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4 Dec 2020

Field Notes: The virtually Open Mountain

Poet Polly Atkin, host of Kendal Mountain Festival's Open Mountain, writes why this year's event is more important than ever

Open Mountain 1 - Henry Iddon

In 2019, the John Muir Trust supported the first Open Mountain event. In 2020, we saw greater disparity of access to our outdoor spaces and hope to raise the voice of under-represented groups even higher.

The first Open Mountain event was held at Kendal Mountain Literature Festival, 2019. This year the phrase Open Mountain took on other connotations. The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief existing inequalities, including inequalities in access to green spaces and wild places, and access to literature and cultures around them.

When we were planning the event, we were very aware that the barriers to access that can block marginalised people from the mountains were expanded by lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders. We were particularly aware of those in urban centres with little access to green space, and of the many disabled people who have been isolated in their homes for most of the year now and have been largely left out of discourse or provision here in the UK. 

Like everything this year, Open Mountain 2020 was not quite as we originally envisioned. We’d been hoping to run workshops through the year, building up to the live event, but this had to get shelved. Sometime around April I think I started referring to this years Open Mountain as Virtually Open Mountain, half-jokingly, but it seemed apt.

Open Mountain 2 - Henry IddonWe knew there was a strong likelihood that when the Mountain Festival came around in November, we wouldn’t be able to run a live event with an audience. Even if it were theoretically allowed, it would be against the spirit of Open Mountain to put anyone at unnecessary risk.

Virtually Open Mountain also seemed to encompass some of the complexities of what we’re attempting with Open Mountain – going virtual enabled us to open the event to even more people, but is it still only virtually open to everyone, and not completely? I’m aware, for example, that we need to do better with access for D/deaf participants and audiences.

In the end, Kate Davis and I were in a lovely make-shift studio the festival had set up in the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, and our third judge, Anita Sethi, and the five chosen writers were online. We heard excellent work from Aileen McKay, Kim-Marie Walker, Elspeth Wilson, Andrew Wang and Nayeli Urquiza Haas. It didn’t matter that we were in different places, and in Kim-Marie and Aileen’s cases, different time-zones. For that hour-and-a-half we were together, and travelling together through each other’s writing.

Like many chronically ill people, I already knew the power of the internet to keep us connected when we cannot be together in person. But this year it’s become clear to many more people. It was really moving to be able to talk to other writers around the world, to be able to bring us all together and share this year’s five chosen Open Mountain writers with an audience from around the whole world, and not just people who could get to Kendal. I hope we can take something from this for the future, whatever that might look like.

Open Mountain 3 - Henry Iddon

More than ever this year, we want to open conversations about how we live with and in places in extraordinary as well as normal circumstances. We want to question what normal is, and what it could be. People need to be able to recognise themselves in narratives about places to find a place in them, and to believe they can have a place in and with them.

Open Mountain hopes to show what is already there, but often not seen: the rich and various connections people have with mountains and wild landscapes, and the rich and various worlds they find within them. We don’t need to all be in the same place to do that.

Aileen McKay is Scottish Berliner with a true love of words. As a tutor, editor, and consultant she helps others to express themselves — whether grappling with poetry-writing, navigating tricky workplace communications, or launching new international research. Lately, Aileen has also spoken on BBC News about gendered harassment and Radio Scotland about the (feminist) history she’s in the process of writing (and cycling, but that’s another story). Mostly, though, she is happiest drinking hot cocoa in her local park and never stops wondering how to make this world a brighter place.

Kim-Marie Walker is an American nonfiction and fiction writer published in Literary HubKillens Review of Arts and LettersBlack in the Middle AnthologyOur Voices Our Stories AnthologyBirds ThumbThe Compassion AnthologyTalking StickTrack Four, and NILVX. Walker’s 2007 memoir, Zebras from Heaven gives rare insight into how a black woman and white man transcend issues of race in a marriage once outlawed. Forthcoming is a memoir about her pilgrimage to America’s historic transatlantic slave trade seaports, honoring the first footsteps of Middle Passage Africans on North America.

Elspeth Wilson is a writer, researcher and poet who is interested in embodiment, the environment and how our identity impacts on our relationship with the natural world. Her non-fiction work has been shortlisted for the Canongate's Nan Shepherd prize and received a special mention in the 2020 Spread the Word Life Writing prize. She was also recently shortlisted for Penguin’s Write Now for underrepresented writers and is passionate about creating spaces for other marginalised writers through her work and in her facilitation practice. 

Andrew Wang is from Manchester and was lucky to have had parents who let him experience the joys of the fells and moors as a kid. Fell-running to him is merely a natural way of connecting to and admiring the British countryside, which he believes everyone in Britain has the right to see themselves doing. Now studying engineering at uni, he co-runs the Cambridge Uni Hillwalking Club, to show people down here what it’s all about!

Nayeli Urquiza Haas 
discovered climbing as a kid at a car-park boulder in her hometown, Mexico City, but rediscovered the joy of holding onto rocks not long ago. Following the call of the crags and mountains has led her to rekindle her love for non-fiction literature. She researches and writes stories about subjects at the margins, using disparate clues and threads in order to weave together stories about the interconnected yet messy relationships between human and non-human animals, plants, artefacts and places. Currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kent, she has also worked in print, radio and TV news media. 

All photos credit: Henry Iddon