Title: The Living Mountain
Author: Nan Shepherd
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link
I have to confess, before beginning my review, that I am not at all outdoorsy. I much prefer a quiet evening inside with a book, but Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain made me to want to venture forth into the Cairngorms to experience what she did. This is a meditation on hill walking, a book about the connection between humans and nature, and the ways in which one can come to know more about oneself by walking into a mountain. I have read other books about nature, but never one as beautifully written, that inspired such a sense of self-transcendence and connection to the author. The journey into the mountain offers glimpses into the nature of being.
“Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.”
Hill walking, for Shepherd, was not just about conquering the mountain, although she did enjoy the dizzy feeling that came from altitude and the view. Instead, it was about the journey, both into the mountain and into oneself. She wrote about the introspection that one can experience by fully giving oneself over to one’s surroundings. She listened to the sounds of the running water and the animals, but there were also moments of complete silence that could only be found in those rare moments alone on the mountain.
The chapter about the human population of the Cairngorms helped me to better understand the characters of her novels. Sometimes, the conditions were harsh and the children longed to get out, but they always kept with them what they had learned from living so close to the mountains. She keenly watched the animals around her, the birds soaring overhead and the hares that turned pure white in the winter, sometimes too early, showing up stark white against the gray backdrop. While sleeping in the mountains, she would sometimes awake to find that the animals had crept close to her in her stillness.
It is not just plants, animals, and people who make up the living mountain. Shepherd wrote about the ways that the nonliving elements, the dirt and the water and the granite, combine to create the conditions necessary for life. The mountain itself is living and changing and changes us when we open ourselves to experience it. It is not as important that a person has climbed a mountain, to put a flag at the top and say that the task is finished, as it is to take the time to observe.
“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”
Nan Shepherd also wrote a volume of poetry called In the Cairngorms, which I have unfortunately been unable to find, but her background as a poet is very evident. The soul of a natural poet is on full display in The Living Mountain. There is such a lyrical beauty in this work that I know I will read it again, hopefully the next time after experiencing the wonders of the Cairngorms firsthand.