Field Notes: Open Mountain
Poet and writer Polly Atkin on why giving a voice to those under represented in the outdoors is so important
The recent Kendal Mountain Literature festival featured a John Muir Trust supported event - Open Mountain: inclusion and connection. Performance prose and poetry from writers like Anita Sethi and Kate Davis, as well as five new voices found through an open call out, was followed by a panel discussion chaired by Polly Atkin.
In the following essay, Polly (currently writing a non-fiction book on chronic illness, place and belonging) shares her thoughts on why giving a voice to those under represented in the outdoors is so important.
"As both an event and a wider project Open Mountain hopes to raise questions about who is allowed in or shut out of particular places and conversations about those places, and why. We want to change those conversations: to open the mountain to everyone.
"Open Mountain was really the brain-child of Kate Davis, who approached the festival with questions about accessibility and inclusivity. Kate, like myself, has non-apparent disabilities, and lives with chronic pain. She wanted to find a way to include people like us within the definition of Mountain Literature: people who live with mountains, who care for mountains, who write about them all the time, but maybe from a different literal perspective to the ones we’re used to seeing.
"Kate knew I’d been doing work on disability and nature and place writing, so suggested I get involved. Kate, Paul Scully of Kendal Mountain Literature Festival and I sat around and talked about what we thought was important if we were considering how to widen the definition of mountain literatures and cultures to include more perspectives and more voices.
"We talked about class, gender, sexuality, race, income and disability as aspects that can lock people out of mountain culture in various ways: they can exclude you from the actual places, from conversations about them, from representation in conversations about them, and from events like this.
"I immediately thought of Anita Sethi, who wrote an excellent essay in the Common People anthology about her experiences of class and race in Cumbria, and had also pointed out the sea of almost entirely white faces created by headshots of the speakers at the 2018 Kendal Mountain Festival. With Anita and Kate, we had two brilliant headliners.
"We also discussed the fact that there was no point in having an event focused around broadening who can be included in mountain literature if we chose the speakers from people we already knew, whose work we already liked. We would only then be perpetuating our existing networks and working with our existing predilections and biases. We all felt strongly that it is essential to look beyond the networks we already have. This might seem obvious, but it isn’t often how events work.
"We were also very aware that the more marginalized you are, the more likely you are to be asked to work for free, especially when it comes to “raising awareness”. “Raising awareness” is often seen as a duty, or as a favour to the marginalised person, as a kind of volunteer work for the good of society. We believe in the importance of listening to voices from within different communities about their own issues and needs – in own voices narratives – but we also believe in fair pay for all work. So we decided to put out an open call for five paid reading slots, to complete the event.
"We sought submissions from people under-represented in mountain and outdoor literature, including low-income and working-class writers, writers from ethnic, cultural and religious minorities, LGBTQ+ writers and disabled writers.
"We asked people to submit some of their creative work – fiction, nonfiction or poetry – and also their responses to some questions about how they felt about the outdoors and nature writing:
- How and where do you experience the natural world?
- What does the idea of Open Mountain mean to you?
- What are your experiences of exclusion and inclusion in the landscape?
- What shuts you out of certain places or welcomes you?
"Submissions came in from around the world. I know people always say things like this after competitions, but the quality and range of submissions we received was astounding. There was so much excellent work we’re hoping to work on an anthology in the coming year to showcase more of it.
"The five writers selected are:
Kate Davies (Highlands)
CMarie Fuhrman (Idaho)
Ange Harker (Yorkshire Dales)
Asim Khan (Birmingham)
Claudine Toutoungi (Cambridge)
"These five writers work in different genres and media, have different backgrounds and different amounts of writing experience. We hope their work will give the audience an idea of the amazing writing being done on the margins of outdoor writing, and encourage everyone to think more openly about mountain culture.
"When I was reading the submissions I asked myself, amongst other things, how unlike other nature, outdoor or mountain writing the work was. We believe our chosen five writers have something different to say about how we relate to mountain landscapes: something that needs to be heard in their particular voices.
"There is a blurring and an interchange between mountain and outdoor culture and activities – being in places, working and living in places, consuming places – and mountain, outdoor, and nature writing – all subsets of writing about place and landscapes. These are deeply intertwined.
"There is also a blurring between different kinds of writing about place, the outdoors and landscape, and how it gets categorised, which was raised in both the Forestry Commission Writers-In-Residence event on the Thursday night of Kendal Mountain Festival, and the Willowherb Review event on the Friday night. During the Willowherb Review event Amanda Thompson talked about how the compartmentalising of literary genres feeds the exclusive nature of nature writing, perpetuating certain types of writing.
"Too often the people who live and work in places don’t get to write about them, or don’t get their narratives credited as valid and worth sharing. Equally well, as Jay G Ying discussed in the Willowherb Review event, nature and travel writing validates certain ways of travelling and being in place, and does not recognise others, questioning whose knowledge is prioritised. Jessica Lee, chairing the Willowherb Review panel, raised the question of who creates knowledge, and who creates the literary model that leads to the illusion of the expert nature writer. This shuts out anyone who doesn’t fit that model. Jessica talked about the moment in reading mainstream British Nature Books when she would realise ‘This wasn’t and could not be me.’
"For different reasons, I have exactly the same reading experience. This wasn’t and could not be me.
"As nature writing has become established in the British market, certain practices and expectations of process and content have also become established. These predominantly presuppose able-bodied, high-stamina practitioners, who can conduct energetic field work and outdoor workshops, focusing on walking, running or swimming as both process and means of connection with the wider ecosystem. In my own research on disability and nature, place and environmental writing, I’ve found that disabled and chronically ill people can find themselves excluded from both certain environments in themselves, and from discussion around them, where their voices are not listened to, or the discussion occurs in circumstances and environments which are themselves inaccessible.
"Kathleen Jamie infamously coined the phrase ‘the lone enraptured male’ to describe the adventuring figure dominating the New Nature Writing. In the groundbreaking 2017 essay collection Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory, Sarah Jaquette Ray echoes Jamie’s phrasing, arguing ‘at the heart of adventure sports is the appeal of personal challenge. The individual – usually male – pits himself against Nature and survives.
"Ray calls this figure the ‘wilderness body ideal.’[iii]
"Ray links the wilderness body ideal to the dominance of risk in nature writing, questioning ‘if getting close to nature is about risking the body in the wild, what kind of environmental ethic is available to the disabled body?’[iv] Kathleen Jamie’s lone enraptured male is also necessarily ‘bright, healthy and highly educated’, and this is what enables him to ‘seek recreation in land which was once out to kill us’.’[v]
"Where does that leave the disabled nature writer, the queer writer, the trans writer, the writer of colour: those who experiences risk differently and daily, for whom the relationship with the land might still be too weighted towards risk?
"Anecdotally, look at any outdoor festival or event – any nature writing section in a mainstream bookshop, any panel which isn’t explicitly focused on diversity in outdoor writing – and you’ll find the same problem: a saturation of the wilderness body ideal.
"There is nothing wrong in itself with being a lone enraptured male. The wilderness ideal can no more help being who or what they are than I can, or you can, but it becomes a problem when the only voices we hear repeat the same messages, over and over again.
"During the Willowherb Review event Amanda Thompson said ‘we all benefit from listening to people who haven't been heard’.
"This is more important than ever in a time of climate crisis: how can we hope to find solutions if we do not work together? If we do not listen to the most marginalised and most vulnerable to climate emergency, there can be no Climate Justice. Climate Justice, Disability Justice and Social Justice must and can only go hand in hand.
"One of the questions we want to ask with Open Mountain is how we make real change, and what real change looks like. That might be on the part of event organisers, editors and publishers, but also audiences, readers. What changes can we all makes as individuals, and what changes do we need to make together?
"I’m very aware that whilst I may be a low-income disabled woman, I’m also white, middle-class and privately-educated. My privilege in those regards is much of what enables me to carry on trying to make my voice heard, and the invisibility of my disability to abled people is much of what has let me into those spaces in the first place.
"As Jessica Lee said last night, it is 100 per cent untrue that there aren’t diverse writers already writing on these areas and issues. However it is still true that they are still not being recognised, heard and received as part of the mainstream.
"Many things are said about how to be a good ally. I tend to think the best thing someone can do to raise the profile and voice of an under-represented writer is not to use your platform to talk about lack of representation, but to step aside, and hand over the platform to the voices we need to hear. Which is exactly what I’m going to do now."
 Sarah Jaquette Ray, ‘Risking Bodies in the Wild: The “Corporeal Unconsious” of American Adventure Culture’, in Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities Toward an Eco- Crip Theory, ed by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), p. 29.
[iii] Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara, ‘Introduction’, in Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities Toward an Eco- Crip Theory, p.2.
[iv] Ray, p.29.
[v] Jamie, ibid.
Image credit: Kevin Lelland
The John Muir Trust is a membership organisation dedicated to the experience, protection and repair of wild places. Join us.