Monday, August 30, 2010

Book Notes: The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

Nan Shepherd, the early 20thC Aberdeenshire novelist, had a lifelong love of the Cairngorm Mountains. She spent vast amounts of time exploring its lochs, glens, summits, the high plateau and the mountain passes that slice through it. "The Living Mountain" is her reflections on a life spent in the high mountains, amongst its landscape, flora, fauna and people.

Shepherd's knowledge, and powers of observation and ability to articulate the experience of being in the mountains; makes this a book which is charming, captivating, and delightful. It is unlike any other mountain book I have ever read, being neither a route-guide, nor an account of heroics, but rather a reflection on the life of the mountains themselves and how we are affected by time spent in amongst its life.

Her chapter on 'water' contains many recollections, observations and an engaging discussion on the way in which water in the mountains can be clear, gentle, soft and inviting, yet a river in spate ripping into the terrain can be a thing of dread. The following two paragraphs are a nice example of her writing, again from the 'water' chapter, but here on the feel and sound of mountain water.

Half a century or more ago, when Nan Shepherd walked the mountains, she noted with sadness the decline of traditional Highland crofting. She writes with deep affection of these people of the Cairngorms and their unbelievably tough lives, meagre comforts and hard, hard work in the harsh environment. When she walked she was welcomed to stay in countless crofts which dotted the landscape, by farmers who while they often thought hillwalking to be utter folly; would gather together on freezing blizzard-strewn nights, to search for missing climbers.

She writes of the pleasures of sleeping in mountains, of mountain plants, and animals, of hillwalking companions and of the landscape itself. While she speaks of the mountain in almost personal terms, usually she does so in metaphorical anthropomorphisms, although perhaps her language stays beyond that towards a perhaps a pantheistic perspective. While I was with her on the first, the latter seemed to me to be a cul-de-sac. This is because while everything she writes about the mountain is so true, so poised, so beautiful and resonant with my own mountain experiences; I remain convinced that this beauty is not the end of the matter. To me the fawn grazing in the sunrise, the deep water of Avon, the cliffs of Braeriach, the arch of a icy-cornice, the lives of the characters who once lived in these hills all bear the imprint of a personal creator, whose exuberant creativity is displayed here.

This book is a treasure trove for lovers of the Highlands in general and the Cairngorms in particular. While every description of the mountain, or of days spent there creates a longing in me to return there. Yet while I cannot, Shepherd's book is the closest thing to being transported there that I can imagine.

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