in important ways by urban tourist impulses, altering the environments, ecologies and aesthetics of those regions, and not always for the better.

Rather than a space to ‘escape’ modernity and its problems, my research encourages people to reflect on the extent to which their actions, both inside and outside the city, impact on the environments they treasure as natural or beautiful.

Alongside this general impulse, my research has demonstrated that bringing people into contact with ‘nature’ is not enough to develop environmental awareness, and that we need to pay more attention to how those interactions with nature are taking place. By analysing a variety of outdoor enthusiasts, from trespassers and ‘extreme’ mountaineers, to path-based walkers and skiers, their bodily experience of nature and their environmental understanding, my research shows how important the mode of physical interaction with the environment is for building a genuinely ecological perspective of the world.

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