New Worlds: Mountains

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Mountains — 22 Comments

  1. The highest point in Texas is next to Carlesbad Caverns, New Mexico. I enjoy the view from the summit of Guadalupe Peak when I visit from Colorado.

  2. I’ve read some discussions about why Europe was more advanced when it conquered much of the world. A combination of having as much shore as Africa and mountains isolating various countries from each other changed how kings conquered and were conquered.

    • There are lots of attempts to explain it, and no clear proof putting one above any of the others — because in the end, we can’t run an experiment to try to replicate the phenomenon, nor can we really look for parallels in the histories of other species or worlds . . . so all of the theories boil down to “just so stories” that hypothesize causation instead of just correlation. Geography may indeed have had something to do with it in one form or another, but we’ll never really be able to verify that.

    • Having just read 1491, I question that Europe was necessarily more advanced. There were some substantial civilizations, especially in Central America, plus many places where people had learned to cultivate their surroundings in effective ways so that they lived well (the Amazon and California, just to name two).

      But the geography might explain why the Europeans ended up more immune to the infectious diseases they brought to the “New” World.

      • Yes, I found 1491 a good antidote to the reductionism of Guns, Germs, and Steel: it points out the ways in which the guns and steel weren’t as decisive of an advantage as you might think, counteracts some of the incorrect assumptions about the comparison between the two hemispheres, and then goes “hell YES the germs were a problem, and here’s why.”

      • As Marie implied, Mann kind of converts Diamond’s title to “Guns, GERMS GERMS GERMS, Steel”.

        But I don’t see how geography applies. Europeans were more immune to the diseases they brought *because* those were the diseases they brought: Europeans had been selected for disease-survival over centuries or millennia. Just as Africans were immune or resistant to the malaria and yellow fever they brought to the Americas, thus becoming the favored variety of human from the Mason-Dixon line to the Brazil-Argentina border. (See 1493.)

        One interesting thing in 1491, at least the original essay version, was the notion of cultural adaptations, e.g. Indians allegedly not having a sense of contagion, and clustering around a sick person’s bed to help them, vs. the European response of nailing up the plague house and running away.

      • My previous comment notwithstanding, there were some ways in which Europeans *were* clearly more advanced, that mattered. The big one which Diamond missed, IIRC, is *ships*. Or the combination of ships (China had better ones) and navigation (Polynesians were pretty good.) This meant that when Europe started expanding overseas after 1500, they were like the Vikings from 600 years before, or the Outislanders in Robin Hobb: a one way invasion, with no return stroke. A European colony might succeed or fail, but more Europeans would show up, and more. Non-European cities might resist for a while, but they only had to fall once to fall, while nothing was threatening European cities. Europeans swarmed the Americas, the coasts of Africa (briefly), India, China… none of these peoples set sail to invade Europe in return. The one ‘exception’ I know of being a 1613 embassy ship out of Japan.

        Yeah, the colonial Europeans were a lot like orcs or goblins otherwise: smelly, disease-ridden, clever good at weapons but destructive of beauty and books and civilization. But they could keep coming, with their diseases and increasingly better guns, because ships.

        • I think, based on reading both Guns, Germs and Steel and 1491, that the geography of Europe and Asia and North Africa allowed a lot of back and forth among those places, giving people much more exposure to different diseases from different places. Also, I suspect Europeans learned about quarantine of the sick from dealing with the plague. Nursing the sick is a more normal human impulse; you have to have experience with diseases that spread easily to figure out that it can be dangerous.

          As for the point about ships: It seems to be true that Europeans had superior technologies of that sort. However, there is some evidence that in some cultures in the Americas — not all by a long shot — the average person had a much better standard of living than the average European. Perhaps we should consider that a higher marker of civilization than technology.

          • It wasn’t just about exposure to disease; Mann cites evidence that there are only four haplogroups (people who share certain genetic resistances to disease) in the entirety of the New World, whereas the rest of the globe has a lot more diversity on that front. So when a disease came in, in addition to people not having acquired resistance, the homogenous genetic component meant you could get near-total mortality from an epidemic, instead of only losing maybe forty or sixty percent of the population.

            As for “advanced technology” and using it as a metric for civilization, yeah, there’s a built-in question there about what you’re choosing to look at and prioritize. I think Mann cites the incredibly sophisticated textile arts that allowed for things like rope bridges, for example — why does that count for less than the steelworking of the Old World? Because the latter is more useful for killing people? Basically, there are value judgments embedded all over the place in discussions of this kind.

            • I was thinking that the fact that Europeans, Asians, and Africans connected going way back was one reason their haplogroups were more diverse. But that might be a bit of projecting ahead of the evidence.

              I really like the idea of debating the value judgments on what counts as civilized. The argument for war-related technology is its ability to overrun other civilizations. However, the methods the people in the Amazon and on the California coast used to shape the natural world around them to give them what they needed for a good livelihood look very attractive in this day and age of overbuilding and freeways. Worthy of discussion and speculation in fiction and games and such, imho.

              • The haplogroup thing is attributed to the possibility — not proven, but there are several bits of evidence supporting it — that there were four distinct migrations into the New World. One way or another, there’s definitely a genetic bottleneck in this hemisphere, compared with the much more open contact in the rest of the world (individual islands etc notwithstanding).

                I’m not sure about Australia, though. I don’t know enough about its prehistory to be very clear on how much interaction it had with the neighboring parts of the Pacific.

                • It’s pretty obvious that non-Africans descend from a small number of groups who left Africa, and the Indians descend from a small number of groups out of *that* who (followed the coast, crossed the Bering land bridge). So you’ve got diversity reduction out of Africa, and even more in the Americas.

                  Tenochtitlan was a nicer city than most if not all in Europe, and Mann hints at Aztec philosophy and says there’s more written material in Nahuatl (presumably after the Spanish) than survive in Latin and Greek. If one were trying to give a single ranking of ‘civilized’ or even ‘advanced’, yeah, there’s a lot to argue about.

                  But for specific dimensions things are more clear, and the one-way migration aspect is a huge aspect. If B keeps infringing on C, and not the reverse, the odds are in B’s favor. Ditto for missionary religions vs. non-missionary ones: if B keeps asking C to convert, and never the reverse, B doesn’t need to have a huge success rate to eventually take over.

                • I can’t reply directly to Damien because I think we’ve hit the maximum number of nested levels our WP installation will allow. 🙂

                  So you’ve got diversity reduction out of Africa, and even more in the Americas.

                  Oh, there’s more genetic diversity within Africa than in the rest of the entire world — by quite a large factor, if I recall correctly. But you also have contact and population movement between Africa and neighboring regions after the outward migration; that’s what the Americas lack.

                • I spent some time after I read 1491 pondering how to deal with the germs. The easiest solution I came up with was to have the Viking settlement actually persist and establish a decent foothold: at that point in time Europe wasn’t poised for domination, and settlement and trade across the north Atlantic would allow for some epidemics to rampage through the New World without there being massive numbers of invaders ready to step into the resulting gaps. You’d radically change the history of the hemisphere, of course, but that’s more or less unavoidable if you’re positing a plausible alternate history.

  3. “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond points out that plant proteins are a key element in development of civilizations–moving from hunter gatherer to settled farmers and thence into cities. Plants migrate along latitudes. Europe has coastlines and relatively easy mountain passes where a natural migration of seeds can occur, or seeds can easily be carried in the pockets of traders. That’s how the dandelion crossed the Rockies to become the bane of the west coast gardeners.

    Plants have more difficulty moving north and south than east and west because of varying climates–think about the difference in temperature and moisture between equatorial to tropical to temperate within a few thousand miles. North America has very high mountains and deserts between east and west. Corn took thousands of years to mutate from tiny, bitter ears to the sweet monsters produced now, as it moved north from South America. Wheat on the other hand spread from the middle east in both directions in about 1/4 the time or less.

    Having problems with invasive non-native species? How easy are your mountains traversed?

    • Diamond makes a lot of interesting points, but he’s also wildly reductionist in some ways. His ideas boil down to environmental determinism, i.e. we’re all more or less the puppets of our natural environments, without doing much to acknowledge the role of culture and human agency in the process.

  4. “The highest elevation in my vicinity was probably a highway overpass.”

    Those satisfied my definition of ‘hill’ until I left Chicago for Caltech.

    * Terracing takes lots of work, but OTOH has been done in many places, for hills if not mountains. The Andes, China, Africa.

    * People who like Diamond should read Charles Mann’s 1491 and 1493, which along the way give some interesting looks at Andean cultures and ways of life.

    * Relatedly, one thing mountains allow is having lots of different climates in rather short distance of each other, even accounting for the vertical distances. A short east-west span across the Andes includes coastal fishing communities, altiplano farms, altiplano lake fishing and aquaculture, ultra-dry desert, and Amazonian rainforest. Mexico has similar diversity, from lowland rainforest to temperate highlands. Good places to set your story or RPG if you want lots of diversity without epic long-distance travel.

    * Another way to make a living is by herding mountain animals, like sheep, goats, and llamas.

    * Apart from the Incas, hill/mountain country tends to be decentralized, I think, which can manifest as Swiss cantons or Scottish clan feuds or SE Asian “your authority, we run away from it now.” And of course there’s Afghanistan, graveyard of empires.

    * Even if it’s hard to live in the mountains, controlling them can be important, if that’s where your water is coming from. Because of the rain they catch, and the glaciers they can form, they’re important sources of rivers, and also of water that’s easily gravity-fed through aqueducts and watermills.

    • Terracing takes lots of work, but OTOH has been done in many places, for hills if not mountains.

      Even on some mountains, I think. But it doesn’t work everywhere.

      Relatedly, one thing mountains allow is having lots of different climates in rather short distance of each other, even accounting for the vertical distances.

      Good point!

      Apart from the Incas, hill/mountain country tends to be decentralized, I think, which can manifest as Swiss cantons or Scottish clan feuds or SE Asian “your authority, we run away from it now.” And of course there’s Afghanistan, graveyard of empires.

      Heh. Well said. 🙂

      Even if it’s hard to live in the mountains, controlling them can be important, if that’s where your water is coming from.

      That’s probably going to be a post at some point . . . the “hydraulic hypothesis” (that the rise of the first state-level societies was driven by the need to organize and regulate irrigation) is no longer considered valid, but that doesn’t negate the fact that dealing with the water supply does require organization and regulation.