Looking back down the path

Dawn reflects on the end of project.


Seven years (!) ago, I applied for a position as a postdoctoral researcher on a Leverhulme Trust research project, ‘mountains in ancient literature and culture and their postclassical reception’. As a historian I had been fascinated by mountains, and how people interacted with them, for years: I started out with a teenage fascination with the early Everest expeditions (1921-1924) and ended (as I saw it at the time) with a PhD thesis focussed largely on seventeenth-century European perceptions of mountains. The Leverhulme project, as devised by Jason, represented to me both the prequel and the sequel to my early modern research, with the intention of connecting classical writing about mountains with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mediterranean travellers’ accounts. I felt extraordinarily lucky to be offered the opportunity to continue my research on mountains and to have the chance to ‘connect the dots’ between ancient, early modern, and modern Western mountain experiences.

Starting out on the project represented a surprisingly big transition for me. I had done my PhD in the School of History at St Andrews, which in terms of physical distance is located a mere door down the road from the School of Classics. The disciplinary gap, however, was quite a bit larger. At the outset, I had optimistic plans of improving my (highly rudimentary) Latin and learning Greek. I never did manage this, but I am grateful for everything I have learned by osmosis over the years, and for the exposure to ancient writings and ideas which – though probably old hat to many of my colleagues – represented an entirely new world for me. I’ve also found myself very much at home with Classics’ rather more relaxed approach to projects taking a wide temporal coverage. My experience of History was that most people tended to stick within a relatively defined period of study – you ‘were’ a modernist, or an early modernist, or a medievalist. In Classics I discovered colleagues who worked mostly on Seneca (who lived in the first century CE), but who were perfectly comfortable diving into the early modern era to discuss classical reception in the seventeenth-century poetry of John Milton. This enabled me to adopt a certain bravery – or perhaps foolhardiness – in taking a broad view. I’m still a bit bemused (but also quite proud) to think that I managed to write an article on ‘responses to Etna from the 1st century CE to 1773’.

If I were to imagine the course of this project as a mountain ascent, I would have to admit it has not been one that has taken the most direct route, in considerable part due to my own personal circumstances. Just under two years in to the project I had my first child and went on maternity leave. Then a pandemic happened, childcare plans were thrown into disarray, and I returned part-time instead of full-time. A second maternity leave pushed the end date back yet again, with me returning to work in August last year to finally help wrap things up. Looking back it’s somewhat difficult to unravel all those heavy threads in my own mind – this incredible intellectual journey, becoming a mother, and the experience of ‘living through history’ in a way no one could have anticipated.

Of course, the winding paths are also often the most exciting, offering the most surprising and lesser-seen views. Six calendar years – even if interspersed with periods of time where I was not actively researching – has allowed for many more view-takings. Above all it has given us more time to connect with other researchers working on mountains. This was always part of the original plan, in the form of an edited volume intended to (in Jason’s words) ‘bring classicists into dialogue with scholars working on mountains in later periods’. I think we fulfilled that pretty well – even down to the title! – with Mountain Dialogues from Antiquity to Modernity. However, since its publication in 2021 we’ve had the chance to go even further in terms of having conversations across disciplinary boundaries. Our final ‘big event’ of the project saw us talking with an array of brilliant researchers not just about mountains in classical literature, or even just mountains in history, but mountains as an object of study across the arts and humanities. The event has resulted in our series of mountain research spotlights, and we are working on a multi-author article about the mountain humanities, but yet more exciting discussions are afoot beyond that.

Connecting mountain researchers has hardly been unique to our project, and some of the memories I’ll look back on most fondly are those of being lucky enough to attend events doing exactly that outside of St Andrews. I wrote an official report of Thinking Mountains 2018 at the time, but unofficial highlights include getting to visit a hot springs during a snowstorm, and a hike in the woods around Banff with Jason in which we kept up a deliberately constant stream of conversation to ensure any nearby bears were appropriately warned of our presence. A mountains conference in the Canadian Rockies could only really be topped by being taken on a tour of the Appalachians by the wonderful Katherine Ledford in a minibus along with a gang of other mountain researchers, several of whose work I had been in awe of for some time. The pandemic put paid to further international adventures for a while, but what a pleasure and privilege to have had those chances to talk about mountains in the mountains.

One thing that was not part of the original project plan, but for which I feel so grateful to have received the time and support to do has been to transform my PhD thesis into a book. That has been another winding path, with a few false starts. I have always wanted to write a book for a general, rather than an academic audience, but for a long time I swithered over whether¬†this book should be an academic or a trade book. I pitched proposals to several academic publishers over the years, all of which were (fortunately!) rejected. Then in 2021 I was fortunate enough to receive an RSE Research re-boot grant, which gave me more working hours and more childcare to allow me to properly work on re-writing my book for a popular readership and for pitching it to agents and publishers. After quite a few more rejections,¬†Mountains Before Mountaineering finally found a publisher in the form of the History Press. It will be coming out next year, roughly coinciding with the 100-year anniversary of Mallory and Irvine’s famous disappearance on Mount Everest – the very same historical moment which first started me on my mountains research path.


Image: ‘The Winding pathway’ by Terry Kearney (CC BY-NC 2.0), in the Langdale Valley, Cumbria.

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