Friday, 5 January 2018

Inside the Living Mountain with Nan Shepherd

Around the country, but in Cambridge in particular, there is a growing and deserved interest in Robert Macfarlane’s books. Put Landmarks or The Old Ways on a nature/travel writing table and they go through the till pretty regularly. Most recently, his book The Lost Words, illustrated by Jackie Morris so beautifully as to make the cold-hearted weep, has garnered attention. It consists of acrostic spells about conkers, acorns, kingfishers; words that are just falling out of use as children and adults look less hard and for less time at nature, indeed avoid going out in it at all.

Anyone buying, discussing, looking at – really just passing by, if they looked friendly – a Robert Macfarlane book tended to be treated to me handing them something else that they absolutely had to read. If you enjoy Robert Macfarlane, you have to read Nan Shepherd. If you enjoyed Amy Liptrot’s book, The Outrun, you have to read Nan Shepherd. If you enjoy looking at clouds, the smell of rain, scrambling over rocky surfaces, you have to read Nan Shepherd. The Living Mountain is one of the greatest pieces of nature writing there is and I tell everyone about it.

I was disappointed to listen to a recent Woman’s Hour interview with Nan Shepherd’s biographer Charlotte Peacock in which the interview was trailed with the words ‘you probably won’t have heard of her but…’. Outrage! Of course people have heard of Nan Shepherd; literally “loads” of the people I worked with were obsessed with The Living Mountain, surely people are catching on as we talk about it all the time? Now I think about it maybe it needs more than three people in Cambridge mentioning it to the already converted Macfarlane fans to give Nan Shepherd her due…

Of course, through months of wide sweeping statements about this book, I hadn’t read it. At first I kept being about to do so. There was always something else that needed reading more urgently. I researched Nan Shepherd. I talked to those who loved it. I read her novel The Weatherhouse and found it had its rather gorgeous moments once I could interpret the Scottish dialect of its somewhat eccentric characters. But it’s very hard to start a book about which you have already formed an opinion and to read it honestly. This is a general problem of working in a bookshop, talking with others who are similarly fixated, listening to or reading every review: you start to lose a sense of your own judgement. Is this good or did I decide it was going to be good? Am I enjoying this or just thinking of clever things to say about it to my colleagues?

Hence it was not until some time after leaving the shop that I actually felt ready to read a book that I had claimed repeatedly was ‘the most moving nature writing I have ever encountered’. On a cold winter afternoon, having cleared my head with the obligatory walk, I finally settled down with Nan Shepherd.
The mountain in question is the Cairngorms, which Shepherd sees really as a single mountain, rather than a range, when viewed from the plateau. Shepherd knew that view and the walks up to it intimately. She didn’t so much explore the Cairngorms during her ninety years, as befriend them or perhaps ‘commune’ with them, like Topaz in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle who spends great lengths of time ‘communing with nature’.

Depending on particular interest, those who still quaintly go to bookshops might look for The Living Mountain in a Scottish travel or mountaineering section. Others might look in natural history. One could reasonably search for it in biography, at a stretch in religion/spirituality. It is practically poetry in places while also having the feel of a very personal diary entry. I suspect the book has its own life; the same reader on different occasions will gain different insights from its prose.

Descriptions of the topography of the mountains are sensuous; whether describing water, eagles, plants or man, all exist through their interaction with those granite faces. For the compulsive climber, Shepherd assigns a word to explain the strange mixture of feelings – utter joy in climbing which brings at the same time both a feeling of abandon and the conviction of one’s security. She calls it ‘feyness’ – a feeling of lightness and liberation in body and mind in which mountain and self ‘interpenetrate’ and alter one another somehow. I read her hypothesis several times; it triggered an almost visceral need to travel north immediately.  

One can’t help feeling that reading The Living Mountain is a sort of religious experience. Descriptions of the landscape, the birds, the clouds that the walker enters and rises above evoke a spiritual sentiment. Looking outwards at the mountains is really looking inwards, both into its recesses and her own. Throughout, Shepherd evokes a feeling of knowing something intimately despite its constant mutability. Thirty years passed between Shepherd writing her masterpiece and its publication. Having woven together the threads of her experience, she sent it to one publisher who politely rejected it; she then left the manuscript to languish in a drawer. In those years, ‘the flicker of an eyelid’ from the mountain’s point of view, the Cairngorms still changed and changes happened to them. Yet Shepherd’s knowledge of them is as essential as ever and her love burns as brightly.

This is a book about climbing a mountain that has nothing to do with the urge to get to the summit, certainly not to race to it. Shepherd opens with a sort of ode to the plateau, but not for the joy of having made it there. Here, she seeks to learn its essential nature and her own. It is not only the passage of time that makes this impossible – the top of a mountain is not a place to trust one’s sensory impressions. She assigns a unique quality to the light in Scotland, able to penetrate to ‘immense distances with an effortless intensity’. On one occasion this led her to see beyond even Morar on the West coast a small clear shape, another hill, or rather to believe that she did. Maps and fellow walkers proved that there was nothing to see.

Unable to trust all one sees only leads Shepherd to look ever closer. Really to appreciate the burns and glaciers, the granite rocks and ice capped peaks, the birds and hares and plants which unexpectedly make their homes here requires patience and constant attention. The memory of the sights is never enough; she has to keep returning to behold it. Just as the observer must take her time to read the sights of the mountain so too must the reader of the book about it. Its sentences have to be unpacked and put together again to appreciate the picture that Shepherd draws. The reader ponders Shepherd’s realisation that a mountain has an inside and wonders at her depiction of first being inside a cloud: ‘to the side of us there was a ghastly white, spreading and swallowing even the grey-brown earth our minds had stood on. We had come to the snow. A white as of non-life.’ Slow reading and re-reading is mandatory; one must read this work as one would a poem. 

Shepherd devotes the penultimate chapter to ‘The Senses’, which must be active at all times. As if she hasn’t been appealing to our senses throughout, she now speaks of the discipline required to avoid missing anything. She writes beautifully of how to train the ear to hear silence and appreciate how often it isn’t really silence at all. Her words are calm and quiet, then deafening, moving from the almost imperceptible landing of a tawny owl to the thunder crashing through the ravines.

Yet oddly, Shepherd must have been able to turn some senses off too. She appears not to feel the cold, or at least not to be put off by it. Her obsession with the ‘white’ water in the mountains appears to stretch to her casually getting into it. When her path is blocked by rushing water, she attempts to walk through it, only prevented by its sheer power from making it to the middle. Water is contemporaneously clear, colourless, green, white, violet, bubbling, decorated, metallic, and apparently suitable for bathing even up on the plateau, on occasion, except when it is surging out ‘from caves of snow’. Its power terrifies and fascinates her; water is appalling, musical and beloved.

It might be tempting to some to read in her descriptions of nature, with their tendency towards Eastern philosophy, a sort of early idea of what is termed rather meaninglessly as ‘mindfulness’. After all, she advocates utter and complete awareness of the present moment and it is calming to read of her standing motionless while a ptarmigan chick halts two inches from her foot. But this isn’t a tool used to release the walker from the every day pressures of life. It just is life. I get the impression that Shepherd would have been totally at a loss without aimless wandering over the mountain, listening and touching and seeing and tasting and smelling her world. Of climbing the mountain, she writes that, ‘like drink and passion, it intensifies life to the point of glory’. Much like the enjoyment of a book that isn’t really about anything but does say something essential about man, for Shepherd, ‘the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination’. 

If Robert Macfarlane is worried about words like ‘otter’ falling out of use, I’d be interested to know how many readers understand the Scots vocabulary that crops up; words such as ‘birse’ and ‘swye’ and ‘kebbucks’, which often feel somehow onomatopoeic. Helpfully a glossary is provided to aid the reader. Less helpfully, most of the words I wanted to look up were not in the glossary. (It does contain a lot of other fantastic words – in future I shall always ask for a ‘puckle’ rather than ‘a few’ of something and I love that there’s a word for ‘vigour of intellect’: ‘smeddum’.)

While it emerges that The Living Mountain does deserve the heady praise I gave it before I had got round to the crucial task of actually reading it, now I see that it is not a breathless excitable experience. It is better than that: a puzzle at once gentle and passionate, a poetic yet practical paean to our experience of nature.

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