Issue 7 :2015 06 18:I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes Unto The Hills

18 June 2015

I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes Unto The Hills… but not because there are naked women up there.

by Neil Tidmarsh


All mountains are sacred. They’re bigger than us. They’re dangerous and frightening, yet beautiful and awe-inspiring. They dwarf our works. The top of a mountain is too hard, too strong for us puny beings; it isn’t a place where we can live, grow crops or graze herds; so up there, half-way to heaven, it’s easy to believe you’re in the realm of powerful forces, the abode of higher spirits.

Western backpackers have no business sneering at the customs and beliefs of Malaysia. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that our own culture thinks God can be found on top of Snowdon or Helvellyn or Ararat. In the Old Testament, most of the encounters between God and man take place not in a temple but on a mountain – the voice speaking to Moses out of the burning bush, the gift of the Ten Commandments, Abraham’s cancelled sacrifice of his son Isaac. Wainwright’s pictorial guides to the Lakeland fells, “conceived and born after many years of inarticulate worship at their shrine”, often strike a spiritual note and have become bibles for those who walk in the footsteps of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the high priests of Romantic pantheism. The slopes of Snowdon are littered with the unofficially-deposited funerary remains of urns, ashes and mourning wreaths.

I’d like to believe the backpackers on top of Mount Kinabalu stripped off because they were overwhelmed by the power of nature. Up there, on top of the world, so far from the artificial carapace of city and machine which man has built for himself, did they suddenly become aware of nature as so unutterably vast and powerful that it must be a sacred force? Did they then take off their clothes so they could commune with it, immerse themselves in it, without any man-made impediments obstructing the union? Did they strip naked as the day they were born as an act of worship of the force which delivered them into the universe in just such a state?

No. I think not. At best they were just having a laugh, thoughtless and insensitive, just following a stupid fashion. At worst they really were taking the piss, defiantly waving their digital weaponry and their rude bits at this spectacular mountain for stirring up disturbing and challenging notions of the sacred and irrational – vague, half-felt, half-understood notions which wired-up children of the technological age probably aren’t up to considering seriously. Perhaps they thought they could defeat and control them by sending comic and reductive images of the mountain into electronic captivity. Naughty kids giggling uncertainly and hooting defiantly in the silence of a church.

It’s a shame they didn’t volunteer for the earthquake relief effort – not in agreement that their actions caused the earthquake (that would be going too far) but because, even if they don’t believe in gods and spirits, true humanists should at least believe in their fellow human beings. It’s also a shame that they didn’t take part in mountain-top rites of purification and contrition, reading aloud from Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” as a gesture of cross-culture solidarity. (The Japanese, for instance, with their Shinto faith, get Wordsworth perfectly, and so can be relied upon to behave impeccably on top of the Lakeland fells.)

The mountain might have the last laugh, however. Check out The Prelude, Book I, lines 314-400. Probably Wordsworth’s most beautiful and powerful lines, as it happens, but the point here is that they’re about transgression and guilt. The poet does bad things – steals game from other people’s traps, takes eggs from birds’ nests, ‘borrows’ a boat that isn’t his. These bad things are done in the shadow of a mountain, and in the poet’s guilt-ridden mind the mountain becomes witness, accuser and judge – the image of his troubled conscience. “A huge peak, black and huge… upreared its head” he tells us, and the “grim shape” appeared to follow him and take up residence in his head. For days afterwards it haunted his consciousness. “O’er my thoughts there hung a darkness” he writes. “Huge and mighty forms, that do not live/ Like living men, moved slowly through the mind/ By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.”

The Kinabalu strippers are home safe and sound, but I’d bet that the mountain is still on their minds.



Follow the Shaw Sheet on

It's FREE!

Already get the weekly email?  Please tell your friends what you like best. Just click the X at the top right and use the social media buttons found on every page.

New to our News?

Click to help keep Shaw Sheet free by signing up.Large 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list