I had been living in Scotland for more than five years before I found The Living Mountain through two recommendations that came in quick succession: one was from Robert Macfarlane, speaking in St. Andrews, where I live, about nature writing, walking, and the importance of getting lost, and whose excellent introduction to The Living Mountain is reason enough for its purchase.
The second was from a colleague, the choreographer Fleur Darkin, who told me about wanting to make a piece inspired by her love for the book—some kind of interactive contemporary dance production that she felt should be designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and would specifically target a younger audience.
On my own meandering walks through Fife, accompanied by a lean black lurcher and often getting lost as we trailed pheasants or field mice or geese, the idea of crossing paths with Nan Shepherd in some kind of Brigadoon time warp melded in my head with a modern dance piece that could convey the scale and feeling of mountains. Okay, I thought. So this could be some book.
In fact, upon arrival, it is a slender thing in a brilliant white jacket with a grainy cover photo of a deer by American photographer Alec Soth. Written during the last years of World War II and just after, it is barely a hundred pages, with the last few taken over by an extensive glossary of Scots words. “In that disturbed and uncertain world,” Shepherd said of writing it, “it was my secret place of ease.”
Hard to classify, The Living Mountain is almost a prose poem, not quite a nature journal, partly a meditation on walking, being, and noticing. It is richly detailed, philosophical, contemplative in the extreme. Shepherd describes herself as a vagabond, “a peerer into corners.” Her subject is the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, what Macfarlane calls “Britain’s Arctic.” He writes,
The Cairngorms were once higher than today’s Alps, but over millions of years they have been eroded into a low-slung wilderness of whale- backed hills and shattered cliffs. Born of fire, carved by ice, finessed with wind, water and snow, the massif is a terrain shaped by what Nan Shepherd—in this slender masterpiece about the region—calls “the elementals.”
Shepherd circles the Cairngorms like a golden eagle; nothing escapes her eye. She does not set out to scale summits. She does not “bag Munros” to gain a notch in her belt. And she isn’t put off by the insistent winds (which can reach 170 miles per hour), the persistent snow (which can linger in deeper corries throughout the summer), or the interminable rain, which even on the supposedly drier, brighter east coast can really get you down and has twice driven me indoors in the writing of these first paragraphs.
Shepherd does not merely walk in the rain and find herself wet. On a group climb up Ben MacDui, she details her first experience of the inside of a cloud: “That cloud, like others inside which I have walked, was wet but not wetting. It did not wet us till, almost at the summit, it broke in hard rain, and we could at last see the corries, scarfed in mist.” She goes on to describe the various kinds of wet one might experience on a walk: the “more delicate” kind, “condensing in droplets on eyebrows and hair and woollen clothing”; or the kind you feel venturing into a cloud, “hardly more than a sensation on the skin, clammy, or merely chill.” Once, it was a brief experience of darkness until after “some twenty minutes the sun clicked on again. . . . Inside the cloud had been just dry-dull.”
She is well aware of the dangers of the mountains, the freak storms and whiteout blizzards, and the aggressive wind that turns you inside out. She recalls the dead and disappeared:
Three fell from the rock—one of these a girl. One was betrayed by the ice-hard conditions of a patch of snow in May, and slipped. All these were young. Two older men have gone out, and disappeared. The body of one of these was discovered two years later. Of the four who were caught in blizzard, two died on 2 January 1928, and two on the same date in 1933.
Yet she writes only briefly about the war that was claiming many more lives not so far away at precisely the same time, only a note about the plane carrying five Czech airmen that crashed into Beinn a’ Bhuird: “That its impact was made in deep snow was clear from the condition of the engines, which were only a little damaged.”
She is eloquent on plants, and occasionally gives sage advice: “Dead fir roots, left in the soil long after the tree is gone, make the best kindling in the world.” And she worries for the forest and wildlife, citing the Napoleonic Wars, when timber was urgently needed, as the first big clear-cut. She writes with great sensitivity of tits:
I tremble especially for the crested tit, whose rarity is a proud distinction of these woods. I have heard people say that they have watched in vain for these exquisite tits, but, if you know their haunts (I shall not give them away), they can be conjured easily from a tree by simply standing still against its trunk. You have heard the stir and small sound of tits, but at your approach they are gone. . . . In the nesting season, however, they will scold like fishwives.
Amid the quiet sounds of the forest, it is almost a shock to encounter people, but they are here too: the groups of walkers, the solitary climbers, and the mountain folk she meets for tea and gossip. She writes of two such
old women who look with the utmost contempt on paper as a firelighter and scorn to use more than one match to set a fire going . . . and if the brown earthenware teapot has a broken spout (“my teapot has lost a tooth”), and tea splutters from it on to the open hearth and raises spurts of ash and steam, you can call it a soss or a libation to the gods as you feel inclined, but it will not make the tea less good nor the talk less racy.
Shepherd is a delight to read and I could quote her sentences all day. But she also feels familiar, like a good conversation with friends taking place over miles of terrain, eddying or flattening until you get to a place with it that you could never reach on a shorter hike, to a topic that you couldn’t imagine in a different place. It’s the best kind of talk. Her tone is reverential, and it never annoys me; her celebration of Scottish weather is the only one I trust.
Tara Quinn is a writer living and working in Scotland, and a contributing editor of Brick. She is the editor of The New Brick Reader.