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The trail that led me to Nan Shepherd's The living mountain began about a year ago when my friend Annette gave me a copy of Robert Macfarlane's The old ways: a journey on foot. Annette has an uncanny knack for wonderful gifts, ones that keep giving. The old ways led me to two books by Roger Deakin, Wildwood: a journey through trees and Waterlog: a swimmer's journey through Britain (and incidentally to Daphne Dumaurier's Jamaica Inn and Geoffrey Household's Rogue male). The mode established, I picked up Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust. Nan Shepherd's name kept cropping up and everything I read about her intrigued me. Finally I came to rest in her Cairngorms, and found a kindred spirit, a woman who walked into the mountain, rather than just on it, knowing her mountain as I aspire to know my beach and headlands and bush.

Shepherd writes beautifully, lovingly, philosophically and thoughtfully about aspects of her experiences of the Cairngorms. The chapter titles give some idea of the intensity and specificity of her relationship with the mountain: The recesses; Water; Frost and snow; Air and light; Life (with a chapter each for plants; birds, animals and insects; and man); Sleep; The senses; and Being. The name of the last chapter encapsulates her connection perfectly.

What do I like about this jewel of a book? Her quiet passion and respect for the landscape; her infinite and minuscule perceptiveness; her intimate knowledge; the mix of daring and caution in her dealings with the mountain; her wisdom and sensibility; and her lack of judgement of summit-conquerors and the foolish.

But none of this would win out over poor writing. Her style is exquisite, precise, minutely observant, quietly poetic and unpretentious. Here is a taste.

The snow is rather dirty, perished in places like a torn dress

It astonished me that my memory was so much in the eye and so little in the feet.

I let my eyes travel over the surface, slowly, from shore to shore … The changing focus of the eye, moving the eye itself when looking at things that do not move, deepens one sense of outer reality… Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become!

Life here is hard and astringent, but it seldom kills grace in the soul.

The feel of things, textures, surfaces, rough things like cones and bark, smooth things like stalks and feathers and pebbles rounded by water, the teasing of gossamers, the delicate tickle of a crawling caterpillar, the scatchiness of lichen, the warmth of the sun, the sting of the hail, the blunt blow of tumbling water, the flow of wind.

 

For a review by Macfarlane and photos see here