Saturday, 15 May 2010

the living mountain

I finished reading Nan Sherperd's slim volume 'The Living Mountain' today.  It's one of those books which you want to savour, and at a mere 84 pages, you know will be over before you really want it to be. Sensing it's condensed riches, I've read it really rather slowly over the last month.

Her only non fiction book, it is a meditation on the Cairngorm mountains and of the experience of walking and getting to know it's peaks, corries and the plateau. It's an amazingly well observed, perceptive and thoughtful consideration of the ontological aspects of spending prolonged periods in wild spaces. This work was written in the 1940's (though not published until much later by Shepherd in 1977 when she was an old woman) and was, for it's time, a prescient book that still resonates today. It stands apart from much mountain literature written by men (although WH Murray would seem to be a kindred spirit) in the way that it explores the nuances of the whole experience of being in the Cairngorms rather than on simply conquering peaks. As a woman walking (often solitarily), bivvying, and camping on the tops for days on end at a time when hillwalking wasn't the mainstream pastime that it is today, Shepherd must have seemed to be a bit of a radical adventurer.  Having her own income (she was a lecturer in English at the Aberdeen College of Education after graduation from Aberdeen University until retirement), her working life echoes the sentiments in Virginia Woolf's 'A Room of One's Own'. She has often been compared to Lewis Grassic Gibbon in terms of the writing style and content in her fiction, though hers is a more emancipatory vision of modern women finding a way out of the drudgery of unliberated life. Her circumstances did permit her to be able to spend many thousands of hours exploring and deepening her knowledge of the Cairngorms which she grew to love so much.

I suspect my own relative familiarity (I read some of it with a 1:25000 OS Explorer map at my side recalling my personal experiences of the locations) with the plateau extended my own enjoyment of the book immensely, knowing how an understanding of the Cairngorms doesn't usually reveal itself upon ones first visit there, unlike the more spectacular western peaks in Scotland. From afar, the Cairngorms actually look a little dull, and their mass is difficult to appreciate. Walking on them on a fine day, they seem benign, and the ground below your feet stretches out for long miles so that the drama of a vertiginous drop doesn't often surprise. However, repeated visits seem to offer up a different appreciation where the vast distances one is required to walk allow for an experience where one begins to make connections with a bodily connection to place, where one feels a greater sense of 'being' in relation to the land.

Of course, one of the most defining characteristic of the Cairngorms is the extreme severity of the climate which it experiences. It is the only place in the UK where it's climate is considered sub-arctic, and the types of flora and fauna present testify to this. Mists can come in unexpectedly and the uniformly high altutide of the land make navigation particularly difficult. In winter, judging distances in whiteout conditions is treacherous and many have died over the years through navigational error - sometimes remarkably close to safety.

Shepherd acknowledges the various terrors, but mostly joys, of this remarkable landscape. In her observations, through chapters headed The Plateau, The Recesses, The Group, Water, Frost and Snow, Air and Light, Life: The Plants, Life: Birds Animals Insects, Life: Man, Sleep, The Senses, & Being, she breaks down and analyses the constituent parts of the mountain experience in a way where the interconnectedness of sensation are made more lucid. She notices small details and enlivens our appreciation of natural phenomena with botanical and geological precision.

Sometimes a smooth portion of stream is covered with a thin coat of ice that, not quite meeting in the middle, shows the level of the water several inches below; since the freezing began, the water upstream has frozen and less water is flowing.


At one point (I have heard of it nowhere else) near the exit of a loch, the peculiar motion of the current among ice floes has woven the thousands of floating pine needles into compacted balls, so intricately intertwined that their symmetrical shape is permanently retained. They can be lifted out of the water and kept for years, a botanical puzzle to those who have not been told the secret of their formation.

In Sleep, she contrasts the experience of physically traversing the land with that of the quiet stillness found through sleeping on the high plateau and experiencing awakening in such a place.

I can teach my body many skills by which to learn the nature of the mountain. One of the most compelling is quiescence. No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains. One neither thinks, nor desires, nor remembers, but dwells in pure initimacy with the tangible world.

Shepherd's approach, desipte the specifics of it's Cairngorm location, isn't parochial, but could be seen to reflect the work of Maurice Merlau-Ponty and the study of phenomenology, and shares much with Zen Buddhism in the appreciation of being in inanimate things.

She says, in the penultimate chapter, Senses, when trying to explain the fascination and love for high places:

It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind: but the resultant issue is a living spirit, a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to it's essesnce, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.

..and in the final chapter Being:

Here then, may be lived a life so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness, is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.


Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible but paramount.


  1. I've just finished reading this book. Found your blog while searching for anything on the pine needle balls created by the movement of the water.

  2. I've been on the lookout for these in the water when on my travels ever since reading of them. still to find some though.