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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