We talked a bit about mountains last week, because they’re inextricably involved with the tectonic processes that shape our whole planet. But they’re a geographical feature writers often stick into their invented worlds, so let’s take a look at them in more detail — this time not with an eye toward how they’re made, but rather toward how human beings relate to them.
(Disclaimer: I grew up in Texas. In the Great Plains part of Texas. The highest elevation in my vicinity was probably a highway overpass. My personal, direct experience of mountains is . . . limited.)
To begin with, you should ask yourself what type of mountains you’re looking at. Are these old and weathered mountains like the Appalachians, not too high and not too rugged? Or are they newer creations like the Rockies or the Himalayas? Do they rise high enough to have permanent snow caps, or does it all melt off in the warmer seasons? How much water is found there? Are they volcanically active?
As a corollary to this, you should be aware of the physical effects mountains have on the the weather. When wind blows toward a mountain range and is pushed upward by the rising elevation, it cools and can form clouds — which, when close to the ground, will look like fog — which may then bring rain. The windward side of a mountain will typically get more rainfall than the leeward side; the latter falls in a “rain shadow”, and as the air descends and warms, it generates a dry, gusty wind that in the western United States is sometimes called a chinook.
(Fun fact: lenticular or “lens-shaped” clouds can form over mountain peaks, and may be one of the causes of purported UFO sightings. Actually, there are a whole bunch of interesting things that can happen to clouds around mountains; if you want to make your description of such a region feel vivid, take a few minutes to look them up.)
Moving to the social side . . . unsurprisingly, mountains tend to take on a lot of importance in human perception. After all, they’re big. And less user-friendly than plains. It’s no wonder that they crop up again and again in world mythology; many gods are associated with the sky, and since mountains get closer to the heavens than any other land form, of course that’s where they’ll dwell, whether it’s Mount Olympus or Mount Meru or the Jade Mountain. We’ll talk at a later date about the concept of the Axis Mundi, the “cosmic center,” but for now, let’s just say that mountains are one of the most common ways to conceive of such a thing.
They also tend to be comparatively wild, because they’re difficult to travel through or cultivate. Terracing is possible, but very labor-intensive, and it doesn’t work everywhere: if there’s heavy late-season snowfall, or insufficient water, or very rocky soil, or just a slope too steep to cut usable tiers from it, then it isn’t arable (i.e. suitable for cultivation). Any wealth you extract from such terrain is likely to be in the form of minerals — stone or metals — or renewable resources like lumber or fur. Or you just let nature keep the place, and live in the lowlands, with one eye on the wild heights from which wolves and stranger things may come.
Mountains create isolation. Rivers descending from them are often too steep and torrential to be navigable; roads are difficult to cut and often get obliterated by washouts and rockfalls. Goods may have to be transported on foot, or on the backs of pack animals hardy enough to manage the terrain — which horses often aren’t, being natives of steppe grasslands. (You’re better off with donkeys, mules, or llamas.) Any given mountain valley might be cut off from the rest of the world for months out of the year, if there’s heavy snow at higher elevations, and even in the summer it’s not very accessible. This has effects on the culture of such places, which will often feature very individualized customs not found elsewhere. The stereotype of an impenetrable mountain dialect is founded in reality.
Thanks to the difficulties posed by traveling across mountains, a range makes for a very natural boundary between places, especially neighboring countries. In pre-modern times, that boundary is liable to be very fuzzy; the western side of the mountains belongs to Country A and the eastern to Country B, but you won’t find a nice clear line drawn along the ground in the middle. This is part of why you get border skirmishes, with one government getting annoyed that settlers or prospectors from a neighboring land are encroaching on their territory.
The one place where a boundary is likely to be very clear is in a pass, because that’s a strategically important location. Passes, being the points at which you can cross a range with relative ease, are the route most trade and travel will take; they’re natural choke-points. Controlling one means you control who goes through, allowing you to tax or document or turn back anybody you like. It isn’t uncommon to have a fortress of some kind, maybe not in the pass itself — because there probably isn’t a lot of extra room up there, not to mention that first constructing and then supplying the place will be a massive pain in the neck — but somewhere nearby, monitoring the road and the surrounding terrain.
Because of course people are going to try to slip by. Smugglers are as much of a thing in the mountains as they are at sea, taking little back paths too small or dangerous for the big caravans. Sometimes military forces can do the same thing, overrunning that fort in a surprise attack and then letting the main army come swarming through unopposed. Last month’s theory post brought up the concept of liminality; here it is in very practical action. Borders are dangerous places, and mountains are a border: between countries, between land and sky, between the world of civilization and that of nature or the gods.