Anders Morley: Long-form Interview.

A dual-citizen of the US and Canada, Anders Morley grew up in New Hampshire and began skiing at age five. After earning a master’s degree from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, he settled in Italy where he worked as a translator and English teacher, and explored the Alps in his free time.

He is the author of This Land of Snow: A Journey Across the North in Winter, published by Mountaineers Books.

I caught up with Anders via video call on 13.05.2021. We spoke for well over an hour about a variety of topics.

Writing & Publication

I finished the journey in March 2013 so that makes seven and a half years until publication, eight years until the present moment. I knew that I wanted to write a book about the experience but I didn’t have a definite sense of a timeline. I think I imagined it happening sooner than eight years. I actually wrote up a draft which in terms of the events narrated was quite similar to where I ended up. I wrote that first draft the winter after the winter I was skiing so a year later but I wasn’t happy with it. I was happy with the description of the skiing itself and the winter and so forth, but it didn’t seem to… there was no deeper level to it and it didn’t seem like I’d really learned anything from the journey and there was a very apparent sense to me that that was something that was missing.

But in the meantime, I had sent off a proposal and a sample chapter to a few publishers and I had some positive responses and some criticism which was useful. So basically, I put it in a drawer for the better part of five years and every now and then I would take it out and read part of it and fix something here or there. But it wasn’t really until about 2016 I started talking to Elena again…

It’s hard to know with these things, but in 2016, after Elena and I had been apart since the journey itself, we kind of started talking again and I started entertaining the idea of going back, returning to life with Elena, although what that meant concretely wasn’t clear and it took another couple of years to hash that out and that was kind of a rocky period. But anyway, once I started to see the shape that my life was taking, I started to understand the journey in that context, the context of seeing my life between 33 and 38 as kind of like an early midlife crisis. It wasn’t until that point that I was able to finish the book and give it, for lack of a better word, a spiritual direction, rather than just have the description of the journey.

So, at that point, there was one publisher, Mountaineers Books, which was based in Seattle, the editor had expressed interest in the book. Initially, back in 2014/15, she’s said: ‘I’m interested in this but I’ve got this huge stack of manuscripts to get through and I’m not going to be able to get to this for at least the better part of close to a year’ So I said to her: ‘At this point I’m not happy with it, so why don’t I just keep kind of chipping away at it. That year became close to four years and I wrote back to her at the end of that period and she still, amazingly to me, remembered me and was still interested. And so, I sent her the manuscript which basically had the shape of the final book, it was a bit rougher and there were a few things which I hadn’t put into it yet. But it was from that that she said: ‘We’re interested in going with this’. I blocked the manuscript and I was assigned an editor.

The editor was able to assist with cutting of fat, the rambling, cranky parts. I’ve got this environmentalist streak and there was a bit of moralising going on in there. Not huge amounts by the time it made it to her. One early critique was that I wasn’t front and centre enough. I didn’t want it to be as autobiographical in the interior sense, initially, that is. I think that the editor, she probably helped with me learning to see myself as a character in a story. That would be the big thing. And lots of cutting out excess. The final word count? I want to say it was in the neighbourhood of 90,000 words but I just kind of think of it in pages.

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Toughness without Dispute

I suppose there is a bit of me wanting to be, to use your term, an ‘outdoor intellectual’ which of course doesn’t preclude one being an athlete at the same time. But I don’t know. I’ve always, I’m going to risk alienating myself for lots of people, but I’ve just never really cared for athleticism or sport. (Laughs). Not because I don’t appreciate feats of physical prowess or anything like that but the competitive part of it. That (Jockish) aspect of American culture has always irritated me since I was a little kid, but not because I was a victim or something like that. I ran cross country in high school which is kind of like a sport for some geeky kids. So, there was always, I would see the centrality of sport to American school life and I didn’t really like that. But my upbringing, I had parents, who unlike many American parents, didn’t place any emphasis on that kind of thing and didn’t really even encourage it. I mean, if we’d wanted to play sports, they would have let us.

When I think of Roger Deakin… Have you read his ‘Waterlog’ by any chance? He’s an English writer. Do you know Robert McFarlane? He’s another English writer. They kind of go together. So, Roger Deakin wrote a book called Waterlog which is about what’s now called ‘wild swimming’ but he probably would have said that all swimming should be wild so that wild swimming is a redundant term. But anyway, my book is meant to be in that same spirit. So, he wrote this book about swimming all over the place in places where people don’t usually swim throughout the UK. He’d swim out to islands or swim in historically important waterways and he would take walks overland and swim bits and so the swimming is kind of instrumental to his movement across the land so he was presumably a good swimmer, a strong swimmer but he saw the swimming as one part of a normal life built in a balanced way which was his sort of vision, I suppose. And I see my skiing kind of in the same way so I talk about sometimes in the book, skiing the way that it’s practiced or has historically been practiced in Scandinavia as just the winter equivalent of walking. There’s a sense that I try to put into the book of this journey across North Western Canada was a journey that I needed to make and skiing was just the obvious way to do it. And plus, you know, I’m going way out of my way to go to North Western Canada and do this journey so it’s sort of a rhetorical thing to say that.

As to being impressed with oneself about having skid twenty miles a day, sure, I get that. I grew up doing long hikes and long skis and things like that so it’s something I really don’t think about all that often, I’m pretty accustomed to that. I see it (physical endeavour) as part of a balanced life. For me, these are things that human beings are meant to do. Maybe this is an exaggerated case – but walking twenty miles in a day shouldn’t be something that’s considered all that strange. In most cases it’s something that people have always done.

I’ll wrap this down with this final thought: There’s a Norwegian philosopher called Arne Naess who’s associated with this school of thought called ‘deep ecology’. It’s sort of a radical form of environmentalism although they might not use the term environmentalism but basically it just questions the idea that we should value other parts of the environment because of their usefulness to human beings. We should value them for their own sake. But he was an avid mountaineer and cross-country skier, obviously, being Norwegian. But like a serious mountaineer, like a Himalayan mountaineer. And at a certain point, he and a group of his friends started, instead of climbing mountains in the Himalayas. They would go up to a certain point, around 6000 meters and they would just walk around the flanks of the mountain and get to know the mountain, intentionally without actually going to the summit. So that was just one concrete manifestation of their way of thinking about nature. He used to talk about going out into nature, say in the Winter or just in any kind of austere situation. He said that sometimes he felt that he needed a tough place but he preferred to do that kind of thing alone, precisely because he needed to feel the sense of toughness but without dispute. He didn’t like the idea of competing with other human beings. He just thought that somehow, subjecting himself to what we think of as punishing, is somehow spiritually good for us.

Stretching

I’ve had a stretching routine since I was about nineteen years old which I do twice a day, every morning and every night before I go to bed. It’s evolved over the years. There’s this classic book, you’ve probably seen it, I’ve seen it all over the world translated into different languages, by this couple called Bob and Jean Anderson. It’s called ‘stretching and there’s a guy on the cover with a little tuque on his head. There’s all these illustrations, it a ‘70s book. So, anyway, there was a copy of that kicking around my house, as there was kicking around many American houses when I was a kid. Somehow, I just started reading it one day and it talked about the benefits of stretching. I was a sophomore in college and I was sort of a late bloomer. I was a terrible student in school. It wasn’t until the second year of university that I started to become interested in the life of the mind in a universal kind of way. So, I was interested in things like self-improvement and so forth. And so the way that stretching was written about in this book appealed to me at the time. And I just got into the habit of just doing this stretching routine probably about twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes at night. And then over time it evolved – as I learned more… not that I know a great deal about yoga but just from talking with other people I started working in some yoga postures so it’s just this hybrid thing that I do. Unless I’m like, deadly sick, can’t get out of bed, it’s something that I do every day, without exception. I wondered at the beginning of the journey ‘am I going to keep doing this out in the cold?’ and ‘how am I going to do this in my tent?’ so basically, I had to adapt it in order to make it more horizontal (laughs). The tent’s only three or four feet high. I can’t remember the details but basically what I did was just take the horizontal parts of my normal stretching routine or vertical ones which could be done sitting on the ground, I adapted them somehow. Yeah, I did that. It was uncomfortable. It was a pain. Particularly in the morning because it was colder when I got out of my sleeping bag so I had to get dressed and while I was heating up coffee for breakfast I would kind of crank out the stretches. It wasn’t as long as my normal routine. But anyway, that was it. I don’t know how useful it (stretching) is because if you’re going to be getting up and moving, anyway, you’re kind of going to stretch things out. It was more a matter of discipline… it’s become like an anchor of my day of normal life. It’s like a way of keeping time, a rhythm, something like that. It’s the one thing in my day that never changes.

Stretching

Into the Wild

I read the book a long time ago, years ago, shortly after it came out. When I was a freshman or sophomore in university around 1998. I loved it at the time. In terms of impact? Well, obviously Christopher McCandless was more, sort of… Again, this was kind of in that same phase that I mentioned a minute ago, of intellectual re-awakening, and there’s that same sort of energy in that book. I mean he was a little farther along than I was and more of a sort of consistent kind of person than I was in that he saw these things about the world that many people see but he actually acted on them in a very literal kind of way which most of us don’t. So that was kind of exciting and there were bits of reading… there’s lots of Tolstoy in there and stuff like that that I was reading at the same time. And so, he was certainly someone I could identify with. We had a lot of the same values. And at the time I probably thought: ‘If I were more courageous…’ or at a certain point ‘maybe I’ll do something like this’. That was the case probably for a long time. I think after my ski trip, it’s faded a bit because I have a more balanced view of things but for many years, like when I knew you, I had that sort of anarchial, primitivist streak in me. The thought like, you know what? The world is just messed up and this is what any honest person should be doing. But that said, I don’t think that my ski journey was ever about that. I don’t think that it was ever really connected to that way of thinking.

Self-sacrifice vs Self-actualization

(At this point the interviewer recounts a story about visiting the interviewees house in Bergamo, Italy for Thanksgiving Dinner in 2008.)

That thought that you had (a comment about living a grown-up life of apparent domestic bliss at a relatively young age) sometimes crossed my mind. Not that I felt that I was grown up back then. Although I think there are a couple of explanations for why that Thanksgiving Dinner gave you that impression, which doesn’t surprise me. First of all, as you aware, Elena is considerably older than I am. I married a woman thirteen years older than me. So, I always felt like I had to demonstrate that I’m, well, obviously she took a gamble on marrying a guy who was thirty when she was forty-three. So, I felt as though I had to distinguish myself from others my age, demonstrate that I was mature and so forth – but as for the cooking, well, I’ve been cooking my whole life so that’s not… But in terms of trying to run a household. I sometimes think I missed out on part of my late twenties. I mean, I’m not really sort of interested in popular culture and things that most people are interested in so I didn’t really think that I was missing out but I felt I didn’t have experiences that maybe I should have had for whatever reason. Secondly, it’s also part of Italian culture. Italians are very polite, very formal. Even then I would look at Italians my own age and think: ‘this guy looks like he’s a forty-year-old’ except for the fact that he’s living with his parents. Elena was this kind of sophisticated woman. I think say a forty-three-year-old, which Elena was when we got married, which was a couple of years after the Thanksgiving Dinner that you’re referring to but if I thought of what a forty-three-year-old American was like versus Elena. Elena would have been like part of a past generation. So, I think that those are the reasons that particular scene made that impression on you.

As for the journey being a reaction to, I forget how you put it (Self-sacrifice vs Self-actualization) the fact that I had perhaps jumped ahead or matured too quickly, I think that’s totally valid. I don’t know that I say that explicitly in the book but it’s definitely something I’m aware of.

Even if it had occurred to me, it may have been sensitivity towards Elena that prevented me from expanding on that in the book. In terms of you having identified a major theme as being Self-sacrifice vs Self-actualization, yes, I see that as the major theme of the book.

Italy

I first moved to Italy in 2004. I’d been in Europe in one way or another since late 2002. I didn’t actually marry Elena until 2010 but for years I thought ‘this is my life’. But the last year before my journey, I was just angry all the time, criticising every little thing and blaming it on Italy and Italians. It was like your Camp Director telling you ‘When everyone else is wrong, you’re wrong’ accept I didn’t accept that of course, now I would accept it. So that was this thing of me slowly bursting and then finally exploding. A fundamental step that I need to make in maturing was abandoning a one-dimensional view of myself, which I had developed in reaction to things I found disagreeable about Italy. Your ‘Me vs Italy’ comment was accurate. So, all these things from my younger years, growing up in Northern New England in this place which is full of nature loving outdoorsy people and I say Italy as being, well, it wasn’t really Italy, but large suburban life as being… I developed a black and white view of the world, totally neglecting all the earlier stepping stones that had brought me to that place. Nothing had forced me to wind up in Italy. I wound up there for very good reasons because there were things that interested me about it, there were things that I found attractive about life there. There was, of course, Elena. But I became temporarily, and it was a long temporary, blind to all of that stuff and kind of getting back on track involved learning to accept that I was this multi-dimensional person and so there didn’t have to be a conflict between the fact that I love being alone out in the wilderness and that I also love being in a crowded medieval city.

Now to come back to your prompt about Bergamo, yes, it’s a fantastic place. There are things I regret about it. The industrial wasteland, the Bassa, the whole Po Plain (note: data shows that many cities in the Po Valley suffer the most serious impact at European level due to poor air quality), the modern parts. But at the same time, I’m a realist and I understand that that’s the world we live in. But yeah, Città Alta, there’s this wonderful feeling that you get. In the climates that we live in, in New England and Old England, you know you know how in the evening in the summertime there are maybe one or two nights a year where it really stays warm into the night but most of the time it cools off into the night and most people like that, Americans and Brits. But in Italy you’ll go out at night, and for a period of months, you’ll go out at night and it doesn’t feel like there is any temperature deferential. It doesn’t feel like you’re going out of the building. It’s equally warm outside or perhaps even warmer. So, when you’re in these old medieval places like Città Alta, where everything is kind of close and cosy, I feel like I’m in a giant room or a labyrinth, like the space is protected. And that makes it feel like all of the people who are moving around are sort of like part of your family. It just creates a sense of cosiness which I think it fantastic. I love that feeling. So that’s one thing. And then sometimes I have these moments when I have that kind of realisation, my Luddite side will come out and one of the things I don’t like about Italy is that there’s never a bassline silence, because there’s always a Vesper somewhere in the distance, so there’s always like a buzzing. But sometimes when you’re like deep in a medieval city in a pedestrian zone and there are people chattering all around you and you don’t hear any of those noises and I think that I would so love to have experienced Italy before the invention of the internal combustion engine. It had to be the most wonderful place on Earth, without question.

I suppose like most people when I was younger, in my vague imaginings of adult life, I imagined I would have kids. I grew up in a family with three brothers. But neither Elena and I were really interested in having kids. I mean, we weren’t against having kids but I think that… Elena being older was perhaps one of those facts of life that confirms you in your thinking. So now, at this point, with our life having taken the shape that it has, with us living on separate continents for much of the year, it’s probably better that we didn’t have kids. In terms of having things to share with future generations, whether or not I have those things to share is debatable but it’s kind of you to say it. I sometimes think of that, have you ever read Anna Karenina? There’s this character called Levin who is presumably Tolstoy’s alter-ego, who kind of like me, is a bit of a Luddite. I don’t even remember the context but whenever this topic comes up, I think about this. He talks about there being two ways of helping to advance or carry forward the human race. All of us contribute in both of these ways in one way or another. But on one side there is the biological carrying forward of humanity via reproduction. But then there’s also the kind of spiritual reproduction which needs to happen and he sees the roles of intellectuals, artists, people like that, even if they don’t have kids, they have a responsibility to younger people to carry forward the values which they consider important to humanity. So, when I think about reproduction (laughs) that’s what I think my role might be. It’s not concrete. It’s something that I do think about. It’s not like I see myself as not having an obligation to the future because I don’t have kids. I have a very close relationship with my dog Beowulf. There’s an American writer called Sy Montgomery who wrote a book about this called ‘How to Be a Good Animal’. It’s controversial and it depends on your philosophical or religious outlook but I think that we have deeply meaningful with other living things that are not human.

Religion

I was brought up in an evangelical Protestant family. My parents were both brought up in Plymouth Brethren households, believe it or not. I think that being brought up in households that are very overtly religious, you get into the habit of thinking about big questions or just taking life very seriously, sometimes too seriously. Those are perhaps mental habits regardless of what one’s later religious beliefs are. So, my parents are Plymouth Brethren and we didn’t grow up that way because of Geography. There are no Plymouth Brethren meetings or assemblies in Northern New England so we just kind of went to various Evangelical churches. Mostly I went to what is called a Swedish Covenant Church which is kind of like the Scandinavian branch of Lutheranism. That was the church we went to most frequently. And then for my undergraduate degree I went to a Christian University. And not just nominally, I mean the great majority of students were believing evangelical Protestants. In university I started to drift away from that Evangelical form. I was drawn to other forms of Christianity. I was drawn to other forms of Christianity. I was kind of vaguely interested in Catholicism, interested in Quakerism, Anabaptism I talk about in the book. So, I was drawn to these forms of Christianity that to me seemed more honest, more sincere and more in-keeping with the kind of view of the facts of the world that I was starting to develop. Since then, I’m not really religious anymore. It’s interesting that you talk about Blake and Pantheism and before I was talking about Tolstoy who was kind of Pantheist himself although I don’t know if he would have used that label himself. For a very long time, for most of my years in Italy, I adhered to something like a Tolstoian view of Christianity which was basically pantheistic and had a kind of Christian ethic which basically boils down to the Sermon on the Mount. But since then, it’s still basically my ethical code but I have lost any feeling that it needs to be grounded in anything supernatural. I don’t know how deep you want me to get into this. I have respect for religion when it’s practiced seriously and honestly. I remember that you’re Catholic and we talked about this at some point. I have sympathy for certain forms of Catholicism. I lent you a book called The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson. Don’t worry about not having returned it to me, I think it cost me a quarter.

There’s a movie adapted from this book by a Swiss writer called Pascal Mercier starring Jeremy Irons. Night Train to Lisbon, I think it’s called. Have you read it or seen the movie? It’s connected to what I’m saying in more than one way because it also gets back to my conflicted relationship with Italy, but there’s this guy, a Swiss philosophy teacher in the Gymnasium and he keeps going on these trips to Lisbon. He’s very taken with Catholic Churches. He feels drawn. I forget exactly what he says but it’s something along the lines of: ‘I don’t know if I believe in God but I don’t want to live in a world without Cathedrals’. And then it goes on for a couple of paragraphs elaborating on that thought. It resonated with me when I read that and I scribbled it down in my diary.

The Sermon on the Mount is not something I’ve sat down and looked at in a good long time, maybe more than a decade to be honest with you. But there was a time in my life when it was very important. I think one of the fundamental truths is ‘Resist not Evil with Evil’ I mean, and I’m not saying that I live up to it, but it’s pretty central to my ethical outlook. It remains as a foundation so it’s hard to get rid of it, not that I want to get to rid of it. And I think that that’s the case for a lot of people.

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