Tag Archives: The Wild Places

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

About half a century ago I went skiing during the school holidays in the newly opened resort of Aviemore in the Cairngorms in the highlands of Scotland. I was with a group of young friends and my brother heroically drove our Bedford van the whole way from South Wales. I chiefly remember the bitter cold in the newly erected dormitories. Was there any heating in that building? And relentless damp fog. And the nightlife, which was boozy and fun. Of the Cairngorms I saw almost nothing. I have never been skiing again.

I have learned more about the Cairngorms from Nan Shepherd’s short book, The Living Mountain, than I did on that visit long ago. She writes about the fog, the mist, and the cold. And she writes about discovering the mountains at other times of year and in other weathers. And in other ways. She loved them.

The Living Mountainby Nan Shepherd

Like many people I was made aware of the existence of this book when I read Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. I wanted to read it from that moment and now the time has arrived. My good friend Jane gave me a copy for my birthday, and my book group will discuss Nan Shepherd’s biography by Charlotte Peacock (Into the Mountain) in a few weeks.

The substance ofThe Living Mountain is twelve chapters each exploring an aspect of the Cairngorms: the plateau, water, mist, sleep, life, the senses and so on. I am amazed that a writer can so fully convey the sense of a place. The writing digs deeply into her love of the Cairngorms and her extensive experience of exploring them. She offers us more than a version of what she knows of the place. She also explains how she came to experience the mountains, how she has learned to be in the living mountain.

The title reveals her sense of the connectedness of all aspects of the mountain. It is a living thing; not just a series of summits to be conquered, not just a host for the fauna, flora and humankind. But also the geology, the topography, the weather and the deep history of the granite range. She was describing an ecosystem before the phrase was coined.

As I have indicated, her precious gift to the reader is that she teaches us that there are other ways to enjoy the mountains than to rush to the summits, or make heroic climbs. Rather, people can perceive the mountains through all their senses, and especially by sleeping and awakening in them.

Respect for the natural world, approaching it with humility and openheartedness, learning to use all the senses, sometimes just being quiet, this is what Nan Shepherd teaches us.

Once, on a night of such clear cold silence, long past midnight, lying awake outside the tent, my eyes on the plateau where an afterwash of light was lingering. I heard in the stillness a soft, an almost imperceptible thud. It was enough to make me turn my head. There on the tent pole a tawny owl stare down at me. I could just discern his shape against the sky. I stared back. He turned his head about, now one eye upon me, now the other, then melted down into the air so silently that had I not been watching him I could not have known he was gone. To have heard the movement of the midnight owl – that was rare, it was a minor triumph. (96-7)

Her writing in this book has a particular quality: it is often in the use of a very sensual and unexpected adjective in her descriptions. ‘clear, cold silence’ and ‘melted down into the air’ in the previous extract. Also::

tang of height (9) a gulf of brightness so profound that the mind stopped (12), water is speaking (22), whips of wind (37), the thin silver singing among the last trees that tell me the tits are there (68).

And it is her philosophical approach that may of her readers find great pleasure. Here is her final paragraph.

I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that takes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain. (108)

This classic study of the mountains was written at the end of the Second World War but it seems that Nan Shepherd did not believe there was a market for such a book so it was not published until much later – 1977.

Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) was a feminist, who lived all her life in North Deeside, and never married. She did adopt a child. Her life was unconventional. Having graduated from the University of Aberdeen, she taught English Literature at a teacher training college. And she wrote three novels, all based in her home area.

There is a long and very helpful introduction by Robert Macfarlane in the Canongate edition.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherdfirst published in 1977. I used the edition from Canongate with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane. 114pp

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Steps to improve your Writing

What if it were true that by going on walks you could improve your creativity? What if someone told you that by walking you would become a better writer? Would you walk more often, for longer, or in different places? Or just put it all down to some new age piffle? Well this idea does have legs. Many great writers are or were practitioners and research confirms it.

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Writers who walked

Among the great writers of the past, who were also walkers, we can name Virginia Woolf, who frequently paced the streets of London as well as walking in the countryside around Monk’s House in Sussex. Several of her characters walk in London: Mrs Dalloway of course, and Helen at the start of The Voyage Out walks with her husband towards the Docks. Virginia Woolf published six articles in Good Housekeeping in 1932 called The London Scene.

273 VW London scene

Dickens was a great walker, again in the streets of London. WG Sebald walked in Europe and East Anglia. The Rings of Saturn (1995) is structured around a walk in Suffolk. Wordsworth was a great walker, yes wandering lonely as he did.

In 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson bought a donkey, Modestine, and together they walked in the Cevennes area of South France. He walked without purpose, although he was suffering from a broken heart. He explained his attitude in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes:

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied by our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? (12)

Writers and the walking metaphor

To conjure up the process of writing the metaphor of a path, walking, a journey is frequently used. Annie Dillard, in A Writer’s Life is creative with her ideas.

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow or this time next year.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports and dispatch bulletins. (3)

Annie Dillard’s observations of the natural world are breath-taking. If you enjoy that kind of thing read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which the author describes as a non-fiction narrative. You can find her own website here. Her collection of essays, The Abundance (2016), is nearing the top of my tbr pile.

Robert Macfarlane’s in The Old Ways (2012) explores some similarities between writing and walking, likening the creation of a path to writing in the landscape. He follows the paths of animals in the snow, or ancient ways such as the Icknield Way and the footsteps of Edward Thomas and other walkers. The Wild Places (2007) he records other adventures in the British Isles. Another book nearing the top of my tbr pile is Landmarks (2015). I have given away several copies of Holloway (2013), which is a joy of a book.

273 Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit has lived the connections between writing and walking. Writer, historian and activist she wrote Wanderlust: a history of walking (2001). Brain Pickings captures the explorations of this book in her beautifully observed blogpost: Wanderlust. And the title of In The Faraway Nearby (2014) describes what can happen with your imagination when you walk.

The Research

Stanford University researchers have published an article called Give your Ideas some Legs: the positive effects of walking on creative thinking. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L Schwartz conducted several experiments from which they made their case, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity. (1142)

And by the way, it’s worth knowing that you get the best effects from walking outside and that it wont help improve your creativity if you walk with your face in your Twitter stream or with earphones linking you to a stream of sound. I can’t imagine why you would want to accompany your walk with other than natural sounds anyway.

273 signpost

There may be a chemical explanation for the connection, or a psychological one, or simply a common-sense explanation that by walking your mind is freed of other considerations. Or perhaps it helps because walking organises the world around you, including any writing projects.

Walk on

So I walk on, hoping it encourages my writing. Walking certainly encourages my reading as you can see from this post. I am hoping to explore more writing-walking connections in the next few months, beginning with an account of my participation in a community walk/write project next month.

 

Related posts

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes in June on Bookword.

Why Walking Helps Us Think, by Ferris Jabr, in The New Yorker in September 2014.

The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking, by Finlo Rohrer, on the BBC news magazine in May 2014

On the Creative Penn blog, nine lessons learned about writing from walking 100km in a weekend. Makes sense.

Elizabeth Marro writes about walking and writing on Book by Women blog, step by step, word by word.

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Four more Good Reads

Here are four more books I have recently read and enjoyed:

  • The Meursault Investigation Kamel Daoud
  • The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
  • Wrinkles by Paco Roca
  • The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
  1. The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

197 Mersault coverThis novel is both homage and challenge to L’Etranger by Albert Camus, through its content and it s prose. It tells the story of the Arab, killed almost in passing by Meursault, the anti-hero of Camus ‘s novel. It references L’Etranger directly from its opening to its ending, as the victim’s brother tells his story in a series of late night meetings with an admirer of Camus’s novel in a bar. This framing recalls The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, perhaps intentionally. Both place the reader within the novel.

At one level the novel is about a family’s grief, and what it means to define your life against an absent older brother. His disappearance was complete – no body was found and he was not even given a name by Camus. Daoud calls him Musa.

The Meursault Investigation is also a novel about colonial rule (of Algeria by the French) and the disappointment of Algeria since Independence. It is a story of betrayal and loss, of questioning and regrets.

At times the narrator elides Camus and Mersault, reminding us that Camus came from a French background. Other books by Camus are also referenced. He reserves particular bitterness for to the accolades given his brother’s murderer and ‘his’ book.

75 2 more CamusThe Meursault Investigation does not diminish Camus’s novel, rather provides a new perspective, and allows the reader/listener to bring Algerian experiences into the present day. (Daoud is a journalist who lives in Oran).

Annecdotalist liked much about this novel as she writes on her blog here.

Winner of several prizes including EnglishPEN award – see EnglishPEN’s World Bookshelf.

The Meursault Investigation Kamel Daoud (2014), published by Oneworld 143pp

Translated from the French by John Cullen.

  1. The Good Son by Paul McVeigh

9781784630232frcvr.inddI think this is a seriously good novel, told in a strong voice, and with plenty of tension and tenderness. The story unfolds in Belfast over the long weeks of the summer holidays, following eleven-year old Mickey Donnelly. It is the time of the Troubles. Written in the present tense, in Mickey’s voice, we are able to see the world from the perspective of a boy with much to be frightened of: big school, his brother and father, the Prods, the local bullies (girls and boys). He shows us the damaging wash of the Troubles – visits from IRA, fathers being in prison, mysterious visitors, no-go areas of the divided city – and to see the damage wrought by the culture of violence on families, children and communities.

Mickey is intelligent and not keen to be a big tough boy like his older brother. Much of the tension relates to the place he gained at the grammar school and his parents’ decision to send him to the tough local school for lack of money. He has the holidays to figure out how to survive despite the fearsome reputation of St Gabriel’s. He likes to play with Wee Maggie his younger sister and his dog Killer. He loves his Ma. His Da is a drunk and life is better without him, except that Ma loves him. His elder brother Paddy is involved with the IRA, hiding guns in the dog’s sleeping place.

During the summer holidays Mickey takes some family responsibility, learns a thing or two about growing up, and witnesses the worst of life in Belfast in the Troubles. The climax sees him deal with his drunken father and he finds himself ready for senior school.

The Good Son celebrates one boy, a misfit, and the strength of a mother’s determination to protect her family and her good son.

The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (2015), published by Salt 234pp

Shortlisted for the Guardian’s prize Not the Booker Prize (you can vote 6th October).

  1. Wrinkles by Paco Roca

197 Wrinkles coverWrinkles is a graphic novel, what the French call bandes dessinees. Following a review in The Guardian I requested a copy from the local library for research for my new book on ageing.

Wrinkles tells the story of Ernest, a retired bank manager who is increasingly disoriented and so is placed in a care home. He is befriended by his lightfingered roommate who shows him the ropes. The place none of them want to go is upstairs, according to Emile:

‘the upstairs floor is where you find the helpless. Those who can’t manage on their own anymore finish up there. Those who have lost their minds, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s. Better to die than end up there.’ (20)

Ernest is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in a bid to avoid an eventual move upstairs Emile encourages him to outwit the doctor’s tests and eventually Emile and Ernest make a bid for freedom, a Thelma and Louise kind of thing. But it ends badly, and the ‘big one’ marches on, until Emile is left alone and the story peters out … What endures are the strong emotions and ties between the old people.

The format lends itself to recreating sudden shifts in consciousness; for example showing Ernest’s introduction to the home as his first day at school; the interminable game of bingo, where no one can hear the number called and it has to be repeated ten times; and the stories people are telling themselves like being on a train to Istanbul, being afraid of kidnap by Martians.

Wrinkles by Paco Roca (2007), published by Knockabout 100pp.

Translated from the French by Nora Goldberg.

  1. The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

197 Wild Places coverI loved this profoundly moving, engaging and erudite tour of the wild places of Britain. Robert Macfarlane is sometimes on his own, sometimes with friends, and occasionally his experience is enlivened by chance encounters.

Structured round a series of visits to different kinds of places – island, valley, moor, forest and so on – The Wild Places follows a year’s journey, as Robert Macfarlane reflects on friendship, humans’ relationship to the earth, history, cruelty, what is known about certain animals or birds, grief, and above all a love of the wild places. He learns more about what makes them wild, and what wild means (not the absence of people’s influence, as he thought when he set out, like the untouched wildernesses of New Zealand) but a kind of ascendancy of nature’s processes: like the work of the sea on the shingle beaches of East Anglia, or the wind shaping the peaks of the mountains.

He introduces us to animals (wild hares), birds (peregrines), and people (his friend Roger Deakin who died while Macfarlane was making his journeys, but had accompanied him on one or two), as well as giving us his descriptions of landscape, presenting researched information about phenomenon, and all in an assured and erudite prose. Writing about the experiences that people have of encounters with the wild places – people brought to sudden states of awe … ‘encounters whose power to move us was beyond expression but also beyond denial’. ‘It is hard to put language to such experiences,’ (236) he explains, but reading this made me see Macfarlane’s talent with language as well as wild sleeping.

Also recommended is The Wild Ways by Robert Macfarlane which I mentioned in my very first post Reading in 2012.

And another supreme writer about the natural world appears in this book briefly and drew the map: Helen Macdonald who wrote H is for Hawk.

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane (2007), published by Granta 321pp

 

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